Sia has recently received a lot of backlash from the public after announcing her new movie “Music,” which stars Maddie Ziegler, Sia’s longtime muse, as a teenager on the autism spectrum who can’t speak and uses music to communicate and understand the world.
The decision to cast Ziegler, an individual who’s not on the autism spectrum at all, over an actor who actually is on the spectrum has caused Sia to receive a multitude of complaints and online backlash from individuals who claim the choice was ableist. Initially Sia defended the decision by claiming the character Ziegler is portraying is non-verbal, and typically individuals on the spectrum who are non-verbal would need to be specially accommodated on something as intimidating as a Hollywood set.
However, these comments seemed to have caused an even bigger uproar online, especially for individuals who actually have autism. Alaina Leary is a journalist who’s on the spectrum herself and recently wrote an op-ed piece on this controversy.
“The implication is that a non-speaking autistic actor who might require accommodations on set is, in essence, incapable—thus reinforcing ableist ideas that already lock out such performers.”
The biggest issue people took with Sia’s casting decision is that she was further shutting the door on a pool of actors who are already denied opportunities simply because they’re autistic. This also speaks on a much larger issue in Hollywood of hiring already established actors to play roles that they don’t relate to at all in real life in order to seem more “palatable” to a general audience.
We see it most often with the hiring of heterosexual actors to portray LGBT+ roles, however, the hiring of able-bodied or neurotypical actors to portray individuals with physical or mental disabilities has been a longstanding issue in Hollywood that clearly continues to shine bright; one of the biggest examples being Tom Hanks in the movie “Forrest Gump.”
During an interview with “The Sunday Project,” and Australian TV show, Sia defended the decision to cast Ziegler in the film by claiming nepotism as her reasoning.
“I realized it wasn’t ableism. I mean, it is ableism I guess as well, but it’s actually nepotism because I can’t do a project without Ziegler. I don’t want to. I wouldn’t make art if it didn’t include her.”
Ziegler, 18, first became famous after appearing on reality TV show “Dance Moms” where Sia initially discovered her, and the two have been working on projects together ever since. Sia even claimed that Ziegler herself expressed multiple concerns on set over her role, telling Sia she was worried people would think she was “making fun” of people with autism, to which Sia replied that she “wouldn’t let that happen.”
“Music” follows a young girl with autism who is raised by her drug-dealing older sister, played by Kate Hudson. Quickly after the trailer was released it became the center of a massive debate regarding the trend of hiring non-disabled actors in leading roles where a central aspect of the main characters journey is their disability.
Sia did claim initially that she had tried to work with a young girl who was on the autism spectrum for the role, however, the girl found the experience to be “unpleasant and stressful” which led to Ziegler’s casting in the role.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.