I’m going to crush you now and make you feel safe,” says the smiling adult man to the distressed teenaged girl, 15 minutes into Sia’s new film Music. He then sits astride her chest and assures viewers: “I am crushing her with my love.”
In any other film made in 2020, such a scene would be presented as A Bad Thing. But in this case, the pop star-turned-director encourages us to believe it’s fine, it’s fine, relax, shhhhh, calm down, good girl. In this case, Sia says, crushing a girl is actually A Good Thing because the one who’s being crushed is a non-verbal autistic. And, in the universe according to Sia, the kindest, most considerate thing a neurotypical (NT) person can do for a distressed autistic person is to sit on them until they stop disrupting our lives with all that thrashing and grunting.
Never mind the fact that autistic people spend the vast majority of their lives trying to understand and pander to the needs of the NT world, with its weird language, painful sounds and persistent demands. Sia wants to reassure us that, should they make their own needs and noises heard, we don’t have to make the same effort. Really, it’s fine to just “crush” them. They like it that way.
This is, of course, the same logic that the powerful have always used to reassure themselves that it’s fine to squash those with less power. Black people were happier under slavery. A woman’s place was in the home. The disruptive public “meltdowns” of the suffragettes and the civil rights movement meant we began to hear their voices. But the voices of the neurodiverse (ND) community are still being sat on.
As both the mother of an autistic child and a member of a society that owes many of its greatest cultural and technological achievements to the autistic community, I’m really angry about that. And I’m furious that Sia’s dangerous film, which has been called out by the online autistic community and universally panned by the critics, has been nominated for next month’s Golden Globes – for Best Musical/Comedy and for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy for Kate Hudson, who plays the sister of the titular character, Music. I’m one of 123,000 (and counting) people who’ve signed an online petition calling on the awards ceremony to rescind the film’s nomination.
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The petition’s creators are friends Rosanna Kataja (whose brother is autistic) and Nina Skov Jensen (autistic herself), who met at Harvard. Jensen, a royal portraitist, originally from Denmark, told Newsweek that she was unable to sleep on the night she learnt Music was up for the gongs. “There are so many things wrong with the movie, and nominating it for not one but two Golden Globes screams ‘we don’t actually care about you’,” she said. “The entertainment industry cannot continue profiting from our disabilities while simultaneously doing nothing to help us.”
Jensen and Kataja crisply and correctly argue that while Sia calls her film a “love letter to the autism community”, the musical segments are “filled with strobing lights, colours, loud sounds, and quick camera movements, which is very overstimulating. About one in four autistic people have epilepsy, so the movie can cause seizures and is also very uncomfortable for those without it. Despite making the movie ‘for’ autistic people, Sia has made it in such a way that a majority of us will be unable to watch it.”
Beneath the surface stressors of Music lies a more troubling plot. Jensen and Kataja note that the autistic character is “used as a prop to advance the other characters’ stories and lives. Not once are her feelings or thoughts expressed or even sought out”. She is given a computerised “AAC” device to help her communicate. But only so we can admire the kindness of the NT character teaching her how to press buttons saying “I’m happy” and “I’m sad”. We never see her choose her own button. The duo quote non-speaking autistic Niko Boskovic, who said: “AACs usually have thousands of unique words programmed”, so the film “highly underestimates the intellectual abilities of autistic people”.
Many readers will be aware that 13-year-old Naoki Higashida – an autistic Japanese boy with limited verbal skills – wrote his bestselling 2013 memoir The Reason I Jump using an alphabet grid. This writing method allowed Higashida to express a rich, self-aware interior life, which he said was often underestimated.
Kataja and Jensen also drew attention to the fact that instead of casting an ND person in the title role, Sia gave the job to her regular NT collaborator (and goddaughter) Maddie Ziegler. Ziegler – only 14 when she played the part – apparently expressed concerns that autistic people might feel she was making fun of them. But Sia pressed on. She has said she tried to work with an autistic actor who found filming too stressful and so she immediately defaulted to an NT star.
When an autistic actor contacted Sia on Twitter to express a willingness and ability to take the role, Sia snapped: “maybe you’re just a bad actor”. Maybe as bad as another of this year’s GG nominees, Sir Anthony Hopkins CBE? Hopkins is autistic. He has said his autism has given him a professional advantage, helping him memorise scripts, mimic accents and break down the personalities of his characters. “I definitely look at people differently,” he told the Daily Mail in 2017. “I like to deconstruct, to pull a character apart, to work out what makes them tick and my view will not be the same as everyone else.” Working this way saw Hopkins awarded an Oscar for Silence of the Lambs in 1992 and BAFTAs for War and Peace (1972), Silence of the Lambs and The Remains of the Day (1994). Maybe Sia imagines Hopkins’s career has all been incredibly traumatic for him? Of course, Hopkins is not non-verbal. But the autistic community consistently says: “nothing about us without us”. And it’s incredibly disrespectful of Sia to ignore that.
Pop cultural stereotypes are alarmingly sticky. Although my son was born nearly two decades after NT actor Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for playing an autistic savant in 1988’s Rain Man, we still meet the odd person who calls my son “Rain Man” and expresses surprise and disappointment that he’s no better at maths than the average 11-year-old. In fact, the old stereotypes about autism meant I struggled to get a diagnosis for my son because he’s creative, cuddly, sociable and – in the words of one medic who should have known better – “not very robotic”. He’s actually a talented artist who wants to illustrate books or work in animation when he grows up. He wants to express his view of the world and I hope he gets that chance.
My son is now thriving at a mainstream secondary school. But for much of his primary school time, he was treated as a “problem” and on one occasion he was quite badly hurt by a well-meaning individual who had a duty to keep him safe. Nobody ever used the kind of “prone restraint” on him that we see advocated in Music. But autistic adults and children have died from “positional asphyxia” after being restrained like that. I have friends whose children suffer ongoing trauma from being treated that way. My friend Sally’s son Daniel was “crushed” by three teachers for 10 minutes at his primary school in Essex during a meltdown.
Neurotypical people may never be able to understand how it feels to have a “meltdown” – a sensory overload which can cause hand flapping, head hitting, kicking, pacing, rocking, hyperventilating and an inability to communicate. But I don’t think you have to be autistic to know that being forced face down onto the ground by somebody twice your size is unlikely to prove a stress-busting experience. Daniel left that school.
Now 15, he tells me that he won’t be able to watch Sia’s Music because the restraint scenes will be too triggering for him. But he says that he has seen clips and it “looks like cultural appropriation to me”.
It took Sia ages to apologise for the terrible mistakes in Music. In February, she finally tweeted a simple “I’m sorry”, then said she had “listened to the wrong people” and her “research was clearly not thorough enough, not wide enough”. She promised a warning would be added to the movie’s introduction and that the restraint scenes would be removed from future printings. Then she deactivated her Twitter account. But the restraint scenes were still included in the version I downloaded from Amazon Prime this week. My autistic friend Lara says she now lives in fear that the film will be seen by kindly people who may now be tempted to sit on her autistic daughter if they see her melting down in public.
While all my autistic friends and their allies want Music to be removed from streaming services, I notice they are not pressing for Sia to be “cancelled”. They are not vengeful. They just want her to listen to them, understand what she’s done wrong, own it and do better. Lots of my autistic friends love Sia’s music. Several of them tell me they really relate to the shy girl from Adelaide who struggled so much with global fame that she hid behind a wig while belting out explosively emotional bangers about her superpowers: “I am Titan-iiii-uuum!” They have no issue with Ziegler, a kid who did what she was told. They hope misguided stars Leslie Odom Jr and Kate Hudson, who recently told Jimmy Kimmel that the film was made with “sensitivity”, make an effort to see what they have done wrong and move on more wisely.
Kataja and Jensen advise that after signing the Change.org petition, anyone sympathetic toward autistic people should boycott the Golden Globes, as well as petition Music‘s sponsors and any services streaming the film. And they encourage people to watch a short film called LISTEN made by non-profit organisation CommunicationFirst and free to stream online. It shows mostly non-speaking autistic people explaining why representation matters, and why society should not underestimate the abilities of autistic people. CommunicationFirst claims on its website that Sia contacted the group to collaborate on a video to use for Music, but that she cut off contact following negative feedback from the CommunicationFirst team.
In LISTEN, contributor Rhema Russell explains: “Just because I cannot speak does not mean I don’t hear. I hear everything people say to me or about me. I may not show understanding in my face, but I know and understand. Not a word said escapes my so strong ears.” Another contributor, Damon Kirsebom, adds: “To anyone who wishes to represent non-speaking people, I ask that you communicate with us directly. Misrepresentation of non-speaking people leaves us more vulnerable to abuse.”
American activist Cal Montgomery, meanwhile, describes the agony of being restrained. “Every escalation was blamed 100 per cent on me, no matter if they had just done something illegal to me, cornered me, taunted me, taken something I needed, whatever,” he says. “Your body is tensing up. Your breathing tightens up. Your fists want to clench. You can feel your body betraying you. You can fight or fold. It’s up to you. You are hitting the ground either way. You are face down on the floor. You may relax, you may beg, you may play dead. None of it works... It is a fight with a predetermined winner, who isn’t you.”
As the film’s final contributor, Hari Srinivasan, concludes: “If you have a voice, you can use it to help bring dignity back for the members of the more marginalised autistics.” He says that we need to change the narrative around non-speaking autistics and improve visibility in society – and pop culture – so that more actors who might better fill a role like Music in Sia’s film can come to the fore and be seen, and I agree. It’s only those tired old stereotypes that deserve to be crushed.