Sia Kate Isobelle Furler, better known by fans as Sia, is on the defense. The singer/songwriter’s upcoming film, “Music,” has faced backlash due to a casting decision. Sia opted to cast dancer Maddie Ziegler in the role of an autistic character, and many are asking the question – why wouldn’t you cast an actually autistic actress when there are so many capable and available? Sia is now defending her decision to cast Ziegler – but is it helping or making things worse?
Sia’s New Movie, “Music”
“Music,” will be Sia’s debut in the world of film directing. Although she’s had a hand in the production and directing of her music videos, filmmaking is something else entirely.
Per People, “The movie, which also stars Kate Hudson as Zu, follows a recently sober drug dealer who suddenly becomes the guardian of her younger sister named Music, a special-needs teen who communicates through a device that speaks for her, and who always listens to music via large headphones.”
The film was being eagerly anticipated until a November 19th trailer revealed something uncomfortable; the role of the autistic character was being played by Ziegler, a neurotypical dancer and actress who has appeared in multiple Sia music videos. The film was slated to debut early this year, but a massive backlash online may delay its release.
Backlash Over Ziegler’s Casting
Ziegler was reportedly reluctant to take on the role, and Sia promised to defend the 18-year-old from any potential backlash, which indicates she expected some. People shares, “‘[Maddie] cried on the first day of rehearsals and she was really scared. She just said, ‘I don’t want anyone to think I’m making fun of them,’ ‘ Sia recalled. ‘And I, bald-facedly, said ‘I won’t let that happen.’ And last week I realized I couldn’t really protect her from that, which I thought I could.’
She continued, ‘… I’ve realized there are some things I can’t protect her from, as much as I try. I guess that’s like any mom or bonus mom would say.'”
But backlash after the teaser was released was swift. Variety shares the instant negative feedback; “…an online petition was launched to cancel the film’s premiere, a campaign spearheaded by Hannah Marshall, who identifies as an autistic woman from North Carolina. Over 500 people have signed the petition, as of Tuesday afternoon.
‘As an autistic individual, I am asking that this film is canceled,’ Marshall wrote on the fundraising page. ‘It is extremely offensive to myself and other autistic individuals. Sia has shown no remorse for her inaccurate and hurtful betrayal of the community.’
‘This film will not have a major impact on history,’ she continued. ‘Canceling it will express that intolerance to neurodivergence is unacceptable in today’s society. Sia and her associates have additional avenues for funds; they will survive even if no money is made from this film.’”
And autism advocacy groups soon took to the internet to blast the choice as well; “‘@sia has got this one wrong. There are so many talented autistic actors out there,’ tweeted the National Autism Society, while Irish actress Bronagh Waugh wrote: ‘Hi Sia, can I ask why you didn’t cast a disabled actor for this part? It’s pretty offensive the way you’ve chosen to portray this character. People with disabilities are not broken and don’t need fixing.'”
Sia immediately slammed the people decrying her casting choice, defending her decision to cast Ziegler. Initially, the singer responded to Waugh; “‘I agree…I’ve never referred to music as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said, and casting someone at her level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community.’
Sia continued to defend the film on Twitter, saying that she spent three years researching the film’s subject matter. ‘None of you have even seen it. Such a bummer!’ she wrote to another Twitter user questioning the trailer.”
Variety shares one exchange Sia had with a stage professional who criticized Sia’s casting decision; “‘I actually tried working with a a beautiful young girl non-verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie,’… Elsewhere, she said, ‘Casting someone at (the character’s) level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community. … I did try. It felt more compassionate to use Maddie. That was my call.’
In an early moment in the back-and-forth, Sia wrote, ‘The movie is both a love letter to caregivers and to the autism community. I have my own unique view of the community, and felt it is underrepresented and compelled to make it. If that makes me a shit I’m a shit, but my intentions are awesome.’”
Frustrated, the singer eventually lashed out simply with, “‘F–kity f–k why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.’”
More recently, the first-time director tried a different tact since no one seemed mollified by her earlier defense. CNN reports, “The Chandelier singer appeared on Australia’s The Sunday Project, to explain the reasoning behind her casting choice…
‘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 her. I don’t want to. I wouldn’t make art if it didn’t include her,’ Sia said.”
Sia’s new defense tactic of, “it’s just nepotism,” has people shaking their heads.
Is She Making Things Better or Worse?
One phrase that advocates often use is, “impact is more important than intention.” Whatever Sia intended, whatever she thought she was doing by casting Ziegler and representing the ostensibly autistic character the way she did, it’s clear that her impact fell short of her intentions. Autistic actors are numerous and readily available, so Sia’s excuse that her one attempt to work with an autistic actor failed doesn’t seem to exonerate her to advocates. The fact that she continues to double down and change her explanation shows she doesn’t grasp why the community is so upset.
It’s clear that Sia’s best move at this point is to issue a heartfelt mea culpa, listen to the community she’s caused negative impact to, and find a better way forward. Instead, she appears to be digging in, covering her ears, and refusing to budge. Will, “Music,” still be released on schedule? For now, Sia seems to think so.