Why Representation Matters: The Sia Controversy

Moreover, when confronted with criticism from the very group you claim to represent, it is unacceptable to insult or berate them, or to minimize their concerns. If you truly love the people in said communities, if you really wish to start a conversation, it means you will listen to what people in your target audience really have to say.

Art is an important part of culture. While it may be considered ‘common sense’ not to solely base insights on the world we live in based on artistic depictions, it is an undeniable fact that art bares a significant influence on sociocultural interpretations of a great many things.

A new controversy has been sparked within the Autistic community. It is a controversy that has brought the Autistic community into a major spotlight of discussion, after a long time of advocating on the sidelines, behind the scenes. When I saw that the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic was trending on Twitter for the first time, perhaps ever, I was initially excited. However, that excitement waned when I started to look into why.

By now, most people are aware of the issue. Sia: an Australian singer, songwriter, and aspiring filmmaker, is releasing a movie ‘Music’, a story centered around a nonspeaking Autistic teenage girl, named Music, played by Maddie Ziegler.

Is there a problem with what I described in the above sentence? If you aren’t Autistic, you may not think so. If you are not familiar with Autism, you may not even notice it. Here’s a hint: it’s the last four words.

#ActuallyAutistic was trending as a result of Autistic advocates justifiably disappointed that a non-autistic actor was being yet again cast in an Autistic role.

Why is this problematic, you may ask? What is fundamentally wrong with having a nonautistic actor portray an Autistic person? It’s been done before, right? Isn’t acting all about putting yourself into another person’s shoes?

Yes, it is. However, Autistic people are just that: a group of people. Autistic brains and minds work differently than non-autistic people, as do our sensory experiences, and while in theory it is possible for an allistic (non-autistic) actor to pick up on some of these, it is almost never an authentic depiction. While movies and shows like Rain Man or Atypical functioned to make society more “aware” of Autistic people, an unfortunate side effect is that a lot of these performances become stereotypical. Such portrayals of Autistics often become like caricatures. More importantly, while it can be easy for a neurotypical to guess at what it is like to be Autistic, they will never truly know what it is like.

It’s one thing to cast someone not representing a group to play a someone from a group once in a blue moon. However, this isn’t the issue here. And those who are accusing the Autistic community of trying to monopolize Autistic acting roles are simply lying. Nobody is saying, “only Autistic people should EVER play Autistic characters”. However, the vast majority of Autistic characters are played by non-autistic actors, and it’s ultimately us who pay the price. If the goal of having Autistic characters in stories, which is a good thing, is to represent us, it is being done wrong.

Representation is worthless if it is not done accurately. More than that, it is harmful. Even more than that, it cannot really be called representation to begin with.

There is also no argument that Autistic actors could not be hired. There are many Autistics in the arts, including acting, who are underemployed. Some have even reached out to Sia about this, only to be rebuffed and insulted. Further, just because Music is nonspeaking does not mean a speaking Autistic cannot at least play the role to some extent – many Autistic people experience situations in which speaking is a challenge, even if they are not nonspeaking, and those familiar with the neurodiversity movement and the “Actually Autistic” community should understand why functioning levels are bogus. Moreover, there are in fact non-speaking Autistic actors out there, such as the person who supplied the voice for the main character of Loop, a short film on Disney+. If an Autistic person has access needs on set, provide them. If you, a presumably reasonably wealthy filmmaker cannot do this, then representational movies are probably not for you. In The Mandalorian, a deaf actor played the role of a Tusken Raider in Season 1. In Unfriended: Dark Web, the role of a deaf character was played by a deaf actress. Access needs can almost always be accommodated if one puts in the effort.

The argument that it was not possible to hire an Autistic actor is patently false.

On “cancel culture”: people make mistakes, and deserve chances to fix them (most of the time, anyway). Sia was not being cancelled – at least, not at the beginning. Rather than accepting Autistic criticism in good faith, however – she took a different approach. It is ironic, then, that a singer who has written songs about bullying, and been open about her mental health, has taken to bullying an online community – that struggles with mental health at considerably high rates.

Berating Autistic people online, accusing Autistic artists of being “bad actors”, and acting as though she is the unfortunate victim of “mean Autistic people” simply defeats any purpose she might have had of releasing a film about Autistic people.  

Sia claims to be passionate about depicting Autism and neurodiversity, and yet she has barely consulted Autistic people in doing so. In fact, as an insult to injury, she has allegedly worked with Autism Speaks, an anti-autistic group and the last group anyone wishing to represent Autism should go to. In fact, if Sia had truly put in the effort to consult Autistics, she would have known this. If you are going to make a film about Autistic people and not have the Autistic character played by an Autistic actor, the least you can at least do is consult Autistic advocates throughout the process – which Sia has not done.

Moreover, when confronted with criticism from the very group you claim to represent, it is unacceptable to insult or berate them, or to minimize their concerns. If you truly love the people in said communities, if you really wish to start a conversation, it means you will listen to what people in your target audience really have to say.

Sia had the chance to respond to criticism in a respectful, mature manner. Instead, she chose to throw a tantrum akin to a teenage Call of Duty player.

Representation matters. We deserve more than a seat at the table – we deserve to be the primary voice and the primary consultants, and whenever possible (also known as most of the time), be the portrayers of our own experiences.

Since originally drafting this piece, I have caught wind of a few updates regarding problematic scenes within the film, such as their depiction of prone restraints. While this is a serious issue, I plan to dedicate a separate article to it.

Author: autistinquisitor

An autistic advocate who is trying to raise not autism awareness, but autism acceptance. An advocate for the neurodiversity paradigm.

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