Earlier this month, fury mounted when Sia’s “Music” film received two Golden Globe nominations — best musical or comedy film and lead actress for musical or comedy film — despite months of criticism over its depiction of disability. With the 78th awards show on Sunday, the possibility of this film being celebrated is eating at me.
Some advocates have expressed concerns about the movie’s messages about autism, Sia’s decision to consult with the Autism Speaks organization, — which has previously presented autism as a burden on family, — and to cast Maddie Zeigler, who does not have autism, as an autistic nonverbal teen. Intensifying the outrage has been a leaked scene showing Zeigler’s character being restrained by her half-sister, played by Kate Hudson, in a way that has resulted in death.
For me, for the disability community, it was a reminder of how far we still have to go.
My frustration goes beyond the nominations; I think they are symptoms of a problem and microcosms of a bigger issue. They’re smoke from the fire. However, the smoke is invisible to — or ignored by — so many that the fire just keeps burning, burning and burning.
Let me start with the nominations. At a time when there’s been increased awareness of social injustice, one would expect the award show to have more of an awareness of attention surrounding the films and the impact they have. The fact that “Music” was nominated displays either the lack of awareness or that the nominators from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association simply don’t care.
This shouldn’t have received any nominations, first of all. But its nominations exemplify the storyline that exists in the traditional piece of media about disability: inspiration, vulnerability or both. People love inspirational stories, where characters are vulnerable. In a profit-driven industry where the ultimate goal is to maximize viewers and profit, a story about a young woman having to take care of her disabled sister will be promoted as a tear-jerker every time.
And the storyline and the industry’s desire to make a profit add up to explain the nominations. A film about disability that’s in the running for two elite awards — you’ve got to see it. Right?
I cannot explain how disappointing that is. And I see two possible explanations for it: it’s either that people would rather be inspired by me overcoming my obstacles than helping me engage in the process or that they want to reward media conglomerates for acknowledging people with disabilities. I think it’s a combination.
By putting this film up for nomination, the Golden Globes is condoning ableism. The movie actively excludes people with autism and therefore people with disabilities. It represents a conscious decision from Sia to ignore the disability community.
Here’s why I say it’s conscious: before, during and after production, Sia and her camp decided it was acceptable to have Zeigler as the autistic character. And we reward that? Even if it doesn’t win, its nomination is enough to question our values. A film that claims to advocate for people with disabilities but casts people without disabilities as disabled should not win an award.
The Autism Speaks aspect of this must be talked about, but at the same time, that was a result of Sia’s ignorance and lack of research. I think, especially in the digital age, it’s important to research an organization before getting involved with it. As a celebrity, the organizations you endorse become extensions of you, and it’s important to recognize the organizations that best support the causes you care about.
Simply holding Sia accountable and condemning the organization would be a shame, though. Doing so would appeal to those who want to individualize things, people and problems, who want to look at instances through a microscope, who want to ignore that Sia’s decision is a small aspect of a large problem.
It’s an example of people without disabilities trying to control the narrative surrounding disability. By having the nondisabled Zeigler play the role of an autistic character, Sia could have the movie exactly the way she and the other producers envisioned it. They could create their own tear-jerking story about autism viewers would remembered forever.
But most of all, I consider this a form of bullying. Sia had a non-autistic actress who she’s worked with in the past play the role and act in ways that remind her of people with disabilities.