Sia Engages in Fiery Twitter Debate With Disability Activists Over Autism-Themed Film

Sia Music Movie Maddie Ziegler Kate
Courtesy of Merrick Morton/Hanway Films

Sia has not let accusations that she was “ableist” in the making of her upcoming movie, “Music,” go by without comment, and the pop star-turned-filmmaker spent the early hours of Friday tangling with disability activists who took issue with her on several points. Among the grievances she addressed, sometimes with palpable anger: her use of the term “special abilities” instead of “disabled” for people with autism; casting a non-autistic actor in the lead role of her directorial debut; and whether a person who is not autistic is exercising undue privilege in making a film centered on the subject.

Although “Music” isn’t due out till February, a trailer for the film released on Thursday stirred up dissent on Twitter, which Sia was quick to respond to in sometimes surprisingly blunt language.

“This is totally unacceptable and there are no excuses,” tweeted one user, Jordana Golbourn, a legit stage pro involved in community engagement in London. “You should know better than to allow able-bodied & neurotypical to represent the disabled community. It’s incredibly offensive as is the infantalisation of the character. Sickened. And not even captioned. Don’t release this.”

Responded Sia: “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,” she said, referring to her longtime collaborator, Maddie Ziegler (whose character is apparently not identified as autistic in the script but is generally understood to be on the non-verbal end of the spectrum). 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.”

While there were handfuls of users defending Sia by pointing out films from past decades that had legendary actors winning awards for their portrayals of the disabled, they were vastly outnumbered by those registering anger at her explanations of her choices, and Sia’s own ire came to the fore. “Grrrrrrrrrr,” she said at one point. “Fuckity fuck why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.”

The singer-director went to great lengths to say that she had engaged the input of autistic people and their advocates throughout the process. In her final tweet (for now) Friday morning, she responded to a woman who asked, “Did you do any research or consult the community at all? It’s very condescending to say it would be cruel to consult a disabled actor.” Sia’s response: “Duh. I spent three fucking years researching, I think that’s why I’m so fucking bummed.”

Sia pointed out that “here are 13 people on the spectrum in the movie,” elsewhere elaborating: “I cast 13 neuroatypical people, three trans folk, and not as fucking prostitutes or drug addicts but as doctors, nurses and singers. Fucking sad nobody’s even seen the dang movie. My heart has always been in the right place.” She also wrote, “I had two people on the spectrum advising me at all times.”

The exchanges only heated up, though, when Sia cited Autism Speaks as a group that stood behind her film, only to face feedback that many with autism consider that organization to be the enemy. “Autism Speaks came on board long after the film was finished,” Sia responded, “four years in fact.” (The movie has been awaiting completion and distribution for years since filming.) “I had no idea it was such a polarizing group!”

Wrote another user, @mysicksadlife, “Had she talked to like, 3 or 4 autistic people, we’d have told her [Autism Speaks] is ableist and wants us fixed or dead.”

At the height of the online tension, the user @HelenAngel wrote, “Several autistic actors, myself included … We all said we could have acted in it on short notice. These excuses are just that — excuses, The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic.”

Sia’s response did not ease the antagonism: “Maybe you’re just a bad actor,” the star tweeted back.

A big point of contention is Sia’s use of terminology many advocates take issue with. Tweeted Sia, perhaps not knowing she was fanning the flame, “I’ve never referred to (the primary character) as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said.”

That was exactly the opposite of what many of those engaging her wanted to hear — the word “special” has come to be seen as patronizing and derogatory in these contexts, they tweeted, while “disabled” has been widely embraced.

“Sia being ableist AF while claiming she meant well is some serious abled savior bullshit,” tweeted Kristen Parisi, the founder of @MediaDisabled. “I can’t believe so many people green-lit this project & the press team approved the ‘special abilities’ language. Disabled people clearly weren’t part of this production team.”

In the midst of the back-and-forth, Sia expressed a wish to her detractors that may seem far-flung after the divisive note on which Friday’s exchanges ended: “I really hope you see the movie (s)o you can be less angry.”