There’s nothing new about celebrities reflexively lashing out against amateur or professional critics, but Sia’s press tour for her upcoming film, Music, has taken the practice to another level. Last month, the Australian pop star melted down on Twitter when fans suggested that her frequent collaborator, Dance Moms alum Maddie Ziegler, shouldn’t have been cast as an autistic character in the movie. In a new interview with Australia’s 10 News First, she leaned even further into the decision.
As The Daily Mail reported, Sia dug herself deeper by making an...unusual comparison between Ziegler’s casting and that of co-stars Kate Hudson and Leslie Odom Jr. “It’s not a documentary. Kate isn’t a drug dealer and Leslie Odom Jr. [who plays Ebo] isn’t from Ghana,” she said of their roles. Alright!
She went on to say that she initially “tried working with a beautiful young girl non verbal on the spectrum,” but the girl "found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie.”
Sia also claimed there was “no way” she could have cast an actor with the same "level of functioning" as the character in question. “The character is based completely on my neuroatypical friend," Sia told the Australian news outlet. "He found it too stressful being non verbal, and I made this movie with nothing but love for him and his mother."
Sia’s initial Twitter spree, in which the star doubled down on her decision and insulted an autistic actor in the process, was roundly condemned by the autistic and neuroatypical communities. Even if she touched on something genuine in the culture war apparatus — the fact that reactions to a work are often preemptively leveled before said work has actually been viewed — it's nonetheless important to warmly field criticism from groups who believe you’ve exploited their community. And there are always more gracious ways to convey the frustration than telling an autistic actor they may be bad at acting — fairly at odds with her stated purpose — and “Grrrrrrrrrr. Fuckity fuck.”
Although Sia seems convinced that Music avoided the pitfalls of previous exploitative casting in this vein (think: retroactively derided portrayals like those in Rain Man or I Am Sam, both of which featured neurotypical actors playing characters with intellectual disabilities), the film's latest trailer doesn't provide much assurance. The short clip shows Ziegler leaning on exaggerated tropes, which are already being labeled as offensive and ableist on Twitter. The world gets to see if the finished product carries any more nuance when Music arrives in February.