Disability in Casting

Friends, for today’s blog post, I need you to think back to a year ago today. We were 8 months into the pandemic and couldn’t tell Monday from Friday. I, for, one was crawling, and I mean crawling to the Thanksgiving break, which to be honest is not that different from where I am now. But Nov 20th, 2020 stands out from the rest of the pandemic haze as that was the day I stumbled across an infamous Twitter thread from the pop singer Sia. Yes, folks, today’s post is talking about Sia’s movie Music which is definitely problematic, but not for the reason you think.

To catch up any of the boomers reading this today (or genx I aspire to be inclusive here). What had happened was…Sia made her directorial debut with Music a movie about a non-verbal autistic girl, Music, who loses her primary caregiver and is then raised by her estranged sister, Zu, struggling with drug addiction. Zu, played by Kate Hudson, has to learn to grow up and be a responsible adult so that she can be there for her sister Music. Throughout the movie, Music conveys her thoughts and perspectives on the world through… wait for it… music. Sia decided to cast Maddie-Ziegler, a neurotypical (non-autistic) actress to portray Music, and the internet was not having it! We’re canceling you, your mama, your whole family.

Sia’s Music is problematic for fifteyleven reasons, which I’ll get into shortly. But while the majority of the cancel Sia headlines focused on the casting of a non-autistic actress as the autistic main character, I believe the bigger issue… the real issue… was Sia’s lack of credibility to tell a story other than her own. And her ignorance to the fact that that was important.

Series Overview

​​Welcome back to the EXCEL Log’s series on Marginalized Representation and Casting, where I advocate for a paradigm shift in the performing arts industry from a focus on authentic casting to a demand for intentional (and nuanced) casting! If you’re new to the series, check out the first post, where I explain why using authenticity as a yardstick for creative teams is reductive and counterproductive. I’ve written about how Hamilton, Birth of a Nation, and Fires in the Mirror handled casting characters of marginalized races in “inauthentic ways.” And graded them based off on the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test ™(Pending):

  1. Does it have a diverse production team?
  2. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?
  3. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?
  4. Did they present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance not as irresponsible caricatures?

This week I’ll be testing out my new protocols to see how Music fares! Let’s dive in!

  1. Does it have a diverse production team?
Judge Judy GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY


The production team consisted of co-writers Sia (white able-bodied female) and Dallas Clayton (white able-bodied male), director Ryan Heffington (white able-bodied male), and allegedly two alleged advisors on the spectrum (more on this later I suspect these advisors are fake news). 

Verdict: Honor code violation plagiarism suspected!

  1. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?

Sia says yes but…..

Where are the receipts?? Sia didn’t discuss having any partnerships or collaborations with the autistic community BEFORE she started getting criticism over Twitter. Once she started receiving negative feedback Sia responded in an immature and defensive tweetstorm [link] where she made a bunch of highly suspicious claims.

First, she claimed that “I had two had two people on the spectrum advising me at all times.” Who, what, where, when? Literally, give me a drop more proof and I’ll consider it.

Then Sia proudly stated that she partnered with Autism Speaks….

While Autism Speaks is the largest autism lobbying group in the US it is WIDELY condemned by members of the autistic community as being ableist and problematic at best, and a eugenicist hate group at worst (read more about how Autism Speaks spent years promoting ideas and information that furthered stigma and misunderstanding about the condition in this Washington Post article). So Sia touting her partnership with Autism Speaks in an attempt to show her credibility to represent the autistic experience makes me incredibly suspicious that she’d done much (and by much I mean any) research. I don’t understand how she genuinely thought that would win over her critics.

Then there was the time Sia tweeted…. “I’ve never referred to (the primary character) as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said.” I’m sorry WHO ASKED FOR THIS???? No one. Not a single person. “Special” is an outdated term that “has come to be seen as patronizing and derogatory in these contexts, 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.”

I’m HIGHLY skeptical that Sia would have made the following claims, been blindsided by the concern and criticism from members of the autistic community, and responded as pettily and defensively as she did to valid and predictable concerns if she really had two advisors on the spectrum with her at all times. BUT I try to give people the benefit of the doubt whenever I have the emotional capacity to do so. So I was curious, is it possible that Sia found two autistic advisors who raised no concerns with all of the elements above?

It is possible. No group or identity is a monolith. It’s possible that Sia found the disabled equivalent to Ben Carson, whose views represent a minority of the groups they represent, which is why asking two unnamed “representatives” isn’t enough! You couldn’t write a book about an entire subject after reading two articles. If you’re gonna attempt to represent a whole community, then you need to show some good faith that you’ve worked hard to get immersed in that community.

Did she do some reading, some good old-fashioned research? Is it possible that she could have done that and still made the same gaffes? Could she have found sources saying that special abilities was acceptable terminology?

I did a few quick google searches myself. I googled “special abilities”, “special ability terminology”, “disability”, “disability terminology”, and “politically correct terminology for disabilities.” While there was some disagreement over whether the term disabled or person with a disability is the best language (person first or identity first language), I found nowhere that said that special abilities was a good choice of language… not a single place… The National Center on Disability in Journalism has a disability language style guide, Ability Magazine has a guideline to terminology, The National Disability Authority has a list of Appropriate Terms to Use none of which support Sia’s language choices. So I’m going to call BS as to the effort she supposedly put into it…

Verdict: Inconceivable! Shame on you!

  1. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?



Sia provided an incredibly sus “rationale” for her non-traditional casting choice of Maddie Ziegler as Music. It’s unclear if she would have provided any of this information without the twitter drama, so she’s not getting many points for accessible or transparent reasoning.

In response to tweets asking why she didn’t use an autistic actress, Sia responded that: “I actually tried working with 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.”

And as this amazing individual summed it up 

That’s the problem. She’s missing the point. Saying that she chose not to use an autistic actor because she chose not to adjust the work environment to make it more accessible is just blatantly able-ist and unacceptable. A half-baked and untested casting excuse like this is a clear sign that Sia wasn’t qualified to make this movie. This is patently unacceptable.

Verdict: Please pay the aggrieved party all your coins.

  1. Did they present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance not as irresponsible caricatures?

Absolutely not!

Judge Judy Do Not Want GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

While I am a firm believer that portraying an identity other than your own isn’t inherently mocking or a caricature, the reality is that even with the best intentions, the impact of portraying an identity other than ones own can be offensive, harmful, or upsetting to the group in question. It’s important to be very intentional and thoughtful in what one is portraying, being mindful of stereotypes and communal sensitivities, but it’s also important to acknowledge that the line between a respectful or offensive portrayal is not fixed. As seen in my Fires in the Mirror post,  even with an intentional and accomplished actor, sometimes the final word on whether a performance was genuine or a caricature can come down to an audience’s assessment of a performer’s skill. If the audience finds you believable, they’re more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt when it comes to your intentions in the portrayal. Unfortunately for her, Maddie wasn’t a believable actress in this role.


At the end of the day, I can understand how Sia may have gotten here. I can understand the desire to help, the desire to make an impact. I’m a freaking ENFJ for chrissakes I get the burning feeling that you aren’t doing enough and you’re already behind. BUT this whole movie reeks of moving too quickly, lacking awareness, not taking the moment to edit and collaborate outside of yourself. Sia filmed this in 2017 and then spent three years editing it… what if she’d spent three years collaborating… I mean, truly, just imagine. I think there’s a world in which Sia could have made a compelling movie on autism and expression through music that would have passed the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test even if the main character wasn’t played by someone autistic. But I think it would have been co-created with autistic artists. Or more simply nothing about us without us.


Thanks for following my series on Marginalized Representation in Casting! This is the last post in the series for now, as I’m itching to talk about other things but I’d like to be sappy for a moment and end this series with my hopes for the future of marginalized representation in casting. 

 I hope that we can create a world in which creatives don’t feel empowered to bulldoze their way through marginalized communities and cause harm without a second thought. I hope we as art consumers continue to hold creative teams accountable for their choices and I hope we as audiences can hold space for differences of opinions on provocative art when artists can show their receipts. I hope to be a part of an artistic world that values the intent, process, and credibility of a creative team as well as their impact. I hope that we as art consumers can hold space for others to view provocative and controversial art and be differently impacted than ourselves. I hope to come across more art that I don’t “agree” with but where I respect the creative team’s process and credibility enough to acknowledge/ value their intent. I hope we can begin to expect nuanced and intentional representation of marginalized communities in the art we consume. And lastly, I hope we as art consumers and creators will keep questioning, musing, and thinking critically about the ways in which we tell stories other than our own. 

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” —African Proverb 

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