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Not Like Me: Media Edition

Updated: Aug 7

By Melissa Lushington, "Don't Cut Corners...Unless It's Cake" Blog Series - Slice #18

Last year, I wrote a blog post for June with a similar title as the one above. The blog post was about the media and how the autism community needs to be represented positively. While we have been fortunate enough to have positive examples such as the Tv Series Atypical and Disney +’s Loop, the media has its history of showcasing negative representation. The biggest and most current example would be the directorial debut of Australian Singer Sia’s Movie Music. The film Music was released on February 10, 2021, and it’s the story about a newly sober woman name Zu who receives sole guardianship of her nonverbally autistic half-sister name Music after the sudden passing of their grandmother. This film received immediate backlash having an 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is viewed as offensive, disturbing, harmful, and more. While it is true that this film is an awful and outrageous representation of autism, I want to go into more detail about why that is with some points I’d like for you to think about and take into consideration.

First, aside from the fact that this movie showcases the character Zu as being more of the star than the title character Music, the journey of Zu and how she grows in this movie is unrealistic because she never faces any real consequences for her actions, neither is there any realistic life-threatening situation that happens to Zu or Music resulting from Zu’s actions. It’s important to portray situations from a realistic perspective because that will allow your characters to feel more relatable and real. It will also allow that character’s growth in the story to feel more deserving and earned. One example of this would be a film made in 2015 called Jack of the Red Hearts, a story about a teenager named Jack who is a rebellious runaway who commits crimes alongside her sister Coke. One day, Jack gets caught shoplifting and manages to escape, but her sister Coke gets taken away and placed in the foster care system. In a desperate attempt to get her sister back, Jack meets a woman named Kay Adams and cons her way into being a caretaker for her autistic daughter, Glory. In this movie, we see a serious situation portrayed realistically. Even though Jack becomes a better person by bonding with Glory, bonding with her family, and falls in love with the son Robert, the truth still comes out about Jack’s dishonesty the family. Instead of having the movie ends with Jack being let off the hook, getting her sister back, and staying with the family, the film ends with Jack letting go of her sister by telling her to stay with her foster family, saying goodbye to Glory, and her family, and being taken to jail. Jack pays the price for her reckless behavior, which makes her character real and relatable, and it makes her growth in the film rewarding and deserving. Zu doesn’t have that in Sia’s movie Music; she’s an alcoholic drug dealer who simultaneously takes care of her autistic sister. In this situation, the realistic way of approaching this would be to have Zu serve time in prison for the illegal money she made for selling drugs or have Rudy put Zu in a life-threatening situation that affects Music since Zu lost all of Rudy’s money and drugs that she owed him. Either scenario would have allowed Zu to be held accountable for her actions, and it would have forced Zu to realize the error of her ways and the value of her sister as a person so that she can have a real desire for change that would have made her character real and relatable. Instead, she faces no jail time or consequences, and the film ends with Zu living happily with Ebo and Music in her apartment, which makes her growth in the film undeserving and unearned. Secondly, there was no guidance on how to represent autism in Sia’s movie Music properly. One of the biggest complaints that people have about Sia’s movie is that the main character Music is played by a neurotypical actress name Maddie Ziegler as stated by Senior Staff Columnist Dalia Maeroff who wrote the article Review: Sia’s movie “Music” is a disgrace, “I am going to start with the glaringly obvious — an autistic person should have been cast as the lead role in Sia’s movie “Music,” not Maddie Ziegler.”

Now Maddie is not the only neurotypical actress to play a character that has autism. American Actress Dakota Fanning, who is neurotypical, played an autistic character named Wendy from the movie Please Stand By (which is my favorite autism movie of all time, and I will explain in a future blog post why it is). Even though I would have personally preferred an actual autistic actress playing the role, I enjoyed Dakota Fanning’s portrayal of the character. It represented Wendy as an autistic individual and not a symbolic poster child of autism as a whole, which was actually the objective of what Director Ben Lewin wanted for his movie, as he stated in an article titled Interview: Please Stand By Director Ben Lewin Boldly Depicts Communities He’s Never Depicted Before, “We wanted people to think of Wendy as an individual, not as a member of a class of people sharing a diagnosis.” I also appreciate the fact that in Please Stand By, we see the movie focus on Wendy as the main character. We get to see her desires, struggles, triumphs, and growth throughout the movie, making the audience connect with her and relate to her. Many people don’t feel that way about Music because we have little to no knowledge about her. We know she likes music, she likes dogs, she likes eggs, she has a love interest in a way to another nonverbal character name Felix, we also know that she likes to live in her own imagination on how she sees the world. Still, we don’t know her interests, her goals, her desires, her feelings about her grandmother’s death as well as Felix’s, we don’t even know how she feels about her place in Zu’s life as she’s forcibly dragged along her drug-dealing lifestyle. We never see Music struggle with anything; she never overcomes anything. She doesn’t grow, she doesn’t change, and that leaves a major disconnect between her and the audience because there’s little to nothing much there for people to connect and relate to. Another thing I would like to mention is the fact that there was zero involvement of the autism community in this project. It was not enough that they didn’t cast an autistic actress as the title role, but they also did not have any autistic writers, producers, or directors. Referring to a previous article, Dalia Maeroff expresses her anger about this issue when she states, “Autistic people should have been a part of the production of this movie every step of the way.” I’m not an expert on film production, but I know that whenever you are making a film about anything involving a community, you should have as many people around you as possible who are experts of that community or are personal members of that community.

A good example would be a movie that was made back in 2017 called Wonderstruck (which is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I highly recommend that you buy the DVD on Amazon.com and watch it.). It is a story about two kids who are deaf and are from different time periods traveling to New York in search for what is missing. Millicent Simmons is an actress who played the role of a 12-year old girl named Rose who is deaf, and in real life, the actress Millicent is deaf. This was an obvious big win for the deaf community, as they got to see themselves portrayed positively on the big screen. In an article titled New movie ‘Wonderstruck’ shines a spotlight on deaf culture, Millicent expressed how grateful she was to have a director be interested in casting a deaf actress as well as choose her to play the role of a deaf character when she states, “I’m so glad and lucky that he felt like finding someone deaf to play Rose was important to him, I’m grateful he chose me to play Rose. And I think it means a lot to the deaf community for them to see someone deaf play a deaf character.” Millicent’s co-star in the movie was American Actress Julianne Moore, who played the role of adult Rose who is deaf. Julianne Moore, in real life, is not deaf, but because she was working with an actress at the time who is deaf, it allowed her to learn more from Millicent about the deaf community so that she can portray her character as authentically as she did. In the same article, Writer Kirsten Brackett explained the process of Julianne Moore getting into character when she states, “According to an article in USA Today, Moore spent two months learning American Sign Language (ASL) to prepare for her scenes. As she learned the language, she was able to see the beauty in ASL and deaf culture. Simmonds also helped her with her singing and encouraged her not to give up. Moore told USA Today, “She was so nice about my signing, which is bad. It’s like talking to a baby; I’m not kidding.” Maddie Ziegler never got to have that when she made Sia’s movie Music. She never worked with an actor or actress who is autistic, she never worked with any writers or producers who are autistic. Not even Sia with her three years of research could help Maddie with her role because her only collaboration with an autism organization was Autism Speaks. If you’ve read my previous blog for April, you know the controversial reputation Autism Speaks have in the autism community. Therefore, there was no one there to help Maddie understand the world of autism, which caused the portrayal of her character to fall on its face.

Finally, and most importantly, Sia’s movie Music has the potential of causing multiple hate crimes towards the autism community due to the dangerous, lethal, controversial, and fatal methods that have been used on autistic people as an attempt to stop meltdowns, which is restraining them. Another major complaint that people have with Sia’s movie is the restraint scenes used whenever Music had a meltdown. An article titled Sia's 'Music' angers the autism community: 'I don't even know where to start, Autistic Self Advocacy Network Director Zoe Gross expresses her anger and frustrations about the restraint scenes used in the movie when she states, "The autistic community has been fighting for decades to end the use of restraints that traumatize and kill, had the film involved autistic people from the beginnimeaningfullylym the beginning, we could have told them how catastrophically irresponsible it is to encourage viewers to use the kind of deadly restraints that killed Max Benson, Eric Parsa, and many other members of our community." We have seen hate crimes happen before, especially when inspired by what they have seen in the media. A good example of this can be found in an article titled A red light to anti-ginger abuse. Freelance Writer Douglas Haddow wrote about how discrimination towards redheads reached high intensities of violence every year because of a fictional holiday that went far beyond a joke. He wrote about the violence of hate crimes that happened toward children with red hair by stating, “After a rash of schoolyard attacks left scores of red-headed children beaten and bruised, parents in the US, Canada, and the UK are shocked and appalled by the rising tide of anti-ginger violence.” Douglas also explained that these hate crime attacks were inspired by a South Park episode that aired in November of 2005, and it was when one of the main characters Eric Cartman, gave a hate speech about redheads. Douglas explains in more detail when he states, “In the episode, the character Eric Cartman claims that "gingers" are diseased and inhuman.” Sia’s movie Music has three restraint scenes; one of them has the character Ebo sitting on top of Music and say that he’s “crushing her with his love.” In an article titled Sia’s new movie is dangerous and offensive, Zoe Gross explains the dangerous impact that this could have on the autism community when she states, “[Music] doesn’t just promote harmful stereotypes about autistic people — it shows restraints that have killed members of our community as necessary and loving acts,”

In conclusion, the issues I have stated in the blog regarding Zu’s lack of accountability, Music’s lack of character and growth, bad casting choices as well as lack of community involvement, and the serious threat of hate crimes towards the autism community as a result of Sia’s restraint scenes in the movie are some of the many issues that a lot of people have pointed out before previously. Still, now after reading this blog, I hope I could broaden my point across about how Sia’s movie Music is an awful and outrageous representation of autism. Still, I also hope that this broadens your understanding of how much we need the media to represent autism positively. Do you know why the 2018 film Black Panther did so well at the box office? It was because people of color like me were able to see ourselves represented positively that made us feel understood and empowered. As stated in an article titled The Revolutionary Power Of Black Panther by Journalist Jamil Smith, “It is a movie about what it means to be Black in both America and Africa—and, more broadly, in the world. Rather than dodge complicated themes about race and identity, the film grapples head-on with the issues affecting modern-day Black life.” Like me, people on the autism spectrum desire to see themselves in a positive light too, which makes us feel understood and empowered as well. If you want more understanding of autism representation, please check out Heather and Julia’s podcast episode of their show Sit Back and Overreact on YouTube, as they talk about Sia’s movie Music and good vs. bad representation of autism in the media in the following link below. Thank you and have a nice day. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4Xe8YQdOzU

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