The recent release of Music, a film produced and directed by pop singer Sia, has not found peace since its premise’s release. The film stars Maddie Ziegler, a non-neurodivergent dancer who plays the autistic main character Music. The film’s harrowing portrayal of autism, made particularly offensive by the lack of representation of an autistic lead actor, is what has garnered so much hate, along with the director’s response to such justified criticism. Let’s take a look at exactly what made Music such an offensive, and plain bad, film to watch and see if there is any salvageable feminist messaging in the narrative that might justify some of the rest of the film’s plot.
Music tells the story of an autistic teenager, named Music, who lives with her grandmother who acts as her primary caregiver, as her autism renders her primarily non-verbal. Soon in the plot, her grandmother unexpectedly passes away, leaving Music to look to her estranged sister, Zu, to take care of her. Zu is newly sober and working as a drug dealer, putting her in a tricky spot for also becoming a primary caregiver. Upon moving in with Music, Zu meets Ebo, who is quick to become her love interest in the film’s plot. Ebo surprisingly teaches Zu how to care for Music, one meltdown at a time. After a lot of hardship including a botched drug deal, a hospital visit, and a relapse, Zu is almost forced to give Music up to the state. In a change of heart, she doesn’t and decides to raise Music despite all the challenges she may face in doing so.
The issues with this film start out with the film’s most basic element – its title and, subsequently, the main character’s name, Music. The fact that Music is the lead character’s name completely reduces her to the thing she is most passionate about, taking away any dimension from her character that might already be there. Music is a one worded reminder that this character barely deserves a true name and is, instead, used as a vehicle for Sia’s music throughout the plot. Her character doesn’t develop, doesn’t follow any kind of character arc in the diegetic world of the narrative’s plot. Instead she escapes into the fantastical world of dance and song that works solely to showcase Sia’s musical leanings and does nothing to add value to the narrative. These musical numbers, meant to be a sneak peak into what Music’s inner world must look like, are a cheap way of navigating around having to give any of the characters real development.
Not only does her name revoke her autonomy, so does the physical actions of the neurotypical characters in the film. Throughout the narrative, Zu and Ebo are constantly physically restraining Music during times of her overstimulation, when she lashes out in a fit of self harm. This restraint takes the form of her non-divergent companions literally climbing on top of her and restraining her down to the ground, forcing her into the small, compressed version of herself, restraining not only her physical form but her autonomy as an individual human being. The treatment of Music and her autism throughout the film, but especially exemplified in the cases of physical restraint she faces, particularly dehumanizes her.
It is hard to look at this film from any other perspective than its overall offensiveness and palpable inaccuracy. It seems as though the film is setting out to be a feminist narrative about the tribulations of two sisters. To say the least, it fails to do so.
The representation of women in the film is extremely limited and one-dimensional. Zu’s character is almost completely defined by her alcoholism and Music’s character is definitely completely defined by her autism. One might argue that the two are given dimension through their musical numbers, which aim to show a different level to the characters throughout the film, but these musical numbers are simply shallow and lacking. They do not add anything of true substance to the narrative, and instead, work to make the film and the female characters seem even more hollow than they were before. As mentioned before, Music doesn’t experience any sort of character development, and it’s honestly hard to say that Zu does either, besides going from not wanting to care for her sister to suddenly obliging to the responsibility.
Additionally, both of the female characters seem to be quite defined by their relationships to men throughout the film’s plot. Music is silently pursued by her neighbor Felix, while Zu’s love plot is introduced within the first few scenes of her character’s introduction. All of Zu’s experiences throughout the film are pretty much guided by her relationship to Ebo, except for her relapse, setting her out to be a rather one-dimensional character whose only real agency comes into play when selling drugs or getting drunk.
One might think that all Sia needed to do to avoid the controversy of her film was replace Music’s actress with someone who actually has autism, so that the character would not act as an empty token of “representation.” But, as we’ve seen throughout this article, the offensiveness of Music goes deeper than representational politics; it’s embedded into the very narrative of the film. Regardless of its offensive presentation of autism, the film also fails to be anything close to a feminist film, as neither of the lead female characters are developed in a meaningful way.