Casting Controversy

Release of Sia’s new movie raises questions about ableism in Hollywood

February 24, 2021

The use of neurotypical actors to portray disabled individuals is a practice that has taken place for decades. Many do not recognize this practice as offensive, but many in the disabled community disagree.

A study by the Chicago Tribune examined 31 television shows on platforms across the country and found that there were only four actors with disabilities who were cast, which added up to less than two percent of the total actors that appeared on screen. The study also showed that 95 percent of disabled roles on television are played by able-bodied actors. 

Although groups advocating for certain disabilities have communicated their disapproval of the use of neurotypical actors to portray their disability, their complaints often go unnoticed. These Hollywood-produced films continue to be released and go on to win awards. Advocates believe that the continuous casting of neurotypicals limits the already low opportunities that neurodivergent actors have to be hired. 

While many people view neurotypical individuals portraying neurodivergent actors as an act of ableism, others view it as a normal part of the acting culture.

Best Buddies advisor and English teacher Dana Curry has viewed many movies portraying neurodivergent characters using neurotypical actors, such as “Rain Man”, “Forrest Gump” and “Radio.” Although Curry understands the dispute regarding the casting, she believes that the stress that comes with Hollywood’s high expectations of efficiency and precision could be stressful for neurodivergent individuals.

“I can definitely see where there could be controversy,” Curry said. “However, the demands of a filming schedule could prove to be traumatic to individuals with certain disabilities. These are all great movies that have portrayed the disabled character in a very positive light.”

In 2020, the Australian singer and songwriter Sia announced her upcoming movie, called “Music, which she wrote and directed. The movie has attracted a lot of controversy due to Sia’s casting of a neurotypical actress, Maddie Ziegler, to portray a nonverbal teenager with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). 

Individuals belonging to the ASD community have voiced copious complaints regarding their strong beliefs that Sia’s casting of a neurotypical is offensive. Many believe that since Ziegler does not have ASD, she will not be able to correctly convey the experiences that come with it. 

In response to the backlash Sia received regarding whether or not the casting of Ziegler is offensive to the Autism community, Sia tweeted that “people functioning at Music’s level can’t get on Twitter and tell me I did a good job.” Advocates saw her response as insensitive, which only resulted in more criticism toward her upcoming film. Many people believe that the release of the movie will be a major step back in the movement to include more neurodivergent figures in the arts. 

Sia had originally cast a nonverbal teenager with Autism to play the role. However, according to a tweet posted by Sia that has since been deleted, the environment became too stressful for the young actor, which eventually led to her stepping away from the position. In her tweet, Sia stated that “casting someone at [the original actresses’] level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so [she] made the executive decision that [she and the members of the film] would do [their] best to lovingly represent the community.”

In response to the original actress having to step down, Sia claimed that she then hired Ziegler. This contradicts Sia’s later statement that she had originally written the movie for Ziegler. Curry believes that Sia could have used her large budget to make an environment that was suitable for a neurodivergent actor.

“If the budget would allow the production company to make these accommodations, then I do believe that the authenticity of the character could have been phenomenal,” Curry said.

Sia has strongly expressed her disappointment with the public’s reaction to the announcement of her movie. When Autistic actor Helen Zbihlyj tweeted that she and many other Autistic actors “could have acted in it on short notice following the original actress’s step down from her position, Sia replied, tweeting “maybe you’re just a bad actor.”

Senior Grace Holley has been an active member of Partner’s Club, the school’s on-campus club which is intended to build relationships between neurotypical and neurodivergent students through activities and sporting events, for the past four years. She believes that in order to create a movie that accurately portrays the experience of a child with ASD, the actor must have ASD. 

“The directors of this movie could have taken a big step by including people with disabilities into the Hollywood scene, but they instead chose to go with their own ideas of the difficulty and experiences of having ASD,” Holley said.

Throughout her research for the film, Sia claimed that she had worked with organizations such as “Autism Speaks,” which has a history of promoting language that is now seen by many in the Autism community as inaccurate, outdated and offensive. The film and Sia herself use terms referring to an individual’s “level of functioning,” which has also proven to be offensive to many individuals with ASD.

Autism Speaks often teaches “parenting tips” that are harmful to children with ASD due to their advocacy that parents can “cure” their child. According to disability advocate Sara Luterman, this ultimately gives off the idea that Autism is a disease rather than a disorder and that it has the ability to be cured. Holley has heard about the unique perspective on ASD that Autism Speaks has openly represented, and believes that this particular perspective does more harm than good. 

“Though I am not super knowledgeable on the pros and cons of this organization, I am aware that they treat this disability as a disease rather than a characteristic,” Holley said. “I believe that the organization is more dedicated to finding a cure rather than working to inform people and accommodate the needs of individuals with ASD.”

Many people believe that although Sia might have created the film with good intentions, her poor choice of resources have led her to portraying Autism Spectrum Disorder in an offensive and inaccurate light. People across the media are urging Sia to cancel the release of her new movie, which is supposed to take place on Feb. 10. Despite numerous complaints and petitions to boycott the movie, Sia is set on releasing her film on the scheduled date. 

After doing research on the topic and viewing the trailer, Holley decided that she will not be viewing the movie following its release. 

“Personally, I will be boycotting this movie, because I believe that it sends out the wrong message to people who are uneducated on this topic, and it is insulting to families with members who have been diagnosed,” Holley said. 

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