The damage of rewarding poor representations of disability

When the news broke that Sia’s ‘Music’ has been given a Golden Globe nomination the film was once again in the spotlight for its representation of a person with autism. 

The film centres around a non-verbal person with autism who communicates through music. The character, Sia claims, is based on a friend. I’ve not watched the film, only the trailer, but The Guardian has a good review on its website, written by an individual with autism, the stand out quote of which is: 

“Ziegler’s performance as Music, however, is the standout disaster, serving us “Autism” the Rain Man way, all tics and whooping and capital ‘A’ Acting. She affects a honking, hiccuping gait occasionally punctuated by phrases – “make your eggs”, “braid your hair” – delivered in a voice that lands somewhere between a school bully mimicking Meryl Streep’s low register and a dog waking up from dental surgery.”

The fact that the film has not only not been pulled, but has been given an award nomination is a stark reminder of how poorly disability is both represented and perceived by the wider public. Such portrayals can set the progress of disabled people in the workplace back and reinforce stereotypes that are already difficult to break through. 

Responding to the ‘Music’ backlash

When the trailer for the film originally aired back in November, the first wave of backlash was swift. And in response to a series of tweets from actors with autism, using the #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs, saying they could have stepped in at short notice to give the film a more accurate representation, Sia said ‘maybe you’re just a bad actor’. This time she apologised and promptly deleted her Twitter account. Oh, and the film will be given a warning label. 

The representation of the film aside, the way the criticism has been handled is poor, serving only to reinforce the view that disabled people’s opinions aren’t to be taken as seriously as abled people’s, and that the outcry is overly-dramatic. It’s dangerous ground and a reaction which has wider repercussions for disabled people, especially now the film has been endorsed with a Golden Globe nomination.

It sends a clear message that not only are such representations acceptable, but celebrated and rewarded in the highest fashion. 

How big screen representation affects daily disabled lives

Stereotypes, lack of understanding, and poor awareness of disabilities continues to be a significant barrier to entry when it comes to work. Progress to dismantle those views is slow without the added hurdle of a movie endorsed by one of the biggest film awards going. 

Add to this the apparently minimal effort made by Sia and those involved to reconcile the criticisms of the film and disabled people end up back where they always do, having their lives and existences mis-represented, taken out of context and only shown in their most extreme form. All of which is then validated by the fact the film is nominated for a Golden Globe. 

The response shows a breathtaking lack of responsibility and continues a disturbing trend in film and television that risks carrying over into daily life; getting representation wrong, apologising, then repeating the offence. 

Just prior to the trailer for ‘Music’, the film industry had been called out over the depiction of the Grand High Witch in the remake of Roadl Dahl’s The Witches, which again saw the main star apologise after she sharing on her Instagram page that she learned: “many people with limb differences, especially children, are in pain because of the portrayal of the Grand High Witch in ‘The Witches,’”.

A couple of weeks later – the same pattern, a different film; the disabled community speaks out against negative stereotyping, an apology is issued, those involved move on. But those who such things affect do not get to move on, the portrayals and characters they protested exist on film in perpetuity, watched by millions of abled people who guard the doors for jobs, who feel it’s acceptable to talk down to disabled people, or to ignore them altogether. 

This is what seems to be entirely overlooked by the likes of Sia – these depictions are not only seen by disabled people, but by those for whom disability discrimination is either acceptable or by those who already struggle to grasp what the problem is and why things need to change. And who bears the brunt of it all? The already marginalised voices of those with disabilities.

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