The 2021 film Music arrived in a blaze of controversy following its publicity trailer released earlier this year. Even this foretaste of what was to come left the autistic community with a bad taste in their mouths and provoked a twitter outburst in reaction to their criticism from its director Sia Furler, the Australian pop star and songwriter. Since its release, reviews have been almost exclusively negative.
Now things appear to have gone a step further. As of March 2021, a petition to cancel the film has over 30,000 signatures. The petition suggests that the film is simply a vehicle to distribute harmful information and perpetuates stereotypes of those on the autistic spectrum. It reads:
Eager to see what all the fuss was about and yet not wanting to line Sia’s pockets, I sat down to illegally stream the film on one of my shady sites. From the very first few minutes of the film, I could feel my bones begin to ache with discomfort. Music hits all the wrong notes and is tone-deaf in its representation of the autistic community. Sia, who must be feeling silly right now, although she has made no such admission, has plastered her name across every title screen and rolling credit. Clearly the result of the crowd of yes-men that hang on every note uttered out of the singer’s mouth.
The plot concerns a pseudo-alternative older sister, Zu (played by Kate Hudson) who unexpectedly becomes the guardian of her half-sister, Music (played by Maddy Zeigler). Zu must therefore ‘adjust’ to Music, a young girl on the autism spectrum, and learn about facets of her behaviour. As the story progresses, Zu’s aggressive neglect of her sister’s disability worsens; concurrently the film also becomes aggressively uncomfortable. The love interest that lives across the hallway is as predictable as it is unnecessary in a film about autism. Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr), the aforementioned love interest, helps Zu leave her dark past behind her and the film ends with a wholesome family setting.
It was clear to see in almost every facet of the film just what has caused the disquiet amongst people with autism. Firstly, Maddy Zeigler’s caricature of what she thinks an autistic person walks and talks like is deeply reminiscent of the exaggerated mannerisms that people often employ whilst mocking developmentally disabled people.
Secondly, the methods of prone restraint, which show Kate Hudson straddle Maddy Zeigler whilst she is on the ground during an autistic episode, are archaic and actively discouraged as extremely dangerous practices. To add potential insult to injury, the film uses harsh strobe lighting in the opening few minutes; even if someone with autism wanted to watch this “love letter to autism”, they could be in danger of triggering an epileptic fit. As Sia would have understood if she did her research properly, many people with autism are susceptible to reacting to extreme lighting effects.
Charlotte Gush’s fascinating article on the film queries Sia’s decision to ventriloquise a non-verbal autistic girl.Poised and postured in Sia’s mould as someone with ‘superhuman’ qualities, Music provides a transmuting character-arc for her older sister Zu. Acting as nothing more than a mirror, Music’s role in the film is to present positive change and humanitarian impulses of the neurotypical. Sia’s decision to muzzle the marginalised doesn’t come across as celebratory, it comes across as misinformed.
Additionally, I find the reference to care workers puzzling. As Zu almost leaves Music at a care home established to help children with serious disabilities, she pulls out at the last minute and decides to continue being her caregiver. She calls the staff at the home ‘strangers’ and is relieved at her decision not to leave her sister there, almost as if these people aren’t trained professionals dedicating themselves to helping children. It’s as if the film tries to end on a nice sentiment –although one that trips over its own foot just before the finish line.
In many ways, I think Sia’s intentions to produce a ground-shaking, heart-wrenching celebration of autism was her downfall. If she hadn’t chosen so stubbornly to die on this hill, then the film might not have been dragged through the mud so publicly. Her Twitter responses to those that opposed the film only proved to add gasoline to the raging fire “Grrrrrrrrrr. F—ity f— why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.“
There have been many films where an able-bodied actor has played a disabled character. Take Rain Man, or even Forrest Gump. These representations of disabled characters seem to have been given a pass perhaps because the films were either made too long ago, or they’ve become too famous to be brought down. So, is the current furore only happening because of the high expectations Sia set up or is it simply that millennial fragility cannot take what previous generations could?
A History of Banned Films
The list of films that have been banned from the UK is an interesting read. The Texas Vibrator Massacre (banned in 2008) is something that could artistically show some merit, such a shame my generation never got to witness the masterpiece. But then again, we have seen cult classics receive the same treatment as gaudy, DIY-porno cinema. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was officially banned in the UK between 1973 and 1999. However, the situation was slightly more complicated than Sia’s, as Kubrick’s family received so many death threats that he personally withdrew the film following its release. Grassroots censorship lay at the heart of the case; however, this would not stop the film reaching cult classic status. Is it possible that the banning of the film possibly sent viewers into an ecstasy of rebellion and excitement? Propelling the film forward into an even deeper level of controversy and craving? Hypothetically, the film could have been allowed to run and a meaningful conversation could have been had to prevent copycat violence.
Destroying or censoring art can potentially justify its meaning even more. By quelling discussion of taboo subjects, the subjects remain taboo. Often, it is difficult to see where the line should be drawn on censorship. Some films have been rightfully censored due to racial or ethnic stereotyping, according to general progressive attitudes. Warner Bros’ Censored Eleven springs to mind, a collection of animated cartoons released in 1968 in which the prevailing themes of racism were so absolute that the series was entirely rescinded. The tightrope of censorship is often a tricky one to cross.
Do We Let Music Sing?
I believe we must allow bad films to linger in the air like a bad smell without exterminating them with cancel culture. Art exists to be discussed and critiqued. We have to allow the public to reach these decisions on their own, rather than cramming our own opinions down their throat. Banning “Music” is the easy way out of this. The painful, but progressive, conversations that are to be had in explaining why this art is bad is vastly more valuable than if we were to delete the file. Otherwise, what is going to stop another C-list celebrity from producing an out of touch film starring another neuro-typical teenager that plays a disabled lead.
Booker Prize winning author, Kazou Ishiguro, recently gave an interview with the BBC about cancel culture stifling young journalists and authors. Ishiguro warns that a “climate of fear” prevents less established writers from writing from viewpoints outside of their immediate experience, scared that an ‘angry mob’ will flatten their emerging careers. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn so vociferously a brave attempt to tackle a difficult subject and most importantly to represent minority communities.
The film is now with us. The genie is out of the bottle, and we must talk about it rather than locking it away in the cupboard under the stairs and pretending it’s not there. Censoring the movie will only prevent a serious dialogue about what titans of the music and film industries can do to help accurately represent fringe communities. In the most dystopian way possible, censorship often pushes conversations underground, whereas this needs to be brought into the light of mainstream media. I oppose the censorship of Music as strongly as I oppose the film itself.
Words by Jack Stringer.
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