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The film Music and the continuing culture of “cripping up”

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

CN: ableist language, the term cripping up, "special abilities", discrimination, disability employment gap, lack of authentic disabled representation


November 18th is the start of Disability History Month – which this year starts with a punch in the face as we’re yet again given a film portraying a disabled character by a non-disabled actor. Sia (who directed and co-wrote the upcoming film, starring Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr, and Maddie Ziegler) announced the film Music is about half-sister Zu becoming the sole guardian of Music, an autistic girl; which will be released in early 2021. Yesterday, November 19th 2020, the trailer was released [link]. The trailer, however, was not captioned, nor provided with auto-captions, and this very much sets the pace for the attitudes towards disabled people and accessibility in this film. Sia claims that she spent 3 years researching for the film:

A dark blue background to a tweet by Sia that reads in white writing "Duh. I spent three fucking years researching. I think that's why I'm so fucking bummed."
Sia stating 3 years - Alt text included

However, it is widespread knowledge that many people with sensory disabilities – such as autism and the frequently linked condition Auditory Processing Disorder – rely heavily on subtitles and closed captions [link]. Thus, the fact that there was no attempt to ensure accessibility of even the trailer for the film shows very poor insight. Further explanation to why captions are so important can be found in an interview with Liam O’Dell [link]. As already mentioned, Sia stated that she spent 3 years researching for this film. However, Sia cast allistic (non-autistic) and nondisabled actress Maddie Ziegler. One Twitter user wrote “I love Maddie Ziegler, don't get me wrong, but you need to consult actual autistic people and have autistic people play autistic people”. Sia in response claimed that she did try to get an autistic actress but that she felt it was “more compassionate” to use Maddie [Ziegler]. She further explained from criticism about her lack of autistic representation that she cast 13 “neuroatypical” people, as well as three trans folk “not as fucking prostitutes or drug addicts but as doctors, nurses and singers”. Her anger intensifies writing: “Fucking sad, nobody’s even seen the dang movie.”

Cripping Up refers to the notion that when nondisabled actors play disabled characters, they often mimic behaviour of disabled people that are perceived as offensive, such as playing over-the-top mannerisms or putting on a “Deaf accent” for example. In defending her choice for the “cripping up” mannerisms of the main character, Music, Sia responded that Music is based on a close friend – which as anyone who is in a liberation group has probably experienced, saying ‘One of my friends is *group*, so that makes everything I’ve said or done completely acceptable, regardless of how unacceptable it truly is’ never makes it okay.

Instead of making accommodations (as is a requirement to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010), Sia dismissed a non-verbal autistic actor, and instead took the easier path of hiring a non-disabled actor.

Dark blue background with a tweet by Sia in white writing that reads "I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl non verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that's why I cast Maddie.
previous autistic actress - alt text included

There are many problems with nondisabled actors playing disabled characters. Firstly, the film will not hold an authentic and accurate representation of a disabled person and gives the idea that disabled people can “switch off” their disability, as often nondisabled actors portray this. For example, in the TV show Glee, Kevin McHale – a nondisabled actor who plays wheelchair user Artie - in one episode has a dream of walking again; and the episode shows Mchale dancing in a flash mob. Ignoring the ableism of the storyline, this is a common trope and justification for using nondisabled actors – but as McHale stated, he really struggled to adjust to using a wheelchair. Instead, someone who has the same condition and has had the same experience as the character is naturally going to be able to give the most accurate portrayal. While a nondisabled actor can, of course, research into what living with the character’s condition is like, this will give a very stilted and stereotypical performance, unable to successfully fulfil the role in an accurate manner – and there are things that disabled people experience that can only be brought to the role by disabled actors.

For instance, a sighted actor does not have the years of navigation by touch skills that blind and visually impaired people have; and native Deaf people are more natural, giving more accurate translation, and more fluency in sign language than Hearing people who have only learned sign language for the role without – for instance – the background, understanding and politics of Deaf culture. In addition, disabled actors will have a deeper understanding of some of their character’s emotions through lived experiences and possible personal discriminatory interactions.

Looking particularly at autism representation, this has come up as an issue time and time again – for example in the Netflix TV series Atypical– while having autistic actors, fails to depict autistic actors to play the main characters and is rife with autistic stereotypes and criticism from the autistic community, which can be seen here [link]. Comparatively, Keep the Change - trailer can be seen here [link] - which casts autistic actors to portray their characters (David Polansky and Samantha Elisofon) shows a much more positive narrative, with family, teachers, and other minor roles never taking the focus of the storyline. The director, Rachel Israel, states that “authentic casting was a huge controlling factor in how the film came out, I’m not an expert on autism, so my way into the story was knowing this cast and keeping them involved from the beginning.”

This leads on to the second issue in that nondisabled actors are getting an abundance of roles, with disabled actors getting very few and far between roles, as well as the broader issue of the disability employment gap. In the UK, stats show that in 2020, 53.6% of disabled people were in employment, compared to 81.7% of nondisabled people being employed. Recently, there was significant drama around the company Spotlight offering an 'opt-out' button for disabled talent [link] – understandably causing hurt, exclusion & discrimination. Spotlight has now offered a statement [link] and disabled actress Ruth Madeley has created a campaign called #DisabilityOptIn to promote the importance of disabled creatives at all levels in the industry. We want to see disabled performers in all art forms, and in a wide range of roles, not just as token disabled characters. When there are a plethora of disabled actors out there, and directors choose nondisabled actors time and time again, it is simply exclusive and continues the cycle of shutting out disabled professionals; especially when these nondisabled actors are getting a lot of praise and money for playing a disabled character. For instance, many autistic actors have replied to Sia saying that they would have been available on short notice – showing that the justification of no longer having an autistic actor was simply an excuse. On top of that, Sia in response snidely called these respondents “bad actors”.

a white background with black text from tweet by Helen Z that reads "several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets. We all said we could have acted in it on short notice. These excuses are just that - excuses. The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic. #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs. Sia responded with "maybe you're just a bad actor."
Bad actor - alt text included

As an autistic person, I do not want to see another allistic person try and fail to come across as autistic on screen – I want true, accurate representation where I can feel seen, and relate to mutual experiences. Only three months ago, we had to witness Comes as You Are, an ableist storyline about a paraplegic who blames his disability for his virginity and lack of dating success, and having had previous troupes such as Me Before You, The Fundamentals of Caring, Witches - the list goes on. Given that Sia researched for three years, it astonishes me that she failed to recognise this very significant flaw in which it is very concerning that the same debates and points are being made, with no change from the drama industry. Nondisabled people are still refusing to listen or learn from previous mistakes, and this leads to people thinking disability is a negative word and that we do not have the autonomy to speak for ourselves.

When disabled people – including those who are actors – explained the problem, Sia stated she “hired plenty of special abilities kids”.

dark background, Sia tweets in white writing that reads "I hired plenty of special abilities kids. I'm willing to be misunderstood bcause I think this movie does more good than harm"
special ability - alt text included

After feedback, Sia continued repeatedly to use the incorrect terms for disabled people, and uses terms such as 'specially abled', or 'on the spectrum' – terms which are frequently used by families of an autistic person and come from the term “special needs”, but are strongly hated in the autistic community; often preferring the label autistic. Disabled people are not specially abled. We don’t want to be infantilised or perceived as incapable of doing certain things. Special, in relation, to disability, is now widely considered offensive because it stigmatizes disabled people and implies that the word disabled is somehow bad or wrong – which it is not, and in the UK is the preferred label for the majority of disabled people.

dark background with white writing of a tweet by Sia that reads "I agree. I've never referred to Music as disabled. Special abilitie is what I've always said, and casting someone at her level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community"
not disabled - alt text included

Next, Sia writes that Autism speaks came on board “long after the film was finished, four years in fact. I had no idea it was such a polarizing group!” – yet only a few days ago (November 13th) retweeted the same organisation, showing where her priorities and support is based.

a tweet from autism speaks which says that today is world kindness day asking followers to help them hit their goal of 1 million acts of kindness by heading to their website. Sia has retweeted this with the hashtag World Kindness Day, a blue heart emoji and the hashtag Kindness Counts
autism speaks - alt text includd

Autism Speaks gives only about 2% of proceeds to benefit autistic children and families. Most of their money goes toward lobbying, fundraising, and research to “eradicate” the autism gene. Their message perpetuates hatred and discrimination; as an organisation, Autism Speaks is very well known and hated by the autistic community. For further information please go here [link].

The underlying tone of the film of using music to ‘escape’ her autism, is a despicable and ableist message. While music does have some therapeutic qualities, this is not a cure – people in the neurodivergent and autistic community do not want a cure.

As we can see through the attitudes and focus in the trailer, the “cripping up” and nondisabled casting, working with and supporting Autism Speaks, as well as dismissing, patronising and ignoring autistic people – including autistic actors – it is clear that this film is not for and doesn’t have the best interests of heart to represent true experiences of autistic people.

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