This Sia film (or: FFS, how many times do I have to say this?)

COMMENT: Yet again, a production about autism is being deservedly panned for crass decisions. And yet again, the dogpilers don’t deserve the moral high ground either.

You bastards. I’m sure you’ve specifically done this to annoy me. I’d barely finished my last piece on disability access and how much I hate grand gestures, especially from people who don’t listen. And now what happens now? A massive bonaza of grand gestures from people who don’t listen, all centred around a garish film trailer. Music is an upcoming film I’ve never heard of, from Sia, a musician-turned-director I’ve never heard of; and it would have quite happily have stayed this way were it not for a shitstorm over the depiction of an autistic character. As always, it is not right to criticise something on the internet without giving people the means to see what it is and makes up their own mind. So I am duty-bound to post this. I am very sorry to inflict this on you.

Sia says this film is about showing autism as a gift, and not a disability. Having watched this twice (I don’t think I can take it a third time. “A musical cinematic experience?” Fuck my life.) I get the impression that Music is a kind-of Blue Cross Week Rain Man. A lot of people on the autistic spectrum – tired of people who think we’re all incapable social misfits with mythical casino superpowers – are a bit narked off by this film. I don’t blame you. And with this has come a lot of people assisting us with our outrage. All in all, this looks like a re-run of All In A Row a year and a half ago, when everyone was expressing outrage over using a puppet on stage to depict an autistic child.

But just hang on a second – it’s all very well piping up every 18 months when someone does something as crass as this happens, but what about the rest of the time? During the furore over All In A Row and the furore over Music, I heard plenty of people proclaim the important of being inclusive to artists with autism; but between these two events, the effort I’ve seen go in roughly amounts to the square root of sod all. It would useful to identify and remove the everyday barriers that stand in the way of artists with autism (or any disability), but I’ve seen to next to no efforts to even ask what the barriers are. So forgive my scepticism to those of you who’ve suddenly rediscovered your dedication to the cause this month.

So here we go. I can’t wait to see how many things I have to repeat from two weeks ago. I’ll start off by saying that I’m not seeking to get in a fight with other artists on the autistic spectrum – I suspect I’ll be in the minority on a few points. In particular, I am at odds with a prevalent view that only autistic actors should be allowed to play autistic characters – for reasons I will come on to later, I think this is a mistake – but I’ll always respect your opinion.

Where I am picking a fight is all the people who seemingly love to show off their pro-disability credentials but who show seemingly zero interest for what we actually want or needed. Sia is the obvious target here, having produced a film already scorned by many as not wanted or needed – but I’m not convinced her critics rushing to our aid are much better. So I’m afraid if you read on, there’s a high chance some of my criticisms are going to apply to you. But what are you going to do? You can read on, challenge your preconceptions and maybe learn something for the better, or you can just ignore me, carry on as you were before and tell yourself you’re doing great for us. Your call.

First of all: the obvious points

I’m really sorry to have to begin by stating some basics. If you already know this, please accept my apologies in advance – it’s going to sound patronising stating the painfully obvious. But it appears there are still some people who think the entire autistic spectrum is a monolith and we all act the same, think the same and behave the same. So, here we go:

Obvious Point 1: The autistic spectrum covers a vast range of conditions. It’s called a spectrum for a reason. There are people who realistically will never be able to live independently. And there’s also people who are perfectly capable of managing on their own. And people who would be perfectly capable if it wasn’t for narrow-minded peers making stupid judgements over things that don’t matter. And there’s a whole loads of situations between these end-points. If you are coming into this debate with any pre-conception of what an autistic person looks like or acts like, and decry any alternate depiction of an individual as incorrect, you are already doing this wrong.

Obvious Point 2: People with autism have a vast range of opinions. It is really not helpful to refer to “the autistic community” as if we’re all one big hive mind. The reality is that people who are on the autistic spectrum have just as diverse a range of views and people who aren’t. As such, you should be sceptical of anyone not on the autistic spectrum making blanket statements over what we are and aren’t offended by. There are occasions where there’s a strong verdict one way or the other, but you need to know the subject pretty well to know when that is. Most of the time, you’re best off using plain old common sense and discretion. And be especially suspicious of anyone who leaps on “ableist language” as if it’s a big gotcha.

Obvious Point 3: Tokenism is not representation. This is become massive problem in the diversity debate (not just disabilities) and I’m surprise more people haven’t wised up to this. Society is finally realising that it’s not acceptable to unilaterally tell minorities what’s good for them and it’s up to the minorities themselves to say what they want. Most inconvenient if you want to get on a moral high-horse. Need a quick workaround to Obvious Point 2? Want to say something is/isn’t offensive to the autistic community but lack evidence? No problem, cherry-pick a few autistic people who agree with what you already think and ignore anyone who say different. (And that’s just the mild version of tokenism – it gets a lot more nefarious than that.) Exercise extreme caution over any organisation who uses people hand-picked by themselves and calls it “representation” – for all you know, they were chosen to validate the views the organisation already holds.

Obvious Point 4: Rain Man is not the Holy Bible of what autistic people are like: Some autistic people object to the depiction of Raymond. I’m generally okay with it, you are read further thoughts here if you like. But look – this is a single film portraying a single character, there is no way you can expect this to accurately depict the entire world’s autistic population at the same time. Provided you have the sense to appreciate that one person you see in a film (or a play, or any other kind of story) is not supposed to be a description of another 130 million people in the world with the same characteristic, it’s not really an issue.

On this last point, I admit it’s not helpful the a generation of lazy journalists refer to the same film when an autism story, nor does it help that the film’s success set off a whole generation of lazy copycat films. But to blame this all on Rain Man is like blaming Persil for the Tide Pod Challenge. You are welcome to assume I’m a casino whizz if you like – I’m quite happy to take all of your money to Las Vegas and blow the whole lot do my best – but by that logic, I’m equally likely to set fire to someone just because Lisbeth Salander did the same in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Please use some common sense when watching movies.

Boy, I loved spelling out exactly the same things all over again. Let’s see what else I have to spell out.

The case for Sia’s defence

Having opened this article quick snarkily over this film, I think it’s only fair to consider the arguments in Sia’s defence first. Like All in a Row, I wasn’t offended (in this case I was too busy recoiling from the garishness to decide if I found this objectionable), but I can understand why other people are. However, also like All in a Row, people are extrapolating far too much from a one-minute trailer. Please let’s keep things in proportion.

Firstly, let’s keep expectations realistic. I have heard plenty of people comparing the simplistic depiction in the film trailer to books that go into painstaking detail about all the complexities and nuances of the autistic spectrum, but this isn’t an academic work, it’s a work of fiction. It doesn’t matter how enlightened a director is, there’s no way you can cover everything there is to know in one film – especially not one centred on an individual character. A film about a someone who needs 24-hour care does not do justice to the achievements of a brilliant scientist, and a film about a brilliant scientist does not do justice to the human side of someone who needs 24-hour care. The best thing you can do is be fair and accurate about what you’re covering, and not be misleading. Whether Music achieves this is, of course, up for discussion.

Which brings me on to the most important point. There’s a lot of things Sia has said and done that I have issues with, but there is one thing where I am in full agreement: if you want to pass moral judgement, I’m afraid you’re going to have to watch this. You can’t insist a film explores the nuances and intricacies of the autistic spectrum and simultaneously judge the film on a one-minute trailer where nuance and intricacy are impossible. There’s no obligation to see the film, of course – the onus is on the producer to produce publicity that persuades us it’s worth seeing, and if everyone steers clear and the film flops, that’s on them. But if you refuse to see it, you pretty much forfeit your claim to know all about what the film’s trying to say.

There is an alternative – you can form a reasonable judgement of a film based on the accounts of other people who give you enough factual information to go off that. I suspect that’s going to be tricky this time round, because there’s surely going to be a lot of blog from people who’d already made their minds up, but if you can spot who’s being fair it might work. I will say this, though: All in a Row salvaged some of its reputation this way. Amongst the people who actually reviewed the play, the consensus was that the subject material itself was okay, even if the use of the puppet was an ill-advised decision. Now, my expectations for Music are way way lower, but it’s only fair to keep open the possibility, however slim, that the film does a better job of covering the subject than the awful trailer suggests.

Most importantly, on occasions such as this you should always ask “What harm does this actually do?” Rain Man is a hugely successful film and as a result is hugely influential, for better or worse. Music, on the other hand, is probably going to die on its arse in the first week of release, and within months it will likely be forgotten. Yes, it may have caused hurt to a lot of people, but only because so many people made the point of telling everyone about this. I will talk more about outrage culture later; but in the meantime, Sia has, at worst, only a shared responsibility for the offence.

The case against Sia

That, folks, is the most charitable argument I can make for Sia. To give a positive spin, I had to leave out some pretty major errors of judgements. But she has made some really poor decisions, and they’re far worse than anything Alex Oates did for All in a Row.

If we ignore the terrible artistic decisions made in the trailer – I’m sure half of the furore could have been avoided if it hadn’t been presented so tactlessly – there are some things Sia has done which are just inexcusable. One of them is quite blatant; the other things are not so obvious if you don’t know the details, but are arguably worse.

To start with the obvious one: there is absolutely no defence for the way Sia responded to criticism. Some people, I swear, need to be forcibly dragged away from social media for their own good. I don’t doubt she wanted to say something positive about autism/Asperger’s, and who knows, maybe there is a message in the film we don’t know about yet, but you have to realise that this is a delicate subject. No matter how good your intentions, no matter how sensitively you try to handle things, it’s inevitable that someone somewhere is going to be upset by it. Maybe not quite so many had you thought things through better, but the principle is the same: listen to them. And definitely don’t lose your temper.

I know, it sucks. Here you are trying to spread the message that autism is a gift, not a disability, and the people you wanted to help have thrown it back in your face. But that’s too bad. No matter how much you want to help, nobody else has an obligation to thank you for it, especially if you never asked them in the first place. So you have to listen to criticism, assume good faith, and don’t talk over them. If you can’t please everybody, so be it. But there is no need whatsoever to respond how Sia did. I agree with Sia that about watching a film before making a judgement – but instead of writing “Please watch the film before judging it,” she wrote “Grrrrrrrrrr. Fuckity fuck why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.” In fact, there are plenty of points she made that might have been valid had she not inserted the word “fucking” at every available moment. Then there was the argument over whether the part of Music should have gone to an autistic actor. There are plenty of reasoned responses Sia could have made to this. “Maybe you’re just a bad actor” isn’t one of them. This is just edited highlights – if you want to see more criticisms and ill-advised responses, along sources, you can see them here.

(Honestly, I sometimes wonder if Twitter is a cunning conspiracy by Jack Dorsey to enable stars to make complete tits of themselves to the world without PR advisors standing between them and disaster. If so, well done Jack, you got her.)

The far more serious matter is this film’s association with Autism Speaks. This is a bit more mysterious, because there is a huge web of claims, counter-claims, denials and counter-denials going on. As far as I can tell, Sia partnered with Autism Speaks to promote the film, but the moment the shit had the fan both parties backpedalled and said the other party is nothing to do with them. Nevertheless, there should have been absolutely no question of any association with Autism Speaks. There’s two parts to this issue: is there something wrong with associating with Autism Speaks; and if so, should Sia have known about this?

On the first question: Autism Speaks is notorious. This is pretty much the only thing that people on the spectrum can agree on. There’s endless criticisms, including: treating autism as a debilitating illness; portraying autistic children as a burden on their parents; seemingly spending more of their money on fundraising and pay of senior management than actual services; and, most controversially, an uncomfortable closeness to seeing autism as a genetic defect that needs screening out. This is an American organisation and I’ve made no attempts to follow the politics of this, but even I know about it.

So, the second question: should Sia have been aware of this? Well, yes. If she’d spent three years (or “three fucking years”) researching this subject matter for the film, this should have been one of the first things she’s worked out. In fact, three minutes’ research on Google should have alerted her something was wrong. The speed at which she disassociated herself from Autism Speaks when their notoriety was brought to light suggests she realised she’d got this wrong, but one must wonder how she ever thought any kind association was a good idea in the first place. The one thing I will say in her defence is that Sia insists she did not used Autism Speaks as her source of research, but the fact she didn’t know of their awful reputation doesn’t exactly instil confidence in whatever she has been using.

Then there’s the matter over the casting of Music. I’m not going to weigh into the debate on whether the part should have gone to an autistic actor just yet, but Sia’s reason to not cast one is a poor one. According to Sia, after an early attempt to cast such an actor who found the role stressful and overwhelming, she decided it was cruel to cast someone in this role and made an “executive decision” to not continue with this. It might not be obvious what the problem is here, but: Sia made the assumption that people with autism can’t perform a certain task. Oh boy, the amount of crap I’ve had to put up with because of that attitude. (I’ve repeated myself enough already, read this if you want to know more.) I realise Sia was specifically referring to someone with a similar condition to her fictitious character rather than anyone anywhere on the spectrum, and maybe it isn’t practical, but to jump to this conclusion based on the experience of working with one individual really isn’t acceptable. At the very least, she should have checked with some qualified professionals before writing off so many people. Again, I wouldn’t expect everybody to understand why this is a big deal, but someone who spent three years of research should have known.

And finally, there’s Sia’s fanbase. You can give Sia the benefit of the doubt and assume she meant well and her worst flaw is taking criticisms, but her fanbase are a different matter entirely – they are absolutely toxic. They are quite happy to repeat Sia’s arguments of how much she cares about this issue and how important it is, but the responses to anyone on the autistic spectrum are just vile. Never mind exasperation and swearing, they go straight to the lulzy insults on how weird the spazzy mentals look. I’m happy to debate how much responsibility celebrities have for their fans, but if Sia cares for her chosen cause as much as she claims, the best thing she could do is tell people who act like this in her name that she does not want their support.

I’ve not covered every point here – there are more criticisms where I’m prepared to grant some more leeway, but this are the ones I have the most problem with. Weighing things up, I’m putting this down to good intentions undermined by an inability to listen to criticism. However, the most unkind assessment is that Sia does not really care about autism at all, and instead used the issue to make herself look like a good person, which is why she got angry in the face or criticism. Without access to a mind-reading device, we will probably never know if this is the case, but I don’t blame anyone for jumping to this conclusion. It’s too late to undo all the damage, but she can still salvage some dignity from this by at least listening to criticisms and engaging politely. Sadly, the last I heard she was still doubling down. If Sia’s reputation goes down the pan because of this film, she’ll only have herself to blame.

What’s wrong with the backlash

So, I could end my piece there are post it to polite applause from the great and good of the internet. But let’s suppose Sia is guilty of the worst charge of only really caring about making herself look good. Is she really the only guilty party? If you’re on the autistic spectrum, go ahead, say what you think, do your worst if you like. But what about everyone else who joined in the dogpile? If your sole gesture of solidarity to us is being periodically outraged on our behalf, that’s not much better.

Firstly, what are you actually trying to achieve? For many people, their goal stretches no further than objecting to our feelings being hurt by knowing that this film exists. In which case, why have gone round telling everyone this film exists so our feelings can be hurt? (Don’t answer that, it’s a rhetorical question: it’s so that you can berate Sia for all the hurt she’s caused – something you can’t achieve if no-one hears about it.) If you think the film is harmful (not just offensive) and you need to alert everyone to this and the hurt caused by doing this is a price worth paying, so be it – but you can share responsibility for the hurt caused.

On a more fundamental level, here’s where I think the problem lies. For all the reasons stated in the obvious points above, actually doing something useful to for artists with autism is difficult. There’s a lot you need to understand, there’s no single solution that’s going to please everyone, and that’s just one condition – you’ve still get the rest of the neurodiverse spectrum to worry about. Things that actually help are often unglamorous and thankless, but if you screw up really badly you can end up like Sia. Not very attractive if you want to show what a good person you are. It’s far easier, and far more productive, to show the world how outraged you are every time something like All in a Row or Music comes up. There aren’t many opportunities like these two – we had a gap of 18 months between these two shitshows – but that’s fine, you can move to other causes that attract your righteous anger.

But – at the risk of pointing out the obvious – the shit we have to put up with does not go away in the meantime. Now, if I wanted to – and one day I probably will do this – I could write a list of all the times people on the autistic spectrum were thrown under a bus, often in the name of the greater good; and I’d ask each time “Where were you?” But this post is long enough as it is so I’ll restrict myself to what’s been happening in the arts. Since the uproar over the puppet, what has theatre done do make itself more accessible and welcoming to artists like us? As far as I can see, approximately bugger all. The closest things I have seen to changes are (in ascending order of uselessness):

  • A big roll-out of sensory backpacks at some theatres and event. That’s great if you’re someone with the specific condition that makes these items; it’s useless for anyone whose aspirations stretch beyond being in the audience.
  • The occasional opportunity that artists with disabilities can apply for. Emphasis on “apply”. A leg-up to the occasional artist is useless to the rest of us, and beside, equal access should not be conditional on your project meeting the approval of a vetting committee. We should be allowed to succeed on our own terms.
  • A sharp upturn in language policing. I swear that in the last year or two I’ve seen a lot more people gleefully leap on phrases such as “are you crazy” and “that was mental” (or, if you’re Twitter, even the term “sanity check”) and scold the author for the terrible ableism they committed. I can categorically tell you that the use of words “crazy” or “mental” are the absolute least of our concerns – and, in my case, lecturing people on what words you can and can’t move was a handy smokescreen for my employer to commit real discrimination, bullying and harassment.

What is most galling is level on inaction taken on things that are quite easy to do. Yes, it’s going to be a hard job to eliminate every barrier there is, but there are trivially simple things not being done such as policies to respect communications preferences. Or, easier still, how about actually asking artists on the autistic spectrum what you could do better? It’s not like there’s no resources out there – an excellent code of practice was drawn up a few months back, but so far no theatre in the north-east has signed up to it. Who knows, maybe work’s going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about, but if we don’t know about it, we’re not getting a say either. As long as this goes on, gestures of solidarity during Puppetgate or Siagate feel hollow.

The other half of this is the argument over who should play the part of Music. Unlike the performative outrage I’ve just railed against, I do believe the offence taken that they didn’t cast an autistic actor for this role is genuine. For reason too convoluted to go into, I’m in the camp that it doesn’t matter provided the portrayal is accurate and autistic actors get a fair chance at an acting career in general. However, there is one important point that must be addressed: that an actor who actually was autistic would understand the part far better than someone who just mimics the actions. Fair point, I see where that’s coming from. However, there is a flaw in the argument that makes it look quite naive.

Sia says she cast thirteen neuroatypical people in the film. Exactly how big these parts are remains to be seen, but one would have thought they should have given her sufficient input to get the film right. Since we haven’t seen the film yet, I’ll have to reserve judgement on that, but if they had a substantial input into the film, you’d think at least one of them would have mentioned they probably want to stay away from Autism Speaks. Either Sia is bad at listening, or she’s good at surrounding herself with people who agree with her. So if thirteen neuroatypical people in minor roles doesn’t make a difference where it’s needed, why should we expect better from one neuroatypical person in a lead role?

The last thing we want is to open the door to tokenism. Forget the notion that an autistic actor will guarantee an accurate depiction of an autistic character – the director and producer can cherry-pick whoever they want to cast, in order to validate whatever they want to depict. And don’t assume you’d never get away with try to pass of a voice in the minority as the voice of the majority. We’ve had a big problem over the last five years with left-wing anti-Semitism, which an overwhelming majority of Jews agree is a real thing. But the worst people only need to get the nod of approval from a token Jew, and that’s all it takes to convince apologists everywhere that it’s all a storm in a teacup and hardly anyone minds really (because nice Michael Rosen and/or nice Miriam Margoyles says so). There’s nothing like this problem with disability depiction at the moment, but let’s not take any chances. An autistic character played by an autistic actor is good if the actor brings a better depiction – but an autistic actor has just as easily be used to legitimise a harmful depiction.

(Side note whilst we’re on this subject: I saw a lot of people post a Twitter thread from autistic comedy writer Sara Rose Gibbs, and whilst I don’t agree with everything she said, all of her points are good ones; however, a few months ago, she was hounded off social media for posting a mild dig at Jeremy Corbyn for antisemitism. I hardly need explain that online harassment is always bad but autistic people are particularly vulnerable to it – and yet few people who re-posted this now protested then. If you didn’t know what was going on, you really need to do some better research. If you did know and you just shrugged, fuck you, you are part of the problem.)

But that’s an aside. I’m opening to being talked round on the subject of casting. What I’m not going to be talked round on is the idea that I’m somehow being done a big favour by other people being offended on my behalf. I might be talked round by anyone who can demonstrate they’re doing something useful apart from getting angry for us – in fact, I really want to be proven wrong on that matter – but with so many easy things not being done I’m not optimistic. The second most dispiriting thing about this year’s uproar is how little has changed since last year’s uproar when everyone was supposed to be on our side. And the most dispiriting thing is the feeling that next time there’s uproar, I’ll be saying exactly the same thing all over again.

Summary and postscript

This whole episode loses me respect with pretty much everyone involved. The only people I haven’t lost respect for are the actually autistic people who are saying what this means to htem. It helps to keep things in proportion and not extrapolate too much from a trailer, but really, Sia’s done more than enough to be fair game here.

Sia’s actions aren’t quite as bad as some people make it out to be – without direct access to the thoughts in her head it’s impossible to know what her motives are – but it’s still pretty bad. She’s correct that you can’t really make a moral judgement of a film before it’s released, but the fact she didn’t know there was a problem with Autism Speaks doesn’t fill me with much confidence. Combine that with the needlessly aggressive way she responded to criticism (on, may I remind you, a kinda senstive issue), plus the absolutely toxic behaviour from her fanbase, and she’s brought this on herself. It comes across as some making a big gesture to show how much she cares about us, but cares little for what we actually think except when it suits her – and she paid the price.

But the dogpile reeks of hypocrisy. It assumes that you are doing autistic people a big favour by getting angry on their behalf, and then call it job done and let the hashtag hordes move on. Meanwhile, the things that really stand in our way carry on like before, with absolutely no effort make to understand what needs to be done, let alone actually doing it. There is some cosmic irony that the people berating Sia for not listening are themselves not listening. This too comes across as people making a big gesture to show how much they care about us, but cared little for what we actually think except when it suits us – but unlike Sia, they are being pack-patted for being such good allies to us.

So here’s my postscript: if you think the paragraph above applies to you, I would love you to prove me wrong. Don’t lose interest when the hashtag hordes move on, instead do something useful. If you work in a theatre, you can start by reaching out to us and listening to what we have to say. If you don’t, you can ask theatres to do exactly this. The more people ask theatres to do less of moralising of others’ shortcomings and do more of getting their own houses in order, the more likely it is something will be done.

But this increasingly feels like futile optimism. It’s been two weeks since I wrote “Enough with the grand gestures. I want real change.” And we’ve been given still more grand gestures and still no prospect of real change. If, the next time this uproar blows up, you don’t want me writing yet another article like this one – well, that’s up to you.

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