The Australian singer and songwriter was criticized in November after she cast Ziegler, an 18-year-old dancer who has appeared in many of Sia’s music videos, as the lead in her film and directorial debut, “Music.”
In the film, Ziegler plays Music, a nonverbal autistic teen. Ziegler, however, is not autistic, and many in the autistic and disability community expressed numerous concerns over the casting.
They argued that giving the role to a non-autistic actor was not only ablelist — a term used to describe discrimination against disabled people — but could also perpetuate harmful stereotypes about autism.
In response to the criticism, Sia lashed out at many autistic people on Twitter. During her tirade, Sia said she thought casting someone who shared Music’s “level of functioning” would be “cruel” — a sentiment many advocates found offensive.
A month later, when questioned about her response to the autism community, Sia said “people functioning at Music’s level can’t get on Twitter and tell me I did a good job.” Advocates found this comment troubling as well. Not only did it make the baseless assumption that someone who is nonverbal and autistic wouldn’t know how to use the social media platform, but it also indicated Sia did not truly understand the condition.
Over the weekend, however, Sia told the Australian talk show “The Project” that she couldn’t do the movie without Ziegler.
“I realized it wasn’t ableism,” Sia said on the show. “I mean, it is ableism, I guess, as well — but it’s actually nepotism, because I can’t do a project without her. I don’t want to. I wouldn’t make art if it didn’t include her.”
Sia also admitted on “The Project” that Ziegler felt unease about playing an autistic character. The musician said Ziegler “cried on the first day of rehearsals” and worried viewers would think she was “making fun” of autistic people.
“I bold-facedly said, ‘I won’t let that happen,’” Sia said on the show, adding, “Last week I realized I couldn’t really protect her from that, which I thought I could.”
In 2017, The Guardian published an article, “The Sia Conundrum: If Fame Is So Damaging, Why Pass It On to a Child?” which examined Sia’s discomfort with fame and her tendency to deflect fame onto Ziegler, whom Sia has been working with since Ziegler was 11.
“This article poses a question I have asked myself often,” Sia tweeted in response to The Guardian’s article. “I do check in with Maddie weekly about whether she wants this, and assure her if she ever wants it to stop it stops.”