“So you’re condemning Sia for not hiring an autistic actor, but have no problem with Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio?! Sounds like a double standard!”
The movies you’re referring to are Forrest Gump (1994) and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993), respectively; both movies feature characters with intellectual disabilities who are played by neurotypical actors. We absolutely can and should be calling them out for their irresponsible casting choices.
HOWEVER, it’s important to note that these movies were made nearly 30 years ago, at a time where disabled voices were still struggling to be heard and respected by mainstream society, and social media wasn’t around to amplify our voices like it does now. It wasn’t magically ‘okay’ because it was the 90′s, but studios could easily get away with things like this because they didn’t face much, if any, backlash.
Job opportunities were rare for disabled and neurodivergent individuals, let alone ones involving the arts. It was still considered ‘progress’ just to see disabled people being hired as greeters at Wal-Mart. Systematic barriers such as limited opportunities for education, limited career options, and inherent biases from casting directors meant that prospective disabled actors had less opportunities to practice their craft; therefor, they were often unable to make a career out of it. There really were less disabled actors at this time, however this is completely due to systematic barriers and not the actors’ inherent talent or personal choices. Because we have since made progress eliminating these barriers, modern media can and should be held to a higher standard by selecting disabled actors for disabled roles.
The two actors mentioned above chose to portray their characters with skilled nuance, depth, and mannerisms that many intellectually disabled people have without turning it into an offensive caricature. The same cannot be said for Maddie Ziegler’s depiction of her autistic character. Maddie’s portrayed ‘stims’ are crude and overly exaggerated, and while there is by no means a ‘wrong’ way to stim, they are far more similar to immature middle schoolers making fun of their special-ed peers, rather than an actual nonverbal autistic person’s physically active stims. Basically, out of these three neurotypical actors playing disabled characters, the others did it well, and Maddie did not. (That being said, I want to be very careful about how I criticize Maddie Ziegler. Even though she’s an adult, she has been groomed and manipulated by Sia since she was a child, and was practically forced into this role. While she may have had some say in how she portrayed the character and possibly made these poor choices herself, it is very likely that Sia took control and forcibly molded Maddie’s character into the crude caricature we see.)
Outside of the autistic character herself, Sia’s movie disrespects the autistic community in many other ways, including other characters’ infantilizing the character, showing the forceful restraint a nonviolent autistic in the middle of a meltdown (if there is no physical towards the self or others, then there is absolutely no need to restrain, period), and using prone restraints (which have literally killed people in the past, and are widely condemned by the disabled community, those with mental illnesses, special educators, and the medical field for how dangerous and unhelpful they are in crisis situations where less invasive forms of restraint can be used if necessary).
Sia chose to depict autistics as both babyish and monstrous. She deliberately crafted scenes that encourage the audience to either pity or fear this character, but never treat her as a fellow human worthy of consideration or respect. And yes, this can and will impact how this neurotypical audience will think is the “right” way to interact with autistics in their daily life.
TL;DR: Yes, Sia’s new movie IS that bad.
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