Why Removing Restraint Scenes Is Not Nearly Enough
Even after Sia promised to place a warning on her film debut, “Music,” and remove restraint scenes, my intention was not to view the film. This is not me speaking for autistic people; this is me, a neurodivergent and mother of two autistic sons, one of whom is nonspeaking and high support needs, who believes nothing should be written about autistic people without autistic people being part of it. It’s abundantly clear from the first scene, no autistic people worked on this film. But we knew that.
“Fuckity fuck,” opined Sia on Twitter in response to the autistic backlash, why don’t you all just watch the film first before you critique it? I did not want to watch it, because I know the disability genre all too well, from which many earn golden trophies for graphic disability porn, where the arc of the story is always a disabled person forced to prove their humanity to a dangerously ableist caretaker in order to finally be safe and redeem a terrible person. “Music” sadly, does not deviate from this tired old story, but worse, the “comedy” in the film made disabled people the brunt of every joke. Once I learned there is neither a warning nor were restraint scenes removed as promised, I felt compelled as advocacy director for Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint, to watch the film, and explain why the restraints were so dangerous and could cause grave harm to marginalized persons who exist in toxic restraint and seclusion cultures, where their lives and dignity are under relentless assault.
I could not help but detect the metaphor of behaviorism in which this entire Sia saga is saturated. Ready?
Person decides they want to “help” autistic people.
Person studies autism from only academia and nonautistic sources.
Person, in this pursuit of autism knowledge, never once considers speaking with the actual individuals or organizations led by autistic people to glean knowledge.
Person is shocked when faced with actual autistic pain.
Person responds defensively, explains all the good intentions, of course, always intentions supersede impact.
Person explains how much research has been done ABOUT people the person wanted to “help.”
Person centers self as a victim in order to deflect criticism.
Person promises a reward to change behavior, not understanding, those harmed, are accustomed to rewards-based behavioral modification.
When the behavior of autistics is non-responsive to the reinforcer, then comes the aversive. In this case, the aversive is, nothing changes.
Autistic people did not exhibit enough gratitude for the token offered.
Person says, “I’m sorry,” but we’re not certain if they’re sorry for the harm caused or sorry for being held to account.
Person says, “I’m listening,” then abruptly removes themself from the platform with which autistic people can communicate with her.
Person has effectively shifted victimhood from the actual victims to herself.
How many times do we hear the common refrain of behaviorists, restrainers, and secluders telling us THEY are in fact the victim?
Lovaas would be proud.
Why was removing restraint scenes not enough to resurrect the film “Music” from the scrapheap of ableist tropes and dehumanizations? As I watched the film, I focused on ableism, so if you’re looking for a complete overview or song review, this is not it. This movie is an objectively bad movie, beyond all the ableism.
The opening scene is a nonspeaking autistic girl named “Music,” struggling to dress herself, then it cuts to the first musical number. Overly exaggerated autistic performance art, that felt like mockery. It was painful to watch. Music is wearing a bright yellow costume, covered in lightning bolts, which is a symbol for electricity, and was also the symbol for the Stop the Shock campaign led by autistic and disability rights organizations to end shock torture at Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts. We know the artist is not aware of this campaign, because she doesn’t talk to autistic people, so it was not intentional, but an autistic character covered in lighting bolts to the lyrics, “I Feel Electricity” was triggering for me, having seen many videos and heard testimonies of shock torture survivors. More lyrics, “Body Don’t Fail Me Now.” So, the physicality of autism is the body failing? Yikes.
After the shock of the opening scene, Music has a loving, supportive life. She’s also able to dress herself and brush her teeth. She goes to breakfast with her loving grandmother, who talks directly to her, and tells her all about trivia she finds fascinating. Sia said this film was about a “low functioning” autistic person, but other than not speaking, Music was fairly self-sufficient, which illustrates how imprecise functioning labels are. I felt like Grandma talks to Music like she talks to everyone else. Her Grandma sees her as a “magical” girl, and loves her, sees her as a human being, which I found refreshing. Then Music walks down a busy city street, surrounded by supportive people and friends. One man at a media stand gives her many clippings of dogs, which we later find out are her special interest. These first few minutes showing Music as a complete and loved person was the only part of the movie I liked.
Then Grandma dies. Music shows some distress from her laying on the floor not moving, but no grieving. Nobody who comes to help tries to talk to her about her sadness which she surely feels as does any human being when a loved one is lost. Nobody explains to her what happened. Everyone talks over her in third person as though she’s not there. This perpetuates the common misconception about autistic people, that they have no feelings and feel no empathy. That’s not true. This is a stereotype used by people who abuse autistic people; it’s dangerous.
Now her sister Zu comes to care for Music. The autistic girl wakes Zu up, who is resistant to being awakened and Music repeats “Make you eggs” nine times, and Zu clearly understands even with the pronoun misplacement, that Music wants her to make her eggs. To which she answers, “I got it, it’s make you eggs time.” Then, Music says, “braid you hair,” in the same manner she asked and was understood she needed eggs. But this time, Zu doesn’t understand at first. Music becomes distressed; she repeats “braid you hair” ten times as her distress escalates. We know Zu understands her distress after the first few requests. Then Ebo, the autistic whisperer, helicopters in for the rescue. Ebo doesn’t ask Music what’s wrong, nor does he ask Zu why Music has become dysregulated. He picks up Music and tells her “I’m going to crush you now and make you feel safe,” then takes her to the floor in a supine restraint position. Zu, rightfully upset watching him, asks, “You’re not hurting her, are you?” To which Ebo answers,
“No, I am not, I am crushing her with my love.”
The scene shows the supine restraint miraculously calming an autistic person, with the full weight of the man on top of a teenager, much smaller than he. Then after she goes entirely limp and calm, Ebo braids her hair. If he’d asked her what was wrong coming into the rescue, and remember, she was communicating verbally, clear as a bell, that she needed her hair braided, we could have avoided the restraint altogether. Music was never in danger during the scene, nor anyone else, until she was being crushed by an adult on her back in a supine restraint. The film’s implication, that it was the restraint that calmed her, and not having her needs met finally, is dangerous. It should be removed because it will endanger lives.
But it cannot be removed, because it establishes Ebo as the autism expert. Zu then asks Ebo, “How do you know how to calm her down, how do you do that?” He answers, “In Ghana, my younger brother was the same way, he liked to be held to feel safe.” Zu then asks, “where is he now?” Ebo responds like he’s giving instructions on how to bake a cake, not sharing painful information, “He is dead now. It’s alright; special needs are not well understood in my country. in fact, in my village, it was considered a curse.” Zu broke into a light funny comment, I didn’t bother to rewind to get it, because I couldn’t. It was not funny.
Jaw on the ground so many questions ran through my head, but two were most important. How did your autistic brother die? Is it possible that he was once crushed with love too hard and died of restraint asphyxia? It was a jarring transition from what was viscerally painful for me to hear, as the mother to two autistic children, to light-hearted banter.
Ebo: “he’s dead now, it’s alright.”
Me; It is? I need to know what happened to your autistic brother dude.
Nobody who loves an autistic person in our daily lives is not asking more about his autistic brother. Especially knowing that the average lifespan of autistic people is 36 years. I need to know what happens to Ebo’s brother. It was the main question I wanted to be answered for the rest of the movie. I found it ironic Ebo laments that others saw autism as a curse, but didn’t say, “My brother was autistic.” Nobody, during the entire film, ever once deigns to utter the words, “autistic” or “autism.”
Ebo reveals he teaches boxing and self-defense somewhere in all this; that is relevant later. Then at the end of a fun flirty exchange, in which Ebo assures her, he’ll return later, Zu jokes, “I was actually considering sending her to the people pound a little later, but I guess I’ll keep her a little while longer.” Yes, in Music’s presence. Maybe they thought Music couldn’t hear and was off mentally dancing around in a big pillowy costume again on a rainbow dance set. It never occurred to them with her special interest in dogs, that she was painfully aware of what “the pound” is. Ebo seemed surprised at first, then got the funny joke about sending her sister to the asylum, not knowing Zu had called social services earlier and asked if they do “pick-ups” of kids to be institutionalized. I’m not sure what’s more disturbing, that nobody in social services followed up on a call like that, or that Ebo saw the humor in it.
I was not amused.
Sia has said more than once the film was a show of love to caretakers of disabled people, so this scene disturbed me. Zu enters a very posh apartment, with a woman played by Juliet Lewis. In the background, one can see the same child’s program Music enjoys. Zu is a prescription drug dealer for a living who works with a benevolent drug supplier. There is some offensive dialogue between Zu and the caretaker of a presumably disabled mother whom we never actually see, but one exchange stood out for me:
Caretaker: “Is your mother still alive?”
Caretaker: “Oh lucky you.”
It’s clear the scene was meant to amuse, but the tropes about dementia, a middle-aged housewife on opioids, and the hardship of caring for a disabled person being so debilitating, the caretaker needed opioids to “feel less hostile” had nothing to do with the storyline, except to usher in the Sia cameo later.
This leads to Zu first telling her neighbor that she was talking to Music and Music wanted to spend some time with him, in an attempt to brush Music off, so she could go make a big drug deal, and I guessed at first she thought it inappropriate to bring a child to a drug deal. The neighbor, George, probably didn’t fall for it, because anyone who has seen Zu with Music knows she doesn’t ever actually talk to Music. When George refuses, we next see Zu walking down the hall with Music begging her “not to have one of her freakouts” during her business exchange. It’s still not occurred to her that when Music “freaks out,” she’s exhibiting distress, not trying to make her life more difficult. Then we walk into some kind of production studio and there’s Sia and apparently, the drugs aren’t for a party, no, they’re for survivors of the Earthquake in Haiti because there was too much government red tape getting opioids to all the kids in pain with broken bones. But it was all said so flippantly and meant to be humorous, except it wasn’t. By this time, and I get that it’s Sia’s thing to be weird, but all the humor hence far has been at the expense of sick or disabled people. It’s uncouth.
Can we remove all of this with the restraint scenes? Would there be any movie left? By the way, I recall all the autism moms tweeting at Sia how excited they are for their autistic children to watch this film. This is not a film that is appropriate for the littles, not just for the demoralizing ableism, but a lot of adult subject matter.
Cut to Ebo on the phone begging someone for medication for an illness that’s yet to be revealed, a common plight for sick and disabled people in America; it was sad. We later find out Ebo has HIV, which seemed a little uncomfortably cliche for an African character. But without cringey stereotypes, this film would have no storyline. I think we’re supposed to like Ebo as a character even though he laughs at jokes about disabled people, crushes autistic people in dangerous restraints, and that he’s alright with his autistic brother being dead, any one of which would be a dealbreaker for anyone with a conscience.
Then Ebo is shown leaning over Music in her room with an AAC communication device, with only the most rudimentary communication available. “I am happy,” “I am sad,” “I am scared.” AACs can be used to express far more than basic feelings, but training and practice are required. Music, however, masters her device instantly. More dangerous misinformation to parents or caretakers, that a device is just handed to a nonspeaker and VOILA, mastered.
Cut to Ebo and Zu walking with Music in the park. Ebo and Zu discuss Music in the third person in a monologue with a litany of autism stereotypes and assumptions about Music they could not possibly know about her because they never attempt to communicate with her. I’ve yet to see anyone but her Grandmother talking TO Music; everyone else talks ABOUT her like she’s not present. Another song with Music in her own autistic mind in a puffy world with lots of psychedelic costumes, strobe lights, and exaggerated autistic cripping. But in this scene, the monologue between Zu and Ebo is coming into her hallucinatory world, distorted, showing what anyone with a nonspeaking loved one should know, HER EARS WORK. She hears you; stop talking about her in the third person in her presence.
In the park, a group of children runs by screaming; Music is obviously overwhelmed by the noise. This was just after Ebo tells Zu that Music has remarkable audio abilities. So we go into the prone restraint scene KNOWING Music hears much more than we do. With screaming children, Music starts to exhibit signs of distress over the sensory overload. She is in no danger; nobody around her is in any danger. No attempts are made to verbally calm her. Rather than calmly speaking with Music and leading her away from the noise that is dysregulating her, we’re treated to what’s supposed to be a funny joke told by Ebo that wasn’t funny. The last time we saw Music, she was standing, then it cuts to Zu on top of her in the prone position, face in the dirt. Anyone who has witnessed a floor restraint knows it requires violence to wrestle someone to the ground; thankfully, we are spared that.
And miraculously, again, restraint calms Music. Even though, as she gets up, the children and screaming have evaporated, all is quiet. We know that prone restraint is traumatizing and painful. The children being gone and quiet is what calms her, NOT being crushed in a lethal face-down restraint position.
Restraint causes trauma, injury, and death. Restraint does not calm anyone, ever. When a nonspeaker is restrained, with their hands bound, they are not able to communicate if their airways are blocked via their device, letter board, or American Sign Language. A nonspeaker cannot yell, “I can’t breathe,” the last words of people who are killed by restraint asphyxia. A nonspeaker cannot call out, “you are hurting me!” So rather than suddenly calming, most will escalate into fight or flight mode, and be at even greater risk of injury or death. Taking a nonspeaker’s hands away from them is like duct taping the mouth of a neurotypical child.
It’s not just that Music is never talked to when she’s in distress; it’s that she’s never talked to, period. No trauma therapy. Her grandmother is dead, but Music is “alright.” That seems to be a repeating theme. Autistic pain and death are “alright.”
Another character in the film is an Asian teen named Felix. We know he’s adopted. He doesn’t speak a word in any scene. We’re introduced to him early in the film as he sweetly shines his flashlight into Music’s window nightly, which delights her. He later reappears as a boxing student of Ebo’s. His father, who is verbally and physically abusive, pressures Felix into boxing. I feel like Felix is neurodivergent every time I see him, and we at least know he must have PTSD from all the domestic abuse, so he is in fact ND, which explains some of his ND vibe. We see him in the boxing ring; Ebo tells him he’s a great kid no matter what happens, knowing that Felix is boxing under duress, forced by his father. Felix approaches his opponent and just hugs him. Later in the movie, Felix is home, overhears his Dad abusing his mother. When Dad starts beating on his mom, Felix walks up to intervene. His father smacks Felix, and he ends up on the floor, dead with blood coming from his brain.
Then, the metaphor for Felix dying in the music scene after his dad brutally kills him, is an Asian man, peddling away in a rickshaw, yes, a rickshaw. In this scene, Music is sitting at a table with dead grandma, gets up to dance with dead friend Felix, and then deceased grandma and dead friend ride away in a rickshaw to the great beyond. While I was a bit stunned about such a blatant Asian trope, I was relieved 83 minutes into the film to see Zu finally comforting a grieving Music over death. But of course, that was pretend, in Music’s magical autistic other world in which she lives, yet another autism stereotype, the other world in which autistic people live. But in this world, they don’t live in it together with other autistic people; each creates their own bubble, a place where it’s okay for other people to talk about the autistic person in the third person, all while knowing they have remarkable audio sensitivity.
Autistic people do not live in another world. All the other-worldliness of the dance scenes that represented Music’s mind all only served to perpetuate one of the worst autistic tropes of all. Autistic people live in the same world as all of us. Like other neurotypes, they may perceive it differently, many respond to it differently from a neurotypical person, but they live in the world, belong in the world, and must be welcome into a world that is supportive of all neurotypes.
Zu is an alcoholic in recovery. We are introduced to her initially at an AA meeting. So, the dramatic fall off the wagon, and dangerous bender was tediously predictable. What I was not expecting, was that through a series of events, too much to describe, and too painful to continue rewinding to recount accurately, Zu ends up in a sterile institution at which she’s about to dump Music. This thought didn’t suddenly occur to her after she slipped and drank again. In one of the earliest scenes, after the fun JRC on ice musical electroshock scene, we see her on the phone asking if city social services will come to pick Music up like you call the dump to pick up a broken appliance. She later jokes about taking her “to the pound.” and now, here we are, with Zu unpacking Music’s things into a sterile white room. Then, hallelujah! Zu gets a sudden bolt of conscience, and the triumphant slo-mo scene of the film is her running, suitcases in hand, with Music out of the asylum. I guess with “Rainman” ending in his institutionalization, we should be happy that Music gets to go home. And her sister, who decides to barely eek under the very lowest bar of humanity, not locking her autistic sister away, is suddenly redeemed! Hooray?
My intention in writing this was to just deal with the unremoved restraint scenes, but there is too much more that is too dangerous to disabled people, that I needed to write more because these mistruths and misperceptions are why we live in a world where it’s legal to subject autistic people to behaviorism, restraint, seclusion, lack of appropriate supports and denial of personhood.
In Music’s world, did school exist? Why wasn’t Music in school? In the United States, she has a right to a free and appropriate public education. As far as I could see, all she did was sit at tables and stare at her AAC, make noises, and cause hardship in Zu’s life. Music wasn’t a developed main character, she was a prop, of similar value to the clutter in her Grandma’s apartment. Does any kind of child protective services exist in this world? Why did caring Grandma, the only main character I could stand other than Music, never get Music access to communication modalities? I think she would have. I think that was unrealistic. Grandma was the only character who saw Music as a sentient being, who actually talked to her; she’d have moved Earth and water to help her communicate. Music says to others every night, “go to bed,” and walks into her room. Not once, and I watched the film twice to take notes, did anyone say, “good night sweetheart, love you” or any of the regular emotions and words of a caretaker to a dearly loved person in our care as they depart from our day. That’s odd. While I’ve opined in detail about ableism in this film, there was more.
Removing the restraint scenes will not fix all that’s wrong with “Music,” just like only removing restraint will not fix all that’s wrong for neuro-divergent people in the real world. It’s a start certainly, but not the monumental paradigm shift needed to begin to humanize autistic people.
“Music” ends with two scenes. The first is Zu and Music going straight from the institution to an event at which Ebo is on stage speaking to a crowd of his family and friends. Guess what? Music taught her sister Zu all about love. Redemption is here….of course. Music managed to save not only her sister from a life of frivolous access but also saved herself from being locked up in an institution. It’s marvelous she was able to teach Zu all about love without any meaningful interaction between them the entire film. Then Ebo sits down to play the piano for Zu, who, by the way, can sing. Music pipes in and starts autistic singing. In the disability rights community, we call a scene like that “inspiration porn,” time to get weepy over the crip performing to make you feel we all live in a world where disabled people matter! I’m sorry, it was revoltingly cliche.
OH! and then Music gets a puppy! It was a one-two punch of nuclear-grade inspiration porn. I could have saved two hours, from Grandma telling her all the trivia as she lovingly braided her hair, to the puppy and lived a perfectly happy life without anything in between. Edit out everything in between, and we’re golden.
So, Zu, Ebo, and Music get to live happily ever after. Except…Ebo and Zu do not actually talk to Music, they don’t send her to school, and will undoubtedly continue inflicting lethal restraints on her making her one of the reasons autistic mortality rates are so alarmingly low. How long will Music live just one meltdown away of being “crushed with love,” face in the dirt in a prone restraint? But when she dies of restraint asphyxia, it’ll be “alright,” because not only did Ebo’s deceased autistic brother live in a country where “special needs are not well understood,” so does Music. She also lives in the same world where autism is pathologized as a “curse,” where it’s legal to subject autistic people to lethal restraints and seclusion torture, where they are traumatized by behaviorism and denial of appropriate supports, where nonspeakers are denied access to communication modalities, where people talk over them, not to them. Where it’s common to talk about autism and not to autistics. And when we talk about them and not to them, films are produced where they are not authentically represented, and where their dehumanization, abuse, torture, and death is “alright.” No Sia, we didn’t have to watch it prior to critiquing it. We knew without talking to autistic people, that this movie would play out precisely as it did, galactically insensitive trope to the next.
Music is the poster child for “nothing about us without us.”
Fuckity fuck,” it was exactly as I expected, although, I admit, even I was shocked to be jolted immediately by an autistic person with her eyes bulging out, covered in lighting bolts, dancing to “I feel electricity,” eliciting disturbing flashbacks to JRC clips I’ve seen.
Restraint is a symptom of a toxic system of oppression called ableism, which robs disabled people of our humanity, our dignity, and too often our lives. Restraint is a barbaric act of violence. That’s not just true in other places; it’s true everywhere. This is a global human rights crisis. Just like removing only the restraint scenes from this film will not make it less dangerous, neither will removing only restraint from the lives of neurodivergents keep us safe from all the other mental and physical danger of a world where our greatest barriers are not internal, but external. Even without restraint, all the hurt and erasure would still exist that are the root causes of restraint. I got into the activism of making restraint and seclusion illegal because my autistic son and I are both restraint and seclusion survivors. But we’re also survivors of a dangerous ableist system enabled to continue in our persistent and pervasive dehumanization.
What’s the danger you ask? It’s just a movie you say? For you, that may be true. For neurodivergent people, it’s our lives. Our trauma, injury, and deaths are not “alright.” I want to know what happened to Ebo’s autistic brother.
But I already know.
He was killed by restraint asphyxia, and for me, until we live in a world where that is not alright, I will not rest.