Recently in the news, there has been a lot of discussion about the new movie The Witches, based off of the Roald Dahl book by the same name. It has been in the news due to the problematic nature of how these witches are portrayed, shining a negative light on individuals with disabilities. While this conversation is still going on and still quite fresh, I just heard news of yet another problematic film on the way.
Musician Sia is directing and producing a film called Music. The film is the story of a nonverbal autistic girl named Music. The problem with this is that the individual cast to play the nonverbal autistic girl is none other than Maddie Ziegler, the dancer that you can find in most Sia music videos. For autistic people, watching an actress that does NOT have autism acting as an autistic girl can leave them feeling mocked. Sadly in our society, it is not uncommon for an autistic person to be teased for different mannerisms or reactions that they may have. We as a society desperately need to do something to change this. But having someone who is not autistic portray an autistic person is not how to do that.
I've been following the reaction to the film The Witches and have shared on social media an article written by an author I absolutely love named Jen Campbell about this. Watching these two situations come up back to back, I found myself with a lot to say and decided it was time for myself to speak up and speak out.
As a writer, I find myself with a duty to represent people of all backgrounds in the most accurate and respectful way possible. Here in the US, we are severely lacking inclusivity in our art. While it has been improving more recently, there are still the same primary patterns in our books, in our movies, in our tv shows, etc. Our entertainment is predominantly heteronomative, white washed, Christian based characters.
I decided long ago that when I would write books, I wanted to break out of that. I wanted to explore other races, religions, sexualities in my characters. But it's not as simple as just making a one line sentence about this person having this background. People are incredibly nuanced and it's those nuances that make that person unique. I've taken the time to interview different people from different backgrounds to more properly educate myself about what it is that makes them different from myself. But even having interviewed these people, I still felt unprepared to appropriately represent them in any pieces of fiction.
Over the last several months, I have been researching different artists and people from history and telling their stories here on my blog. There were a few reasons for this. I was struggling with writing fiction and needed to explore other areas to regain my footing as a writer. I also wanted to educate others and different backgrounds people come from and their stories. But so far my biggest take away has been what I have learned. I have learned bits and pieces of various cultures, I've learned about the nature of different societies in history, as well as learning just how complex people are.
We as humans are imperfect. We are going to miss the mark with different things we do throughout life. But the most important thing we can do is own our mistakes, learn from them, and make positive changes from those experiences.
As a response to the initial reaction to the film The Witches, Warner Bros issued a statement apologizing for the unintentional pain that their choice of having the witches appear to be afflicted with ectrodactyly and are working with designers and artists to fix this issue. In addition, Anne Hathaway who plays the main witch in the film made a statement apologizing to those that have been hurt and promised that she has learned from this and will not make this mistake again.
In contrast, when autistic individuals have called Sia out on her choice of casting Ziegler, Sia did not respond in the same apologetic fashion. When an autistic actor pointed out that they could have played the role, Sia responded by telling this person that they're not a very good actor. On top of already causing autistic people a great deal of pain, she has doubled down and attacked them more directly.
While we are still lacking in proper inclusive representation, there are artists that are representing in a wonderful way. Actor Mindy Kaling has worked long and hard to bring accurate representation to South Asian people living in America and breaking away from the stereotypes that have become common in Hollywood. This past May, her show Never Have I Ever was released and in it, all South Asian characters were played by South Asian actors. In addition, one of the characters has down syndrome. She is played by Lily D. Moore who herself has down syndrome.
Ramy Youssef has also made a push for more representation of Muslim and Arab characters. He created his on tv show called Ramy which he also plays the lead role in. This successful tv show has brought a new face and shed a new light on Arab and Muslim characters in our entertainment world.
There are also a variety of comic artists that use their comics for proper representation. Some of them include ASPGirl, Yes I'm Hot in This, Dani Donovan, ADHD Alien, and Girl in the Red Hijab Comics.
As I mentioned earlier, Jen Campbell is an author I really love who has spoken out about these issues. Jen is a UK based author who has ectrodactyly, so the issue with The Witches hit close to home. She also makes youtube videos and has made a number of videos on her disabilities, answering questions, explaining them, and so on. She uses her public platform to educate people, as well as address problematic themes as they arise.
Special Books By Special Kids is a channel on youtube where a man named Chris, who started as teacher for students with disabilities/neurodisorders, interviews people with various disabilities. Some are more external that a person can notice just by looking at the person with disabilities, and others are more internal and harder to see, such as schizophrenia or an eating disorder. These interviews help people around the world to learn about these disabilities and help to be more accepting of someone who is simply different from themselves.
This is a very short list of the abundant resources there are out there. We live in a time where internet can be found almost anywhere, most people have a smart phone, and educating yourself on these things is literally at your fingertips. Which is why these problems coming up angers me so much. While I have respect for those that have admitted their mistake and are working to change, the excuse of "I didn't know any better," feels so lazy to me. It feels like they didn't really even try to learn about it before they decided to take a stab at representation. There are resources all around us and people to contact and ask. But it's not happening. It's a problem that needs to be addressed. I am begging my fellow artists and creators that we try harder. I try very hard to put an appropriate amount of research into my posts about people from history and I make sure to cite the sources that I've used. Even there, I know I may have or may in the future make mistakes. And I certainly hope someone would point out a mistake I have made. But I am trying. And I am not just asking others to try harder, I am encouraging you. I am urging you. We all need to try harder and care more about the people around us.
I am going to link below some of the websites, youtube channels, instagram pages, etc. of some of the people I've referenced above.