One of the most disturbing things about Netflix’s Cuties is that many ostensibly sophisticated, “cultured” people seem bent on defending and redeeming what is, in the end, an irredeemably problematic film. I’ve watched Cuties (reluctantly), and it’s true the film is attempting to critique rather than to celebrate the exploitative sexualizing of young girls. But by doing the very thing it critiques—repeatedly, gratuitously, horrifyingly—it undermines its point and dangerously justifies, in the name of thoughtful art, something that cannot be justified.
The film’s defenders will respond with various “what abouts.” What about the fact that the real villain is Netflix’s marketing department? That might be a valid defense, except that the image on the promotional poster comes from an actual scene in the film—an extended scene of lewd, sexualized, pre-teen dancing far more disturbing than the poster itself.
What about the fact that it’s a well-made, personal story by a talented filmmaker—“a sensitive portrait of female adolescence by a gifted woman of color,” as Rolling Stone put it? Nope, sorry. Even if the film was a magnum opus directed by Martin Scorsese, Sofia Coppola, or Terrence Malick (some of my favorite directors), we’d still need to draw a line and reject it. An auteur’s freedom of vision and claims to “artistic expression” should have moral limits. Sexualizing real, image-bearing, precious girls (age 11!) to make a point is a limit that should be uncontroversial.
An auteur’s freedom of vision and claims to ‘artistic expression’ should have moral limits. Sexualizing real, image-bearing, precious girls (age 11!) to make a point is a limit that should be uncontroversial.
What about the suggestion that this is just an election-year pseudo-event fueled by right-wing QAnon fanatics? Also no. I think QAnon is a dangerous political cult, and I arrived at my assessment of Cuties without reading anything written by any conspiracy-theory carnival barker. It’s quite revealing that many in the media have assumed a bizarre QAnon sex-trafficking theory is behind the outrage about Cuties—rather than just basic moral concern over sexualizing underage girls. Our bubbles can be so blinding.
Cuties Controversy and Negative Partisanship
The fault lines on Cuties were quick to develop—bafflingly—along partisan lines. I could predict what people in my social-media feeds would say about the film based on their politics. Those leaning right (and certainly not just the QAnon fringe) signed petitions to #CancelNetflix. Those leaning left defended the film or dismissed the boycott conversation as a silly outrage in the culture wars. How disturbing. Just as wearing masks during a pandemic should not be a matter of partisan debate, neither should condemning a film that recklessly sexualizes children.
This shouldn’t be so hard. People on every point on the political spectrum should be able to say it is wrong for a film—any film, however well-intentioned—to depict close-up, lingering shots of scantily clad 11-year-olds twerking. It’s refreshing that some leaders on the left have recognized this as the nonpartisan issue it should be, like Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, or Nancy Pelosi’s daughter Christine. But they are the exception, not the norm.
We’ve been so blinded by confirmation bias and negative partisanship—driven more by ‘owning’ the other side than by actual positive convictions—that we’re willing to justify something heinous because we don’t like the people calling it heinous.
It seems we’ve been so blinded by confirmation bias and negative partisanship—driven more by “owning” the other side than by actual positive convictions—that we’re willing to justify something heinous because we don’t like the people calling it heinous. Of course this problem goes beyond the Cuties controversy and plagues conservatives too, who are often quick to defend their favored politician’s morally dubious behavior against the “unfair” attacks of the other side. For Christians especially, it’s crucial we call foul on what is morally depraved wherever we find it—even if in our own camp.
Fans of Maïmouna Doucouré should be able to say, “She’s talented, and I get what she’s trying to do, but I can’t condone this,” just as fans of President Trump should be able to say, “I like his stance on this issue, but he’s absolutely wrong in the way he argues his case.” A right message can be delivered in a wrong way. People on both sides of the political divide should be willing to admit this point.
When ‘Depiction as Condemnation’ Doesn’t Work
There are certainly times when transgressive and shocking content in art serves a purpose. Movies especially, with their ability to mimic realism so viscerally, can pack an indelible punch in this way. A movie like Schindler’s List is memorable in part because it refuses to soften the visual, embodied atrocities of the Holocaust. Spielberg’s film makes a point cinematically that couldn’t be made in exactly the same way in a book or a poem.
But transgressive content in a film must be handled with utmost care—because the line between “shocking to make a point” and “shocking for its own sake” is often contested and arbitrary. Further, when a film’s transgressive material is sexual in nature, the ethical lines are especially blurry. In order to present such material, real, embodied people are necessarily objectified and sexualized before cameras, directors, film crews, and ultimately audiences. It’s one thing to defend this when the actors are adults (but after #MeToo, the ethics of even this are being questioned). But when the actors are underage—again, only 11 years old—it’s another thing entirely.
At one point in the film, a member of the “Cuties” dance troupe is frustrated that an internet video has “outed” the group as children: “Everybody’s talking about this video. . . . They’re saying we’re kids.”
Indeed, you are kids. That’s why everyone is talking about Cuties. That’s why it’s wrong. As Justin Lee wrote in a helpful piece for Arc Digital:
If one only reflects on the amount of practice these 11-year-old girls had to do in order to master dance moves simulating rough sex, the wretchedness of the whole enterprise becomes apparent. An actor must become proficient in martial arts before starring in a martial arts film. In Cuties, these young actors had to become proficient in their own sexual commodification.
Again, the problem is not that Doucouré’s point—that the degrading and dehumanizing of women’s bodies is wrong, whether it happens in a restrictive Muslim context or a libertine Western one—is off-base or unimportant. The problem is the means to this end.
Rachael Denhollander summarized it succinctly when she said of the film, “One can’t protest sexualizing children by . . . sexualizing them.”
Rampant Sexual Confusion and Contradiction
Don’t watch Cuties. We don’t need to watch young girls gyrating on the floor and twerking on staircases to be aware of how mass media conditions young women to see themselves and their bodies. An article, essay, book (consider American Girls), or any number of daily headlines make us aware. If you live in proximity to kids in this world, you are aware. Filming real young girls doing the very things we want to prevent young girls from doing is not the answer. As my friend Kevin Yi observed on Facebook, if this was a movie about the evils of dog fighting, and the filmmakers staged a bunch of real dog fights to get their point across, everyone would see the wrongness of the strategy. The Babylon Bee made a similar point.
That there is any hesitation to name the moral wrongness of Cuties shows how sexually confused and broken the West has become. Our poor children. As if they weren’t already vulnerable enough, growing up in a world awash in pornography and sexual exploitation, they’re being led by adults who can’t recognize the inconsistencies in their own sexual ethics.
That there is any hesitation to name the moral wrongness of Cuties shows how sexually confused and broken the West has become.
Speaking of Cuties, director Doucouré observed: “Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she’s successful. And the children just imitate what they see. . . . It’s dangerous.” Quite right. The problem is, many of the same “feminist” defenders of Cuties—who would nod along with Doucouré’s “children just imitate what they see” comment—also find J.Lo’s Super Bowl pole dancing praiseworthy, not problematic. You can’t hold up globally televised sexualized dancing as a celebration of empowered women and Latino culture and, at the same time, lament that 11-year-old girls in Paris want to imitate that behavior. Which is it? If we praise scantily clad, sexualized pop stars like Beyoncé, Shakira, or Cardi B as feminist icons and “empowered” role models for young girls, we should neither complain, nor be surprised, when pre-adolescent girls acts this way too (as in Cuties).
The #MeToo movement supposedly sparked a difficult “soul-searching” reckoning for Hollywood—which has always been one of the chief purveyors of sexualized bodies as cheap goods for widespread consumption. But the fact that Cuties was made, celebrated at the Sundance Film Festival, and distributed on Netflix shows there’s still a lot more soul-searching to do.
The same goes for Christians. New Pew research sadly shows that many Christians are only slightly less confused than non-Christians on sexual ethics. So even as we rightly denounce a film like Cuties, we should also double down on fighting pornography addiction, sexual abuse, and other immorality within our midst. The force of the sexual revolution has not left the church unscathed, after all. We must press in to the challenges of discipleship on matters of sexuality, defending the goodness of sex in its rightful, covenantal place, all while protecting the vulnerable—especially children—from the tragic consequences of sex outside of that sacred context.