By Zack Maher, University of Alabama
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When I first saw the original promotional poster for Cuties on Netflix, I scoffed and moved on. I thought it was yet another ridiculous show in the cut of Dance Moms. Thus, I was surprised when I heard about the controversy surrounding the show, which sparked further interest in the show’s topic. Not only did I come to learn it is actually a film, but I found myself reading about the latest battle in the American Culture War.
For those of you who are not aware, Cuties is the debut film for French-Senegalese director, Maïmouna Doucouré. It centers on the coming-of-age story of a young girl named Amy who is not only on the verge of adolescence but finds herself trying to balance living in France as a Senegali Muslim. This does not sound like a controversy-sparking film, does it? If only Netflix had marketed the film this way. Instead of going with the promotional poster used in France, or a synopsis remotely similar as the one above, Netflix went a more provocative route. Thus, the controversy began. Interestingly, far too few of the Culture Warriors who ignited and spread this controversy actually watched the film. Therefore, I did.
Knowing only of its accusation of promoting child pornography, I was genuinely surprised when the film opened with a group of Muslim women praying and speaking of a woman’s necessity to guard her purity. Soon thereafter, Amy walks by a girl her age doing laundry and, presumably, Latin dancing. This brief encounter sets the tone for the remainder of the film, as Amy moves away from the influence of her religious family and towards that of a group of her secular schoolmates who dub themselves the Cuties. The group of girls are practicing for a dance competition and Amy bumps into them time and time again before being welcomed into the group. In fact, Amy even stole her uncle’s cell phone in hopes of using it to film the girls as a break into their group. It was not until Amy’s joining of the Cuties that her descent into a secular Hell began and the true, intended premise of the film gained traction.
Despite accusations of the film’s propagation of child pornography and hyper-sexualization of young girls, Doucouré makes it clear the film is truly a commentary on those subjects, as well as growing up in a multi-cultural home. Netflix was, and continues to be, scoffed at for using the same defense in their statement regarding the controversy. I, too, thought it was beyond a ridiculous paradox to suggest the hyper-sexualization of young girls could be used as commentary on why their hyper-sexualization is wrong. However, when I was watching the film, I could understand what Doucouré was doing and even predict which parts of the film would be lambasted. Yes, there are certainly provocative scenes in the film, but it is borderline ridiculous to suggest they are child pornography.
I feel now is a good time to say I am 100% against pornography, especially when involving children, nor am I “taking the side” of pedophiles. However, it is important to note the inherent role or intent in pornography, which is to cause stimulation through explicit media. Such intent is absent in Cuties. Even perhaps the most provocative scene of the film, where Amy takes a nude photo, does not fall into the category of child pornography because no genitalia or otherwise sexualized part of the body was shown. Just enough was done for the viewer to understand what was happening without directly scandalizing them. This is where I would like to break from Cuties for a moment to discuss a more general issue present in this controversy.
Pedophilia is not child molestation. Read it again. Scoff at me. Now think about it for a second. Many of the Culture Warriors this film claim it is but sensory food for child molesters. However, pedophilia and child molestation are not the same. Although pedophilia may lead to child molestation, it is at its core a mental disorder. Child molestation is an act caused by pedophilia, but that does not mean every pedophile is a child molester. A pedophile does not choose to be a pedophile although a child molester chooses to molest children. Think about it this way: does a person choose to have cancer? Does a person choose to catch a cold? Surely, it would be ludicrous to suggest such a thing. This is because those are illnesses in which the person with the ailment has no control over anything but its treatment. However, knowledge and recognition of the illness is requisite in treating it to keep it from spreading. The same goes for pedophilia, which is a disorder in psycho-physiological attractions. Unfortunately, proper treatment is rarely garnered due to the stigma and assumptions surrounding the disorder. Beneath the rightful disgust present in the controversy surrounding Cuties, it becomes clearer the controversy is misguided. As a result, a classic case of confusing mental illness as sin reigns on. Allow me to unpack this a bit. People are correct to call out and act in opposition to a grave injustice toward children. However, false equations of sin to a person must be avoided, for false judgment is also an injustice. No sin, however unjust, strips a person of their inherent value and dignity as a person, for we all sin. Thus, the sin must be judged separately from the person. Further, the sin must be judged only where it is present and based upon proper observation. To judge someone for committing a sin when they did not is an injustice against that person.
Returning to the film, there are several scenes of close-ups of women’s behinds, of all ages, either while walking or dancing. On their own, those could classify as scandalous scenes. However, those scenes were purposely included to show the viewer what Amy was seeing, serving as a commentary on the juxtaposition of how Amy views herself and what she believes a real woman looks like. Thus, I would make the case viewing these scenes, knowing their purpose, is no more a sin than noticing a person’s behind as they walk by your seat. Paraphrasing the words told to me by several priests, “to notice is not a sin, but to stare or do a double-take is.” Attractions are out of our control. What is in our control is how we react to them. These are only a few points pertaining to the vast commentary on love, sex, and the person in Pope St. John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility, as well as any “Psycho-physiological 101.” I bring up these points because, I believe, not only are the Culture Warriors misguided in their lambasting of Cuties, but are themselves victims of the same hyper-sexualization they openly oppose.
To steal a line from Justice Potter Stewart, “you’ll know [pornography] when you see it.” Part of this is because attractions are completely subjective; different people are attracted to different attributes and characteristics. Therefore, what may be pornographic to one person may not inherently be pornographic to another. Cuties to be pornographic because they are reacting to rumors about the film’s content. It is one thing to say, “I heard the film is…” while another to say, “This film is…” I am aware a dangerous door is being opened and I do so with tremendous caution. Nonetheless, to view Cuties in the lens of hyper-sexualization is a by-product of the hyper-sexualization of our society, as to view a girl in Daisy Duke’s or a shape-fitting shirt would not be scandalous if it were not for a hyper-sexualized society exploiting the bodies of women, especially. The initial marketing scheme of Netflix, guilty only of selling their product in a way they believed could garner customers, is also a by-product of a hyper-sexualized society. Hyper-sexualized marketing is first a by-product of a hyper-sexualized society before it is a cause, or even propagator of, a hyper-sexualized society. Thus, it is not wrong to presume Netflix would not have employed their initial provocative scheme if there was not demand for it. It should not come as a surprise that America, and at this point all of Western culture, is hyper-sexualized and disordered in the arena of sex, love, and the person.
In complete opposition to the world, I do not support the hyper-sexualization present in our society, especially of women. Much needs to be done to modestly and prudently combat the passive branch of the Culture of Death, but it can only be done upon recognition of its effects on our culture thus far and the recognition that the body is a good thing. To believe otherwise is a heresy. However, proper treatment of the body must follow its proper view as an inherent good created by God. This leads to another point of contention regarding Cuties, which is the role of the actresses themselves. Much of the uproar has been shifting to the realization that the actresses are too young to be viewing the film they star in, and thus are being exploited. On the surface, this is true. Is it exploitation to have an actor with depression play the role of a character who commits suicide? Is it exploitation to have a pregnant woman play the role of a pregnant woman? Is it exploitation to have a man who lost his daughter to a drunk driver play the role of a man whose daughter is killed by a drunk driver?
Art is a beautiful thing with purposes of attention, explanation, and revelation. It is a platform for the artist to share, and often challenge, world views. Doucouré was clear in not only her intent for, but the production of, the film. She spent over a year researching the effects of social media on young girls and their self-image, as well as their awareness of many of the issues therein. The parents of the actresses, as well as the actresses themselves, were aware of the film’s content and intent and also sought to use the film as a platform to speak out on the issue of hyper-sexualization. Further, a child psychologist was present during and after filming to ensure the health, safety, and stability of the actresses. Thus, the notion of exploitation, on the part of film itself, is dispelled. Nonetheless, questions regarding the prudence and necessity of the film remain. s it imprudent to show murder on-screen when it is pivotal to the film or show? What about drunkenness or child-birth? The discomfort caused by Cuties does not equate to imprudence, exploitation, child pornography, or anything of the sort. In fact, I can think of several shows and films, beloved by general audiences, which include scenes far more warranting of pornographic accusations, child-related or not; although, such accusations would still be false. Also, need I bring to mind Michelangelo’s David?
Though uncomfortable at times, Cuties did not cause an issue. It intended to shine a light on two particular issues, but instead brought more out of the shadows, issues far deeper, divisive, and damning than anything it could have, or been accused to have, caused.
Edited by Harry Scherer and Mary Ryan.
This was an excellent think piece. I didn’t know about the conditions on set, and that totally changes things. In addition, you’re comments about pedophilia are spot on and I commend you for wording it and starting that conversation. We accuse people of condoning, when we need to be having these conversations. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your writing and will be sharing this when the movie comes up again.