The child-sexualizing “Cuties” on Netflix has prompted enormous backlash from the public, but the media and mainstream critics have circled their wagons around the film. The enormous chasm between the audience and critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes — 3% vs. 88% fresh, respectively — highlights this severe clash of perspectives.
I already covered some of the rather desperate excuses and rationalizations being offered for the film’s sake. But the most common pro-“Cuties” talking point, put forward most stridently by Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenburg, warrants a more thorough response. Saying that the “freak out” over the movie “bothers” and “deeply disturbs” her, Rosenburg chided the film’s detractors for not having taken the time to actually watch it. According to Rosenburg and many other mainstream media defenders of the film, the hypersexualized content involving pubescent children is appropriate and morally sound because it all leads to a positive message. In her piece titled “The people freaking out about ‘Cuties’ should try it. They might find a lot to like,” Rosenburg argues:
This is very much a film about what happens to kids when their parents aren’t physically or emotionally present in their lives. It’s highly skeptical of social media platforms and what sexualized mainstream culture teaches children about what behavior is normal or desirable. Though its characters post provocative dance videos and wear revealing costumes, “Cuties” doesn’t present their actions as liberated or admirable: Instead, the movie repeatedly shows other characters reacting with sadness or disgust when these girls try to act like grown women.
The triumphant climax of the movie isn’t a dance competition, but when Amy returns to age-appropriate clothes and games, finding an authentic version of herself in acting like the gummy-bear scarfing, giggly girl she was earlier in the film. In that moment, Amy is not bound by the religious and cultural traditions she found so constraining, but she’s not trying to live up to a different and equally restrictive idea of what it means to be a girl, either.
I can see how viewers might be turned off by the way Doucouré shoots the dance routines, using close-ups of her young actors’ bodies both to show us their abilities as dancers and to make us deliberately queasy. But not liking that choice or not thinking it works in the way she intended does not make Doucouré an evil pornographer, just an ambitious director.
Now, first of all, I’m sure it isn’t true that all of the people “freaking out” have neglected to actually watch the film, but that’s beside the point. Our contention is that there simply is no context or plot line or noble intention that could ever justify close up shots of the bodies of scantily clad 11-year-old girls as they dance sexually on camera. One particularly offensive scene in the film shows a child in her underwear thrusting and gyrating while the camera focuses on various body parts. Our whole argument is that this sort of content is immoral and exploitative by its nature. If you say that it was filmed for the sake of a positive and uplifting story, then you are essentially claiming that the children were sexually exploited for a good cause. Those of us in the “freaking out” camp would say that there is no such thing as sexually exploiting a child for a good cause. Whatever the cause, whatever the reason, it is automatically bad.
And that’s the obvious and fatal flaw with the argument Rosenburg and others are making. If we were talking about a book where all of these scenes are described but not shown, and no real child is involved in any of it, then they would probably have a point. The problem is that the movie actually does the thing it is supposedly trying to call attention to. And it does it to children — real children, not adult actors playing the parts of children. The movie didn’t have to exhibit real life child exploitation in order to comment on it or call attention to it. There were other ways of approaching the subject. The lurid camera angles and lengthy, sexual dance sequences were gratuitous and unnecessary choices made by the filmmakers, either because they wanted to sexualize their child actors or were merely willing to sexualize them in service to whatever supposedly positive point they were trying to make. I’m skeptical that there was any positive point, but it doesn’t matter. Once again: there is no such thing as sexually exploiting a child for a good cause.
Besides, these claims about the movie “calling attention to” and “critiquing” the sexualization of children have been made mostly in the last few weeks, once the backlash began. Prior to the public outrage, when only film critics had seen the movie, the reviews and descriptions didn’t as much present it as a commentary on child sexual exploitation. Consider the synopsis posted months ago on the Sundance Film Festival website:
Eleven-year-old Amy lives with her mom, Mariam, and younger brother, awaiting her father to rejoin the family from Senegal. Amy is fascinated by disobedient neighbor Angelica’s free-spirited dance clique, a group that stands in sharp contrast to stoic Mariam’s deeply held traditional values. Undeterred by the girls’ initial brutal dismissal and eager to escape her family’s simmering dysfunction, Amy, through an ignited awareness of her burgeoning femininity, propels the group to enthusiastically embrace an increasingly sensual dance routine, sparking the girls’ hope to twerk their way to stardom at a local dance contest.
With a keen eye for and an understanding of adolescent behavior, Maïmouna Doucouré—whose short film Maman(s) won the Short Film International Fiction Jury Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival—focuses tightly on her rowdy protagonists, crafting a spirited film that nimbly depicts the tweens’ youthful energy and vulnerabilities while exploring their fumbling eagerness to be identified as sexualized. Fathia Youssouf captivates as Amy, shifting like a chameleon between the different identities her character is juggling and deftly anchoring the film’s immensely watchable, vivacious young cast.
A story about a young girl exploring her femininity and “escaping her family’s simmering dysfunction” through “free-spirited dancing” sounds very different from the searing commentary on childhood sexualization that film critics like Rosenburg are positioning it to be today. The director, in an interview earlier in the year, summarized the film’s message this way: “In our culture, even today, I can say I’m not totally free. Because I love to wear short dresses and at the same time, when I go to a religious ceremony, I wear a veil. Just choose as a woman: who do you want to be?”
This makes it sound like the movie is supposed to be a mostly uncritical observation of a girl’s choices during her personal journey of self-discovery. Indeed, that is exactly how a review on the website The Playlist characterized it shortly after its debut at Sundance almost a year ago, calling it “a vibrant portrait of self discovery.”
It seems that many of the film’s defenders today are less offering their honest opinion than doing damage control. But either way, no matter what the movie is supposed to be, or what the intentions of the film makers actually were, we are left with an exploitative bordering on pornographic film that never should have been made, and certainly should not have been picked up by Netflix.