The movie Cuties, which won coveted prizes at the Sundance Film Festival, is scheduled to air this fall on Netflix.
It is the directorial feature debut of 35-year-old French-Senegalese screenwriter and filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré. The story is inspired by Doucouré's own experience of navigating between the conservative Muslim culture of her Senegalese family and the sexually permissive world of French secularism. She recalls visiting an amateur talent show in Paris and seeing for the first time young girls on stage “dressed in a really sexy fashion in short, transparent clothes.” She remembers that “they danced in a very sexually suggestive manner. . . I was transfixed, watching with a mixture of shock and admiration. I asked myself if these young girls understood what they were doing.”
That experience of shock and admiration is at the heart of Cuties, about an eleven-year-old girl named Amy (played by Fathia Youssouf Abdillah) who enters a “twerking” contest in which she breaks the shackles of Muslim modesty and joins a world of sexual expressiveness for the sake of peer approval on social media. Doucouré understands hers to be a “coming of age” film that is critical of the sexualization of young girls by focusing the lens upon it. In an industry that prizes the kind of exotic, cross-cultural storytelling that the French-Senegalese filmmaker offers, it is not surprising that the film has won prizes at Sundance.
Yet despite so much acclaim from cultural elites, Doucouré’s film has come under a hailstorm of criticism from the moment Netflix began promoting it with posters of prepubescent girls posing in sexually seductive fashion. Apparently it never occurred to executives at the entertainment company that such a film would be seen as problematic. Cultural elites had vetted it as a sophisticated tale about the over-sexualization of young girls, and an exploration of the tensions between Muslim and liberal cultures. Yet somehow the masses responded with almost instantaneous moral revulsion at the very idea of a film about the sexual awakening of an eleven-year-old child. Many asked, with exasperated skepticism, how a film about sexualizing children could solve the problem of sexualizing children.
In a curious apology following the public outcry, Netflix stated that the company was “deeply sorry” for the marketing and “inappropriate artwork” they used to promote the film, adding that it was not “representative of this French film which won an award at Sundance.” This “apology” sought to put the blame on the “artwork.” Yet the marketing department also used clips and stills from the film itself, which depicts young girls in seductive poses and various states of undress. Critics reasonably replied that the problem seems less with the marketing, and more with the subject matter itself. Some saw a broader trend on display here, not only the normalization of the pedophilic gaze, but also liberal society reaching its perverted telos. After the Netflix non-apology, Princeton’s Robert P. George spelled out such broader implications: “I've long said that our society's dirtiest little secret is the sexualization of children. It was only ‘secret’ in the sense that people could pretend not to know. With Netflix's ‘Cuties,’ that is no longer possible. You know. Everyone knows. No one can credibly deny knowing.”
Sensitive patience with challenging artwork is often commendable. Yet in this case, I think the gag reflex is far more reliable, morally speaking, than the trust that elites often place in vetted purveyors of cultural production. Cuties invites us to gaze for hours upon sexualized images of young girls against the backdrop of Islamic veils, honor, modesty, custom. Whatever the intentions of the filmmaker, or Netflix, your average American is not yet so morally supine as to be blind to the next con.
We have all watched the steady march of progressive sexual morality for decades, and we have seen one moral boundary after another knocked down on the most illusory and disingenuous grounds. The steps from Obergefell to Bostock were incredibly swift. And as California proposes lowering the age of consent to fourteen, and as groups such as MAPs (“Minor Attracted Persons”) lobby for pedophilia as a sexual orientation that deserves inclusion in the LGBT community and protection under the law, many are intuitively ready to draw the line. Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, has done so, stating that “‘Cuties’ clearly sexualizes children, and in particular, girls of color. The pornography industry is built on these stereotypes, and Netflix is taking a page from this playbook by featuring these children in such a manner. Netflix must stop this practice immediately.”
A petition to remove the film is circulating. It states precisely what the film’s defenders deny, namely that Cuties sexualizes an eleven-year-old girl “for the viewing pleasure of pedophiles,” and “negatively influences our children.” Might a sensitive, sophisticated viewing of Cuties offer us a different perspective on the film? Perhaps. Some might even convince us that the film condemns the very thing the public is outraged about. We are perfectly capable of telling ourselves that by watching an orgy in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut we are really studying “the wages of sin.” We are also perfectly capable, like Lot, of offering up our daughters in order to keep the peace.
Yet the hundreds of thousands of signatures on that petition suggest the world that has made a habit of “pushing the boundaries” no longer has our trust. Jeffrey Epstein was a regular at Harvard and Hollywood, Aspen and Sundance. I can readily imagine him funding an R-rated film about the sexual awakening of a child as cultural criticism and sophisticated art in the tradition of Nabokov’s Lolita. We must guard our senses. We must guard our children. We must watch out for that road paved with the best of intentions. Like the medievals, we must recover the sense that curiositas is a sin. We do not need to see all things. Lest Sodom and Gomorrah’s fate of “sulfur and fire” await us, perhaps we could at least agree to forego watching eleven-year-olds “twerking.”
C. C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.
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