’Cuties’: Folks are right to be concerned about sexualization of children
By Sonny Bunch
What is the purpose of art? It can serve as moral instruction, pure entertainment or spectacle, but at its best, art holds up a mirror to the world and asks us to look at what we've made of it.
Consider "Cuties," which has been described variously as a touching coming-of-age story and also kiddie porn unfit for decent society.
It's something in between: a movie intended to condemn the sexualization of children that tips over into doing the thing it deplores to its child stars. The people who are aghast at the very existence of "Cuties" should recognise that they aren't its target audience.
And the people who are praising "Cuties" should take a hard look in the mirror the film offers: You can't lament the degradation of culture and its impact on children only when it's convenient.
"Cuties" follows an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant to France named Amy (Fathia Youssouf) who finds herself repulsed by her traditional Muslim upbringing. But the alternative, the movie suggests, is kind of horrifying in a different way: She falls in with a group of fellow 11-year-olds who are working on a hypersexualized dance routine so they can enter a dance competition. They get their ideas from the internet, learning to twerk and gyrate and simulate sex acts.
It's sick. It's grotesque. You feel, for lack of a better word, ick watching it.
But that's the point. When the girls are watching hardcore porn on one of their smartphones and discussing degrading sex acts, you're supposed to be angry that this is the world we've given our children.
When one of the girls picks up a used condom on the street and blows it up like a balloon, resulting in the other girls washing her mouth out with soap as they scream about her dying from cancer and Aids, you're supposed to be furious that our children live in a world where perverts discard used prophylactics in public places.
And when you see them dance, you are supposed to react as the older characters in this movie react: with revulsion.
Unfortunately, writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré undermines the point she's trying to make by shooting the revolting dance routines too well. The result is scenes that are a little too loving and not nearly horrified enough.
In a way, this whole thing serves as a minor rebuke to the idea of the concept of the male gaze: If you shoot anything of this sort with care, it's going to end up looking lustful. The camera is hungry. The camera wants to show us too much.
It doesn't help that the conclusion of "Cuties" is too pat. None of the girls is ever made unsafe by their behaviour. There's nothing that pushes Amy away from overt sexualization and to something more wholesome. She just ... winds up there. It's as unsatisfying dramatically as it is thematically. And Netflix shot itself in the foot with its marketing, which made the movie look like a clone of the "Step Up" series with age-inappropriate stars.
Which is to say that I largely agree with Rod Dreher, who wrote that the movie "engages and demonstrates with great passion the very thing it purports to condemn." What I disagree with are the people on social media and elsewhere who are condemning this movie as "kiddie porn" (it isn't, as squicky as it is) or prurient for prurience's sake.
Critics and commentators convinced this is nothing more than QAnon-inflected panic-mongering should get out of their bubble: Folks are right to be concerned about the sexualization of children even in the service of condemning such sexualization.
Conservatives sitting there screaming "We don't need to be shown that pop culture and pornography are bad, everyone knows it's bad" should consider that they're not the target audience: Some people do need a reminder.
But for this movie to work as critique, those who have championed "Cuties" need to ask what we have to do as a society to ensure our children don't feel pressured to act this way.
Did you, dear reader, celebrate the raunchy vulgarity of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's "WAP" or dismiss criticism of it as fuddy-duddiness? Have you shrugged away the fact that Kim Kardashian made the leap from sex tape to mogul? Do you think it's okay to celebrate little kids partaking in drag shows where grown-ups throw dollars bills at them?
Have you considered that you have helped create the world that "Cuties" is critiquing?
If you're horrified by what you see in this movie - if you take it seriously as a critique - then work to change the world we've made. Otherwise you're simply proving the movie's angriest critics right.