I love the idea of media and film putting social ills like sexualization in a critical view, so typically I’d be intrigued by a storyline like that of Netflix’s Cuties—which follows an eleven-year-old Senegalese immigrant girl as she navigates the meaning of her femininity and seeks acceptance among her peers in a hypersexualized culture. However, as I watched clips of the film circulate on social media, I had to pause to consider whether I could view it.
Seeing girls depicted as young as 11 gyrating on a stage in sexually suggestive ways makes many of us feel uncomfortable. And that discomfort might provoke us to a deeper realization that there is something deeply wrong with our culture’s hypersexualization of girls. That was the intention of the film’s director, Maïmouna Doucouré.
But that isn’t how all viewers react, and those who have reviewed and defended the movie by pointing to this purpose reveal a naivety to the other possible viewer reactions: kids may watch the video and feel uncomfortable but then intrigued by the shocking content. Longtime porn users may not feel uncomfortable at all, having been desensitized to boundary-pushing sexualized content, and see it as somewhat normal. And, dreadfully, some viewers will watch these sexually explicit scenes with pleasure, and we’d call that pedophile behavior.
I decided not to watch Cuties, because I believe that good art can call out exploitation without participating in it.
I recommend reading spoilers instead of watching Cuties
Cuties shares the experience of an eleven-year-old girl named Amy, who is the daughter of Senegalese immigrants. As Amy comes of age, she is grappling with the expectation that she will be married off, and like her mother, possibly even have to be one of many wives according to her family’s traditional culture.
It’s amid these pressures, and the pain of knowing her mother’s plight, that Amy lashes out from her strict Muslim upbringing and joins a dance troupe of rebellious peers. Not only do they do sexualized dance routines, but Amy soon partakes in rude and hurtful behavior toward others as well. At the climax of the story, she has an epiphany, recognizing her sexually suggestive dancing and acting out as objectifying and restrictive of herself, just as her family’s polygamous culture is toward her mom. She then drops her dancing group and skips away in the hope to return to childhood innocence and enjoyment, which both the modern and traditional exploitative extremes in her life threaten.
According to the film-analysis site Cinemaholic, Amy “realizes that the salacious dance and promiscuity she looks to as a form of liberalization and expression of self, is actually just the opposite; it is, in fact, more alike the oppressive culture she has grown up with and her mother has lived with all her life. . . . Both cultures succeed in exploiting women and shattering their sense of self-worth.”
All this suggests that, on paper, Cuties is an excellent story, calling into question a whole range of abuses and uses of women in both modern and traditional cultures. Unfortunately, on screen, its excellence is diminished because of the visuals Doucouré chose to depict in telling the story. To avoid abusing children in the production of the story, Doucouré could have chosen to tell the story without creating such sexually explicit material as was shown on screen, or she could have hired actors over the age of 18, but that’s not what happened.
“The audience does not need to see the very long scenes with close-up shots of the girls’ bodies; this does nothing to educate the audience on the harms of sexualization,” Lina Nealon, director of corporate and strategic initiatives at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, said in an NCOSE statement. “Netflix could and should insist that the particularly sexually-exploitative scenes are cut from the film, or stop hosting this film at all.”
Blindness and justification
To suggest the sexualized content in Netflix’s widely distributed film Cuties is acceptable because its storyline criticizes the concept of child sexualization is a bit of a balancing act. But that’s the stance many are taking, including NPR and the New Yorker.
According to the New Yorker:
The subject of Cuties isn’t twerking; it’s children, especially poor and nonwhite children, who are deprived of the resources—the education, the emotional support, the open family discussion—to put sexualized media and pop culture into perspective. . . . They’re unable to find or even to seek the line between liberation and exploitation, between independence and imitation. Cuties is about the absence of knowledge and absence of reasonable discourse about sex and sexuality, power and desire, that help young people to avow and confront these drives constructively—or, at least, not too destructively. Lacking those things, Amy latches on to a mode of revolt that is itself a trope of a misogynistic order.
The New Yorker article concludes, “Though many of Amy’s actions are dubious, her spirit of revolt is nonetheless sublime and heroic.”
While I appreciate the meaning and messaging that the filmmaker may have been going for, and what this New Yorker writer is highlighting as valuable cultural contributions, I think there’s a problem when we get to the part about putting sexualized media into perspective for kids. The problem is, there is no right perspective within which to put damaging media in a child’s diet.
There’s no place at all in society for sexually explicit behavior to be combined with kids. That we’re becoming comfortable with it at all—whether it’s kids having sexual activity in middle school, or being exposed to explicit material with just a few clicks of their smartphones—reveals a great neglect.
The problem with producing and consuming objectifying content
“I really do commend the intent of the director to show the very real harms of exposure to sexually explicit material, especially through internet and social media,” Nealon told me by phone. “But the way the movie was made perpetuates that harm.”
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a non-partisan organization exposing the links between all forms of sexual exploitation, includes among its work increasing public awareness of the effects of pornography on adolescents and others.
Nealon believes the sexually suggestive depiction of young people in Cuties is gravely problematic for not only the viewers but the actors.
“There is countless research, including that by the American Psychological Association, that shows that when girls are objectified and sexualized, it hurts them—in the forms of eating disorders, depression, lower self-esteem, lesser understanding of sexuality and sexual behavior, and can also lead to risky sexual behavior. The youngest actress was 12 years old. For all these minor actors, participating in could have an impact on their health and well being.”
Further, Nealon explains, “Every time it’s viewed the girls are being re-exploited.”
It seems director Doucouré thought the ends of exposing a problem justified the means of participating in it, but that logic always ethically falls short. In our modern world we increasingly care about how our food, coffee, and diamonds are sourced. We care that people not be enslaved, underpaid, or forced into child labor—such things cannot be justified no matter the end. We care about carbon footprints on the environment. We care if athletes cheated their way to a victory. We care if animals were hurt in the production of a film. We care if actors were hurt by Hollywood elites, from Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein. We are even starting to care more if people are trafficked in the production of porn. So we should care that children were directed to perform sexually suggestive and objectifying actions, even for so good an end as decrying the objectification of women.
“We’re against the film,” Nealon told me, “because [the girls] are exploited every time it’s viewed—and hypersexualization hurts both adults and any minors who are viewing this material.” Further, Nealon adds, “research shows girls of color are consistently viewed as more ‘adult’; they are more hypersexualized than white girls. Since the main protagonists are girls of color, that’s another layer of exploitation the actors are facing.”
But Cuties is not just problematic for the exploitation of children in the making of the film. We harm ourselves in viewing this kind of material. Viewers who watch and defend Cuties are not only desensitizing themselves to sexualized imagery of children, but associating something positive with it, all of which makes this world a much more dangerous place.
The problem with filming sexually suggestive imagery of kids
A critical issue with Cuties and its sexual imagery is not just that it makes people feel uncomfortable. It’s that by U.S. law, Cuties explicitly shows child sex abuse in the film.
“We have several federal laws against child pornography, or what is also called child sex abuse material,” Nealon says. “And by that definition, there are several scenes in Cuties that could fit within child pornography.”
According to the Department of Justice, child pornography is defined as “any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor (someone under 18 years of age),” and, “images of child pornography are not protected under First Amendment rights, and are illegal contraband under federal law.”
In one particularly explicit scene of Cuties, Nealon told me, one of the young dancing girls lifts her top to reveal her breasts. Some reports deny there is nudity of a child, but the IMBD Parents Guide on the film’s rating includes mention of this scene as well as several other sexually suggestive acts involving minors, which, by U.S. law, is de facto child abuse material. “Notably, the legal definition of sexually explicit conduct does not require that an image depict a child engaging in sexual activity,” the DOJ states. If someone is under 18 years old, if they are naked, partially naked, or depicted in a sexually suggestive manner, it could be deemed child porn or child sex abuse material.
While the film was produced in France, the U.S. company Netflix could be liable if they did violate federal law. “I know many are calling on the Department of Justice to investigate Netflix for distributing the material and putting a platform to view this unequivocal sexually explicit material with young minors,” Nealon told me. “The actresses themselves were young and were depicting girls as young as 11. Netflix could potentially be held responsible for distributing child pornography, and it remains to be seen if the Department of Justice pursues this.”
Not only is Netflix potentially liable for violating federal law by distributing child sex abuse material, people streaming Cuties are wittingly or unwittingly consuming child sex abuse material.
Netflix has been here before
Netflix has done this before—claiming to call out an important social problem, even as they manage to make it worse in the process.
In 2017, Netflix debuted its television series adaptation of the book Thirteen Reasons Why, a story about a high school student who died by suicide and blamed other people and events for her death. Netflix and the show’s producers touted the value of the series for bringing attention to mental health issues. But, on screen, filmmakers depicted a suicide so graphic that it almost looked like a how-to. Mental health professionals called out Netflix immediately, and at first nothing changed.
Then a study published in April 2019 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that “the release of 13 Reasons Why was associated with a significant increase in monthly suicide rates among U.S. youth aged 10 to 17 years”—a 28.9 percent increase, in fact. Two years after the show’s debut, in July 2019 Netflix edited the scenes to remove the graphic suicide imagery.
Netflix could do the same thing with Cuties.
Nealon says when it comes to sexually problematic content and Netflix “this is their business that sells.” Nealon mentions the site’s film 365 Days: “It’s about rape and sex trafficking, but it glorifies this idea that women secretly enjoy being sexually assaulted, and that after being abused for weeks and months on end, that [the protagonist] falls in love with her captor.” The show is promoted on Netflix as one of its newest and hottest offerings, and Nealon says it’s “glorifying something that is degrading, that is violence against women.” That’s why Netflix is among NCOSE’s “Dirty Dozen”: because “in their content, Netflix is profiting from and perpetuating sexual exploitation and abuse.”
Maimouna Doucouré told NPR that the idea came for Cuties when she saw a troupe of young girls similar to the group of girls she depicted in her film. “They were dancing very sensually, sexually, and I was very disturbed about what I was seeing." NPR reports that “instead of passing judgment, the self-taught writer and filmmaker says she wanted to understand what she was seeing. She dove into research, interviewing more than one hundred adolescent girls over the course of a year and a half.”
It may be true that to understand many things, you expose yourself to more of it; but it’s not true of abusive material. The more we expose ourselves to sexually explicit material, the more we are desensitized to its effects, and the less aware we are of the real harms it creates.
Was Doucouré desensitized herself in the course of attempting to understand how girls got into these circumstances? If so, I believe her desensitization led to a film that is desensitizing countless others.
The hypersexualization of girls is happening everywhere, and we don’t need to actively consume it to know that.