Editor’s Foreword: It helps to understand that political debate in 2020 is rarely about what it purports to be about. In particular, the Republican Party is consumed solely with retaining power through means of combat. And because it will take a few more months to fully normalize their assault-rifle wielding teenagers, Republicans have chosen as their means of combat a four-decade tardy culture war for the time being. This means, having abandoned the culture for the best part of the last half-century, Republicans now comb its burned-out corners to engage in a performative type of outrage for their braying cult followers.
The latest manifestation of this deep-seated insincerity is in right-wing opposition to Netflix’s Cuties, which debuted this week to a chorus of right-wing bleating about the impending end of civilization—bleating that only intensified the public’s bewilderment at what planet conservatives left for 40 years ago, and magnified its sense of misfortune when conservatives apparently made the return trip just in time for the 2016 election.
With that background as context, Lauren Haskins, a BFA theater student at Utah State University (and my daughter, natch), decided to watch the movie for herself. This is her review, with some footnote commentary from her overbearing editor (who has not seen the movie).
So you want to talk about Cuties? I mean, really talk about it, and not just act out the discussion?
Cuties is a French film from director Maïmouna Doucouré. Because of the generalized hatred surrounding the film before Netflix even started streaming it,1The movie currently has a rating of 2.2/10 on IMDB. For context, The Room has a 3.7. Plan 9 From Outer Space has a 4.0. 89% of critics—a known hotbed of QAnon-targeted pedophilia—have given Cuties positive reviews. I wanted to watch it so I could make my own conclusions.
This will include spoilers.2She knows you’re not likely to watch the movie now one way or the other. Might as well read the review.
The film follows an 11-year-old girl, Amy. Her family is an old-fashioned Muslim family and like any coming-of-age movie, Amy is looking for ways to rebel. She starts to notice a group of girls around the community and befriends them. They watch online videos of girls dancing provocatively and notice that those videos get the most likes. They also notice that when they dress a certain way, older boys pay attention to them. And they can get away with certain things if they use their bodies in certain ways. They are being socialized to believe that if they act like older girls, they will get the attention and admiration they lack.
As so often happens, this socialization is taking place as there are problems at home. Amy discovers that her father is taking a second wife. We can tell that this damages her, and also see how this hurts her mother. In an inspired and well-filmed scene, Amy hides under the bed while her mother sobs in between phone calls to family and friends to share the news of her husband’s second wife. Amy’s mother believes she has been able to hide her emotions, but Amy experiences all the pain.
Another beautiful aspect of the film was the imagery relating to the dress Amy was supposed to wear to her father’s second wedding. Her dress hangs in her closet, but as she grabs her backpack from the closet she notices a spot of blood growing bigger and bigger. She slams the door and leaves. Later that night, she discovers she has started her period. Her mother and “Auntie” congratulate her on becoming a woman. The next time we see the dress we see it slowly start to grow, as if someone is wearing it. I understood this as symbolic of her progress as she grows up.
There are difficult and uncomfortable topics in this film, but they are no different than other artistic portraits of difficult social issues over time.3It may also help to consider Roger Ebert’s oft-repeated maxim that a movie is not what it is about, but how it is about it. I would be curious about the opinions of nuanced viewers who may understand the movie’s purpose, but believe it may have missed the mark in tone, or structure, or development. But performative theater for the purpose of free media for a Potemkin Village of a culture war says more about the actor than the target in 2020. You may have seen clips or photos, leading to people’s complaints about the over-sexualization of children. Well folks…THAT’S THE POINT.
The things the director put in the film happen in real life all the time. I hate to burst your cocoon, but that world exists. The whole point is to show people a glimpse of what already exists, and how children are reacting to it everyday. This movie is the reality Americans pretend not to see, and thus fail to confront. Every day, young girls are watching the world sexualize women, and realizing that if they behave the same way, they’ll get more attention, seem more grown up, and get away with the same things as adults.
We see this issue in a lot more places than you may think. For some reason, right-wing scolds have been alternatively normalizing and overlooking just this kind of behavior.4Lauren is being coy. The reason is because the right wing’s moral champion is a sex addict with an unfortunate sexual predilection for his own daughter, as well as a companion to high-profile pedophiles like Jeffrey Epstein. And if you think this is an accident, you have not been paying attention. Republicans are obsessed with combat, and women have always been the spoils of war. The only reason right-wing virtue signalers have chosen this movie to attack instead of, say, Dance Moms or a couple hundred other potential subjects, is that they never pass on a chance to pass judgment on minorities.5It is undoubtedly true that the movie’s European origins and depiction of minorities make it an easy target for white, moralizing Falwell adherents, but Lauren minimizes the lightning rod effect of Trump’s cult of personality on American debate. Trump followers are interested only in re-electing Trump. If they thought tanks running over people in the streets would re-elect Trump, they would support it. If they thought selling their children to Arab sheiks would re-elect Trump, they’d shut down QAnon tomorrow. Re-electing Trump is what passes for a conservative’s morals in 2020. Everything else is just a means to that end.
Sex is everywhere for youth. It’s at high school football games. Parents, don’t tell me you haven’t been uncomfortable with some of the things the cheer and dance teams do. We see our current president making remarks about his daughter’s body.6I mean, he makes remarks about everybody’s body. He hired his National Security Advisor because he looks like a Supercuts commercial. But yes, all of this is valid. And we all know that women in this society are treated better when they look pretty or dress a certain way. When Doucoure tells us a story about the potential effects of that reality on girls, she isn’t endorsing it. She’s warning us—a warning that we probably don’t even deserve. We would rather this stuff go on where we don’t have to see it, think about it, or consider the ramifications of it on a society that values beauty at the expense of nearly everything other virtue.
And now that we have been confronted with it, it is far too late to cry crocodile tears over girls being sexualized. This culture was created by a bunch of assholes and pedophiles far older and more Republican than me or anyone I know—and now I have to defend a good movie you all hate, while recovering from the personal issues I carry as a result of the oversexualized society I actually grew up in, and still try to keep the world from breaking up around me.7Assholes and Pedophiles: The History of the Republican Party, coming soon to your local bookseller 2021.
Editor’s afterword: And if you’re still inclined to cancel Netflix over all this, at least use the time to read a book. Start with something by Nabokov, maybe?