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The Only Thing You Need to Read About the Inane Cuties Controversy

The controversy over the new Netflix movie Cuties is so stupid, you never should’ve heard about it. But it’s gotten so hysterically overblown by this point, it can’t be ignored anymore.

Photo: Cuties (2020), courtesy Netflix

The controversy over the new Netflix movie Cuties is so stupid, you never should’ve heard about it. But it’s gotten so hysterically overblown by this point, it can’t be ignored anymore. Members of Congress are actually calling for the film’s removal from the Netflix lineup as well as a Justice Department investigation of child exploitation and endangerment.

Cuties is a French film originally titled Mignonnes, for which writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré won the Directing Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Film competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020. The film has played at a number of film festivals and in France since August without incident. It’s a pretty good film, trying to be honest about the inner lives of children at a certain age, which is rare these days. It’s based on the experiences of writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré, who has said, “As a child, that question of how to become a woman was my obsession.”

Cuties focuses on a crisis in the life of Amy (well played by Fathia Youssouf), an eleven-year-old child of working-class Senegalese immigrants living on the outskirts of Paris. Her family is a traditional Muslim one, and she’s becoming alarmed by how clearly her own adult life is being mapped out before her, modeled on that of her suffering but seemingly dutiful mother’s. From a hiding place, Amy witnesses her mother’s sobbing anguish over the imminent arrival of her husband, who’s bringing home a second wife. And when Amy begins menstruating, she’s told by her elderly aunt that now she’s a woman, eligible to be given in marriage in a few years.

It’s no wonder that the contrasting lives of ultramodern French girls her age living in her apartment building and attending her school look marvelously carefree by comparison. Amy becomes obsessed by joining a clique of self-confident local girls who perform together as a dance group called the Cuties. Their moves toward adulthood all look freeing: their clothes are flashier, their hair is wilder, their behavior is gleefully spontaneous. And their dance moves look adult in a way that would be thrilling to many an eleven-year-old who longs to be fourteen, or sixteen, or some age more socially commensurate with early sexual stirrings and longings for independence.

Amy quickly realizes that she can gain acceptance by the group if she comes up with even more provocatively adult dance moves —

Oh wait, I wrote “sexual stirrings” in describing eleven-year-old girls, didn’t I? And apparently many people are arriving at a bizarre cultural consensus that eleven-year-old kids, girls especially, are absolutely presexual or nonsexual or something that reflects the ridiculous sex panic currently raging in America, the most hysterical one since the 1950s.

How have we regressed to that point? By the mid-1960s, the antidote to ’50s hysteria was already emerging, and it was reflected in the form of movies that dealt fairly honestly and tolerantly with the wild emotional lives of very young girls, including their developing sexuality. Try The World of Henry Orient (1964), a George Roy Hill comedy about the mad crushes and madder fantasy lives of two barely teenaged girl best friends in love with louche, middle-aged, minor celebrity concert pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers). The film is based on a novel that recounts the youthful experiences of Nora Johnson (who cowrote with her father, screenwriter-director Nunnally Johnson). As a young girl, she had a fierce crush on louche, middle-aged concert pianist Oscar Levant.

The sweetest aspect of The World of Henry Orient is the way the girls shuttle almost hourly between the hilariously erratic emotional lives of young preteen children, chasing wildly around Manhattan, leaping fire hydrants and pranking grown-ups, and those of emotionally much older teenage girls coming from troubled situations at home and trying to negotiate fraught paths to adulthood. Cuties has the same tendency. For example, when one of the four girls finds a condom in the park, she doesn’t realize what it is, and she blows it up like a balloon, causing her slightly more knowledgeable friends to shriek in comically high-pitched little-girl revulsion.

The girl who found it is profoundly ashamed of her mistake, one of many instances that illustrate an obvious social point — at that age, there’s intense peer pressure to know more than any adult will tell you, and to behave in sophisticated ways beyond your years. Such pressure, director Doucouré acknowledges, can have dangerous consequences, and this serious attitude is reflected in the film’s abrupt tone shift from comedy to drama as the “shamed” girl says somberly, “It’s not my fault I didn’t know what it was.”

This “awkward age,” the in-between state of roughly ages ten to fourteen, has long been acknowledged by reasonable people as highly difficult to negotiate and requiring a lot of patience. For most children, emotions are churning and desires are manifesting, while anxious parents hold them back from too-early experiences and encounters they aren’t really ready to handle.

But you’d never know how matter-of-factly this transitional period of maturation has been generally regarded in saner time periods if you were judging by the silly hysteria over Cuties. It was one thing for Ted Cruz to call for a boycott of Netflix and send a letter to attorney general William Barr calling for an investigation of criminal wrongdoing:

“‘Cuties’ sexualizes 11-year-old girls, and it’s disgusting and wrong. That’s why I’ve asked AG Barr to investigate whether Netflix, its executives, or the filmmakers violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography,” Cruz tweeted Sunday, along with video of his remarks about the film on Fox News.

That’s expected, reality-denying behavior from American conservatives. But it’s something else again when #CancelNetflix is trending on social media, and there’s a Change.org “Cancel CUTIES on Netflix!” petition circulating and gaining hundreds of thousands of signatures.

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a nonprofit organization, has posted its condemnation of Cuties on its home page:

While we commend Director Maïmouna Doucouré for exposing the very real threats to young girls having unfettered access to social media and the internet, we cannot condone the hypersexualization and exploitation of the young actresses themselves in order to make her point.

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. And to showcase sexual exploitation of children in a film while saying that this is a “powerful story,” as Netflix has said, is nothing short of corporate malfeasance.

As far as I can tell, the only real sin committed in this supposed scandal was the terrible promotional image Netflix executives chose to hype the film, which has already been removed from circulation in response to the controversy, with the explanation, “This was not an accurate representation of the film so the image and description has been updated.”

As the scandal has continued to build, apologies from Netflix officials have also been forthcoming, which is only right. Because, taken out of its context, the promotional image of eleven-year-old girls twerking in tight spandex is misleading about what’s actually going on in the film. Amy’s attempt to fit in to what seems like a much more sexually adult social scene than the one she knows at home causes her to overshoot the mark in ways that horrify the entire community. The nude selfie she sends out disgusts her friends and peers at school, and the hypersexualized dance she choreographs for a competition, imitating the moves from music videos she watches on a stolen cell phone, results in boos from the crowd and trauma for Amy.

Those whipping up hysteria over the film either haven’t seen it — Ted Cruz, for one, admits he hasn’t — or are viewing it solely in order to count the number of perceived offenses to public morality. The favorite scenes for this purpose are the final dance scene, which in the film is booed by an appalled audience of mostly parents, some of whom cover the eyes of their younger children, and an earlier scene in which the four girls record themselves dancing in imitation of the music videos Amy has been copying. According to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, these scenes are presumably the gratuitous ones, the “very long scenes with close-up shots of the girls’ bodies.”

But in context, both scenes play quite differently. The second scene, arguably filled with more lingering close-ups, is clearly about the girls’ acting out a fantasy they find thrilling but don’t fully understand, wanting to be filmed to look just like the alluring adult women in the video. They imitate the sexual moves naively, with exaggerated open mouths and pelvic gyrations, in a way that actually emphasizes what young children they still are. In an earlier montage, we saw Amy having some trouble coaching them to stick out their butts far enough in imitation of the choreography.

As for the charge that the girls enacting the main roles were abused or exploited by enacting them, I’d be amazed if they didn’t have a more intelligent and compassionate understanding of their roles and how truthfully those relate to their own life experiences than the willfully blind adult critics lobbing the charges.

It’s hard to believe it can be news that children both long to grow up faster and feel pressured to mature sexually before many of them can emotionally handle it. Or that adults are often so uneasy with children’s emerging sexuality that they do more harm than good trying to ignore, deny, contain, or punish it out of existence. But apparently, these obvious things are news now, and the absurd Cuties scandal is as good an excuse as any to point out that it’s long past time many stunted adults in this society actually grew up and acquired some emotional competence that would allow them to deal, however belatedly, with the facts of life.