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Artillery Row

Cuties: how Netflix normalised the sexualisation of children

Netflix’s latest controversy has highlighted another troubling conflict between the Right and the Left

If Cuties had been a novel, I doubt that anyone would have minded much. As it is, this film – originally titled Mignonnes, and written and directed by French-Senegalese Maïmouna Doucouré in her feature directorial debut – has become a crucial wedge issue in an international culture war. So much so that #CancelNetflix has now been trending on twitter on-and-off for weeks and some Republicans are demanding that Netflix executives face a criminal investigation for, as Representative Jim Banks put it, “distribution of child pornography.”

But first: the plot, because the plot is important. The protagonist is 11-year-old Amy, who lives with her Senegalese family in a poor district of Paris. When Amy’s father announces his intention to take a second wife, Amy and her mother are heartbroken, and the rupture pushes Amy away from her conservative religious community and into the orbit of a group of girls who call themselves the “Cuties”.

The Cuties are not nice girls. They bully Amy and each other, they physically attack other children, they steal, they lie, and they also… twerk. Aged 11, they have formed an amateur dance troupe and adopted skimpy outfits and a gyrating style that is a world away from anything Amy has experienced before.

Paedophiles won’t notice the story’s about-face – they’ll be too busy replaying the dance scenes

The girls aren’t groomed by anyone, and in fact we never see any overt acts of sexual aggression. They learn to grind and pout via the internet, particularly a social media marketplace in which pre-teen sexualisation is well rewarded with likes and follows. In one scene, Amy sits among older women in prayer, while under her veil she furtively watches video on her stolen smartphone of adult women slapping each other’s naked buttocks. Thrilled by the aesthetic, Amy teaches the other girls to add more explicit moves to their routine, and in one particularly unwatchable scene the children encourage each other to jiggle their tiny backsides and hump the floor in an imitation of pornified ecstasy.

This scene goes on forever, as do half a dozen other similar scenes, one of which has been widely shared on twitter. Both Netflix and Doucouré have defended the film by pointing out that it is intended as a commentary on the harms of child sexualisation. The problem is that it also features a lot of child sexualisation, and does so through exploiting real children. The actresses are just as young as their characters, and they have been taught by adults to play out these excruciating scenes, producing images that will now be available forever.

Rather abruptly, at the very end of the film, Amy rejects the Cuties and returns to her family. The final shot shows her dressed in modest Western clothing, having apparently found a happy medium between conservatism and liberalism. Some critics have suggested that this ending absolves the film of any wrongdoing. This is folly. Gleeful paedophiles won’t notice the story’s about-face – they’ll be too busy replaying the dance scenes over and over again, with no fear of prosecution.

Doucouré won the Directing Award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is by all accounts a talented woman. Perhaps, in some other medium, this story could have worked, since the central focus on the conflict between African traditionalism and Western liberalism is an interesting one. But in making a film that dwells so lasciviously on its child actors’ bodies, Doucouré has tried to walk a tightrope between edginess and obscenity and, in the eyes of many commentators, has tumbled into a moral abyss.

It’s quite possible that Doucouré herself is entirely oblivious to the fact that her film features soft core child porn. Netflix executives, however, cannot hide behind a claim of naiveté. One need only look at the original marketing for the film, in which four very young actresses were dressed in glorified bikinis and arranged in suggestive poses. The original blurb (now removed) described the plot:

Amy, 11, becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew. Hoping to join them, she starts to explore her femininity, defying her family’s traditions.

If you bristled at the words “explore her femininity”, you weren’t alone. When Netflix first added the film to its platform, there was near instantaneous uproar on social media. The issue has since become highly politicised and has highlighted a troubling conflict between the Right and the Left on the issue of paedophilia.

Despite (in fact, I would suggest, largely because of) the controversy surrounding the film’s child sexualisation themes, Cuties has received positive reviews in outlets including The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and (rather surprisingly) The Telegraph, whose critic tweeted his delight that the film had “pissed off all the right people”. The word “hysterical” recurs in these reviews, alongside the suggestion that the outrage over Cuties is wholly disproportionate and stems solely from a Right-wing moral panic over paedophilia.

Perhaps a tolerance on the Left for twerking 11-year olds has more disturbing ideological roots

Troublingly, it seems that a section of the Left now considers a concern over child sexualisation to be rather cranky. Perhaps this is the result of a straightforward reaction against whatever it is that the Right hate most, part of the process of polarisation that pushes both camps towards increasingly extreme political positions. Or perhaps a tolerance on the Left for twerking 11-year olds has deeper and more disturbing ideological roots, given that a distaste for any kind of sexual norm does lead, if pushed to its logical conclusion, to questioning the legitimacy of the age of consent. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that paedophiles have found themselves welcomed by mainstream figures on the Left.

This distaste for sexual norms has led to a relentless push, push, push over the last half century against the boundaries of acceptability when it comes to public sexual display. When the 1994 “Hello, Boys” Wonderbra posters showed us a seemingly delighted Eva Herzigova admiring her own boosted cleavage, rumour had it that some male motorists were so distracted by this novel image that they crashed their cars. Twenty-five years on, the poster now look hopelessly tame, hyper-sexualised advertising having become ubiquitous.

Gritty depictions of child sexualisation are not entirely new. Taxi Driver (1976), Pretty Babies (1978), and Thirteen (2003) all portrayed pre-pubescent girls in sexually inappropriate scenarios. But Cuties goes further than any of these films in not only suggesting sexualisation, but actually showing it, and at length. The film takes an already increasingly sexualised art form and deliberately breaks a new taboo, under the mistaken belief that this particular taboo was in need of breaking.

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