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Why I Wish People Would Give Netflix's 'Cuties' a Chance

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A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the inappropriate hyper-sexualized poster that Netflix used to promote the new French language movie “Cuties.”

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In the article, I stated:

“As a survivor of child sexual abuse and advocate for women and children against sexual violence, I’m appalled at the poor judgment used by Netflix in the promotion of this film. We need to have honest nuanced discourse about the objectification of and exploitation of women and children. According to reviews of the film that I have read, this film purportedly does that, but the crass marketing of it for American audiences has likely limited its accessibility to many who might otherwise have watched it.” 

Since publishing that article, the movie has continued to garner criticism and many have called for it to be removed from the Netflix platform altogether — citing that it is pornographic and encourages pedophilia. I did not want to weigh in on the debate without actually watching the film, partly because I didn’t feel that it was appropriate to demonize something purely from hearsay, and mostly because I had read a number of favorable reviews of the film debunking the criticism. 

Before I weigh in on the film itself, I’d like to mention that aside from being a survivor of sexual abuse and fierce advocate for body safety and age appropriate sexual education, I am also a survivor of cultural objectification of women by a highly patriarchal Hungarian family of women. Additionally, I was a competitive dancer for most of my teens and early 20s, I have a bachelors degree in French and I did my semester abroad in Paris so I tend to have a slight bias toward French film and media. As such, here is my take on the film and controversy. 

The film itself is a thought-provoking piece that at its heart delves into the dangers of social media to children. But it’s much more than that. The film deals with everything from bullying to religious and cultural patriarchy to the difficulties of discovering ones femininity and power in a world where we seldom have healthy or meaningful conversations about what it means to be a woman. I found myself riveted by the acting, the story and the message even if at times it was downright uncomfortable to watch.

From the beginning to the end, the one through line I found to be most disturbing was the utter lack of parental supervision in the lives of these girls. If there is one thing I feel the movie highlights most importantly, it is that children can not discern right from wrong when it comes to social media. All they see is what is popular, and as we all know, being “liked” is so important to teens that they will often do anything to feel like they belong. If parents are uninvolved or unaware of what their children are doing on their phones, there is no safety net in place to keep these kids from acting out of their impulsive need to be accepted.

Another theme that evolves throughout the film is the degree to which Amy, the lead girl, is feeling trapped between two no-win situations. On the one hand, her home environment is a polygamous Muslim family where once a girl gets her period she is considered to be an adult and told by her aunt that at her age she was married and having children. (Since when are 11 year olds mature enough to have children and husbands?) Yet at school, if she wants to fit in, she feels like she has to dress and act in a more grown up, hyper sexualized way, even going as far as posting a photo of her private parts on social media because the school kids teased her for her girlie underwear. The abused little girl inside of me who felt as though she was being objectified and primed to be an eligible “sexy” wife for a future husband fully resonated with this child, and it was quite heart wrenching to watch. 

But let’s get to the heart of the debate surrounding this film — the dancing. Many believe that by having these girls dance in the way they do, these girls are being exploited and therefore the point of the movie is invalidated. Is the dancing far too mature and vulgar for 11-year-old girls? Yes. Is it hard to watch? Absolutely. But… I don’t believe the story would work without the girls actually learning the routine and performing it to a horrified audience (and this particular plot line is based on the lived experience of the director, which is where the idea for the film emerged). Witnessing the awkward evolution of the girls’ dance routine based upon a viral video they see on social media is vital to the story.

I can tell you from personal experience that what they do in their dance routine is not all that shocking when compared with anything I’ve seen on reality TV dance shows or at high school half time shows. This type of dance has become far too normalized — and I believe that is exactly the point the movie is making by shocking the viewer with the movement coming from such young bodies. These children have no idea what the movement means. They aren’t asking to be abused, used or objectified. They just want to win. If a responsible adult had been present to guide them, the routine could have been tempered into something less blatant and more age appropriate, which again comes back to the overarching message of the movie, children cannot exist in a vacuum, they need competent and involved caregivers.

And one final point I’d like to make are about the concerns of these actresses being exploited. As much as we don’t want to believe it, girls this age are sometimes already involved in things like sexting and posting hyper sexualized videos of themselves on social media platforms without the supervision of an adult. In this case, these actresses were not only supervised, but were engaging in the creation of a meaningful dialogue about why this behavior is unacceptable and dangerous. Additionally, the director hired a psychologist to be on the set with the girls to make sure that they were being cared for and had the support they needed. That is not exploitative but rather instructive. And in the grand scheme of things, these young women have been given an opportunity to define for themselves why the exploitation of girls and women is problematic. They have in effect taken back the power and the narrative for themselves of what it means to be feminine.

Should you watch? I’d issue a strong trigger warning because it is difficult to watch and potentially activating. But, if you are interested in seeing something thought provoking I’d highly recommend it. It is unsuitable for younger audiences and it should be viewed through a social justice lens.

Originally published: September 15, 2020
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