Tuesday, August 9, 2022

I Watched “Cuties” On Netflix and We Need to Talk About Sexualization

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Twenty-seven years ago, I was eleven years old and in sixth grade. Back then I was just becoming aware of sex, so, I still had no understanding of what it actually meant.

Sometimes, I’d see advertisements about safe sex, and I understood that they were talking about using a condom for doing grownup things, but beyond that, I was in the dark.

My mother was angry every time we came across one of those ads and that infamous phrase, “no glove, no love.” In those days, AIDS hysteria was still pretty strong, and the Black girl group “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px);”>TLC was known for accessorizing their clothing with condoms.

Occasionally, I saw snippets of the TV shows my older sister watched like Melrose Place or Beverly Hills 90210. Movies like Pretty In Pink or The Breakfast Club. From VH1 to MTV, it seemed like all people in the secular world talked about was sex.

At least, according to my little Christian bubble.

My mother, who intended to shield me from all of these sexual things, had a strange way of bringing them up to me. She let me listen to some secular music, including Richard Marx, until she complained that he’d made a joke on some late show saying, “This is the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on.”

I still didn’t know what she meant about what he said. She talked about sex like this nebulous, evil thing. As if it was a trap, and I was bound to fall into it if I wasn’t perfectly obedient.

When I think about my life at eleven, what I feel is confusion and dread. My mother and the church talked so much about the evils of sex in the media, that I doubt they ever realized the damage they were doing.

Their fears meant I never had anyone in my life to help me understand sex or my body. As my classmates started to talk about sex at that age, they began to pair up into couples and talk about making out or dating.

The whole time, I felt like an outsider. I watched my peers drift in and out of a more grownup world I couldn’t follow or understand.


When I first heard about the controversy surrounding the Cuties film on Netflix, it seemed pretty cut and dry. I fully expected to side against the film as yet another misguided attempt to entertain us, perhaps like Toddlers & Tiaras, or its various and equally disturbing spin-offs.

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just some of the images that pop up on Google when you search Toddlers & Tiaras

On multiple social media posts, other people told me that they’d watched the film and were appalled the entire time. A few folks told me they couldn’t even get through the first twenty minutes because it was so full gratuitous scenes and sexual innuendo. I almost believed those stories, but something about what those folks were saying just didn’t ring true.

So, I started reading more about the film. Why Maïmouna Doucouré made it, how she made it, and what it stood for. One thing that stuck out to me was the way Doucouré talked about working with the young, first-time actors.

“Because they were children, I worked in a specific way,” Doucouré says, describing the games she played on set with the children and how she encouraged them to visualize themselves as different animals to help with the characterization. It is this combination of childlike naivety and overt sexuality that sometimes makes for uneasy viewing, as viewers are forced to position their gaze on the bodies of Amy and the Cuties.

— ‘ “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px);”>This Film Is Sounding an Alarm.’ What Cuties Director Maïmouna Doucouré Wants Critics to Know About Her New Film

Doucouré told Refinery29 that she specifically hired a psychologist for the young actresses, and stressed that she walked them through her thinking behind every scene in the film. “We communicated a lot about why I was making this movie,” she said. “It was important that they understand. I think this is a movie that will facilitate important conversations between pre-teens, teenagers, and their parents. I wanted the actresses to know the real activism that this movie was coming from, and the feminist ideology it represented.”

—  “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px);”>Why Is Ted Cruz So Worked Up About Netflix’s Cuties?

The more I read about the film, the angrier I felt that people were just writing it off as “child pornography.” I began to wonder how many people describing the objectionable scenes had actually watched it. When I even suggested that people listen to the filmmaker or watch the movie before deciding that the child actors had been sexualized or abused, people (mostly men) ridiculed me. Some called me a bad mother. Others called me a pervert.

Deciding I needed to watch the movie for myself, I blocked off two workdays to do it while my daughter was in school.


The first time I watched Cuties, I documented some of my initial thoughts on Twitter. What really surprised me was how few truly questionable scenes there were.

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Me, on Twitter

It’s hard to say what I even expected from Cuties given all of the controversy. In a way, I suppose I expected to be appalled. At least a little bit. When people keep shouting about “sexualization,” I expect there to actually be a problem.

But the only problem I found was that the people opposing this film clearly don’t know what sexualization means. And they hadn’t even watched the film.

“); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px);”>According to the American Psychological Association, sexualization occurs “when a person’s value comes only from her/his sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified, e.g., made into a thing for another’s sexual use.”

Why is sexualization such a problem? The APA says there’s been more than enough research evidence that shows “the sexualization of girls negatively affects girls and young women across a variety of health domains.” Those domains include cognitive and emotional consequences, mental and physical health, and sexual development.

When I watch Cuties (and I’ve seen it four times now), I don’t catch any sexualization. I understand this is hard for many other adults to grasp. But what I see are girls imitating the behavior they think makes them more grown-up.

People think that Cuties sexualizes the actresses because, Netflix bombed on the initial marketing, the kids often bare their midriffs and wear tight pants or short shorts, and they twerk or dance suggestively. It’s a problem when we decide that children’s bodies are inherently — and inappropriately — sexual. But that’s what’s happening among critics of Cuties.

You have to understand, and try to remember what it’s like to be eleven years old. You might need to imagine what it’s like to be an eleven-year-old girl. Young girls repeating the dance moves they see grown women perform isn’t sexual. A child’s stomach or butt isn’t suddenly sexualized just because she’s twerking. And children asking questions about sex is not sexual either. All of these things are just normal kid stuff. Does it make adults uncomfortable? Of course, because we know that their behavior could be misinterpreted.

Children rely upon the adults in their world and the culture(s) they live in to help make sense of themselves and the society around them. It’s our job to put sex and adulthood into context for them so they can move on and be kids. Part of our job is to be honest and move on too, rather than making them feel dirty or frightened.

“); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px);”>VeryWellMind has a helpful primer for those who aren’t sure what sexualization means or why it’s so problematic. But to be fair, the sexualization of girls is a woman’s issue — something more than one man has tried to fight me about in all of this Cuties drama.

Furthermore, when we talk about the sexualization of girls and women, we need to be honest about what it is that we find offensive. When it comes to Cuties, it looks like folks are more riled up about the Blackness that’s front and center — whether they realize it or not.

After all, so many of the men criticizing this film are the same ones who support “purity rings,” and “virginity checks” for their daughters. They have no problem making a woman’s (or daughter’s) virginity her most precious commodity, and they can’t see how that in turn sexualizes little girls.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised when the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) came out against Cuties. You might know NCOSE by its former — and more accurate name — Morality in Media. This is a conservative, predominantly Catholic organization founded in 1963.

NCOSE is known for misinformation. And while its message sounds good (because who doesn’t want to end sexual exploitation), it’s really just a front group to fight against sex education, marriage equality, sex work, and even sex toys.

The outrage against Cuties feels like a reminder of everything that’s wrong with 2020, and the pure dismissiveness of the critics is probably what enrages me the most.

For what amounts to less than 15 minutes of dancing that’s been wildly misconstrued and taken out of context, people are flipping out and missing everything else that happens in the film. And in case you haven’t heard, it is an ambitious and engaging film. This is an authentic coming-of-age story without the shiny or saccharine Hollywood spin.

It’s authentic and passionate and therefore, it’s likely bound to rub folks the wrong way.

By the end of the film, I found myself tearing up because it was such a genuine work of art. Sadly, the family trauma, the loneliness, and the mental health issues are being brutally ignored as we fight to get folks to simply watch the movie. The juxtaposition of clashing cultures without actually demonizing either one was beautifully done.

What about the argument that pedophiles are going to get a thrill from this film? The reality is that pedophiles can get an inappropriate thrill from anything.

As Mara Wilson pointed out, she didn’t have to do any remotely unsavory films to wind up on pedophilia websites or get unwanted attention from grown men when she was a child actor.

As a result of Facebook conversations over this very issue, I found one woman bragging about having a Ph.D and insisting that Cuties is just the sort of film that the male sexual offenders she counsels look for. Considering that the same woman was also shaming mothers on Facebook for sharing photos of their babies (since pedophiles might like that), I can’t respect “experts” who remove personal responsibility from sex offenders only to lay that blame upon the shoulders of women and girls. But that’s precisely what purity culture does, and right now we’re seeing a lot of it come out of folks who formerly denounced the stuff.

One of the worst things to come from Cuties has nothing to do with the film itself. The mansplaining really sucks. Men who assure me that I’m blind to the realities of sexualization. Male friends who deeply disappoint me by refusing to hear me out, and the guys who refuse to watch the movie because they think it’s somehow still wrong.

Over the past week, more than ten grown men have lectured me on all the ways they think Cuties might “make a man stumble.” Others insist it sets a bad precedent.

A bad precedent for what? Female-driven dramas without the male gaze? Stories centered on Black voices? To be honest, I can’t say enough good things about this movie. I’m certainly not the only woman who feels this way either.

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When Cuties was met with high praise at Sundance, it wasn’t because of some seedy, secret pedophilia ring. It wasn’t because Cuties is child pornography — it’s not even close.

The film clocks in at an hour and thirty-four minutes. Who’s gullible enough to believe that an hour and twenty minutes of an entire film is really just a cover for the less than 15 minutes of dancing?

Please.

Let’s quit blaming women and girls for the moral shortcomings of men. If a man watches this film and somehow struggles with his sexual thought life, he needed help a long time ago. Let him go and get that help but quit trying to censor Black female voices.

If anything, let this be a reminder that eleven-year-old girls need us to quit closing our eyes to real life.

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