Netflix’s Cuties and a Brief Conversation About Child Sexualization in Pop Culture

On August 19, 2020 I saw a Facebook post featuring the original Netflix poster for the Cuties film. I’m going to insert a screenshot of my original reaction.

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At first, I thought it was fake or altered like a lot of incendiary posts on the internet are but nope, it was real. 

I moved from shock to denial and then rationalization within the span of a few minutes because I was trying to make sense of why Netflix would showcase a film that blatantly sexualizes children. And as I looked further into the situation, I realized it was not a Netflix original, it was a French film that had recently premiered at Sundance. I hadn’t heard anything outrageous about the film when it was shown at Sundance so I dug a little deeper and realized that the problem wasn’t with the film, it was with Netflix. Well, sort of. Give me a minute to explain.

The movie was written and directed by Maimouna Doucouré, a Black French filmmaker who is also a woman. She said she created the film to, “highlight how social media pushes girls to mimic sexualized imagery without fully understanding what lies behind it or the dangers involved.” The film follows an eleven-year-old who decides to join a dance crew that enters a twerking competition. There are a few other things that happen but that’s the basic plot.

Netflix decided to run with the idea that sex sells. And normally it does. Sex used to sell cigarettes and now it sells e-cigarettes and vaping. It also sells soap, burgers, perfumes, razors etc. Sex sells everything….except for movies about children. Even if those movies are about children in grownup situations intended for a mature audience.

After I watched the trailer for the film I got the feeling that this was going to be a racier film because the subject matter is provocative. From the trailer, I got the sense that the film had a very strong message of girls coming of age in a world that sexualizes them at a young age. I could also see from the trailer that this film was going to talk a lot about cultural beliefs, growing to know one’s self, and the influences of western identity and the clash of cultural norms. But the trailer also made me feel like this was going to be an inspirational story about a young girl owning her identity, her womanhood, and her sexuality. And I was not here for that because the protagonist is eleven. If the protagonist was fifteen or sixteen I don’t think anyone would have really batted an eye because the topic of teenagers being overly sexualized is commonplace. There may have still been some push back about the poster but nowhere near the storm we have now.

This is why I applaud the writer/director of this film. She boldly went where a lot of people would not dare to go but now she and her award-winning film is facing a lot of public backlash. We live in a shock-value world and a mixture of her subject matter and Netflix’s poor choice of film description and poster has probably stained her film. I know it surely dissuaded me from watching, although, I feel like I was never part of her target audience, to begin with. I’m well aware that sexualization doesn’t start at the quasi-socially acceptable ages of 15 and 16. No, it starts as soon as a child is born in some cases. I recently read an article about a father who sexually assaulted his own daughter who wasn’t even 1 yet. 

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Doucouré’s film probably has merit but it’s a film I’m choosing not to watch. Not because I want to hide from the content but because I’m more than aware of how children are sexualized and how our hyper-connectivity to the internet is also playing a role in it. When “WAP” by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion came out and there was backlash from that and I stood by the song even though it’s not typically what I listen to. I stood by it because most of the claims against the song were baseless, in my opinion, in regards to children. Half the issues we have with our children now is because we’re allowing the internet to raise them instead of actually paying attention to what our children like, what they idolize, and what they consume. That song wasn’t for kids in the same way this movie isn’t for kids. But there are tons of people who would hand their kids an iPad without parental controls engaged and be outraged when they realize their kids are watching this film and then get on social media and tell everyone that this movie is promoting sexualization of kids and pedophilia.  

You can also say that even if she wasn’t intending to, she created pornographic images of children for pedophiles to desire. And I would simply say, again, this film isn’t for me because I don’t want to sit through a film about eleven-year-olds twerking but the images still exist elsewhere. Where do you think she got her inspiration from? 

This sentiment also brings to mind a well-known book titled Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It was published in the 1950s and is well known for its subject matter as well as the amazing narrative devices it used. Humbert Humbert is a middle-aged man who is “seduced” by his twelve-year-old stepdaughter. I was forced to read it in college and I found the book to be amazing but disturbing and at some points physically sickening because the story is written from Humbert’s point of view and he’s an unreliable narrator who doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. You have to read the text as well as what isn’t there in order to understand what’s really happening.

It’s very provocative and it sparked outrage, publication and book bans as well as several film and stage adaptations. And it’s where the term Lolita, a young girl who is sexually promiscuous, comes from. The author wrote the book to try to give a glimpse into the mind of a pedophile. The plot is assumed to be loosely based on two child abductions and rapes that had taken place within a ten-year span of Nabokov writing the book. The only special request he ever made in regards to the book was for the book to never have a little girl on the cover. Never. Skip forward seventy-ish years later and almost all of the covers have little girls on them. And a lot of the covers with little girls on them are little girls in sexually suggestive poses. As the book has been reprinted new covers have been made. You can take a look at 60 versions of the book’s cover here. 

I brought it up just to say that the author wanted to talk about an important but sickening subject matter but he also didn’t want to objectify the real victim of his story but people did it anyway.

If you want to learn more about this or at least hear the film’s creator talk about the controversy, you should read the BBC article that sparked me to write this post.

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