Updated: Apr 6, 2022
"My aesthetic perspective is to hold a mirror in front of the world so that we as adults are able to see what we have created." -Maïmouna Doucouré, writer-director of "Cuties"
Understanding the Hysteria
There is nothing new about mass hysteria surrounding films, sometimes before those films are even released. Usually this hysteria fixates on films which attack something “sacred,” like religion or a religious figure. In the latest attacks on Netflix's “Cuties,” the sacred object under attack is childhood, specifically as it is stolen from young girls by early sexualization.
And to be clear, I understand the hysteria. I have long felt horrified by the sexualization of women and young girls in popular culture, and watching this film was an exercise in emotional stamina. But when the film ended and I had time to sit with my discomfort, I couldn't help but think, "This is the film we deserve."
There have been long debates on the role of artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creators in manufacturing reality (do violent video games create violence in the real world?) as well as their role in witnessing an ugly reality (is graphic depiction of rape ever acceptable, even though it happens in the real world?). Maïmouna Doucouré, the writer and director of "Cuties" has said that her "aesthetic perspective is to hold a mirror in front of the world." In creating this film, she "spent 18 months doing research, interviewing hundreds of young, pre-teen girls, gathering their stories and experiences of being exposed to adult material and sexualized images on social media."
While this may be interesting behind-the-scenes information for other films, it's essential to our discussion about the morality of this controversial film. Doucouré is at the very least doing what she claims to be doing: not encouraging or manufacturing a reality, but bearing witness to the ongoing fact of the sexualization of young girls. She said, “There were actually so many stories which were so far beyond what you see in the film, and I just did not have the artistic courage to tell those stories on the screen. Stories of young girls who are 12 years old and prostituting themselves. All of these stories just made my blood run cold."
Still, some have questioned whether she went too far. Is it moral to sexualize young girls in order to condemn the sexualization of young girls?
First, let's look at some other elements that have been ignored by film critics who seemed too busy dealing with controversy to explore other essential themes.
It's Not Just About Sexualization
“We’re used to saying that women in other cultures are oppressed, but the question that I had while making the film was: Isn’t the objectification of a woman’s body that we often see in Western culture another kind of oppression?" -Maïmouna Doucouré
A quick overview: The protagonist of the film is an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant named Amy who rebels against her conservative Muslim family in order to join a group of girls and their dance troupe. Finding inspiration from music videos online, they begin practicing sexually explicit dance moves. Make no mistake: these dances are shockingly erotic. Doucouré claims that the film's depictions are nothing compared to what you can find online, but for those who haven't reached those dark places of the internet, it is deeply uncomfortable to watch. As Amy tries to find her voice, she is torn between two undesirable options: the strict confines of her religiously conservative upbringing, and the sexualization which seems to offer her only chance at being noticed.
In the world of her conservative home, Amy is diminutive and silent in a hoodie, her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. The viewer can't help but feel her happiness when, after joining the clique of rebellious pre-teens, she struts into her middle school in a bright red top and mini shorts, her hair bouncing around her head like a halo while she walks. She is finally being noticed, and her joy and confidence are palpable. This is a well-made film, which means the theme is seen in its complexity, and there are no easy answers. Clearly, Amy's ownership of her body and her newfound beauty feels exhilarating and empowering. But this empowerment is undermined immediately by the reality of her culture's expectations. She realizes that this sexualization is not a choice she understands or can control. Her barely adolescent body is too young to be controlled by anything but her desire to be loved. As she grows to understand the price of being seen as a young woman (and as I wrote in my memoir, "a woman is seen only when she is sexualized"), her behavior becomes increasingly problematic.
And this introduces another possible theme which must be entertained. In The Wise Wound, Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove argue that our collective discomfort with menstruation insinuates itself into our films in sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle ways. An eleven to thirteen-year-old girl becomes possessed by a demon of temporary insanity (demonic possession being a common menstrual association in early cultures), and often erratic sexual or violent behavior results.
Amy does start her period in the film, a pool of blood gathering between her legs as an auntie rushes to help. And demonic episodes are at the very least insinuated. She shoves another girl into a river as a
inexplicable rage distorts her face; she stabs a boy's hand with a pen in the middle of class after he yells "slut." When her mother learns of the mid-class stabbing and rumors of her sexual behavior, she hits her, screaming, and then joins another family member at a masjid to throw cold water on Amy's body. Her violent convulsions beneath the cold water appear unmistakably to be the doings of an exorcism. But then the convulsions transform into manic twerking, and we realize the truth: it's sex they are trying to exorcise from her young body. This blurring of the demonic and the sexual is a classic "menstruating demon" trope.
But her religious culture's discomfort surrounding sex means that all female sexuality is potentially demonic. In a way, the clashing subjugations of both her religious and secular cultures seem to mutually reinforce one another with an unhealthy dualism around women's bodies. Either a sexual woman is possessed by a demon or by a sex-obsessed culture which possesses her. In no culture is she offered the option of self-possession.
In another example of this dualism, Amy's mother prepares to welcome her husband’s marriage to his second wife with tears and silent despair. Amy herself sometimes opens her closet to see the dress she is meant to wear to her father's wedding, and sometimes the dress becomes animate, breathing as if inhabited by a ghost, staining with blood before she starts her period.
Some filmmakers were uncertain about this device, but I thought it pointed to another overlooked theme. Earlier in the film, Amy scares her brother by telling him about ghosts who eat humans. In the last scene of the film, she meets her father's second wife who is clothed from head to foot in white. The new wife doesn't speak and doesn't show her face, but Amy's eyes widen in terror before she runs away, as if having seen a ghost. In fact, she has. In one culture, a woman is a bodiless ghost, as evidenced by the empty, yet breathing dress. In the other, a woman is a soulless body. In neither is she offered humanity.
But Is The Film Moral?
“The books [or films] that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” -Oscar Wilde
Of course the film isn't moral. But maybe this is the wrong question. We have become so immune to the boundary-crossing pornography of mainstream media that we are incapable of being shocked. We are oblivious to the ways that objectification of women seeps into the consciousness of our young girls, completely re-writing their feelings of personal worth.
I am reminded of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray which was itself an object of cultural hysteria. Some book reviewers insisted he be prosecuted for violating the laws of public morality, and Wilde offered the above quote in its defense: “The books [or films] that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”
Which, incidentally, was a theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel's protagonist was a narcissistic hedonist who sold his soul to the devil in order to retain his beauty and youth. The wear of his spiritually absent lifestyle would disfigure the portrait instead of his own face and body. Not wanting to see the gradual decay of his inner state, he hid the portrait for many years. When he uncovered it many years later, he was horrified by its ugliness and began to stab it. The servants came to investigate the commotion and found a portrait of a beautiful young man. But Dorian was dead—stabbed in the chest. By trying to destroy the evil in the portrait, he could only kill himself.
Oscar Wilde knew that humans stab at depictions of evil because we are too cowardly to see its source within. I can't help but draw a parallel with Doucouré's Cuties. The cultural hysteria is a reminder of this psychological truth: we attack in the world what most shames us about ourselves. Perhaps the beauty of our culture distracts us—the convenience, entertainment, and ease. But beneath this beauty is the dehumanizing force of a society which has not just become technologically advanced but which sees the world technologically. The objectification of reality (long ago diagnosed by Heidegger) can't help but lead to the objectification of both nature and other humans. In this ontology-deep disease, the most vulnerable or oppressed suffer the sting of de-personalization almost as much as the silent earth. A human becomes a tool for either pleasure or pain, rather than autonomous and complex individuals in their own right. The objectification of women is just one such tragic inevitability, one which reaches further and further into girlhood with the advent of the internet.
If Doucouré wanted to hold a mirror up to the world, she has done so successfully, and we cannot help but recoil in shame. To those who are feeding the hysteria about "Cuties" with their moralistic rage, turn that mirror on society instead. Channel that rage and disgust into every song, music video, social media site, advertising platform, and seemingly innocuous cultural belief that turns women into objects. This cultural virus grows less scrupulous each year, reaching even (and especially) to infect young girls who are hungry for love. Any attempt to attack such depictions in film rather than addressing the culture's sickness beneath is like Dorian stabbing at his own ugliness depicted in a portrait.