Cuties, #CancelNetflix, and the Ongoing Culture Wars

It’s always a shame when the discourse surrounding a film becomes the topic of discussion around the film rather than the merits of the film itself, not in the least because the discourse is generally founded in untruths and distortions purely created to be hateful and prove a sense of moral superiority for people who never had any interest in watching the film in the first place and indeed generally haven’t done so. Following such debates as the claim the American flag wasn’t shown on the moon in First Man (it was) and the yearly outrage that Starbucks is “taking the Christ out of Christmas” by selling coffee in red cups (really?), one of America’s most asinine traditions, the culture war, has resurfaced for some pearl clutching outrage about the recent Netflix release Cuties.

The film, a debut feature from French director Maïmouna Doucouré, the daughter of Senegalese immigrants, follows a young girl, Amy, from a devout Muslim family who searches for some escape from her upbringing and finds it in a group of friends with a passion for dancing and a desire to seem adult. Contrary, however, to the wildly irresponsible initial marketing campaign that choose to highlight half of a purposely inflammatory scene while using a still from it on the posters, Cuties isn’t a film that serves to glorify and exploit the sexualization of children but one that takes pains to stand firmly in opposition to it while illustrating all of the detrimental effects attempting to be an adult can have on a child. Further, it isn’t the anti-Muslim campaign that others have made it out to be, but a Muslim director’s look at just what sorts of practices from her childhood have the potential to push someone to reject their upbringing. In fact, on a number of levels, Cuties supports many of the ideas its greatest detractors hold dear.

Regrettably, for many, the initial advertising campaign was enough to make them entirely disregard the actual film and pick up pitchforks to combat their notion of what it was. Soon after the release of the first poster and trailer, prompted by the outrage, Netflix changed the marketing materials to better reflect the film and issued an official apology to Doucouré, who had not been involved in the marketing, and the outrage began to die down as news spread that the gun had likely been jumped and perhaps the outrage was unfounded in reality, but not before certain groups, primarily made up of conservatives, had seized upon it. Among the most loathsome of the propagators of this idea that Cuties was exploiting children was QAnon, a community (read: cult) who, to simplify things, essentially believe the majority of people in positions of power in all industries are pedophiles, with some going so far as to claim Jews are harvesting the blood of Christian children, and, perplexingly, they believe Donald Trump is combating these supposed pedophiles. The numerous sexual assault claims filed against Trump, including those concerning minors, apparently mean nothing. Basically, it follows that they would choose a film directed by a Black Muslim woman as their target. Similarly, it’s no coincidence that the film is being distributed by a company the Obamas have a deal with. 

QAnon, coupled with numerous other bad faith actors apparently looking to stir up controversy, seized onto clips taken out of context and grossly exaggerated descriptions of scenes in the film. They managed to amass an army of seemingly regular people who became quickly radicalized and ready to assault any film critic or casual moviegoer who happened to see some value in Cuties. Ironically, the people actively engaged in destroying the planet, encouraging the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and teaching their children to hate anyone remotely different from themselves are the ones who proclaimed themselves the authorities on moral subjects. Also, what happened to their tirades against “cancel culture?” Curiously, this occurred just after tapes revealed Donald Trump had downplayed the severity of the coronavirus and caused tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of preventable deaths to occur. Just one day after this admission, #CancelNetflix and #Cuties were trending topics on Twitter, each with more tweets ascribed to them than any related to the gross incompetence of the president. As I write this, both remain trending at a rate that has only increased.

Talking about film is always somewhat difficult online, with so many being determined to have an immediate and inflammatory opinion that the actual watching of a movie often fails to occur and judgements made based off of clips out of context or two lines of a plot summary are not uncommon in the least. Last year, two of the finest performances of the season, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story, were lambasted based on a single clip that made them seem wholly unrealistic when seen alone but stood as one of the greatest showcases of their acting when viewed with the whole film in mind. No one should give their opinions without being informed (which does in fact mean watching the film being discussed), lest they prove their ignorance, but few seem swayed by this line of thinking. This case is not dissimilar to Marriage Story, with a clip of an incredibly uncomfortable dance sequence being widely shared. What this neglects to consider is that the dance was used by Amy as an escape from attending her father’s wedding and that during the dance, mere seconds after the clip cuts, Amy breaks down in tears and is unable to continue dancing, realizing that it isn’t what she should be doing.

Throughout the film, the other instances of the supposed exploitation of children (generally occurring out of frame or off-screen altogether) are all attempts to be adult, the greatest wish I and so many others had as children, and are depicted as being mistakes and an unfortunate result of a backwards world. Is this so different from the young children in last year’s Good Boys playing with sex toys and watching porn? They too made a point through juxtaposing the innocence of childhood with sexuality only for comedic purposes rather than condemnation of such practices, its leads just had the luck of being male and subject to less scrutiny. I encourage you to look up the reactions to WAP if you don’t believe there is still more intense scrutiny on female sexuality compared to male, even today. To anyone who watches a film where sexualized attempts to be an adult are met with isolation from family and friends are a depiction of said behaviors, I offer the old adage “depiction does not equal endorsement” and inquire whether you think it would be pretty cool to be a mobster in Goodfellas. Would it not be better to go after the likes of Dance Moms or Toddlers in Tiaras that do show suggestive dancing and beauty pageants for young kids as something to strive for than the film that chooses to depict the downfalls of such a lifestyle and culture? 

Were the question being debated actually what can be expected of a child actor in order for a thought-provoking and insightful story to be told, assuming such measures as parental consent and the use of psychologists to ensure the children know what they are doing—both of which were implemented with Cuties—there could be some interesting ideas worth plenty of discussion. It’s hardly a new question. In 1978, Pretty Baby, a much more explicit film which sees a twelve-year-old Brooke Shields playing a child prostitute and appearing fully nude, premiered and received a similar blowback but was allowed to play in cinemas and received praise from many, including Roger Ebert. The debate between what constitutes art or pornography has been around much longer than that with certain puritanical figures in history suggesting nude statues and paintings were obscene. I doubt the line between the two will ever be fully resolved as the two groups combating each other most every time seem to have no understanding of each other. Fears about art don’t stop at sex though. The “Harry Potter inspires Satanic activities” and “video games are the cause of mass shootings” crowds have been vocal in their opposition in recent years. The great fear of anything that could tempt change and encourage understanding will never diminish.

However, this debate isn’t really what’s happening, as much as some people would like you to believe it is. Instead, the unfortunate confluence of American puritanism and French cinema’s penchant for shocking content (a longstanding source of conflict) with Internet outrage culture. The result: most any critic who has written about the film has received accusations of pedophilia, and in some cases death threats, from people who largely seem to have been pushed to the fringe by a disgusting misinformation campaign intended to sow hatred. I know many of these people who have been the targets of this harassment. They are people who I have shared meals and memories with. They are good people in every sense of the term, as I hope I am. They are people who did their jobs with the knowledge that they may be harassed for it, and they are people that happened to find an assured feature directorial debut that made great use of the cinematic arts to highlight the issues of today. Consider this: if a film is able to make millions of people consider the issues it takes a stand against and react with greater resolve to fix them than anything in recent memory, is that film not a resounding success and an important work of art? 

Essays

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