On Cuties and Moral Panics

For some time now, a number of online voices have been raging against the French film Mignones (“Cuties”) because (they argue)  it “legitimizes pedophilia.” Such is the scandal that a US Senator said they might subpoena the CEO of Netflix to testify about the company’s decision to carry the film, and a Texas Representative requested the TX Attorney General to investigate the film for “possible violations of child exploitation and child pornography laws”. Almost 400,000 people have signed a petition demanding that Netflix removes the film, because “it sexualizes an ELEVEN year old for the viewing pleasure of pedophiles and also negatively influences our children!“. #CancelNetflix is now trending, and a large number of people sincerely believe that this film seeks to make pedophilia OK; as one tinfoil hat-wearing right-wing commentator wrote, “the normalization of pedophilia is not a right-wing fairy tale or a QAnon conspiracy theory. It is real and happening right now. And Netflix has made clear what side of the issue it falls on.”

So, seeing that so many people were angry about the film, that we were all being encouraged not to watch it, and that so many accusations were simply absurd, I did what any thinking person should do before making a judgment: I watched the goddamn movie.

Since I understand that many people might not be inclined to watch the entire thing, but want to know what it’s all about, I will first provide a very, very fast summary of the plot. Since it contains spoilers, just click the button below to see it.

Click here to read the plot (WITH SPOILERS)
Amy is an 11-year old girl living in France, who struggles to fit in within her very conservative Senegalese-Muslim family. Polygamy is not unheard of in Senegal, and Amy’s mother is having a hard time accepting that her husband has married another woman (in Senegal), and that he is planning to bring her to live with them. Amy resents this dynamic of the subservient position of women within those families, and starts to rebel. The first way in which she does this is by befriending a bunch of troublesome girls in her school, who dress as if they were much older than they are, and all of whom dream to win a local dance competition. Amy manages to be accepted by them by learning how to dance based on the music videos she finds online, and which feature a lot of twerking, and very sexual movements. She imitates these movements in order to convince the other girls that she is good at dancing. The girls then develop a dancing routine that features the same kind of “sensual” movements that they saw in the music videos. As the final competition approaches, Amy struggles more and more to find her own identity between this strange “grown up” world, and her conservative family. She wants to be seen as “wild”, so she posts a nude of herself (which we don’t see, obviously) on Instagram, only to then be rejected by her classmates and friends, who see her actions as going too far, and call her a “whore”. When the girls finally get to dance their routine in front of an audience, adults boo and heckle them for their extremely inappropriate dancing. Amy goes home, and realizes that her identity is not that of her family, but it’s also not what she has seen in music videos. She is something else.

If you’ve followed the social media frenzy around this film, you might be surprised that I did not mention any children having sex, being nude, engaging in masturbation, or doing something sexual with an adult. After all, considering the level of hatred generated by this film, it almost feels like there must be some extremely disgusting child-abuse content in it. But there isn’t. The dance scenes in the film, where the girls dance the way they learned in music videos (including twerking, and humping the floor) are there, and they are really awkward to watch, but they are not portrayed as positive, good for the children, or as behaviors that more kids should engage in. On the contrary, they are shown as a desperate attempt by this immigrant child to fit in within a culture she does not understand, and overcompensating for the conservatism of her own family. It is also used to contrast expectations that exist about children’s sexual development, as Amy’s clothing is criticized by a conservative relative, who also mentions in passing that, when she was Amy’s age, she was already married. It’s the contrast between a child seen as too young to dance, or to think about sex,  but old enough (in some cultures) to be married (Turkey’s increasingly totalitarian Islamic government, has already banned the film).

Even though the movie portrays the hypersexualized dancing as negative, some have argued that the mere act of showing that dancing is, in itself,  a very bad thing, since its mere portrayal encourages pedophilia. Never mind the fact that, by that standard, Schindler’s List should be considered an antisemitic film because of its portrayal of the holocaust; or how Casualties of War must endorse rape by portraying the rape of Vietnamese women at the hands of US soldiers. It is a nonsensical argument that, nonetheless, has managed to capture the imaginations of many, all of whom have fallen under the spell of the same Satanic Panic mantra of “protect the children“, and which lead to panics around movies, video games, and heavy metal music. This is not to say that the movie is for everyone. It was uncomfortable to see young children dance like Cardi B, and I could imagine a different way of filming them that would have been less explicit. At the same time, I think there’s a certain benefit to showing exactly what children are imitating from the media that they consume, instead of just pretending otherwise.

Boys will be boys!

Perhaps a big part of this controversy can be understood through the buzz generated by one specific scene. At one point, some of Amy’s friends watch a porn video on their phone (we don’t see the video), and talk about penises. Though scandalized people might have forgotten, the fact remains that children talk about sex, think about sex, and many of them end up finding pornography online (often before they’re 10). This is, in fact, a common trope of coming of age films and books, as boys are portrayed as obsessed with “boobies,” looking for porn, and trying to catch a glimpse of classmates in P.E. classes. The difference this time around is that girls are the ones awkwardly (and inappropriately) exploring sex, and many in our society see that as problematic.  For them, sex is the exclusive domain of men, while women are not supposed to think about it, unless they are with a man. It’s the Madonna/Whore dychotomy that shapes so much of our culture’s approach to sex and sexuality.

One of the saddest things about this film is that none of the behaviors portrayed in it are made up. On the contrary; in the real world children are indeed exposed to extremely sexualized media, which they then imitate on their own social media. Many children grow up under a constant pressure to have sex, to prove themselves, to be perceived as “cool”, and “grown up.” Many start having sex when they are much too young, and before they are mature enough to discuss sexuality. Apparently, many of the adults in our society also lack that maturity. Instead of having a dialogue about media and children’s sexualization, they have decided to be angry about a film they haven’t watched, for content it does not have, because they dislike things it does not promote. Because Netflix made a bad poster for it.

What I find frightening about the  reaction against “Cuties” is how easily people have been manipulated into believing the most atrocious things about a movie they have not seen. People are certainly able to dislike the film, or question its approach to the topic, but the ease with which they have accepted somebody else’s opinions about the film, even though those others haven’t seen the film either, and have started a crusade against it, is something that should give us pause. The manner in which politicians have pushed for banning media in order to “protect the children” ought to make us all think twice about how quickly witch hunts can begin, and how quickly they get out of control.

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