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‘Cuties’ is Dangerous, Even if it Wasn’t Meant to Be

Visual representations of exploitation are almost always pulled into a kind of exploitation themselves.

Netflix gained a lot of free publicity for the French film Cuties through its initial promotional posters, which drew a backlash and then an apology. The French film is a coming-of-age story centered on Amy, a pre-teen French-Senegalese girl who rejects one kind of exploitation for another. Amy is alienated from her conservative, Muslim family when her father plans to take a second wife. She looks for a new identity and finds it by joining a dance group that takes their cues from pornography and other hypersexualized women.

The initial advertising presented the hypersexualization without any hint of critique. It showed the young actresses in provocative poses, and made it appear that the intended audience for the film was people who wanted to see prepubescent children sexualized.

To an extent, Netflix was right about the audience—though the goal of Maïmouna Doucouré, the writer and director of the film, was to unsettle these people, not titillate them. She drew inspiration for the story when she was shocked and sickened by seeing a group of eleven-year-old girls perform risqué dances. She interviewed pre-teen girls to make her film, learning from them the double pressure they felt: first, to exploit themselves for social media attention and second, to call their experience of exploitation liberation.

I’m very sympathetic to her critique, and I appreciate that she grounded her film in real experiences, but I’m profoundly skeptical of offering that critique through film. Critiquing hypersexualization through visual art is very difficult. How can you show the exploitation of a child to critique the exploitation of children? How can you expose the ugliness of a culture that’s entered the mainstream without being even uglier than what people have already acclimated themselves to?

Any live-action critique of sexualization runs the risk of having its point eclipsed by the lurid exploitation on display. The Weimar-set musical Cabaret has suffered the same kind of drift as Cuties. The strippers at the Kit Kat Klub are intended to be seedy and exhausted, not glamorous. When Sally Bowles sings, in the final number, “Life is a cabaret, my friends, and I love a cabaret!” it’s not an anthem of empowerment, but a moment of giddy nihilism. But you’d never know it from the ads that plastered the Long Island Rail Road when I was growing up, pitching the musical to families as a thrilling night out, not the story of people subsuming themselves in drugs and anti-Semitism.  

In live theatre and on screen, the artist can struggle to direct the viewer’s gaze. A scene of sexual assault can leave the viewer taking the view of the rapist, ogling the victim. A novelist has more power to constrain the viewer’s perspective, choosing what to show and whose perspective to inhabit. To keep the focus on critique, and not on sensationalism, a visual artist needs to consider more radical choices.

Game of Thrones repeatedly showed sexual violence in a way that seemed to cast the audience as voyeurs, until, during the rape of Sansa Stark in season five, the camera turned away from the assault, focusing entirely on neither the rapist, nor the victim, but a bystander, Theon Greyjoy, who was complicit in the assault. His horror was meant to be the audience’s lens on what might have been exploitative if shown directly. The choice received mixed reviews—it limited the ability of the rape scene to be watched as violent pornography, but it also decentered the victim’s experience in favor of a man’s response to it. 

Showing rape directly on screen ethically is nearly impossible, and it’s not a task even a talented storyteller should take on lightly. It’s also not something a viewer should watch without misgivings, as more and more actresses come forward to say that their racy scenes were coerced. Based on the stories being told as part of #MeToo, it’s hard to give a nude or racy scene the benefit of the doubt that it was filmed in a non-exploitative way. A nude scene that is consensual for the character in the story may be a record of real-life exploitation of the actress performing it. The viewer is complicit in the actress’s re-exploitation with every rewatch.

I’m not drawn to Cuties or Cabaret, but I have my own favorite piece of art that is arguably complicit in what it’s critiquing. I took my husband to see Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins and, in the post-show discussion, he said that the thesis of the show is that it is morally wrong to stage Assassins. The concept musical tells the story of successful and unsuccessful presidential assassins and weaves them together into a critique of the American love of spectacle and exceptionality. The assassins would rather be remembered, even infamously, than be ordinary.

At the climax of the show, the chorus of past assassins encourages Lee Harvey Oswald, saying that his notoriety strengthens them all. They need additional acts of violence to fan interest in their legacy. But they don’t just need Oswald, they need us, the audience. We are complicit when we treat assassins (or mass shooters) as objects of fascination. 

I find Assassins’ critique sharp and stinging, but there’s no denying my husband’s point that it argues against elevating assassins while doing just that. I wouldn’t be humming “The Ballad of Czolgosz” around the house without Sondheim using his genius to showcase President William McKinley’s murderer. I can’t guarantee the critique has outshone the spectacle.

Cuties is a story about girls being drawn into exploitation while seeking liberation. Despite the director’s intentions, Netflix’s marketing indicated they saw the film as art being drawn into exploitation while seeking to offer critique. Just the thing to offer their viewers alongside 365 Days, an explicit film where sex-trafficking becomes courtship. It’s just the kind of thing Amy and her friends might watch. They might watch Cuties, next, and miss the lesson behind the lewdness.

about the author

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of two books: Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option. Her writing has appeared in The American Interest, First Things, and The Washington Post. You can follow her at leahlibresco.com.

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