Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Pretty Babies

Cuties is almost as bad as you think. I watched it so you don't have to
Screen Shot 2020-09-10 at 9.17.38 PM

Well, I watched Cuties so you don’t have to. I don’t like people condemning something without having seen or read it. So I saw it last night. It’s almost as bad as you think, and Netflix deserves all the grief it’s taking over the thing. But inside the grossness of Cuties is a reasonable point — but not one you can tell in film, or at least not in this film. Let me explain.

Back in 1978, Louis Malle made a film called Pretty Baby, starring 12-year-old Brooke Shields as a child prostitute in New Orleans. It was hugely controversial over the subject matter, and the fact that Shields did nude scenes. Cuties does not feature nudity (just a very quick glance at an adolescent girl’s breast), but it centers on the grotesque sexualization of minor girls — the title characters are a pack of 11-year-olds in Paris. Cuties is a deeply dishonest film that exploits its young cast nauseatingly, yet tries at the end to justify it with a too-pat moral. More on which in a moment.

Here, in this tweet, is why Netflix is in so much trouble:

That tweet is essentially correct. There is no redeeming this. Cuties has lot of scenes like this. What the Avengers movies are to comic-book geeks, Cuties is to pedophiles — this, even though there is no sex in the movie. I want to make clear at the outset that I think this is a repulsive film, though the conflict it explores is dramatically worthy. There will be spoilers below, you are hereby warned.

The film centers around Amy, an 11-year-old girl living in immigrant housing in Paris. Her family is from Senegal, and are devout Muslims. When the film opens, her father has gone back to Senegal, and her mother is awaiting his return. We discover that he has gone to their homeland to take a second wife. Amy watches her mother grieve this, and try to be okay with it, because it is permitted in their traditional Islamic culture. An older Senegalese woman in the community, her “auntie,” is an enforcer of tradition.

A Muslim would no doubt see this film differently, but I sympathized strongly with Amy’s rebellion against this cruel culture. The problem is that Amy has nobody to talk to about it. She falls in with some bad girls at school — bratty, highly sexualized kids who have formed an amateur dance troupe (The Cuties), and are trying to win a competition. Amy eventually wins acceptance in the group, and steals her cousin’s smartphone so she can become part of their culture.

In what I think is the most important part of this movie — a theme that a better film could explore without descending into the filth it ostensibly criticizes — is the role that technology plays in corrupting these girls. There is no dirty old man who trains these kids to dress and act like sluts. They self-exploit through the smartphone and social media. Here’s a scene from when Amy is just beginning to hang out with the Cuties. They are in the girls’ bathroom at school. The Cuties are watching hardcore porn on a smartphone, and commenting on it in revolting detail:


We quickly learn that these rootless, restless girls are simply mimicking what they are seeing in pop culture, as experienced chiefly through social media. They are desperate for attention, and believe the way to get it is to sexualize themselves through scanty dressing and learning stripper-like dance routines, which they record and upload to the Internet.

At one point, Amy’s mother takes her to women’s prayer at the mosque. Amy slips a veil over her face, pretending to pray. But she’s really watching extremely provocative dancing, with nearly naked women doing lascivious lesbian routines. All of this is happening right under the noses of her mom, who has no idea what she’s up to with the smartphone (which she conceals, as she has stolen it).

The other Cuties all have smartphones too, but their less strict parents have allowed it. They are blind to how the technology facilitates the corruption of their daughters. I tell you, whatever else it is, Cuties is the best possible public service commercial exhorting parents never, ever to give their children smartphones.

At one point, Angelica, one of the Cuties, confesses to Amy that she never gets to see her parents, because they are always working in the restaurant. She believes that they don’t see her as someone of worth — at a dancer with talent. She cries. It’s clear that she is doing all this acting-out as a junior stripper-in-training because she is desperate for attention and validation.

The Cuties are Kardashianized, and have come to believe that their self-worth is based on affirmations of their social media presentation — that, and by acting sexually aggressive. The film shows on several occasions other people — older teenage boys, Amy’s cousin, an audience — reacting badly to the Cuties’ sexualization. The girls don’t actually know what they’re dealing with — they are playing with fire, and only imitating what they immerse themselves in on their smartphones. This is important: the Cuties aren’t actually rewarded with what they think they want. People just seem to think of them as weird and gross. Which they are.

In the most intense scene in the movie, Amy’s cousin, an adult man, discovers that she has his stolen smartphone. He demands it back. She refuses to hand it over, treating it like it’s more important than life itself. In a last ditch effort to save the phone, 11-year-old Amy begins to take her clothes off, and to look up at her cousin sexually, as if to offer herself in exchange for the phone. The man rebukes her (thank God), but the message is clear: Amy has already internalized the lesson that she can use her sexuality to get what she wants.

Toward the end, Amy has an epiphany that leads her to feel shame over what she is doing, and what she has become, and to turn back towards her innocence — but not in a way that affirms the patriarchal Islam against which she has been rebelling. Though one is happy that Amy is no longer going to be hanging out with the bad girls, it’s an unsatisfying ending. For one, it’s far too pat. For another — and far more significantly — it seems phony based on all that has come before. Imagine that you have just sat through a film that shows cake-and-cookie baking in the most lascivious, food-porn-ish way, but then has the obese chef protagonist deciding at the last minute to walk away from the kitchen, and to adopt a lifestyle of moderate eating. That’s what Cuties is like. Director Maïmouna Doucouré presents the Cuties’ many obscene dance routines as so alluring that the finale, in which Amy chooses another path, feels quite false.

There is a good movie somewhere in this material. The insanity into which our culture throws adolescent girls is an important topic. Pop culture bombards girls (and boys, but this is a movie about girls) with pornified messaging constantly, and really does tell them that their worth depends on self-presentation online, indeed sexual self-presentation. Where are the adults? In Cuties, the protagonist is part of a traditionalist Islamic community, but if this were true to contemporary American life, her disengaged parents might be worshippers at a suburban megachurch, and disengaged from their daughter’s life because they assume that she can be trusted with the smartphone, and besides, everybody has to have one to fit in.

We need a movie that illuminates this problem and tells the truth about it. I finished the movie feeling very, very sorry for adolescent girls today. The problem with Cuties — and it’s what destroys the movie — is aesthetic, and ultimately moral: it engages and demonstrates with great passion the very thing it purports to condemn. Again, think of a movie with an anti-gluttony message that spends half the movie filming eating pastries with lascivious abandon. It’s simply not credible. Netflix got in trouble at first for marketing this movie as eye candy for pedophiles, but it turns out that even though that is not strictly true, that tack was more true to the experience of Cuties than the revisionist marketing.

Whether the director (who is a woman) intends to or not, she has made a film that serves to accustom us to the sexualization of children. Cuties is dramatically quite bland; if it weren’t for the controversy, there would be nothing to recommend it. There’s no subtlety in it. If you wanted to make a movie or TV show that appealed to illicit prurience among the audience, you would have to make it with the pretense of condemning the thing you’re exploring in it. If you are the sort of person who finds long scenes of twerking pre-teens to be revolting, then Cuties is going to be hard to get through. If you find it exciting, well, perv, this is the movie for you.

I’m not saying that this is what the filmmaker set out to do here, but I am saying that this will be the effect. It will be the effect because the director’s aesthetic failure is a moral failure. And it’s a failure by the Netflix brass too, which tipped its hand with the botched initial marketing. It is plainly only interested in Cuties because it wanted a succès de scandale of a movie about twerking Lolitas. It has no interest at all in condemning a Kardashianized society that produces twerking Lolitas.

I have to bring to your attention the way some prominent critics have reacted to it. They cannot bear to give conservatives who have spoken out against this movie a victory. Thus, in the Telegraph — generally a conservative newspaper — we get this, as captured by the Catholic Londoner Niall Gooch:

Meanwhile, if incandescent horsesh*t is your ideal in film criticism, you can hardly do better than the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, who also praises the film for owning the cons. What’s more:

“Cuties” is a film of the center, and it’s aesthetically of the center—it depicts the unconsidered without advancing to the realm of the subjective, and it doesn’t allow its young protagonists much discourse, outer or inner. It’s not a movie of introspection and self-consideration; it’s more a story of the rule than of the exception, of what’s unduly extraordinary about the effort to live an ordinary life. As such, it’s a story of French society at large—its exclusions and the exertions demanded to overcome them. Though many of Amy’s actions are dubious, her spirit of revolt is nonetheless sublime and heroic. “Cuties” dramatizes what people of color and immigrants endure as a result of isolation and ghettoization, of not being represented culturally and politically—and of not being represented in French national mythology. Its underlying subject is the connection of personal identity to public identity—and the urgency of transforming the very notion of French identity, of changing the idea of who’s considered the representative face of France. That idea is brought to the fore in an extraordinary, brief, symbolic ending; it’s enough to give a right-winger a conniption.

According to Richard Brody, these children self-sexualize and self-exploit themselves because … France rejects them. Um, really? One of the Cuties is white, two are black, and two seem to be non-observant Arabs. You have to squint from the far left to see this thing as a protest against French racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. But hey, all the right-wing people hate this pedophile chic movie, so it must be correct to stop fearing child sexuality, eh?

By the way, #CancelNetflix is a growing movement.

UPDATE: This is so true!

He’s talking about the Houellebecq novel. I find the traditional Islamic society depicted in Cuties to be unjust towards women, and not one in which I would want to live, or would want by daughter to grow up in. But I would prefer that to the Cuties society of sluttified children, and it’s not even close.

I would love to take an auditorium full of American normies, force them to sit through a screening of half an hour of the worst of Cuties, and force them to recognize that this is the culture in which their daughters (and sons) are growing up, and that they’re enabling it by giving their kids access to smartphones.

UPDATE.2: Annie of Arc comments:

Any gains we have made for children have been decimated by the cultural and technological changes of the past 50 years. Most disappointing is the failure to discuss it on any level beyond a vague hand-wringing. We keep getting in deeper and deeper, ignoring the many factors which lead to Cuties. Even our analysis is about the analysis rather than the Thing Itself.

If you’re on twitter, there’s a growing discussion among girls about 17-30 who are talking about all the weird stuff they were doing as teenagers online, and how they all were groomed. So many Good Nice Girls whose parents to this day have no idea how traumatized these girls are by the result of peer pressure to be sexy and sick strange adult men encouraging them to violate their boundaries.

Parents: try to live closer to older family, esp. if they are responsible and not all-in on this stuff. Set up times for your children to have special time with grandparents. Bind them to the past. Destroy smartphones. Put your child in the smallest school or homeschool if need be. Talk to other parents about this and if they give their kids smartphones STAY AWAY. You can give your kids some modern pop culture so they’re literate with their peers without throwing them to the wolves.

Accept a smaller sphere of people in your life. Give them books. Give them siblings. Moms, stay home. You’ve gotta be with your children. There’s going to be a financial hit. I look at it as, I’m trying to stop the cycle my parents and their parents created. It’s unfair for me b/c the culture hasn’t caught up and so it can be very isolating, but just because I have to lose out on the treats offered me as an exchange for the total collapse of community doesn’t mean I need to be bitter. Girl boss culture is a lie, the careerist economy which attacks the home and liquidizes our lives for profit is a lie, and he false language of empowerment has obscured Mean Girl culture of teenage adolescents. Moms can’t accept that their children need them. 3 month olds need mom not daycare, and 13 year-olds need mom and grandma and auntie, not poisonous media and peer culture. Ideally they’d be balanced but they’re not and the most important part has been almost completely trivialized. Feminism and the rejection of personal responsibility has so broken the brains of adults that we’ve forgotten how young girls treat each other. They need adults and their behavior online is testimony to this.

No dance studios. If you want a movement to stop this stuff, start by pointing out that it’s in our neighborhoods and schools, egged on by pathetic mothers who enjoy watching their children thrust and grind for strangers while the men squirm at how weird it is. They’re as bad as beauty pageants, perhaps worse. Let girls like horses and climbing trees without telling them they’re secretly boys because they don’t want to twerk. Look for traditional dancing classes that let young people move without having them simulate sexual acts. Help them find beauty in clothing; it doesn’t have to be fundamentalist “modest” stuff but just clothing that is actually beautiful. Once people are moved by genuine loveliness they begin to understand real dignity which is nothing like the destructive self-esteem movement.

There has been so much accommodation of evil for so long because of selfishness. Anyone who thinks taking a stand on this stuff is going to be cost-free is kidding themselves. You can’t just Cancel Netflix though you should. You’re going to have to make real choices with real sacrifices, but in the end the sacrifices mean your daughter doesn’t expose herself to strange men on the internet and then have shameful nightmares for decades. And those of us who start making these changes now can make it easier for our own children to opt out of this nightmare culture.

UPDATE.3: A reader posts this translated excerpt of a French language interview with the director, who is herself a French citizen of African immigrant descent:

“My movie’s a wake-up call.”

I got the idea after seeing 11-year-old girls dancing in a very lascivious way at a block party. I thought, “Do they realize the message they’re sending?” For a year and a half, I surveyed little girls. (…)

Q: You filmed in the 19th arrondissement, the district of your childhood. The story is inspired by your adolescence?

In part. With my girlfriends, we liked to go to “afternoons”, nightclubs open during the day for 15-year-olds. Except that we were 11 or 12 years old. I remember that we danced the raggamuffin, a very sexual dance. The big difference with today is the exposure to social networks, which didn’t exist then. All that was kept between us, whereas now it can be seen by hundreds of thousands of people. During the preparation, I saw girls of 13 or 14 years old followed by 400,000 people, just because they post pictures of themselves in thongs. It implies a new form of building self-esteem, very fragile, based on virtual world, a number of likes or followers. “Cuties” is a cry of alarm. And still, there are things I didn’t dare to film. So as not to frighten the parents…

Q: Your film evokes in filigree your revolt against your father’s polygamy. Is that where your feminist conscience comes from?

I think it came very early indeed. At home, we were ten children because my father had two wives. We all lived together in a very small apartment in Paris, where I had a very happy childhood. But I observed so many women around me who resigned themselves… In my language, there is a word for that, “mougni”, which means “support, resist, in spite of everything”. Women are told: “Mougni for your children, mougni for your husband, don’t worry, in the afterlife, you will be rewarded.” Already, at 8 years old, that revolted me! At the same time, we are very strong as Westerners to point the finger at the oppression of women from other cultures. My film shows that we are all oppressed in a certain way. When we see the young heroine going towards her freedom, after a while we say to ourselves, “Is this really what freedom is all about? Isn’t it another form of alienation?”.

If she really did make a movie intending to decry the false liberation of sexualized, Kardashianized culture, then her errors are in aesthetic judgment — and are so egregious that they sink the film.