Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Cuties is the story of Amy, an 11-year-old Senegalese Muslim girl living in Paris. Amy, like most 11-year-olds, wants to fit in with her peers, but being from an immigrant family and a religious minority, she feels immensely torn between two worlds—one conservative and restrictive, and one permissive. The film follows Amy’s perspective as she navigates crumbling family relationships, interpersonal conflicts at school, and coming-of-age challenges in the social media world. But if this was all Cuties was about, it would not have caused the cultural firestorm it has for the past few weeks—a firestorm that has led people on the right to feel justified for all their railing against the evils of Hollywood, while simultaneously being a work of art that people on the left can point to as a needed social protest in the #MeToo era. The main outcry against the film is, of course, that it sexually exploits the children who star in it.
I read so many condemnations of and think pieces on the film that I was tempted to abstain from watching it before writing this piece, certain that I had heard and read enough to put together a clear picture of what it was about. But I’m glad that I did watch it, in the end. Because Cuties is an exceptional work of protest art, and it’s important to have a clear understanding of what the art itself is, not just what it’s protesting. Whether or not Cuties succeeds on all levels is another story.
Cuties struck a raw nerve during a perfect storm. It landed in the #MeToo-era for liberals and progressive (and centrist) Christians concerned about the very real dangers of pedophilia and sexual abuses of minors by those in authority over them. And it came at the height (or at least on the upward trajectory) of an alt-right conspiracy movement called QAnon, that states a cabal of Hollywood and liberal political elites are trafficking in child sex slaves in order to harvest “adrenochrome” from them. QAnon is so broad that is has swept perfectly innocent and otherwise innocuous well-meaning conservative Christians under its wing, and it’s hijacked the efforts of real movements that do protect trafficked children, such as what happened this year during Human Trafficking Awareness Month with the #SaveTheChildren hashtag campaign. In other words, pedophilia and protecting minors is on a lot of people’s minds—in productive and nonproductive ways—in 2020.If Cuties contains images of child exploitation to protest child exploitation, it’s because those images not only saturate the internet and social media, but they have also saturated our stories—our entertainment—for far too long.
But the reality is that we are living in the disinformation age. And months of being stuck (largely) at home during the pandemic with only our devices and social media to filter our news through has left us particularly vulnerable to interpretations of the world that confirm our biases rather than challenge them. A film like Cuties comes to Netflix with promotional material showing little girls in sexually suggestive outfits, and we explode with outrage on social media. And Facebook feeds us more and more outrage-filled opinions because those are the links we’ve clicked. We share our cancellation screenshots of Netflix and we can feel self-righteous. We have saved the children.
But have we stopped to consider what the movie Cuties is actually about? Most of the people who cancelled Netflix openly admitted they did not watch the film (and I’m not saying that they necessarily should have, or that this is a film that needs to be viewed), but the knee-jerk cancellation of Netflix over a movie that was made to bring awareness to the problem of child sexual exploitation out of the belief that the film promotes pedophilia seems to me to be a strange set of actions to take—especially when so much of our entertainment choices have for so long hinged on exploiting images of minors.
Maybe the first question to answer is whether or not Cuties contains images of child exploitation. Based on my viewing, I would say the answer is yes. And I think the film is undoubtedly problematic on this level, given the subject matter and the use of underage actors. In this regard, I agree with film critic Alissa Wilkinson in her assessment of the film: “I’m not always sure it is entirely successful in [its] aim—trying to depict something in the context of critiquing it isn’t always successful—but it’s going for something gutsy and raising an important concern about young women’s lives in an internet age.”
And it is important also to take into account what the director’s intent was in creating the film—and the fact that protest art is both a common and effective way of addressing societal ills. Before the release of the film to Netflix, during the backlash to the American promotional art, French Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré told Time Magazine, “For me, this film is sounding an alarm.… This film tries to show that our children should have the time to be children, and we as adults should protect their innocence and keep them innocent as long as possible.” The argument of course, becomes, how could she think that depicting young actors performing sexualized dance routines on-screen would be protecting them from the licentious gazes of pedophiles? And there is validity to this argument. No child or teenager can be trusted to have the biological, mental, or emotional maturity to give consent to have their bodies shown on camera in sexualized ways, no matter how much care and consideration is given to them. And for the record, I think Doucouré did a fantastic job of portraying the immorality of the sexualized dance moves the young girls are performing—and in showing the actual absurdity of girls presenting themselves in that manner. She does not at all want us to be comfortable with what we are seeing. But it doesn’t change the fact that in real life, those are still young girls on the screen.
Here is where I think Cuties was always doomed to fail as a piece of protest art. You can make a war movie that depicts the hellishness of war that acts as a protest against warfare. Or a movie about drug trafficking that shows all the deep darkness and depression of that world. But when it comes to depicting minors on-screen, there are some things you just can’t show—not even to show how bad they are, and not even if the intent and message of the story is true and good, because you will inevitably be harming, or even exploiting, the young people involved in making the film. And, by proxy, those who view it.
Our outrage is rightly directed when we are concerned about the exploitation of minors on the screen—even in a movie that attempts to bring light to the sexual exploitation of minors—but it is strange to be so hyper-focused on this one movie when the problem it addresses pervades all of society. Our outrage should be greater, our focus much more broad than on one movie out of France. But there is an uncomfortable reality we must face. It’s the reality that impressed Maïmouna Doucouré with the impetus to make the film in the first place: if Cuties contains images of child exploitation to protest child exploitation, it’s because those images not only saturate the internet and social media, but they have also saturated our stories—our entertainment—for far too long. And the reason they do is because we are addicted to them.
What we don’t want to think about is how we have always been a people who have demanded the sexual exploitation of youth in the media and in our entertainment choices. It is hard baked into our culture. The only thing that has changed in the last decade or so is that those demands have shifted to social media, where our appetites are now run, processed, and manipulated by supercomputers. A.I. reflects a mirror of who we are, but it’s also pushing us further and further into polarized camps.
We are the problem. And the worst of our human, sinful desires is the enemy. Most of us want to protect children from sexual predators; most of us say we do not want to see underage youth presented in sexually explicit ways. But in reality our entertainment choices and online activity tell a different story, and they have for a long time. And we really don’t want to examine the deeper implications of what the human condition—human sin—actually desires.
The point of Cuties is in fact that the world in which our young people live—the world they inhabit on social media, and the world their parents sometimes intentionally, and unintentionally, expose them to—is a hypersexualized one. And that often leaves little room for innocence. Across television, movies, literature, and the music industry, we not only desire to see (and imagine or fantasize about) minors in sexual situations, but we demand it of them—even those of us who would rightfully condemn pedophilia as the very grave sin that it is. Our cultural appetite for underage sex is one of the great equalizers, crossing race, religion, gender, politics, and sexual identity.There should have been adults protecting [Brittney Spears]; there should have been an army of adults protecting her. And there weren’t.
Musical Artists—particularly pop artists—have long been rampantly exploited as sexual objects before they were of age. Brittney Spears was only 16-years-old in 1998 when she released “…Baby One More Time” and the infamous music video where she wears a Catholic school-girl uniform with her midriff showing and pigtails with pink pom-poms. At 16, and as a debut artist, Spears would have been extremely vulnerable and susceptible to the influence of her label and brand-makers. To put it frankly, no teenager can be held accountable for dressing that sexually suggestive as they are entering the world stage—especially in such a way that has so many overt tie-ins to pedopheliac pornography. There should have been adults protecting her; there should have been an army of adults protecting her. And there weren’t. And the fact that she went on to be such a massive success—in no small part because of the sexual exploitation of her underage body—is one of the great tragedies of our modern entertainment culture. Her success as an exploited person is a reflection of who we are.
There were people on the internet (mostly men, I assume) who created “Brittney Time-to-Eighteen” countdown clocks. If you are my generation or older, you might remember hearing about them—and feeling horrified. They didn’t just exist for Brittney Spears; other young celebrities like the Olsen Twins also had clocks created for them. Of course the disturbing thing about such clocks is not just the obvious fact that these men didn’t really respect the legal age of a woman so much as the fact that they lusted after underage girls so much that they felt the need to publicize to the world that they couldn’t wait for the day when their lust would suddenly be legal.
By the standards of man, at least.
Some teen entertainment is merely meant to be consumed as teen entertainment, while the actors on the screen are actually older. This is the case with most television shows depicting high school life—especially if the aim is to depict anything sexually explicit. Directors and producers can “get around” the sticky pedophilia issues regarding nudity or partial nudity and sexual situations. But it doesn’t change the fact that within the context of the story, the audience is still being asked to believe that the character on the screen is a minor. This is part of the function of suspension of disbelief.
Most of us understand that the actors who portray teens in such shows as Riverdale or Smallville are actually adults, but in a way—it doesn’t matter. They are meant to portray teens—sometimes young teens—and so that’s how our minds take them in within the context of the story. So when a young Lana Lang performs a strip-tease for Clark Kent as a sophomore in high school, and the camera pans languorously up and down her bra-and-panty-clad body, we are meant to code that as, “This is a 15–16yo girl doing a strip-tease to seduce a teenage boy.” And it is seductive, because it’s meant to be. It doesn’t matter that actress Kristin Kreuk was well over 18 by that time, we are still supposed to be enjoying a fantasy of high school sex.
I only watched the first episode or two of Riverdale, but it was enough to include a depiction of a high school student having an illicit affair with his teacher in the back of her car. The affair isn’t portrayed as a moral good, but it is still portrayed—and the main question I just couldn’t help screaming into the universe was: Why? Why does the first major conflict in a teen soap opera need to not only involve sex, but illegal, illicit, exploitative sex? Is this entertaining? I don’t care that the actor portraying the student was definitely no teenager. In the show he was supposed to be a minor, and we were supposed to be watching him have sex with his adult teacher, and that’s not something that should be put on the screen for our entertainment. If going edgier in stories to get better viewership means, “Throw some pedophilia at them—oh, and make it feel okay because this actor is going to look like a full-grown man, because that’s what he actually is,” then maybe we should have all just thrown our TVs into the dumpster a long time ago.
Speaking of pedophilia on the television, parades of reality shows like Dance Moms, Honey Boo Boo, and Toddlers and Tiaras have told us for years that it’s okay to dress little girls up like sexualized adults and rate them on their appearance. That the more they shake their hips and kiss and flirt for the audience and the camera, the higher their score will be—the greater their worth and value. Where has the outcry been about pedophelia for the last decade or more of the popularity of these shows?Speaking of pedophilia on the television, parades of reality shows like Dance Moms, Honey Boo Boo, and Toddlers and Tiaras have told us for years that it’s okay to dress little girls up like sexualized adults and rate them on their appearance.
Pivoting to publishing, my industry is writing for minors, and the issue of sex and sexuality in Young Adult literature is particularly fraught these days. Books for actual teens have been disappearing in favor of “Young Adult” books written for and marketed to adults. There is a wide gap between Middle Grade (books for ages 8–12) and Young Adult (books ostensibly for teenagers, but almost exclusively with 17-year-old protagonists). The reason for the widening gap is because of the shifting demographic in readership. Readers of YA have trended older and older, beginning with the aging Harry Potter generation, but really taking off with The Hunger Games.
A study from 2012 reported that, “More than half the consumers of books classified for young adults aren’t all that young… fully 55% of buyers of works that publishers designate for kids aged 12 to 17—known as YA books—are 18 or older… 78% of the time they are purchasing books for their own reading.” By 2018, this percentage of adult readership of YA books had jumped to “nearly 70 percent.” And do you know what these predominantly female adult readers bring with them, along with their money (which drives the publishing industry, really, to make all the choices they’re going to make)? A demand for sex.
Adult readers want to read about teenagers having sex, and that should bother us. Why? It’s not that teenagers aren’t having sex (studies show about 40% of teenagers are sexually active), but adults should not be consuming the sexual exploits of minors for entertainment—not even between the pages of books, which encourage fantasy and imagination. As both a YA author and a reader of YA, it bothers me, and it always has. It bothers me when people leave me frustrated feedback on my own books like, “Ugh, when are [these two teenage characters] going to have sex already?” It bothers me when two teenaged characters have sex, even when it’s a fade-to-black scenario. And it definitely bothers me when I think about the number of young teens who want to still be kids and enjoy stories with innocent, age-appropriate romance (or no romance at all!) who have had their section in the bookstore overrun by the sexual appetites of middle age women. This doesn’t mean, of course, that stories we tell about teens shouldn’t necessarily be honest stories. But depicting sex in YA stories, and using other creative methods to let it be known that sex has occured are worlds apart in execution.
One 30-year-old book blogger who wrote a blog post devoted to demanding more sex in YA books diverts from her argument in one paragraph in which she is pretty transparent in admitting that it’s creepy to demand sex in YA books: “Adults writing about teens or young adults having sex or even just fooling around can feel a little weird and icky. Sometimes, it may even feel slightly pedophilic. Hence why so many YA novels fade to black or jump to a different point in time at the moment where things between two characters may cross into sexual territory. Authors just don’t want to go anywhere near that fine line between tastefull [sic] and gross… But it’s also disappointing.” But, this blogger concludes her post by saying, “Sex in YA novels is important and greatly impacts how young people not only view and understand themselves, but also the world around them. And you can’t tell me otherwise.” Sadly, that about sums up many of the attitudes I’ve encountered in the YA writing (and reading) world. But it doesn’t reflect the attitudes of the children or teen readers.
Parents, it’s very possible that the director of Cuties felt the need to make the film because the online world and the entertainment world is where we all live. Thus, she felt it was the best place for her to make and distribute her protest art to try to wake all of us up. It’s very possible we have all abdicated too much of our parenting to screens that tell our kids they don’t have worth unless they look, think, act, and speak a certain way—in a way that is often sexual, and sexual in a way meant to appeal to adult audiences who are consuming media that is not really meant for them. But when the audience of YA stories and YA music and YA movies and TV shifts into adult realms, with that shift comes a demand for adult themes, including sex. We don’t always want stories about kids and teens being normal kids and teens; what we want is kids and teens acting out adult fantasies.
Sex inherently removes innocence, and when we sexualize teens and children, we remove their innocence from them. No child can give consent to be used in such a manner—whether it is consent for sex, or consent for their image to be viewed in a sexualized way. It is bad when it’s a fictional character that presents a model for our kids to look up to, and it’s doubly bad when it’s an actual minor being used in entertainment in an exploitative way. We have ripped away the innocence of youth again and again. By telling stories about them in sexualized ways, by putting phones in their hands that give them access to perverse depictions of their peers and that encourage them to exploit themselves. Our kids do not have to be having sex to be engaging in sexually explicit activities.We don’t always want stories about kids and teens being normal kids and teens; what we want is kids and teens acting out adult fantasies.
So, cancel Netflix if you feel that is a step you must take. But understand that, at this point, it is little more than a clanging cymbal. Canceling a subscription to a single streaming service because a well-meaning filmmaker fumbled her attempt in the fourth act in trying to draw attention to a terrible problem—that’s one thing you can do, and maybe it will be good, overall, for your family’s well being. I don’t know. Are you willing to engage the problem of systemic sexual exploitation of minors in your other—your private—habits? The ones you don’t want to proudly post “cancelation” screenshots of on Facebook? Are you willing to take the smartphones away from your kids? To cancel the apps? To consider voting differently? To stop watching shows that depict minors in compromising situations? To read different books and support authors who don’t depict sex scenes between minors in YA literature? To purchase music from labels that don’t sexualize young artists? To parent your children in such a way that they grow up with a healthy understanding of what sex is—and what it isn’t?
We are all guilty, and—I think—that’s largely why a movie like this goes off like a bomb in a year primed for one powder keg after another. Cuties isn’t the product of a perverse Hollywood bent on corrupting our children, and it’s certainly not evidence of a child-trafficking cabal run by celebrity pedophiles. As grotesque as that would be, the truth is far more grotesque because it is far more normal than that. It is the product of perverse people who are perverse consumers who drive a capitalistic structure to give us what we want. We are a culture not only tolerant of sexualized minors; we are addicted to the sexualization of minors. And it’s much easier to rage about the hypothetical pedophile in the shadows than it is to examine the shadowy corners of our own hearts and what our entertainment consumption choices have created. It’s time for us to take a hard look in the mirror: we are the problem. We are a people deserving of millstones. And not because Netflix distributed the film Cuties, but because we’re living in a world in which someone like Maïmouna Doucouré saw the need for it to be made.