The film Cuties caused politicians a lot of sleepless nights from the moment it aired in the United States. Several scenes in the film were taken out of context and peddled as feeding the appetite of pedophiles. The true meaning of the film, the harmful impact of the media industry on young children, is neglected. This highlights the disadvantages of the prevalence of cancel culture in America. We lose so much due to our blindness to our own shortcomings and this makes me furious. I hate the trend of #cancelculture in America. Everyone is always fighting to be a social justice warrior, and quick to call out anything sensed as violating a social norm without being fully informed. It’s a race to the finish line but everyone’s blind.
I recently watched Cuties, a film produced by Maïmouna Doucouré, which was constantly recommended to me by my friends. I had earlier refrained due to the overwhelmingly negative reviews it garnered. Nancy Pelosi’s daughter accused it of “whetting the appetite of pedophiles.” Ted Cruz asked the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into the film. On Sep 12, 2020, Sen.Tom Cotton, R-Ark wrote in a tweet “Like any parent, I find @netflix decision to peddle child pornography disgusting..criminal.” I was one of those who chose to not watch the movie due to the comments I read about it. I mean why would anyone willingly watch something that catered to pedophiles?
The film follows Aminata (Amy for short), an 11-year-old Muslim Senegalese girl living in a poor neighborhood in Paris, rebelling against her strict, conservative family and struggling with her father’s impending second marriage. To gain favor with the “Cuties,” a secular dance group of girls she desperately wants to be a part of, she learns their dances, teaches herself increasingly “sexy” dance moves, and in turn teaches this choreography to them. After watching the film, I was frustrated to see that much of the criticism isn’t accurate. It’s true that Netflix is partly to blame for the moral panic based on the misleading promo picture they put out. It made it seem like the girls were dancing for the viewers, but in the context of the film, they were practicing for a dance competition. However, I do support their defense of the film on the grounds that it is a “social commentary against the sexualization of young children.”
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Doucouré —who received death threats after its Netflix debut— observed that many of the films’ strongest detractors did not in fact watch the film. They were simply shocked at clips taken out of context and she expressed hope that the film will not be “caught up in today’s cancel culture.” People fail to grasp the fact that those girls were emulating dances they see in American dance videos. Doucouré’s film sought to send a message about the hypersexualization of young girls in the media and entertainment industry and how they suffer from the images that are readily available to them through social media. The controversy placed these core purposes of the film in the backseat.
It’s also interesting to note that this panic isn’t global, it was strictly in the United States. In France where the film was originally produced, it had no overwhelming backlash. Cancel culture in America continues to affect even forms of art that can address societal concerns. The film does make one uncomfortable, but that’s the point: it is reality, after all. Seeing those young children sexualizing themselves is discomforting, but no one actually comments about why or what societal norms lead these girls to that behavior. The critics themselves are seeing the girls in the exact same way pedophiles would look at them. They look only at the provocative dance moves but ignore Yasmine’s eating disorder, Angelica’s neglectful parents, Amy’s parentification, and most importantly, that all the girls are sorely in need of actual sex education.
In a scene, Coumba finds a used condom and blows it up, laughing that it is a uni-boob. The girls scream and back away, recognizing it for what it is. As they scream, they warn that she may get “AIDS… or cancer!” and they scrub out her mouth with soap at home. Coumba’s quiet questions aren’t just for her friends but also the viewers: “But it isn’t my fault that I didn’t know what it was. How was I supposed to know?” The viewers are confronted with these children who engage in sexual dance moves but are still so naïve about the acts of sex itself. This pushes many viewers to blind anger and allows them to ignore the circumstances in society that have led to the behavior of the young girls.
Cuties does not portray child abuse and it does not glorify pedophilia in any way. It shows how society failed those young girls by normalizing their hypersexualization. The controversy was essentially manufactured by politicians who spouted their opinions to gain public favor. I am truly sad for the well-meaning people myself included who got swept into it because they believe that children seem to be sexualized in a movie, and they have legitimate concerns about that. Cancel culture steals a lot of groundbreaking works of art from us. It also helps to tighten the veils over our eyes. The moral panic was worthless and inaccurate. The true message was lost and we’re right back to where we began.
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