WHY AMERICA IS NOT READY FOR A FILM LIKE CUTIES; AND YES, THIS IS A GENDER AND RACE ISSUE.
About a month ago I began seeing some backlash against the French film, Mignonnes (or Cuties in English), coming to Netflix. People were posting that it was Child Porn!, and with the dismantling of the sex trafficking industry! led by Trump happening right now (spoiler alert, Trump isn’t leading that movement) Americans couldn’t stomach the thought of girls being sexualised and objectified… um… since when? That was my first question.
I then researched the film and found out it was written and directed by a French-Senegalese woman, Maïmouna Doucouré. Doucouré won the directing award for this film at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Wikipedia writes: “The plot revolves around a French-Senegalese girl with a traditional Muslim upbringing who is caught between traditional values and internet culture.” Fantastic. That’s a story I think needs to be told. Not another freaking Batman.
Something I want to add here is that I am hyper critical of the sexualization and objectification of girls and women in film and tv. I am avidly against graphic rape scenes in film and tv. I think showing the rape is not necessary— you can have just as powerful an affect by focusing on the faces, or honing in on the sounds with a neutral background. People are impressionable, what is a disturbing rape scene to most, may be an idea/ or an inspiration to another. It’s not worth it. It’s triggering. And, because people become desensitised to what they see, we don’t need to perpetuate more desensitisation to rape than already exists in this victim-blaming rape culture.
Similarly, I have not watched Game of Thrones, because people have told me all the sex and violence would piss me off. They have found it to be more objectifying than empowering. I also had to stop watching Outlander season one because of the ridiculous amount of sexualised violence and objectification of women's bodies. Upon encouragement from friends, I researched the crew and production of Outlander and found out that often women were involved in the creation of the scenes and that they tried to create scenes from both male and female gazes. That being said, I do think there is a great deal of shock factor nudity in season one.
American culture (and French culture- but I’m speaking to the American backlash of Cuties, which has been well-received in France) is saturated with the sexualization and objectification of young women. We, as a culture, are obsessed with Lolita and Lolita-type fantasies.
“Amateur” was the top search of Pornhub in 2019. And while amateur isn't synonymous with younger, it does often feature younger and younger women who do not know they are being filmed, or who are perceived as innocent and naive to pornography. Other popular categories in the 2019 Pornhub report include: teen, babysitter, old/young, school, barely legal… The way porn works is that your brain and body adjust to what you’re seeing. So a video that turned you on once, may not cut it the next time. You will crave something more intense. Naomi Wolf writes about this in her book, Vagina, saying that:
This escalation of the need for stimulation to achieve the same level of arousal is why trends in porn are for images that are more and more extreme. The relatively soft lighting and nonviolent pacing of the Emmanuelle-branded adult films of the 1980’s have given way to porn sites that render mainstream desires for quite violent sex, or sex with apparently very very young girls, or incestuous situations, which used to be considered quite marginal or fetishistic. Some of this change in content may be because our culture is more sexually open overall, and less invested in moral judgments about individual’s sex lives than it once was; but some of this escalation of extreme images is also, according to science, the result of porn users’ overall desensitisation. The OCD nature of chronic masturbation to porn means that the next time a porn user sees the image that last turned him on, it is not going to turn him on as much. This is why pornography trends tend to become more and more extreme over time— to migrate, say, from missionary position consensual sex to violent anal rape, or to images that arouse the SNS through breaking such taboos as incest taboos or taboos against sexualising minors. (292-93).
So the women in porn are looking younger and younger (some are, sadly, sex trafficked children, trafficked to fulfil the sexual desires of men trying to get off on pornography, and no, these men aren’t all pedophiles) getting labiaplasties, having shaved or mostly shaved vulvas… Porn is addicting, like cocaine or other drugs, because of the reward incentive and the dopamine boost. In 2019, there were 42 billion visits to Pornhub, that’s an average of 115 million a day (that would be the populations of Canada, Australia, Poland and the Netherlands all watching porn in the same day— that’s a lot of visits). Nonetheless, the USA is the country with the highest daily traffic to Pornhub, by a lot…
In addition to the fetishisation of women who look like girls in pornography, we, as a country, are obsessed with young female actors and their sexual debuts (think about Miley Cyrus, Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears, even Bella Thorne’s instant popularity on OnlyFans). Male actors and prominent figures date younger and younger models, and as a friend wrote to me:
“The film Cuties is the experience of being a young girl and getting positive reinforcement from society for acting sexualized. And people say, 'oh wow, so disgusting' but then also bikini photos of 15 year old girls on Instagram get thousands of likes…”
So I’m going to say it again, the US is obsessed with young women. Another example of this is the popular American franchise The Bachelor, which has come under fire lately as the contestants, in a competition to be engaged, are getting younger and younger each year. On average the women are around 23. In contrast, on Australian bachelor the women mostly range from late twenties to mid-thirties. A 23 year old contestant is considered young on the Australian version.
When I was growing up I was bombarded with half naked images of Brittany / Paris / Christina / Lindsey… And not only their bodies, but the medias obsession with their bodies. They were rewarded for performing sexuality, while at the same time scrutinised for being sexual. That is what Cuties is about.
By the time I was twelve I had: gotten my period, kissed all my girlfriends, practiced stripping at sleepovers with friends, sent partial nudes, received detention for PDA at school, been sexually assaulted, been blamed for it, been groped, objectified, explored my sexuality, stuck my vibrating flip phone between my legs, so, my question is… why hadn't these kinds of stories, like Cuties, been explored earlier?
Cuties is not child porn. All you have to do is watch the film to know that. It is an exploration into the effects of society's collective objectification, and acceptance of that objectification onto the lives of little girls, of little girls who are rewarded for performing a male gaze version of sexuality, (I remember the girls in middle school giving blowjobs were very popular), and simultaneously slut-shamed and criticised for being sexual at all (these girls were slut-shamed, and often had negative rumours going around about them).
There is a scene in the film, when the main character, Amy, gets caught for stealing her cousin's phone. In a moment of heartbreaking and terrified fear and confusion (that speaks just as much to phone addiction/reliance and social media validation) she begins to strip for him, hoping this will get her out of trouble. And no, we don’t “see” anything; I know this is what some of you are thinking…
Something profound is being discussed in this scene: already, at 11, she has perceived from culture, not her own mind, that her body, her sexuality, is not hers but rather a tool, it’s what she’s good for, and using it can get her out of trouble, can advance her in society. Now where did she learn that?
When I was assaulted at 12, and the boy who did it was suspended for three days, I remember thinking I had to apologise, to make up for him getting in trouble… I would plan out scenarios, of going to his house, looking “sexy” and would offer him a blowjob…I thought I had to do this, to make up for what I did… Now where did I learn that?
I am a White woman. A descendant of Russian Jews who escaped to New York during the Holocaust. I was born and raised in the USA, but Cuties is my story too. After watching it, I know it is the story of a lot of women world wide. I believe it is no coincidence that people are trying to “cancel” this film.
It is in many ways socially acceptable to talk about boys and their developing sexuality. They are encouraged along their masturbation path, taught about wet dreams, and often celebrated for their sexual exploration.
Girls, on the other hand, are rather not given any information about their bodies, sex or pleasure. So as they develop sexually, say starting at or around the age of 11, they are forced to look for clues on how they're meant to be sexually- from the internet, the media and the culture. This exact thing happens in the film, when Amy looks up music videos, popular streaming videos and videos of older girls dancing, and then tries to emulate what she’s seeing. In this day and age whatever topics we don’t address with our kids, they look up on the internet. On the internet, girls will find the sexually performative being rewarded, getting likes and attention. We MUST talk to our children. EXPLAIN internet culture. Explain sex and pleasure, because the internet is riddled with very seductive and ultimately damaging messages that will have a lasting impact on a child’s brain.
This is why I believe we need to talk to kids about sex quite early. When I was eleven, I was horny. I was developing. I was having pulsions sexuelle, as they say in French, but I didn't know how to masturbate so I didn't know how to satisfy my newfound cravings. So I turned to porn and to the media, and this led me down a very patriarchal path of exploring my sexuality. And sometimes, that path was even dangerous.
Cuties addresses the dichotomy that women and girls are forced to endure. You have two choices, and they are presented to you rather early: good girl / bad girl, prude / slut, wife / mistress, virgin / whore…each comes with its perks (as the whore you get a little sexual freedom, but societally condemned, as a wife you get respect, but limited sexual freedom and agency) but the truth is, you lose no matter what you choose because you’re a woman! And that’s how the system is built.
The film ends with a middle ground, a moment of joy for Amy. She’s jump-roping in the street, a smile on her face. That scene follows a powerful cinematic image of two different outfits laying out on Amy’s bed, in a way, she’s left both behind. Choosing not to choose. The outfits are a sexy dance outfit, and her traditional arabic dress— the image is crystal clear. And for a fleeting moment, she is allowed to escape this choice, and just be a girl, jump-roping outside. These last two scenes broke me, because that choice is all too familiar, and I know that that freedom to not choose and to just be is, most unfortunately, fleeting for most women.
The fact that American Netflix took one of the most heartbreaking scenes from the film to use as a movie poster speaks to America, not the film. The fact that people are taking small clips of dancing scenes and sharing them on social media, speaks to the ease and comfort America has when it comes to sexualising young girls; it’s second nature behaviour. The fact that when older men rape underage GIRLS, and the headline is “Man denies rape of young WOMEN” speaks to how AMERICA sees girls. Innocent until not. Innocent until a man’s reputation is on the line. Then they’re women, then they can take responsibility.
The fact that people are “cancelling” a film that they haven’t seen, a film made by a Black woman, featuring Black women, discussing female sexuality with a basically all female cast, speaks to America’s unwillingness to give women a voice, to give Black women a voice, and to hear their stories when they share them. And on top of that, despite the fact that we are surrounded by sex, we still don't want to actually talk about it. We really don't want to hear women talk about it, and we really really would prefer to not hear Black women talk about it. Hm.
We think we’ve come so far. Sometimes I think we’ve come so far, as my feed is full of sex positivity… but in so many ways we haven’t. Planned Parenthood, one of the few, if not only places that offers affordable healthcare to women and people with vaginas, has been federally defunded. Leaving “many low-income women who rely on Planned Parenthood services [to] ‘delay or go without’ care”(Alexis McGill Johnson, Planned Parenthood's acting president and CEO). Mainstream, violent, “teen” porn is getting more and more views every year. Becoming more and more normalized. And we STILL aren’t ready or willing to talk about how young girls are being affected by this culture?!
France reacted well to the film, with reviews such as “I felt like I was reliving my youth. I learned a lot about my mom, great.” “It calls into question a whole generation. An intelligent film.” “It’ll make adults think of their responsibility to our young people.” “It’s well made with intelligence and humanity.” “You laugh, you’re moved, and it makes you think.” “It shows how kids face harsh, violent things.” “Moving, compelling, chilling.” Etc, etc.
Americans reacted with fear, demanding Netflix be cancelled. What does this say about us as a nation? American LOST THEIR SHIT. One friend of mine watched the film and said to me, “I now believe people who are saying Cuties is creepy- either haven’t seen the film, or they are creepy.”
And at first I thought, maybe that’s too harsh. But honestly if you watch the whole film, not just those objectifying snippets leaked on the internet, and you think it’s creepy… you may need to do some internal reflection and actually pay attention to the story…
We are bombarded with sexual images and objectification. It’s in our ads, our film, our tv, our porn, we only feel comfortable with it when it’s controlled by or in relation to men or the male gaze. Think about “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, Blurred Lines wasn’t called into question or criticised until Miley Cyrus performed it at the VMA’s (alongside Thicke). She was attacked for dancing sexually, and dancing with Robin Thicke. It was his song! His choreography! No one cared until Miley owned it and embraced it. Then it was too controversial. Even though the video featured three men fully clothed with naked models dancing around them… people didn’t mind it. It wasn’t until Miley came into the picture... and then she was publicly ridiculed and slut shamed, for something that was not created by her. I remember my friends calling me after that performance and asking, “Are you still gonna like Miley?” As if Miley being sexual is something to stop liking her over. I didn’t understand it. But I understood that there is a huge double standard in pop culture and in American society.
There is an “accepted” way to see sex, to be sexy. Women should be thin but curvy, hairless except for a small bush or blonde body hair, should want sex but not too much, should dress attractive but not too sexy…
Nearly every film features a woman being nude and/or objectified (it’s a thin line isn’t it?) for the male viewer, and so far, everyone has been okay with that level of sexualization. Cuties does not feature this kind of sexualization — Cuties does not feature nudity or objectification at all, let alone to please the male viewer. Quite the opposite. Cuties is uncomfortable because we are still so uncomfortable talking about sex. Because we don’t want to think about how our current system is affecting young girls. Because we are okay with objectification, but not sexual liberation. Because we accept women as props and objects but not as individual beings with sexual realities of their own. We accept the sexualised but not the sexual.
We, as learning animals, are largely products of our culture, Cuties is calling out that culture. Our job as an audience is to ask ourselves post-viewing: What are we going to do about this problematic culture? How are we going to save our young girls from objectification that we as a collective society participate in whether passively or purposefully? The correct answer is NOT to share isolated videos of these actresses on social media (again, that is objectifying), not cancel Netflix, but rather listen when women tell their stories. Listen. It’s so rare for women, especially Black women to be able to tell their truth in these ways…We are clearly so scared of what women have to say.
Does it surprise me that Americans were so quick to call for the cancellation of something that they don't understand? That America simply isn’t ready to address? Nope. The health and happiness of women in an objectifying and sex negative culture is obviously not a priority.
It does not surprise me that this backlash was so specifically, American. I lived in France — they have a long way to go when it comes to the sexual liberation and equality of femmes. But the French did not sexualise the children in this film — Americans did that. And what does that say about us?