To The Least of These: Discussing Netflix ‘Cuties’

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Art by Danielle Pajak Illustrations.

And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” — Luke 17:1–2

I have desired to share my thoughts on the topic of Netflix’s Cuties. My thoughts are coming from a place that desires to elevate Art and Storytelling, as I truly believe they are something sacred and valuable. Art and imagery are powerful and provocative tools, and as an artist myself, I do not believe these tools should be taken lightly. Every creator holds in their hands a grave responsibility because image and story have such a profound influence on our every day lives, now more than ever, and I do not think we should be taking this responsibility lightly.

I also want to be fully transparent and say that I have not watched Netflix’s Cuties, nor shall I. This may make my opinion null and void in your eyes, and that is fair. You are free to stop reading if you wish. However, the point I am going to be outlining will make it clear as to why I won’t watch Cuties, and why I believe no one should.

Now, I do not say this as condemnation. Of course, you are free to do what you will, and I am not saying by watching Cuties this is somehow an act of evil on your part. I want to leave the politically and ideologically charged culture wars at the door, and instead I invite you to have a discussion with me. Not to discount or invalidate people’s feelings regarding this film, as I believe this issue is legitimately upsetting and it is only right that we should be assessing its place in the realm of ideas. What I want to convey by the end of this discourse is that movies like Cuties are not beneficial and should not be encouraged to be shown or encouraged to be made. To be clear, I am not saying stories about coming of age, identity, social issues, (i.e. the hyper-sexualization of children through social media), or gritty human experiences should not be made. There are certainly dark, grave, and terrible realities in this world, and I am a firm believer that art must speak into those places, shine the light in the darkness, as it were. Yet Cuties does not do this, but instead becomes the very darkness it claims to be denouncing, and this is, I believe, a very serious problem.

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To begin, in one of my previous Medium posts, I discussed the nature of Storytelling and Communication. I outlined how we communicate, and why we communicate — and that the language we choose for the vehicle of our ideas is critical in accurately conveying these ideas we are trying to communicate. In that post, I was analyzing Season 8 of Game of Thrones, most specifically the Daenerys Targaryen arc — wherein she becomes “Mad Queen”, a kind of psychotic “Nazi” Dragon Queen, and I argued why the entirety of Daenery’s story up until that point was in direct conflict with that end conclusion. Benioff and Weiss, as I concluded, had failed in their communication, through the script, the plot, the arrangement of the story through editing, music, and atmosphere etc — showing how the language of cinema and visual media is complex and multilayered, and how each layer of this vehicle of communicate must be aligned with itself on every level in order to achieve effective communication. This is true of every single story and image we create. Every placement of a line, every period and comma, every color choice — all these things communicate and you, the creator, need to be careful when creating. And you, the viewer, need to be aware when watching. The cinematic language is nuanced and is always speaking.

Now, I understand the difficulty of this kind of communication, as this is slippery ground upon which we walk because every person comes from their own unique vantage point. Miscommunication happens regardless of how careful we are to try and communicate clearly because the medium of expression is so subjective and our own perceptions get in the way. That is why we live in a world of such diverse and conflicting opinions where one thing could look black to one person, but could look white to another. And Art, more than any other medium, is a subjective experience. This is its very nature.

That is why I invite discussion, let us each come to the table and look at this situation as it stands. I’ve listened to the creator of Cuties talk about her film in her own words, and she expresses how she wanted to create a mirror of our society, to ask the hard questions about the hyper-sexualization of women and how this is reflected in social media — media that our children consume and emulate. She asks: is objectification just another form of oppression? Can women choose to be who they want within a society where certain role models are imposed upon them? She sees her film as a feminist film and an activist message, wanting to bring awareness, while also expressing a very personal perspective of her own childhood struggles with femininity and identity.

This is, undoubtedly, a very noble position, and she concludes that we all need to come together and decide what is best for our children. So, I say, if she is genuine in this desire, then I would ask her to consider just that. I would ask: Maïmouna Doucouré, were you successful in communicating your activist message in your film?

Consider, she, as the director, and the filmmakers around her had to make children act out the sexual explicit behavior in front of them, which they then filmed on camera. This isn’t something that can be faked, ie. when we see a person get hurt or die on screen, they aren’t actually getting hurt (usually) or dying on the screen. Yet actual 11 year old girls were acting out sexual moves and behaviors on screen. Is it okay to make 11 year old girls act out these things just to bring awareness? Ask yourself, would you want to see your own daughter, niece, or sister on screen doing these things? Remember, every aspect of a medium communicates a message, and as I stated, film-making is unbelievably complex. Film-making isn’t like painting a picture or writing a novel, actions that usually involves only the Artist and his work. Film-making is a form of Art and Communication that involves others. It is a communal expression, one that takes an army of creatives to make happen, so each person in this process, then, becomes a part of this process. They are intrinsically linked, you cannot separate the two. Therefore, the Director must keep this in mind when making a film, as the dignity of their actors and crew have inevitably become a part of their canvas. A painter dips his brush in pigment, but a filmmaker dips his brush in the hearts and minds of other filmmakers, and uses their expression to express himself. It is the most vulnerable place to be as a creative, as you open yourself to others and have others open themselves up to you, and therefore, it should be the most protected and sacred space.

These young actresses were a part of this process at the very beginning, and even more than that they are children. Children are already the most vulnerable people of our society, as they are completely dependent on us for their protection and understanding of the world around them. These 11 year old children do not even understand the full ramifications of what this movie Cuties is about, and for that reason, they should have been protected above all else, with the most diligent and seriousness of mind. Doucouré and her team should have been so very careful when telling this kind of story, one that already was about a subject that lays children’s humanity and souls bare. They should have considered the actions and behaviors they were asking these young children to play out. They should have asked, “Is this right? Should we really be making young girls ‘twerk’ before us and an audience? Why are we showing this? What purpose does this serve?” For in the end, no matter the intentions of Doucouré and her team, we simply just have 11 year old girls twerking. Isn’t this the very behavior and the subsequent voyeur nature of it through entertainment that Doucouré is wanting to condemn? How is it any different?

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This inevitably leads to the logical question: when bringing awareness to the darkness of the world, how much of it should be mirrored? Some might argue that the repulsed response that we have to Cuties is precisely its intent, as the shocking and inciting nature of its story is supposed to show us the ugliness and confusion of the social problems it depicts. Yet, with this mindset, do we not just risk becoming the very thing we are condemning in those efforts to provoke? Should there not be a line drawn in order to distinguish Darkness and the reflection of the Darkness? We know we are looking into a mirror because it is a sheet of glass reflecting photons upon its surface. It is a reality one step removed from us, and in this way a mirror is a kind of veil of the reality it mirrors. Yet if we remove this veil, then we look upon the bare reality itself head on. Is this not exactly what is happening when we incite the exact same response to Darkness within our Art?

Furthermore, there is the problematic and disturbing nature of Netflix’s promotional material for this film, of which they have apologized for, but the promotional material still exists on IMDB and on the internet. In the poster, it depicts the young girls in sexually explicit poses. Netflix can say they are sorry, but this is a grave and serious “oversight” on their part. They haven’t made a typo error here, something that is easily overlooked. This is a team of artists and graphic designers and a production company, making this image. This was an intentional process, one of which that takes a lot of work and a lot of people. Yet no where within this entire process did one person stop and ask, “Should we be doing this?” Not one person or director at Netflix stopped this from happening. Their apology rings very hallow because if they truly felt the wrongness of what they were doing they could have stopped it from happening at any point, but they did not. I think it is only prudent for us to be very concerned and ask, why did this happen? Again, going back to Art and Communication, when you are creating an image, you are expressing ideas, it is an intentional and rigorous process. You are communicating always. So why did Netflix choose to communicate the sexualization of children? This is not an accident. This is not something you simply apologize for and go on with the status quo. This is a very serious and grievous problem. If Netflix truly believed and stood with Doucouré that Cuties was an activist film, then why have their actions and their imagery not conveyed precisely that?

It is for these reasons that I have chosen not to watch Cuties and why I believe it is problematic at best and dangerous at worst. Doucouré, her film-making team, the film communities of the world, and Netflix have all actively chosen not to avert their eyes from this depiction of children as sexual objects, but I will, as I believe so should we all. For awareness of evil comes through more than just witnessing it with our eyes, but sometimes it comes from simply knowing and then covering to protect the dignity of those who are its victims.

I am reminded of the story from the Book of Genesis, of how Noah after the Great Flood, became drunk and laid in his tent naked (Genesis 9:20–27). His one son, Ham, saw his father’s nakedness and went to go tell his older brothers about it. Yet when his older brothers heard of it, they went to their father’s tent, walked backwards, and covered him with a blanket. So, in this way, they did not see their father’s nakedness. In our social media age, we are more often times like Ham, running to share and tell everyone of something forbidden, ugly, or obscene. Or we think that we need to shout from the roof tops in order for us to fight against evil, displaying images graphically across our screens or creating a lot of noise, buzz, and scandal. Yet, sometimes it is wiser to turn our faces away — not to forget, but to protect. It is wiser to cover and keep silent, not to bury or keep in the darkness, but in order to preserve our dignity and our humanity. How much more so than for our children?

In the end, I believe Doucouré (and Netflix) have been playing with fire here and I am not convinced that Doucouré hasn’t burned herself and the very children she claims to be protecting. Therefore, let us strip away all the rhetoric surrounding this film, which, due to its subject matter, was always going to be controversial. The controversy is merely noise. Let us remove all of that and instead judge this film within its own context and the context of the space from which it was created and the space into which it speaks.

Does it stand?

And judge carefully before you answer.

Better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck. . .

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