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HomeIllinois NewsBeckman: Netflix's "Cuties" points to cultural drain-circling

Beckman: Netflix’s “Cuties” points to cultural drain-circling

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31290578a49507f0396a457b13da05e5By Hank Beckman - 

For the latest evidence that our culture is circling the drain, look no further than the critical reaction to Netflix’s new offering, “Cuties.”

“Cuties” is advertised by the streaming service as a story about a girl rebelling “against her conservative family’s traditions when she becomes fascinated with a free-spirited dance crew,” leading one to believe it’s just another generic coming of age tale.

But the film goes way overboard in its graphic depiction of erotic dancing by a group of 11-year-old girls, played by actual 11-year-olds, living in a Parisian housing project.

The protagonist, Amy, is from a Senegalese-French family that practices polygamy, as is common in many Muslim countries. The film shows the mother being deeply unhappy at the prospect of her husband taking another wife; Amy secretly watches as her mother breaks down crying at the thought of it.

The family’s strict adherence to fundamentalist Islam and its requirements rubs the free-spirited and strong-willed Amy the wrong way, to say the least.

Complicating her adolescence is being the new kid in her school, leading to the inevitable trials and tribulations of the outsider trying to fit in with a social group established years before her arrival on the scene.

But through a stolen smartphone Amy discovers erotic dancing, and winds up joining her new friends in practicing for a dance contest where they will compete against much older contestants in front of an adult audience.

Amy and her friends practice what can only be described as the moves of a seasoned stripper, culminating in their contest performance with them writhing on the floor simulating sex, touching one another suggestively and generally acting out a decent parent’s worst nightmare.

While the film has understandably drawn strong criticism from conservative press and politicians, actual 11-year-olds performing lewd dances for adults seems not to have bothered many mainstream critics.

Monica Hesse decries “Cuties” critics in the Washington Post and writes that the movie is “one of the more compelling movies you’ve likely seen in months. Funny and deeply uncomfortable, sweet and sometimes sad.” Sometimes sad? You think?

Justin Chang of the Los Angelos Times is offended by criticism of the film, saying “self-styled internet moralists immediately jumped on the film (sight unseen, of course,).” In New York Magazine, Bilge Ebiri, said “the anti-Cuties cause has been embraced by various trolls and conspiracy nuts.”

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, also sure that “Cuties” critics haven’t seen the movie, denies that the film “celebrates children’s sexual behavior,” instead framing the story as one young girl’s rebellion against a patriarchal order. (Brody does mention Islam’s role in the patriarchy briefly; one wonders if he would have similarly downplayed religion’s role if Amy were from a Mormon family)

Well, I have seen the film and, despite its supporters rationalizing its explicit content, it clearly qualifies as child pornography, as the Justice Department’s web site makes clear.

Title 18 of the United States Code 2251 addresses “The Sexual Exploitation of Children (Production of Child Pornography),” pointing out that images of child pornography are not protected by First Amendment Rights.

The Justice Department stresses that “the legal definition of sexually explicit conduct does not require that an image depict a child engaging in sexual activity.”

I’m not an attorney, but I have the uncanny ability to read and comprehend English, and, if pre-teen dancing that includes simulated sex in front of strangers, posing spread-eagle for the camera, taking crotch and booty shots and the attempted seduction of an adult by a minor doesn’t meet the legal requirements of child pornography, then the term no longer has any meaning.

The only thing that the film doesn’t portray is the 11-year-olds actually having sex, leading one to wonder what exactly the critics would classify as child pornography.

The film was made in France by a Senegalese-French director, and Netflix is an international company that caters to international markets. Maybe that figured in the decision to stream the film world-wide. Who knows?

Maybe the suits at Netflix just assumed that the American viewing public would accept it as the rest of the world apparently has; a country that tolerates Drag Queen Story hours in its public libraries would seem to be ripe for this type of depravity.

But it’s hard to understand how the film can be seen as legal, given the Justice Department’s public stance on the issue of sexual exploitation of children, and any one caring about the welfare of America’s children should support calls from those wanting an investigation into the matter.

To be fair, there are valid points made by the film and its supporters.

In Hesse’s piece in the WP, Maimouna Doucoure`, the film’s director, is quoted as being concerned about the sexualization of preteens, especially on social media, where the pressure is on to act like a grown woman.

“The problem, of course, is that they are not women,” she is quoted, “and they don’t realize what they’re doing.”

Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and take her at her word that “Cuties” is meant as a critical look at the negative effects that social media and the broader culture have on young girls, pressuring them to act like adults before they are ready.

And let’s assume that all of the critics supporting the film are sincere in their belief that it’s an important film and that its critics, in the words of Ms. Hesse, “need to watch it and then demand more movies like it.”

Does anyone really believe that the message that many young girls will take away from “Cuties” is to beware of social media and unscrupulous adults preying on them? Or that the key to battling sexual exploitation of minors is to repeatedly replicate that very exploitation on film?

Rape, murder and arson are societal problems that are fit subject for works of art. But we wouldn’t dream of allowing a film depicting an actual murder, rape or act of arson.

More likely, most young girls will do what do what kids that age have always done; take it as permission from a role model to act on their longing for adult-like behavior when, as Ms. Doucoure` noted, they have no idea what the consequences are. (Many people my age were inspired by the Beatles to take up the guitar; to my regret, I also thought they looked so cool smoking cigarettes, and I picked up that nasty habit as well)

All that is assuming that the film’s supporters are honest in their criticism, that addressing other issues like young girl’s struggling with their budding sexuality, the difficulty of a person of color integrating into a strange culture and the negative consequences of social media redeem the film.

Maybe the film’s supporters have no wish to glamorize the sexual exploitation of preteens; maybe they do. Only each person knows their real motivation, but a quick Internet search on the subject will find that the sexualization of children with the intent of normalizing pedophilia is not exactly unheard of.

At least the web site for The Drag Queen Story Hour is honest about its intentions. It specifically states that its goal is to bring some glamour to the drag lifestyle.

Eleven-year-olds performing erotic dances is an abomination that no decent publication need glamorize, and Netflix should drop this film.

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