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September 30, 2020

Why no one is Right about what is Wrong with “Cuties.”

“Cuties” has us in an uproar.

The Netflix release by writer/director Maïmouna Doucouré dives into the life of Amy, an 11-year-old Senegalese-French girl, offering a revelatory view into a pre-pubescence caught between overt sexualization and a repressive family dynamic.

Amy’s mother is brokenhearted as she prepares for the marriage of her polygamous husband to a second wife. Unable to bear her mother’s powerlessness and pain, young Amy wriggles her way into a clique of precocious and scantily-dressed young dancers, and the scene is set for a whole lot of viewer controversy.

Netflix fanned the flames with a poor choice of poster for the film’s United States release, but it is primarily the suggestive dance routines that have triggered an enraged public response, both swift and extensive. Everyone seems to have an opinion about “Cuties,” whether they have actually watched the film or not.

Monica Castillo at RogerEbert.com writes:

“There’s a saying in criticism that ‘depiction does not equal endorsement.’ The film actively critiques the very thing pearl-clutchers were mad about—the sexualization of children.” 

Doucouré uses these uncomfortable images to provoke a serious conversation about the sexualization of girls—especially regarding girls of colour, the policing of a girl’s sexuality, double standards, the effect of social media on kids, and how children learn these behaviours. To do this, the director shows what it looks like for young girls to emulate what they see in music videos and grown-up dance routines.”

The suffering of abused children is real, horrifying, and profound. It exists on a much larger scale than most realize and is certainly not unique to the realm of the wealthy and powerful; it’s everywhere. However, if we are brave enough, beneath our horror we will also witness a heightened, unconscious polarization expressed in the need to push such a dark wounding away from the recesses of our own hearts onto the pariahs, the lepers of our time.

Social media is presently awash in a highly reactive climate. Pedophilia has come to represent the depths of the darkness of our world. In a classic enactment of the victim/persecutor/saviour triangle, children represent the innocents, pedophiles play the monsters, and those who abhor them are the saviours. Hashtags and pronouncements abound.

Without anyone realizing what is really going on, “Cuties” has drawn forth remarkable insights that profoundly inform the modern psyche, poultice upon the boil of cultural and religious sexual shame. Whether intentional or not, “Cuties” has brought deeply toxic fears to the surface in a big way.

There are two camps in terms of a “Cuties” response. One suggests that the film is a calculated manipulation by an attention-seeking director, that the film itself is pornographic fodder for pedophiles and as such should be removed. Doucouré has received threats upon her life.

A second camp suggests that the film is a provocative work of art, created with the intent to illuminate a painful subject and by so doing, contribute to awareness and change. Doucouré has released a Youtube interview wherein she states her reasons for making the film. She says it is intended as an expression of activism based upon her own experiences as a woman of colour growing up within a confusing mix of cultures and expectations.

The comments on this interview are primarily negative, many scathing. Most call for the removal of the film. This is the wave that has now generated a #CancelNetflix response. Let us delete what we do not care to calmly discuss.

This film is too intelligent to be considered just pornography. If an individual with pedophilic desires is looking for images to titillate, they need go no further than any American beach where they will find plenty of nearly naked pubescent girls, or simply open up TikTok. Pulling this film is not going to deprive voyeurs.

Rather than pronouncing our cancel impulses, what would be more beneficial to understand is that nuance has been lost in this dialogue, as with all trigger topics. Where there is personal resistance to self-examination, projection will occur. That which feels deeply uncomfortable within the self will most often be passed like a hot potato to someone else who dares to tickle our fears. There are few subjects where such a response is more apparent than sexuality.

Let’s take a moment to practice our discernment chops. There are profound distinctions across the spectrum of pornography, erotica, and social commentary, although they may overlap.

Pornography is found in the exploitive use of sexual hunger, to satisfy personal curiosities, and of course to make money. It is primarily characterized by disconnection; pornography by definition is devoid of subtlety and heart, and is most often voyeuristic because this further removes personal responsibility. It is generated by the severing of sexual expression from the self, the precise legacy of the conservative, and religious views which seek to condemn it.

Pornography’s energetic source is misaligned, and so it depletes rather than nourishes. As the false front of sexual desire, those who perform in pornographic films present a hollow world. Shaven, lustful, and loud with fakery, they are what Barbie and Ken, or perhaps Barbie and Midge would do together if they had plastic genitals and could moan aloud.

Erotica is instead fueled by the genuine passion of the creator and the viewer. To be erotic is to express with artistry, playfulness, and respect, to explore through the lens of sensuality, a gift of our physical human form. Erotic expression embraces the totality of the sexual force and invites us to release it from hiding. There is no darkness in the erotic; instead, there is simmering beauty waiting to be found in the parts of ourselves we have denied. True erotica is rare in modernity but is making a comeback. This is a good sign.

Social commentary holds at its core the intent to inform and provoke thoughtful discourse. It asks us to shift our own awareness, so that we may participate in the expanding nature of our cultural forms. It questions our habits, norms, and behaviours. It invites us to look at what makes us uncomfortable so that we may grow and change.

“Cuties” is a film intended to provide social commentary. Where it runs into trouble are the scenes where the young actresses perform explicitly sexualized dances and poses. Doucouré has chosen to present these dances akin to full-blown music videos. The girls are talented dancers dressed in cheerleader regalia, and the scenes are shot for visual impact rather than an examination of the character’s experience. Camera angles reveal close-ups of the girls with legs splayed, making openly sexual gestures.

It is these scenes that have shocked viewers, and it may be that Doucouré intended exactly this. They are uncomfortable scenes to watch. The temptation to turn it off, or turn away, is great. The sense that she has gone too far as a director overrides her commentary. Like many viewers, I too wish she had chosen another way.

But here is where I would like to challenge the hive mind response to the film and the quick impulse to attack a young woman of colour directing her first major film project. Perhaps we could simply consider that this film is in some ways wonderful, and in other ways poorly forged, and her occasionally clumsy hand as a director has generated a response that has as much to do with our own denial as it does with her choice of camera angles.

A more sophisticated director might have realized that there were other, subtly powerful ways to highlight the dilemma of Amy. A more skilled writer might have taken us deeply into the psychology of the protagonist, rather than stopping short at a bilateral choice between exploitation and an ancestral, misogynistic religious tradition.

Doucouré is, however, a young director attempting to speak to her own experience, and the scenes in which she was successful are incredibly powerful. Mystical and recurring images of a traditional dress meant for Amy to wear to her father’s polygamous second marriage are gorgeously evocative. The pain of her mother’s grief in her inability to free herself from her own prison is acutely real and provides a vivid backdrop for the deconstruction of Amy’s sense of safety in her imminent womanhood.

Fathia Youssouf, the lead actress who plays Amy, is quite brilliant. She is the true star of this exploration and her gifts may exceed the current expertise of her director. In real life she is a mesmerizing 14-year-old girl; the median age of all the girls in the film is 13. They are meant to be portraying 11-year-olds, and perhaps Doucouré was wise to ease up the ages of the performers.

I was once an 11-year-old girl.

In some ways, many of my experiences match those of the girls in the film, despite taking place decades ago. I was more than two years younger than my classmates, in a gifted program now long extinct. Thankfully, I hit puberty early as my friends were already wearing bras and makeup, slow dancing with boys, and shoplifting for fun.

The chief instigator in my own group of pubescent girls was the daughter of a local minister. She and her two sisters must have driven their father to drink the holy wine. She pulled me aside one day in the girls’ washroom and told me she was going to take me in hand and turn me into a woman. It did not occur to me to object.

Tight jeans, eyeliner, records, parties, boys; in a somewhat sisterly way she was determined to teach me everything she felt I needed to know. I was fascinated by the fact that her breasts were big enough that she could put a pencil underneath one and it wouldn’t fall. She solemnly told me this was a marker of sexual maturity, but warned that it was a taste of lost youth to come. I sighed with envy. I was not pencil-ready at the time.

What “Cuties” does not address, and in fact, almost no one is willing to speak about, is that adolescent girls are radiant with sexual energy. Unless it has been shamed and beaten out of them, pubescent girls are meant to be blossoming with a pure, feminine beauty. The crux of the issue is that lifetimes of sexual wounding and repression have led adults to an imbalanced impulse toward the theft of this purity. It is irresistible manna to those who have lost their own innocence long ago. Sexual wounding is so rampant in our world that we don’t know what healthy sexuality looks like, and so we vilify those who act upon their trauma. How dare they let their impulses leak out from behind the confines of centuries of repression and denial? How dare they when I dare not?

At the age of 13, I recall being so consumed by desire that I considered climbing out of my bedroom window to go find any willing boy. I fell in love every two weeks. I intentionally experimented with revealing clothing because I was fascinated by the new power I held over others simply by letting them look at me. I was both terrified and brazenly proud to wear a bikini. I used my sexual energy in an unconscious way. It was, I believe, the first time I had ever felt powerful at all.

I wanted to distance myself from my mother’s fears, not because I was pressured into it by my peers but because sexual confusion was absolutely everywhere in my environment. This led to years of rebellion and attempts by my mother to control my sexuality. I didn’t have the rage that Amy expresses, and personally, I found the extremes of Amy’s behaviour in “Cuties” unnecessary to the story line.

But I do understand the character’s desperation.

In my youth, there were absolutely no healthy feminine role models to be found. Not on television, not in books or film, not in my family or my neighbourhood. Not one. 

Women and girls do have sexual desires, and sometimes those desires are fierce. I remember trying to explain this to my sweet father, who was shocked. He softly responded that it had genuinely never occurred to him that girls might feel sexual desire the way boys do.

The larger truth is that even pre-adolescent children have natural, sensual energy. All humans, all living beings carry a life force vitality, which is expressed through the senses. This is why children who are not punished for it will innocently explore with one another. Foetuses masturbate in the womb, for heaven’s sake. Our religious and cultural taboos are so rich with sexual shame that we must throw up walls, we must vilify and deny. We are so afraid that we ourselves may hold inappropriate sexual responses that we cannot look this subject in the eye.

Within her dance group, Amy is the one who has mastered “twerking.” In the film, and in Western culture in general, this particular dance movement is considered highly sexual, and indeed it is used this way to disturbingly exploitive extremes in popular music. Given that Amy is a young woman of colour, I find it interesting that she represents a dance movement that originates in Africa. Many traditional African dances focus upon rocking and shaking the hips and pelvis, and very young children perform these dances with great skill and pride.

In Uganda, goat skins are worn on the hips of the young girls to emphasize their size and movement. When I was visiting there, I saw young children performing dances where the girls dropped down onto hands and knees to tilt their pelvises, while the boys partnered up to crouch and rock behind them. At the time, I mentioned to the NGO leaders I was with that they might want to be cautious about showing this dance to European visitors. As I was often reminded by my hosts during our visit, we white folks really don’t know how to dance.

The fact is, the legacy of hundreds of years of Western civilization has crippled expressions of feminine beauty and power. We only know how to do two things with it: exploit it or shut it down. This is the message behind the social commentary element of “Cuties,” cracking open a firmly repressed can of worms. Perhaps such an initiation was enough, and “Cuties” has already fulfilled its purpose, within the uproar.

As a result of our fundamental disconnection to the elevated, conscious feminine, we live in a time of dire environmental challenge upon our planet, of utter separation from our natural world. We still have not dared to address the infinite number of ways in which we deny ourselves beauty, darkening what is innocent by perpetuating this profoundly destructive severing from the heart.

We don’t dare to consider that by labelling pedophilia as a monstrosity we cannot come close enough to it to understand its roots and discover how to heal it. We prefer to banish our lepers rather than seek help for their wounds, and by so doing, create whole leper colonies which now are spreading exponentially via the underbelly of the internet. This gives us a chance to feel very holier than thou, as we release our own denied shame into the streams of social media like a waste facility dumping sewage into a river. That which we deny runs the show.

Is “Cuties” a great film? Perhaps not, but does it have great moments? Absolutely.

There is an extraordinary exorcism scene that cracked me open, but then, in her inexperience, the director cut away and abandoned the thread. These are subjects so vast and nuanced, I’m not sure I can think of a living film director who is ready to fully represent them. But at least Doucouré tried, and for this, I admire her. She may not have anticipated the depth of the rage she would confront, but she must have known this would not be an easy ride.

Despite some poor choices in the film, I don’t for a moment think Doucouré intended to exploit, and to those who judge her as if this were so, please take a moment to look to your own house. What do your private, unspoken fantasies involve? What commitment have you made to examining your own legacy of shame? When was the last time you touched the Divine in ecstasy and rose up powerful and wise as a result of your surrender? For this is what pure, sacred sexuality is meant to be. We have forgotten the face of feminine creation, in our fear.

The first step in resolving an ancient cultural wound is to have the courage to have a conversation about it. Next is the willingness to examine our own bias and projection.

We may have a long way to go, but now that the monster is out of the closet, let us look closely. Let’s begin with the child in each one of us who is beautiful, sensual, and hungry for love.

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