“Cuties”: Who Is Exploiting Whom?

Have you heard the buzz about “Cuties” and the #CancelNetflix movement? If so, which reaction(s) did you have?

  • What is wrong with people who make and market movies that exploit young girls?
  • What is wrong with people who make a political issue out of a docudrama?
  • What is wrong with our world that it exploits young girls?
  • What is wrong with Congresspeople who choose to take on a video instead of solving a pandemic and world peace?

Or perhaps your reaction was like mine: I guess I need to watch this movie to understand what all the hubbub is about. And so, I did.

The first time Cuties blipped across my awareness was when I saw a photo of four preadolescent girls in dance costumes in suggestive poses. My reaction was negative, but since this pose has been popular among performers for a long time, I wasn’t shocked. The costumes also registered as sexualized, but again, dance costumes are often more revealing than our usual garb.

I quickly forgot about the Cuties photo. But this topic came up again because of its relationship to the work I do. So, I decided to watch the movie to stay informed. I learned that “Cuties” is an award-winning film that was first shown at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. After that, Netflix bought the rights to show it and created the provocative poster to publicize it.

The movie prompted many emotional responses. It addresses so many important issues that are relevant to these times.

Rites of passage for youth

It portrays the angst so many children feel as they try to fit in, especially in a new place with new people. An important developmental task of children is to become independent from their family and develop more peer relationships. This movie is all about that task. Many children struggle because they are different in some way that brands them as an outcast. This often results in bullying and ostracizing. Some children will go to great lengths to find a way to fit in. In this movie, the 11-year-old Amy tries to fit in by teaching some peers how to do suggestive dance moves for a dance competition.

Immigration and cultural diversity

The main character in Cuties is Amy, an immigrant from Senegal, who is now trying to adapt to life in France. Her strictly observant Muslim family spends most of their time with other Muslim immigrant families. But Amy is trying to find her way in a school where she is considered an oddity. The “cool girls” bully her. She longs to be included and teaches herself to dance in hopes that will be her ticket inside the clique.

Sexually explicit images (porn, pornography)

In Amy’s search for connection, she watches dance videos online. Sadly, the videos she finds are “adult entertainment” videos of semi-nude women performing suggestive moves. Amy eagerly shows these moves to the “cool girls,” and they allow her to join their dance group. When social media is the source of education for young people, it is easy to see how this can lead them to believe this is typical for them to emulate.

Sexism and misogyny

The girls in Cuties are rewarded in many ways for their hypersexualized behaviors. The more reinforcement they receive, the more they use sexuality to try to get what they want. All of this is done with total ignorance and innocence about what it all means. This vicious cycle continues until Amy rejects her attempts to fit in.

After viewing the movie and reading about the #CancelNetflix reaction, I feel frustrated. This is yet another example of people reacting to something they heard about without looking into if firsthand. It is important for each of us to look before we leap into the herd mentality. In this case, the backlash has roots in political divisiveness and conspiracy theories.

Is the movie fun to watch? No. It is an intense portrayal of the pressures on young girls trying to find their way in a society that both values and devalues female sexuality.

Is the movie worth seeing? Yes. It is an important way to examine the messages young girls receive from social media, peers, adults, and systems that objectify girls and women. It can be a useful educational tool to prompt discussions about ways we need to support girls in staying safe and developing a positive self-image. This, by the way, is exactly why this movie was made.

The issues raised by Cuties points to the need for current, relevant, age-appropriate sex education. Relationships, safe use of social media, media influences, getting help when needed, and gender roles and expectations are all topics that are addressed in sex education. If trusted adults don’t teach young people these things, society will. As in Cuties, the lessons society teaches are often not the ones we want children to learn.

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Parents: If you want to get ready to talk with your children about puberty, enroll in “Preparing Parents for Puberty”! This online course will help you with information, practice, and resources.