“To say that Cuties enables sexual abuse is to miss the point of the film. This movie brings a rare vision of girlhood to light and posits that sexual exploration—in all its discomfort and modern complexities—is actually okay, even normal.” Article in the Atlantic
I read this commentary about the Netflix movie that has caused an uproar in the recent months and my jaw just about dropped to the floor. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, and even more so that I was reading it in an article written by a woman who had been a victim of pedophilia when she was younger.
On September 9, an independent French film, Les Mignonnes, made its American debut on Netflix under the title Cuties. While director said she intends the film as a critique of the sexual exploitation of children, she quickly found her work facing condemnation for participating in that very thing. Within days, #CancelNetflix was trending and the film had received an astounding 1.06/10 audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. My social media feed, along with yours I’m sure, was covered with posts urging Netflix to take down the film before it had even released.
Now, although I’ve read many commentaries about the film, I haven’t myself watched the film – I’ll admit that I’ve considered it, but I really haven’t been able to justify participating in it. From my research though, I know that the main character, Amy, is an 11-year-old girl who is longing for love and connection and begins to adapt to what Western culture values in order to gain that love and connection from the world around her. She begins to value what others value, notices that hyper-sexualization is rewarded. That being said, she begins objectifying herself, without really knowing where suggestive pop culture ends, and pornography begins. As she begins to discover explicit material online, she mimics what her eyes are taking in, adding erotic behavior, provocative dress, and sexual mannerisms to her dances. The film presents the banality of evil and how easily a young girl dropped into Western culture might be exploited by subtle cues and behaviors that exist in the light of day, in every day, seemingly normal culture – in other words, there doesn’t always have to be a villain attacking young girls in order for them to be exploited. It can simply happen by what they see going on around them… and that’s a fact that terrifies me as a mom to a little girl.
The public’s response to Cuties shows me that people are outraged by the film. Why? Because even in our hyper-sexualized culture, we draw the line at sexualizing children.
Let me state the obvious: this is a good line to have. But it has left me wondering and processing in the midst of my own anger and outrage… how did we get here? The actresses who portray the children in the movie are really children. They are really displaying their bodies and really dancing provocatively for a real adult audience. And the writer says it is all for the sake of social commentary – but the question is, is the social commentary really worth the real sexual exploitation of minors? How have we wandered so far from valuing people — particularly children — as image bearing participants in the kingdom of God?
We didn’t jump from wholesome family content to little girls twerking in a movie trailer overnight. That’s not how the entertainment industry works. We as a society have become more and more okay with explicit sexual content for decades and we’ve slowly become more and more desensitized to it.
By watching the latest and hottest shows with TV-MA ratings, we say “yes” to more multi-minute sex scenes that we “haveto” watch because they contain dialogue that moves the plot forward. We say “yes” to the reality that actresses have to get naked in order to secure a starring role on a new made-for-streaming show. And with our “yeses,” we exchange the dignity and humanity of those real people simply to be entertained.
You see, my point is that Cuties is one example of a far bigger problem. This debate has made me look more clearly at the content that I consume and stream every day because what we participate in, we’re allowing. Nothing we do is without purpose. How are we complicit? What do I say “yes” to when I choose my entertainment? How am I contributing to the exploitation and dehumanization of people made in the image of God?
Here’s another issue that the film points out. Sex sells. It’s true, and if we look closely at any industry in our world, we can’t argue with it. The pornography industry makes more money than the MLB, the NFL, and the NBA combined. Pornography sites receive more traffic than Amazon Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram combined. Those statistics are staggering.
What kind of culture exploits their young this way? What kind of culture both condemns pedophilia (well, we may even be slipping up on this front) and yet encourages young girls to look up to Instagram influencers who are the furthest thing from modest?
The answer is simple. When we look at society, we really don’t value children. We see single people holding up the banner “I just don’t like kids.” Here’s the deal – in my head, that is ageism. If we were to say that about any other people group, race, ethnicity, etc. we would be considered hateful, racist, or sexist. But when we say it about kids, it’s almost celebrated (I don’t say this from a place of judgement – trust me, I say it from a place of once having that opinion and being there). That’s the root of the issue. We don’t value children and what they add to our world – the complete opposite of what Jesus instructs us to do in the Gospels.
Protecting children at the risk of destabilizing powerful organizations or indicting beloved adults means asking ourselves not just “What is a girl worth?” but “What are we willing to pay?” This question ultimately exposes our larger cultural value systems. We prize efficiency. Children are inefficient. We value wealth creation. Children are costly and can’t pay their own way. We honor independence and radical autonomy. Children are dependent and hamper our freedom. Before I became a mom, this really is the majority of the message that I heard, especially since I’m only 25. “You better enjoy your freedom while it lasts!” “Everything changes when you have kids!” “Your marriage gets so much harder with kids.” And the list goes on. In essence, children are seen as a burden, and while some of those statements have truth to them, they’re the furthest thing from THE truth. Children are such a blessing and seeing the world through their eyes, shaping and shepherding their hearts, and doing the hard and dirty work of motherhood is the greatest gift.
It’s no wonder, then, that such a society, would increasingly find ways to shorten childhood. Instead of making space for children to be children, we under-support and undervalue those who care for them, whether in the home or the classroom. We ask fifth graders to map out their career goals. We hire private coaches to improve their athleticism, not so they can enjoy free-time with their friends, but to prepare them for the “future.”
In Matthew 18, we get a glimpse of what Jesus thinks about little children, and it’s convicted me as I’ve wrestled with how our society treats them. Jesus warns that those who would harm children will face his wrath, and it would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their neck and be thrown into the sea than cause a little one to stumble. I don’t know about you, but I don’t take that lightly.
Jesus’ words are rooted in a holistic understanding of the goodness of childhood and the unique role that children play in God’s kingdom. Just before he warns us that we must not harm children, he commands us to actively welcome them. And he said:
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”Matthew 18:2-5
Ever since I had my daughter, I’ve been reminded time and time again of my own dependence on God. My little baby is so dependent on me – literally for everything. She is limited, and wholly reliant on others to protect them, and she reminds me each day how I must approach my Father. I’m reminded that often times, the very things that our culture hates and turns their cheeks to, are the very things that God honors.
If we are to truly protect children in such a culture, it will require more than outrage. More than cancelling Netflix. More than poor ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. More than fast forwarding through sex scenes that are seemingly normal in our favorite television shows. It will require a willingness to disturb our own organizations and question the value systems that tell us that children are not worthy of our time, resources, and care. It will require aligning our hearts with the heart of God who delights to care for children in their weakness, who celebrates them despite their inefficiencies, and who honors them as image-bearers, even now.
Cuties is one example of a far bigger problem.
As we watch this controversy unfold, we need to go further than this one movie.
We must ask ourselves some hard questions:
- How am I complicit?
- What do I say “yes” to when I choose my entertainment?
- How am I contributing to the exploitation and dehumanization of people made in the image of God?
- Where do I see “normal” instead of “profane”?
And lastly, I’ll say this – this other problem is not normal, and it’s not okay. It is an outrage. It is infuriating. And we do need to do something about it. Lord, help us to know what that something is.
Sammie Gallo is AFL’s Ministry Coordinator and the author of Abundant Life: You were made for more, a curriculum and website developed to educate students about healthy relationships, sexuality, dating, and decision-making.