Has 'Cuties' been misjudged or is it just as bad as it appears? (Update)

I wrote about this controversy last month when Netflix pulled back some promotional posters for this French film about a group of pre-teens who form a dance group that specializes in twerking and other sexualized dance moves. Understandably a lot of people were revolted by this concept and a petition was launched to have Netflix cancel the film.

Netflix didn’t cancel it and this week the debate about the film has revived itself in the media now that it is available for streaming. And I have to say up front that a lot of the reviews seem very focused on praising the film to own the cons. For instance, this Telegraph review is headlined, “Cuties, Netflix review: a provocative powder-keg for an age terrified of child sexuality.” I don’t think terrified is the right word here. I think disgusted would be more accurate. The New Yorker’s review was even more blunt: ““Cuties,” the Extraordinary Netflix Début That Became the Target of a Right-Wing Campaign.”

So there is some of that con-bashing going around but writing for the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg suggests that the film has a message a lot of conservatives might actually approve about a culture that sends pre-teen girls the wrong messages:

It’s a real shame that so many conservatives are condemning “Cuties” when they might find a great deal to like about the movie — and no, I don’t mean they harbor a secret taste for twerking preteens.

This is very much a film about what happens to kids when their parents aren’t physically or emotionally present in their lives. It’s highly skeptical of social media platforms and what sexualized mainstream culture teaches children about what behavior is normal or desirable. Though its characters post provocative dance videos and wear revealing costumes, “Cuties” doesn’t present their actions as liberated or admirable: Instead, the movie repeatedly shows other characters reacting with sadness or disgust when these girls try to act like grown women.

The triumphant climax of the movie isn’t a dance competition, but when Amy returns to age-appropriate clothes and games, finding an authentic version of herself in acting like the gummy-bear scarfing, giggly girl she was earlier in the film.

Rosenberg herself pointed to this review by Rod Dreher as one that, while she didn’t agree with it, seemed fair. Dreher watched the film and concludes that while it does ultimately conclude twerking 11-year-olds shows society has a problem, the experience of the film is every bit as bad as people imagined it would be:

So I saw it last night. It’s almost as bad as you think, and Netflix deserves all the grief it’s taking over the thing. But inside the grossness of Cuties is a reasonable point — but not one you can tell in film, or at least not in this film…

Cuties does not feature nudity (just a very quick glance at an adolescent girl’s breast), but it centers on the grotesque sexualization of minor girls — the title characters are a pack of 11-year-olds in Paris. Cuties is a deeply dishonest film that exploits its young cast nauseatingly, yet tries at the end to justify it with a too-pat moral…

In what I think is the most important part of this movie — a theme that a better film could explore without descending into the filth it ostensibly criticizes — is the role that technology plays in corrupting these girls. There is no dirty old man who trains these kids to dress and act like sluts. They self-exploit through the smartphone and social media. Here’s a scene from when Amy is just beginning to hang out with the Cuties. They are in the girls’ bathroom at school. The Cuties are watching hardcore porn on a smartphone, and commenting on it in revolting detail…

We need a movie that illuminates this problem and tells the truth about it. I finished the movie feeling very, very sorry for adolescent girls today. The problem with Cuties — and it’s what destroys the movie — is aesthetic, and ultimately moral: it engages and demonstrates with great passion the very thing it purports to condemn. Again, think of a movie with an anti-gluttony message that spends half the movie filming eating pastries with lascivious abandon. It’s simply not credible. Netflix got in trouble at first for marketing this movie as eye candy for pedophiles, but it turns out that even though that is not strictly true, that tack was more true to the experience of Cuties than the revisionist marketing.

Dreher posted a clip of the dancing from the film which has been circulating online. It’s pretty offensive, though it’s worth noting that the film itself does depicts the reaction of adults to the dancing as somewhere between shock and condemnation. Adults are shaking their heads or giving a thumb down. So the film isn’t applauding the behavior it depicts, the problem is that it does apparently spend a good deal of time depicting it in explicit detail. In an update, Dreher posted a translation of an interview with the director explaining what prompted the film:

I got the idea after seeing 11-year-old girls dancing in a very lascivious way at a block party. I thought, “Do they realize the message they’re sending?” For a year and a half, I surveyed little girls…

During the preparation, I saw girls of 13 or 14 years old followed by 400,000 people, just because they post pictures of themselves in thongs. It implies a new form of building self-esteem, very fragile, based on virtual world, a number of likes or followers. “Cuties” is a cry of alarm. And still, there are things I didn’t dare to film. So as not to frighten the parents.

If those quotes above really reflect the director’s point of view then she actually has a lot in common with the conservatives who are reacting with disgust to scenes from her film. In fact, it suggests they are having the reaction the director wanted them to have to these scenes because they really are objectionable, though maybe she thought more people would see the film as on their side.

The only thing I can think to compare this too is The Exorcist. That film (based on the novel of the same name) also had a pre-teen main character and featured a lot of terrifically gruesome scenes portrayed by a young actress. And yet, the film is ultimately about faith and was written by a Catholic. So it is possible to thread this needle, but not everyone whose seen Cuties agrees that it has managed to do so.

Update: Jeff B is in the “as bad as it appears” camp. He suspects the director’s claim this is a “cry of alarm” is dubious at best.