Yo, Cutie! Smile!
It’s about to get ugly in here. Real ugly.
If you are a parent of adolescent girls, if you work with or mentor adolescent girls, you need to get a Netflix subscription, not cancel it if you have one.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the controversy over the new movie on Netflix, Cuties? People are pulling their Netflix subscriptions over it. (Let’s see how long THAT lasts!) Ted Cruz – yeah that guy in the Senate -- said that Cuties “routinely fetishizes and sexualizes these pre-adolescent girls,” and called the Department of Justice to “investigate whether Netflix, its executives, or the filmmakers violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography.” I wonder, did he watch the whole movie – like, to the end? Because if he did and still didn’t get it, maybe he needs to stop reading Dr. Seuss and try something more challenging like, oh, I don’t know -- Captain Underwear Pants.
Nancy Pelosi’s daughter jumped on the bandwagon to trash the film. Did she watch it in its entirety? The director of the film has even received death threats. A whole lotta people are losing their shit on social media who haven’t seen Cuties, and that’s a shame. They could watch it and hold onto their righteous outrage but direct it at those who are really to blame: Consumers. (Oops. That be us.)
SPOILER ALERT AHEAD!
The French film, directed by Maïmouna Doucouré, depicts a group of 11-year old girls in Paris mimicking the provocative dance moves of women in order to compete in a dance contest. They gyrate, they grind, and then Amy, the main character, discovers a dance video in which the women twerk. She promptly brings this new move to the group, and they hilariously try to get their butts to cooperate. Amy and the girls don’t connect that the dance moves imitate sex moves. They just know they’re popular, and for an 11-year old popularity is currency. After the girls tell Amy she dresses like a “homeless person,” she borrows her little brother’s t-shirt so she, too, can show off her midriff and fit in with the crew at her new school.
Not only is Amy trying to fit in with the “cool girls,” but she's also acting out because of what is going on at home. We don't see her father until the very end of the movie. He is in their native Senegal and has announced he's bringing home a second wife. Her mother, a devout Muslim who prays daily with the other women in their housing project, is clearly upset by her husband’s choice, but it is part of their culture and she is doing her best to accept it. Amy is under the bed when her mother calls a friend and tells her about the new wife in her marriage. After ending the call, the mom breaks down in sobs as the camera stays on Amy, still hidden under the bed, crying silently as she stares at her mother’s bare feet.
Later, Amy ditches her elderly “Auntie” to join her friends at the dance auditions. She returns home with a flowering of menses blood on her crotch. The old lady laughs and announces that Amy is now a woman. What does it means to be a woman? That's exactly what Amy and her friends are trying to figure out. The girls’ options appear pretty limited. Door #1: In the first scene, Amy and her mother are headed to a women’s prayer group. Her little brother wants to wear a head scarf like his mother and sister. (Little boys are watching, too.) They tell him he looks silly. (Yet, Amy and her mom do not.) If Amy chooses to follow her culture’s expectations, she can look forward to an early marriage (Auntie tells her she married when she was only a few years older than Amy who is eleven-years old!) And after Amy marries and pops out a few babies, her husband may bring another woman into their home, and she will be expected to welcome her.
Then there’s Door #2: Amy is infatuated with Angelica, a girl who lives in her building. Amy watches as Angelica does the family’s laundry (including her older brother’s). Angelica, alone in the laundry room, dances with abandon to the music playing on her cell phone. Compared to Amy, this girl appears liberated. Later, Angelica and her friends get into physical fights, one even throws a stone at Amy, hitting her in the face. The girls cheer. Amy does not go away, though. She wants to be part of this group, a group where the girls are fierce, and their bond is tight. Amy wants to belong.
Here’s the tragedy and why you need to watch this film and not accept Ted Cruz, or Christina Pelosi’s review: The girls embrace self-exploitation because their world so narrowly defines power for females. They don’t know they are objectifying themselves. If the attention feels so good, how can it be so bad? When Amy gets “likes” on a social media platform, her friends are in awe, and she walks into school with a new hair-do and a new confidence. She also looks about 18.
The girls also think they know what “sexy” means – pouty lips, a finger seductively placed in the mouth -- but when one girl finds a used condom and blows it up, thinking it’s a balloon, the other girls freak out, telling her she may have just gotten AIDs. The girl argues, ‘But it’s pink!’ Next there’s a montage of her friends scrubbing her tongue with a sponge and soap.
These girls are innocent. However, in a sex- saturated world where little kids can watch porn
on their cell phones or I-pad, where dolls like “Brats” are toys, where a music superstar touches her crotch and performs a pole dance routine during the Super Bowl (yes, I went there – again), what do you think little girls are fantasizing about? Winning at Parcheesi?
But let’s be honest: Little girls have been mimicking women and pop stars for eons. (Remember Madonna and her bras? “Like a Virgin”? Let’s go back a bit further, shall we? Peggy Lee didn’t have a cold when she sang about her “Fever”.
How about the pin-up “girls” of the ‘40s? Betty Grable's legs? Lana Turner's sweater? How about how the camera followed a woman’s swinging hips as she walked away from the male character in [fill in the blank] or how it moved slowly over her cleavage, or her ass, or her lips in [fill in the blank]? Don't you think little girls in every generation poured over these images and sang the lyrics? Of course they did. They were reaching for attention, which they thought meant power.
And now we have Tic Tok and twerking. As long as women are sexualized and rewarded, little girls will mimic them. And, you're right: It is dangerous.
But Cuties did not make it dangerous. Cuties is holding up a mirror. Cancelling your Netflix subscription does nothing to change what is reflected in the glass. You are simply “killing the messenger.” And where are we then? Same place as we’ve been for generations.
Cuties is not a movie for pedophiles, people, although maybe the pervs will now watch a French language film with captions just because there’s been so much attention on it. If you’ve read this far, you know there’s a whole lot more going on in Cuties than twerking, plus the ending will make you glad you watched.
And while we’re here, don’t ever tell a little girl, or a big “girl” for that matter, to smile. Girls and women are not here for your viewing pleasure, and it's none of your business if they smile or not. Writing challenge: When were you first aware of your body as an object as the focus of another's gaze?