As anyone not living under a rock knows by now, Cuties is a French movie that purports to explore society’s sexualization of teen and preteen girls and the alienation modern social media and smart phone driven culture imposes on them. In the process the Netflix movie subjects five young actresses, including the extraordinary star Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi, to the very indignities the makers claim they condemn. Cuties has once and for all obliterated the lines between art, commerce, and exploitation. Those involved in making it are either the least self-aware people on the face of the Earth or the most guileful.
The movie is indefensible, period, as was Netflix’s marketing campaign. The original ad for Cuties featured four barely clothed preteen girls in sexually provocative positions. Netflix apologized for the ad but is defending the movie itself. That alone is pretty much all you need to know. And no, you do not need to watch the movie to condemn it, just like you don’t need to watch a woman being sexually assaulted to condemn sexual assault.
Cuties is as inevitable as it is repugnant. We’ve been headed in this direction for at least 50 years. The casting couch at last has come for the children. The only possible response to Cuties by normal human beings is, “I need a shower.”
Actually, I feel the need to douse myself in rubbing alcohol, pour acid into my eyes, and leap off my balcony. For I have watched Cuties. Or rather, I watched as much of it as I could stomach, which amounted to about fifteen minutes. With lots of fast forwarding.
In that span I saw 12 year old girls do the following: Twerk (of course), simulate sexual intercourse, simulate masturbation, simulate fellatio, simulate cunnilingus, simulate orgasms, suck on various objects, spank themselves, spank each other, grab their crotches (so much crotch grabbing), spread their legs, grab their chests, grab their backsides, grab each other, grind on each other, and…you get the idea. In one scene, where four barely-clothed girls dry hump a stage while simulating hand jobs, I’m fairly certain I had a minor stroke.
Fifteen. Freaking. Minutes.
In real life, preteen and “tween” girls take nude photos of themselves and engage in sexualized behavior because that’s what society tells them to do to be accepted. That’s bad enough, to be sure. The difference between girls’ sexual behavior in real life and in the make-believe of Cuties is essential: The former is largely confined to children’s own social circles (albeit in many cases vast online social circles they comprehend dimly if at all). In contrast, Cuties is made expressly for an adult audience. Consider: Netflix gave the movie a TV-MA rating. The same adults who made a movie in which preteen girls star openly acknowledge that movie is inappropriate for preteen and even teen girls to watch. Let that sink in a moment.
Of course Hollywood, with strong pop culture assists from the music and fashion industries and the intellectual cover of academia, has sexualized women and girls from its very inception. As Michael S. Rosenwald wrote in the Washington Post in 2017, “it is worth remembering that this intolerable behavior has been tolerated in showbiz as long as there have been bright lights.”
It has not just been tolerated, it’s been rationalized and normalized. To many in Hollywood pedophilia is just another sexual orientation. Several years ago I was at a Passover Seder at the home of a powerful Hollywood agent. At one point in the evening the subject of Roman Polanski came up. I made what I thought was the obvious-as-water-is-wet observation that he got away with drugging and raping a 13 year old, and that he should be forced to return to the U.S. and serve his time. From the reaction around the table you’d have thought I’d just defended Adolph Hitler. In Hollywood Polanski is the victim, you see.
To many in Hollywood a 40 year old man forcing vaginal, oral, and anal sex on a drugged, barely conscious 13 year old girl is merely expressing his version of normal, and who are the rest of us to judge? Never mind that no child that age can possibly consent to sexual activities in any meaningful way even if they aren’t drugged.
Which raises another deeply troubling question about Cuties: Did these girls have any clue what they were actually doing? Or were they, like generations of young actresses before them, simply trying their best to make the adults in the room happy by doing what they were told to do?
It’s not idle speculation. Hollywood history is rife with stories of adults essentially tricking kids into participating in scenes that, had the kids known what was really going on, would emotionally or psychologically devastate them. A famous example is Stanley Kubrik’s interpretation of The Shining. Not wanting to terrify the 5 year old actor, Danny Lloyd, who played Jack Nicholson’s and Shelley Duval’s son, Kubrick and everyone involved in the movie told him it was just a story about a family living in a hotel. Of course, in that case the director was shielding the child. Nevertheless it’s a good example of how adults in Hollywood can manipulate not just the reality on screen but in the real lives of actors. With children it’s particularly easy.
It isn’t the subject matter – the sexualization of women and especially young girls is a crucial topic that deserves all the attention society can muster. It isn’t even the story. Children doing inappropriate things while trying to act like adults is one of the oldest stories in time.
It’s how the movie makers decided to frame and shoot the scenes. Every dance scene devolves into close-ups of scantily clad, twerking and humping 12 and 13 year old crotches, backsides, and midriffs. In countless shots the girls’ heads and faces aren’t visible, a technique most would associate with pornography. Scene after scene, shot after shot reduces the girls to their bodies. The movie literally demands that you spend long moments staring at sexually provocative prepubescent bodies (unless you fast forward the bejeezus out of the thing like I did). Worse still is the rhythm: Every time you start to feel a connection with the characters, much less engagement with the plot, the movie unloads with more twerking, more humping, more simulated sex, more half-naked kids.
Imagine the scene directions the children were given. Great take, kids! Let’s do it once more, only this time I want you to really spread those legs for me. That the director is a woman somehow makes it worse.
Cuties has something resembling a plot, much of which I gleaned from other sources. It focuses on a young Senegalese immigrant in Paris named Amy, played by the extraordinary Abdillahi. When the movie opens she has recently moved with her mother into a housing project in a Parisian slum, where they live in a conservative Muslim household. Her father has returned to Senegal, and we soon learn he has gone to take a second wife. Early in the movie Amy attends a sort of conventicle in which the women in her community make clear that men are dominant and women’s role is to serve them. Amy looks bored and out of place, her face alternatively expressing annoyance, boredom, and amusement at the adults. It’s one of the greatest failings of Cuties that the movie makers utterly failed to develop Amy or any of the other girls as characters their own right.
Not long after moving in Amy sees a neighbor and classmate named Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni) twerking while doing laundry in the building’s basement. In what becomes a recurring trope in the movie our first glimpse of Angelica is her backside and midriff. It’s a solid thirty seconds of sexualized dancing before her face is revealed. Amy is shocked, and slowly backs away from the door when Angelica spots her.
It cannot be repeated enough: When she’s not twerking Abdillahi is positively mesmerizing. When she walks down the hall and stairs from the conventicle to the laundry room she is a wonder of expression. She has the actor’s gift for conveying an entire universe of emotion with a sideways glance.
Later, Amy sees Angelica dancing with three other girls near an abandoned train yard. She resolves to join them, although it’s never made particularly clear why. At first, of course, they fight. The three girls reject the shy, reticent Amy and even chuck rocks at her. But then Amy goes through a sort of hazing, including a scene in which the Cuties shove her into a boys’ bathroom and make her take pictures of a boys’ penis. Because, patriarchy? In order to be accepted she engages in other petty transgressions, such as stealing a cell phone and stealing money from her mother.
Cuties starts to go off the rails when Amy takes a selfie of her privates and posts it to social media, sparking a minor firestorm.
Take a look at the screenshots below, bearing in mind these are 12 and 13 year old children. I averted my eyes as best I could while taking them and I feel disgusting just posting them. It’s a small sampling of what the movie offers. If you think a single one is even marginally acceptable go ahead and register as a sex offender right now, because it’s only a matter of time.
It would have been entirely possible to make this movie without those close-ups, yet there they are, by the score. In fact, it would have been entirely possible to make this movie with legal age actresses. Ally Sheedy was 24 when she played a 16 year old high school student in The Breakfast Club and no one had a problem believing it. Adults have been playing children since time immemorial (here’s a story from last year in the Los Angeles Times about Broadway actors in their 20s and even 30s playing teenagers and preteens). Could the movie makers not at least have found some 18 or 20 year old body doubles?
No, they needed real preteen girls to really simulate sex acts. Because social commentary. The exploitation detracts from the movie itself, not to mention the young actresses, who are astonishing when they aren’t auditioning for the 11pm Saturday shift at the Spearmint Rhino.
The booty and crotch shots dehumanize Abdillahi along with all of them, plain and simple. There’s also a creepy fourth wall break throughout the movie, with the director apparently constantly reminding the girls to look into the camera as sexually as possible. That is, when she bothers to film their faces.
This isn’t a movie about girls in a conservative Muslim community finding a path to, say, college. There is nary a positive adult female role model in the entire exercise, just a progression of stereotypes, which is perhaps the movie’s most misogynistic aspect. In a very real way the movie presents the inverse correlative of the barefoot and pregnant trope, because it pins girls’ fates to their reproductive organs. Protestations aside Cuties’ central message is that a girl’s crotch is her ticket to liberation.
The movie’s other great sin – besides the pedophilia – is that it’s boring. It’s very French in that there are the standard-issue slo-mo scenes overlayed with classical or world music, disconcerting smash cuts, people gazing for long moments into nothing, inexplicable vous nous, and heavy-handed symbolism. Oh, the symbolism. At one point Abdillahi is forced by her mother to cut onions, because, you know, tears. None of it amounts to pathos. The lack of drama isn’t helped by the atrocious English dubbing.
Netflix, which started out as an exciting, innovative alternative to the local video store, has become the McDonald’s of the entertainment industry. Actually, that’s an insult to the Golden Arches. Netflix has become…well, the Netflix of the entertainment industry. They operate on sheer volume, greenlighting hundreds of films, shows, documentaries, specials, events, and other programming every year. There simply isn’t enough top-drawer or even servicable talent on the face of the Earth to sustain that kind of momentum.
In the mad race for eyeballs and dollars in the streaming era it was inevitable Netflix would start scraping the bottom of the barrel. So a-scraping Reed Hastings and his team went, and boy howdy did they find themselves some world-class dreck.
Erm, excuse me: Some world class “art.”
Cuties is the most important movie of the decade – indeed, one of the most important ever – because it finally, permanently, and indisputably reveals Hollywood’s perverse value system (I use the term loosely). A century of sexual exploitation, abuse, and violence against girls and women is now beyond doubt. The only question is why so many people outside tinsel town are defending it.
But that’s a whole other rabbit hole that I don’t have time to explore, because I need another shower.