By Joe Badalamenti
On September 9th, popular streaming company Netflix decided to add the 2020 film “Cuties” to their catalog. The film follows an 11-year-old girl who joins a dance group in order to deal with growing up. Despite winning several awards, the film has received tremendous backlash from western audiences, exploding on sites such as Reddit. Critics have bashed “Cuties” for supposedly filming children in a sexually explicit manner. After watching the film myself (for journalism purposes, I swear), I can say that this film is problematic in its current state.
As the Netflix description suggests, the plot revolves around the protagonist, Amy, in her own coming-of-age-story. Amy is a child in an orthodox Muslim family whose father is currently distant from the household. Amy looks to escape this reality and fit in with the rest of society, eventually stumbling upon a dance group known as Cuties. The film then follows Amy and her friends on their journey as a dance group and as girls experiencing adolescence. A discussion of this film would not be complete without mentioning its most controversial scenes. “Cuties” centers around an all-girl dance troupe who wear revealing clothing and perform suggestive dances in their routine. In addition to these scenes, there are several other scenes which cross the boundary of decency. These scenes are as follows: Amy is pressured into videotaping an underage boy in the bathroom, the girls attempt to flirt with a high school boy promising sexual favors in a video call, two fight scenes where the undergarments of underage girls is shown. The coup de grâce of this content? A scene where Amy creates child porn by taking pictures of her genitals. While some of these scenes do have an appropriate context and relevance, the camera focusing on the butts of the girls at several points is unsettling, to say the least. All of these scenes take up a considerable amount of screen time, with the dance scenes dragging on. When creating art dealing with subject matter such as puberty, one should be very delicate with the imagery and the scenes shown. “Cuties” oversteps this boundary by showing prolonged scenes with inappropriate shots of these girls; the creep shots in particular with no relevance to the plot come to mind. This isn’t helped by the former promotional material in which the cuties are in the middle of their routine. The result is a film which objectifies girls, and nationwide outrage.
Many of the defenders of the film cite that the film itself is critical of this hypersexual behavior. However, the criticism shown within the film is very weak. The main opponent to Amy’s new behavior are the various members of her family which the film portrays as oppressive. At one point, Amy’s mother and Aunt perform a sort of exorcism ritual on Amy in order to spiritually fix her. This familial conflict is never solved at all, the closest thing to a resolution is that Amy is forgiven by her mother, but the family remains static. While familial intervention would be the ideal option here, in the film Amy’s family is portrayed as a hyperconservitive unit that is out of touch with the rest of society. If the film was able to portray this conservative nature in a more positive light, or experience more growth, then this criticism would have much more weight. The film instead presents a duality where each side is a net detriment, forgetting the middle road without any blatant negatives. The only other negative consequence would be the different treatment by certain classmates, yet this could just be written off as childish behavior. This juxtaposing between this hyperconservative household bounded by religious principles and modesty with an overly sexualized dance trio presents a zero-sum game: there is no chance for Amy to simply be a normal kid.
All of this leaves us with the question of how a society should deal with this controversy. In this case, the best thing to do would be to criticize the art. Constructive criticism allows the artist to learn from their mistakes. It also allows members of the audience to see why the work is flawed. Most of the outrage that has come out of this situation has been directed at Netflix for hosting the film. Those who are outraged should just cancel their subscription. No one is forcing these customers to keep their subscription so they should cancel their subscription if they are so inclined. The way one should not react to this controversy is to resort to ad hominem attacks while ignoring all criticism of your side. I’ve seen many blue checkmarks brush off this criticism of the film by making ridiculous claims, such as claiming that the opponents are QAnon supporters. Many of these comments seem to be made by those who inhabit this media bubble—actors, directors, journalists and other prominent individuals in entertainment. This bubble is basically just a left-wing echo chamber radicalizing itself by the day. In addition, this behavior may be a result of the rampant tribalism in America. In this polarized climate, there seem to be reactionaries who oppose any move made by the opposition. For these reactionaries, views are not determined by principles but by convenience.
To end on a positive note, this incident does show that there are still some values that hold Americans together. With the exception of the media bubble and literal pedophiles (see “Cuties: An Uncomfortably Honest Review” on YouTube), there doesn’t seem to be any massive wave rushing to defend “Cuties.” Compared to the rest of 2020 where any tragedy has to be politicized and debated, this is a breath of fresh air. If more Americans could come together and recognize these common values then maybe we can expect things to get better. But hey, it is 2020, so any hope of community or civil discourse is nothing but a pipe dream.