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An unpleasant part of my job as a cultural commentator is to watch films and read books that I have no interest in or that might be morally questionable. This first hit home when I was working for The Federalist and the publisher wanted his writers to comment on the popular book Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m no shrinking violet and I have wide berth for Christian liberty, but I just didn’t feel like trudging through bad writing that glorified sadistic sex. I complied, however, and wrote several articles, because it was a pop culture phenomenon that needed wise criticism, and I didn’t want to write commentary for something I hadn’t read. I also wanted to do our readers the service of reading it so they didn’t have to.
I’m once again faced with this same chore regarding the new film on Netflix called “Cuties.” Because the cultural impact of the sexual revolution is a great interest of mine and one Christians must grapple with, I wanted to be able to comment on the film with a thorough understanding of what was being presented. So I buckled down and watched it. I wouldn’t, however, say that everyone who comments on the film has to watch it, especially those who take seriously guarding their thoughts. It’s enough to know that it sexually exploits 11-year-old actresses to come to the conclusion that it’s unworthy of art and our disproportionate attention.
The film itself is nothing original. It’s basically a coming-of-age story about an 11-year-old girl raised in a strict Muslim family who becomes enthralled with the libertinism of the world and wants to experience it despite religious opposition generated by her conservative family. Sound familiar? To put it bluntly, this film is basically a version of Footloose except it’s set in Paris instead of Oklahoma, the religious scolds are Muslim instead of Christian, the kids are a group of 11-year-old girls instead of high schoolers, and the dancing is highly sexualized twerking and grinding instead of the fun dance moves of Kevin Bacon. Let me, however, repeat the most significant difference: 11-YEAR-OLD GIRLS are engaged in highly sexualized dancing that is nothing short of exploitation.
I’m not exaggerating on this point. Though the dancing is a small part of the movie, the sequences are long with a lot of close-ups; the girls are humping the ground, grinding into each other, sticking their fingers in their mouths, and looking seductively at the camera. You saw similar dancing by young girls at the NFL halftime show headlining Jennifer Lopez and Shakira—an event that also created a lot of controversy for obvious reasons.
The movie opens with the unoriginal storyline that religion is bad for women and inhibits their sexual liberty—except in this instance the filmmaker comes closer to the truth by using extremist Islamism and its actual oppression of women. To start the film rolling, a young girl named Amy is led into a room of religious women, where one of the leaders says, “Women must be pious because in hell there will be many more women than men. … Where does evil dwell? In the bodies of uncovered women. Therefore we must strive to preserve our decency, obey our husbands, and fear God when we educate our children.”
Because I know how Hollywood thinks, this setup isn’t just a commentary on misogyny in Islam. It’s setting up the old conflict between religion in general (including Christianity) and women’s liberty that we’ve been hearing about since the sexual revolution. One of the most widely accepted doctrines of the women’s liberation movement is that women need to be free sexual creatures to be truly respected as women, and religion stands in the way of that freedom. If they’re not free to use their bodies as they wish, have sex with whomever they want, be publicly naked when they want, even engage in porn as a testimony of their “control” over their own bodies, then they are being oppressed by religious scolds. This film focuses on the Muslim religion, but it just as easily could have used a perverted view of Christianity to make its point that religion is oppressive to female sexuality. I know this. You need to know it, too.
Amy, who walks around like she’s in a cloud, witnesses this religious oppression, sees her mother’s distress at having to endure her husband marrying another woman, and suffers her aged aunt’s continual judgment about piety and modesty, only to be stimulated when she discovers a girl her age dancing in the laundry room of her apartment building. The bulk of the movie is Amy becoming increasingly captivated with a group of girls who dance like strippers at a club and longing to become “free” like they are.
Everything degenerates from this point on. Amy starts dressing scantily, watches dance porn on a stolen phone during prayer time, becomes fascinated with seeing a boy’s penis, slathers on makeup, posts a nude pic on the Internet, tries to seduce a family friend, and fully embraces the gyrating dancing of her adopted group of skanky friends—all while her mother, in quiet reluctance, prepares to attend her husband’s wedding to his second wife. Amy will also have to attend—something she dreads, and it pushes her into even more disturbing and decadent behavior.
I’m going to give you a spoiler, so if you really want to watch the movie, stop now and skip this and the next three paragraphs. The climax of the film is when Amy’s family finds out about her debauchery (of course they do). They react as you imagine they would—her mother even threatens to kill her. The aunt—always focused on religion—exercises purification rites on her, only to find Amy in full meltdown mode, gyrating like she’s dancing, with more close-ups of her bottom, and leaving her aunt to think she is possessed by an evil spirit.
Amy is unrepentant (of course) and proceeds to participate in a dance competition with her friends. The final dance scene is grotesque, with more close-ups of the girls’ bodies, crotches, and bottoms while they writhe, pucker their lips, and gaze sexually into the camera. The dance isn’t received well by the audience or the judges. Their reactions could be cut and pasted from the beauty pageant dance scene in “Little Miss Sunshine.” At some point in the dance, Amy’s conscience hits her. So she stops, begins to cry, and runs off the stage.
The film closes with Amy returning home where the wedding guests are arriving. She’s in her slutty dance clothes, so her aunt erupts when she sees her, but her mother steps in and defends Amy. Her mom, who just a day or so ago was threatening to kill her for going full slut, becomes her greatest defender. The writers didn’t do a great job setting up why, but enough is there to conclude that mom is so angry about her husband getting married, and she feels trapped by the situation, that she has a moment of sympathy for her daughter who is clearly acting out and longing to be free as well. She even goes so far as to tell Amy that she doesn’t have to attend the wedding if she doesn’t want to.
The story ends with Amy changing out of her dance suit and into simple clothes that aren’t slutty but they aren’t the dour clothes of her religion. She walks outside and joins a group of wholesome girls skipping rope. She steps in and starts jumping, her frown turning to a bright smile. She finally finds liberty. It’s not in the depraved dance group, but it’s not in conforming to her parents’ oppressive religion either. She’s now a fully liberated girl, thanks to her debased experiences where she explored her sexuality and to her mother setting her free.
If this story were of a young woman, I’d merely have been bored with the unoriginality, immorality, and predictability of the tale. But, I want to emphasize once again: this is a story about an 11 year old. A young girl is put into the landscape of feministic themes about sexual expression and religious oppression, and she and other girls are used as canvas to tell a story that women have been repeating for decades. The only difference is now the storytellers are focusing on vulnerable girls, which is the trajectory of our society regarding sexuality in general: younger and younger and younger. Feminism itself is increasingly targeting girls with its message of liberty. “Girl Power” is everywhere. Evidently, freeing bored housewives of their bored lives isn’t enough. Modern feminists have to get girls on board at young ages to groom them to be sexually free as they have defined freedom.
Because of our history of “sexual liberation,” we have a society that is saturated in sex, not just among adults but now among children. This sexualization has been on the increase for years, and it has created a whole host of social problems. Just read this report by the American Psychological Association (not the most conservative source) about how damaging sexualizing girls is. The drug use, pregnancy, abortion, low performance in schools, depression, suicide—the list goes on and on. Yet, here we are, continuing to sexualize girls—and not only sexualize them, but exploit them for the mere purpose of telling a story.
This is the point I want to close with. All the others about avoiding sexual immorality and holding these adults accountable for the sexual exploitation of child actors are obvious. My point here is more nuanced. I want to ask you to think about what we justify in the name of storytelling in filmmaking. I say filmmaking because putting stories on stage and in film is very different than using words in a book. In the medium of the novel, actors aren’t involved, and the visual is not engaged. I’m not saying immoral books are justified, but it’s an entirely different world when you put stories into film.
The fact is not all stories need to be shown. Using little actresses (real people!) as sexual objects to tell a story is wrong, even if your goal is to show that women should not be sexual objects. And this is the great irony of this film. It focuses on women’s liberation and women not being used as sexual objects, but they violate their own goals by doing to these girls the very thing they say they oppose. The filmmakers used young girls as tools to tell a story about freeing women from religious oppression. They justified subjecting viewers to the sexualization of girls and exploiting the girls themselves in the name of storytelling.
This is nothing short of blind idolatry. Worship of film in which the gods are writers who can do and say and use anyone as they wish because they have justified their actions in the name of the Holy Story is one of the great evils here. Sadly, society rewards them by paying to watch and demanding more like it.
We as a “civilized” people need to rethink our devotion to film at all costs. Not every story needs to be shown; not every tale needs to be visually portrayed. There are real people involved, people who are exploited to tell that story, and viewers who are debased by watching it. It’s time we started putting people before tales, moral truths before exciting plots, thoughtfulness before imagination, and human dignity before the mighty dollar.
Originally published at Romans One.
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