The Film Cuties: When Is Sexualizing Young Girls Justified?
Some people have claimed the new movie, Cuties, “promotes an overly sexual view of young girls and even pedophilia.” Several politicians have weighed in, with Senator Ted Cruz suggesting the movie might have violated laws against child pornography.
Cuties is a 2020 coming-of-age French film that follows Amy, an 11-year-old immigrant girl (played by Fathia Youssouf) living in an impoverished suburb of Paris, and caught between two lives:
On the one hand, Amy, who is French-Senegalese, is raised with certain traditional cultural and religious (i.e. Muslim) values at home. On the other hand, she is exposed to a set of disparate values through social media and her association with a group of girls her age who are preparing for a dance competition. The film shows the trials of Amy’s relationship with this group, the Cuties, and her active participation in their very suggestive and progressively more sexual choreography.
Sexualization and sexual objectification
The film contains a number of uncomfortable scenes, which seem to sexualize and sexually objectify young girls.
Though sexualization and sexual objectification are often used interchangeably, sexualization generally emphasizes sexual depiction (e.g., use of revealing clothes), while sexual objectification is a more specific form of sexualization that emphasizes viewing or treating a person (or oneself) not as an individual but as a body and body parts used for the satisfaction of sexual desires.
In the movie, we see young girls not only sexualized (e.g., in crop tops and short shorts) but also sexually objectified, as we watch 11-year-old girls posing and dancing in very sexual ways, like sitting with their legs open, twerking, grinding, and humping the floor. In a few scenes, the camera even zooms in on the girls’ body parts, as though we were watching a raunchy rap video.
Research shows such sexualized media may have negative effects on young girls. For instance, one study of young girls found exposure to sexualized media is associated with internalization of sexualized messages (e.g., preference for sexier clothes) and with body dissatisfaction.
Arguments for making controversial movies like Cuties
Movies could be considered controversial due to a variety of reasons—racism, sexism, violence, profanity, graphic sexual scenes, sexualizing children, etc. The director of Cuties, Maïmouna Doucouré, however, suggests people who say Cuties is controversial have not watched it yet.
And whether controversial or not, she suggests the movie is based on what is happening out there in the real world. In fact, the idea for Cuties occurred to her when she came across a suggestive preteen dance at a gathering in Paris. Interviewing preteens for the film, she observed many girls had learned increased sexualization on the social media had positive consequences, resulting in more attention and success.
Basically, the argument is this: If art mirrors life (or at least imitates life), art should be allowed to address taboo subjects. So, we should not judge art if it shows us what we have not seen or wish not to see. If there is a problem, it is with life, not art.
In other words, if it is okay to make films or documentaries about gang violence, child trafficking and prostitution, prisoner torture and abuse, etc., why not one about the sexualization and sexual objectification of young girls?
Another argument goes like this: Art has a social function and purpose. “I wanted to give these young children a voice while protecting them,” Doucouré notes, and to “create a mirror for adults to look at ourselves and see where we have gone wrong.”
The last argument the director offers is more personal, and has to do with self-expression through cinema, which she says “heals” her: “I can express myself and therefore take care of myself through my art.”
Artistic responsibility and sexualization of young girls
Every person’s experience is valid, and it is important that minorities, like Doucouré (a French-Senegalese woman), share their experiences with the public. As she tells Zora, “I recreated the little girl I was at that age and what it was like for me to grow up.”
At the same time, we all—including artists, producers, distributors, and viewers—have responsibilities. And when we create or share a work that could potentially affect millions of people, including children, we have an even greater responsibility.
If the main goal of a film is not to use sex or controversy to make sales but to affect real change in young girls and the society, the film should truly reflect this aim.
So, is sexually objectifying actual preteens, especially in some scenes which appear to glorify it, really the only or best way to bring people’s attention to the sexual objectification of some preteens in real life?
What would the director say to those who believe Cuties is more likely to be used as sexual entertainment for those sexually attracted to preteens than to warn parents about the dangers of social media and sexualization? What about the possibility of the movie normalizing and even modeling, for young girls, ways to self-sexualize and self-objectify? These are important questions to ponder, especially given the consequences of sexualization and perceiving one’s worth only in terms of one’s sex appeal.
According to a report by the American Psychological Association (APA), sexualized and sexually objectified girls can experience many negative cognitive and health consequences, such as difficulty with concentration, low self-esteem, reduced sexual health, depression, and eating disorders.