This week I’m writing about the controversial movie Cuties.
Some its content is graphic, disturbing, and sickening. But like a war movie that studies the realities of human violence to cry out for peace, this film is asking essential, inescapable questions about our increasingly sexualized, Internet-driven, interconnected world, especially as it affects children. Wrestling with these heavy questions can help us cultivate healthier children, families, and cultures.
It seems to me that some of the controversy surrounding this film is driven by the misleading way Netflix advertised it, which appears to celebrate the sexualization of little girls, when this is the evil this film is investigating and lamenting. My interest is in the actual movie and its subtle message.
Perhaps another outraging aspect about this movie is not only its depiction of how our cultures sexually abuse children but its refusal to satisfy our culture’s hunger for simplistic answers, whether they be “religious” or “secular,” “traditional” or “progressive,” “conservative” or “liberal.” I see Cuties as calling for third ways of seeing and treating our bodies that move away from shaming or sexualizing them.
Whether you end up agreeing or not, thanks for stopping and thinking with me about important questions. Cuties sent me back to Paul’s profound question, “Don’t you know your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). For my reflections on the sacred significance of our bodies, see my essay series Rehab of the Senses.
Cuties: What Are Our Bodies Worth?
Cuties is a thought-provoking movie about extremely polarized views of the female body in our globalizing clash of cultures. This clash is literally embodied in the figure of Amy.
Amy is an eleven-year-old girl growing up in a conservative religious family from Senegal that has moved to Paris. (Note that the movie’s writer, Maïmouna Doucouré, is herself a Senegalese-French woman.) Amy attends a women’s prayer group where her mother teaches that sin lives in the female body and that more women will go to hell than men because of it. This is why Amy’s mother insists that women must hide their bodies, if they want to please God and go to heaven.
Meanwhile, Amy finds out that her traditional father is back in Senegal getting a second wife, and this is why he is never home. (The absence of parents is a recurrent theme in this movie.) Amy’s mom tries to pretend that she’s content to accept this custom as a dutiful wife, but Amy witnesses her mom physically beat her own body, seemingly to punish herself for her irrepressible heartbreak. Nevertheless, her elderly auntie, who was married as a child, teaches Amy that being a women means obediently cooking food for men — in this case, cooking for her absent father’s second wedding.
At home, Amy experiences her body as an object of sin, danger, and unhappiness that must be hidden.
By contrast, Amy’s secular European friends at school wear skin-tight, body-revealing clothes and post pictures of themselves on social media. They play with food and binge on candy. They talk about sex, look at pictures of boys’ bodies, and push Amy to barge into a boys’ bathroom. They use webcams and sext with strangers, while being confused about condoms and afraid of getting HIV. They define themselves with dancing that graphically sexualizes their bodies.
But these girls are also lonely and sad. Their parents are too busy at work to know or care about them. They have eating disorders and superficial relationships that easily fall apart or turn violent. Their worth is reduced to their sexualized bodies, and they are unhappy in them. (This film is most certainly not promoting the sexualization of children or child pornography but examining some of their dark roots.)
The camera chaotically flashes between voluptuous women pole dancing and shapeless women praying in a circle. Amy is torn between her polarized cultures — this “clash of civilizations” literally unfolding in her own body and the neighborhood where she grows up.
Should Amy reject and punish her body like her religious mother, who is maritally faithful but unhappy and abandoned by her husband?
Or should she idolize her body like her secular friends, who are unrestrained but adrift and (ab)used by the boys at school and online?
In other words, is the body evil or everything?
Amy ends up trying to prove her worth by learning to dance like a stripper via videos on her secret cell phone and teaching her European friends how to do it too. She gets an intoxicating flood of “likes” on Instagram and becomes increasingly popular at school as her body develops. Soon enough, she posts a nude picture of herself online, seemingly desperate for more attention, and the boys start slapping her body in class.
But “liberated,” “Westernized” Amy doesn’t end up any happier than her religiously conservative, West African mother. In fact, her young life spirals out of control, and her face fills with tears. Doucouré brilliantly shows that the more “fleshly” Amy becomes, the more she seems like a disembodied ghost. She finds emptiness, shame, and violence in both of her cultures.
In this way, Cuties asks us crucial, if taboo and complex questions, which people on both extremes of the culture war may be too self-certain to ask. But these are questions that kids living between cultures — kids everywhere with the Internet, phones, and access to oceans of free pornography — are asking and can’t avoid. People who care about children and culture cannot avoid the difficult questions Cuties is asking.
First, are religious conservatives, who condemn and hide the body, misguided and missing out on life, as many liberal secularists assume?
Or, second, are the secular liberals, who worship and flaunt the body, lost and driving off a cliff to hell, as many conservative believers assume?
Third, how do you decide, especially if you’re an eleven-year-old child who is confused, neglected, connected to the Internet, and desperate to feel valuable and belong?
In the end, Cuties — especially in its final scenes — is attempting to explore even more profound possibilities:
What if both views of our bodies are dangerously wrong and end up fueling surprisingly similar misery, shame, and alienation for youth today? And thus what if our clashing cultures actually need to learn from each other in order to see their blindspots and insights, rather than thoughtlessly labeling and condemning each other?
What if our bodies aren’t evil but also aren’t everything?
Doucouré’s gritty film subtly builds toward this argument that we urgently need a third way of relating to our bodies that celebrates their goodness without sexualizing them into empty pornographic shells. Religious fundamentalism and secular hedonism are both mutilating and deadening ways of inhabiting our bodies, whether this looks like shamefully hiding them or desperately posting naked pictures of them online. In its closing, deeply moving scene, Cuties whispers that when we learn to love our bodies in their true worth, we learn to fly just as we are, such that children can be children again and grow up into healthier adults.
Those who can show us the true worth of our bodies will serve our children and shape our cultures for generations to come. Doucouré is challenging us to re-examine what this true worth is.