Netflix 'Cuties' scandal: The troubling film of tween sexuality has been shaped by the media and internet
The only way you can watch 'Cuties' without barfing a little in your mouth is by fast-forwarding through the highly sexualized depictions of Amy and her friends, or even the "Sweety Swags", their rival dance group. Or even the disturbing sequence where Amy's auntie tries to cleanse Amy in a water ritual that has her writhing and shaking.
'Cuties' has been pre-framed within the cultural conversation it kicked off after Netflix's tone-deaf marketing. After that, the film's reception could only be tainted. But some would argue that even before that, the film was already disgusting. These complaints would center around how these girls are filmed, with the camera lingering and twirling around their pre-pubescent bodies like it was in a flesh market inspecting wares.
No one knows what a director is precisely thinking while filming scenes. In this case, if we give the woman director the benefit of the doubt, the sequences are meant to inspire disgust. To evoke a visceral reaction to seeing young girls sexualize themselves -- that is certainly how a lot of the audience at the final dance performance react -- disturbed and disapprovingly. Disapproval and disgust are also what Amy receives through most of the duration of the movie that she tries to circumvent by earning approval by whatever means necessary.
She is also often scared by her own body like how a cut on her hand chopping onions, blooms into a puddle of blood in her traditional dress meant for her father's second marriage before transforming itself into the pool of menstrual blood staining her pant's crotch.
Adolescence, especially female adolescence is a bloody war and 'Cuties' wants to show it all without euphemisms for its bloody entrails. When do girls realize that they are getting noticed for their bodies rather than who they are? When do girls learn that acting provocatively can get them out of trouble -- like how the security guards let the "cuties" go after Amy's twerks for them. It is empowering to realize you can wield your sexuality as a weapon but equally damaging when you realize that it can boomerang and hurt you.
Amy's situation is worsened because her traditional family setting tells her to hate and hide her own body and shows a path to womanhood full of tears -- be it her mother's trying to accept her husband's second wife, or her own, while chopping onions, as her auntie teaches her "how to be a woman". The dance group 'Cuties', with their shrieks of laughter and rebellious ways, looks way more fun in contrast. But when Amy sets out to get their approval, she is bullied and made fun of. She only gets their reluctant acceptance after she 'out-adults' them in their dance routine and general behavior -- all up till the point when she goes too far and she becomes a pariah and is branded "a whore".
Being "traditional" or "modern" doesn't matter -- both subjugate and sexualize girl's and women's bodies in different ways. Amy's auntie for instance tells Amy how she was married soon after she got her periods and hopes for the same "destiny" for Amy. At the end of the film, Amy rejects both the over-sexualized dance outfit and the traditional gown and walks out in an age-appropriate outfit that she can play jump rope games in.
The blossoming of boyhood sexuality on film -- from a boy watching kissing scenes in 'Cinema Paradiso' to the little boy Renato in 'Malena' as he spies on and has explicit dreams about the sexiest woman in town Malena, played by Monica Bellucci -- has never focussed on the pre-pubescent bodies of young boys. Exploring boyhood sexuality has always been projected outwards and safely 'released' to an object of lust or love, usually an older woman or the female form in media -- be it films or the Internet.
Female sexuality is a whole other ball game. It is impossible for a girl to become a woman without first sexualizing her own body. Girls first learn to objectify their own bodies after they understand how female bodies are regarded in the world around them -- from TV, films, music videos, and now, easily accessible porn.
In addition, you have immediate adults (strangers or known) reacting to their changing bodies -- either by censuring them or appreciating them. The appreciation and attention, even though 'wrong', feels more welcoming than the censure.
Victorian England with its repressed sexuality unleashed their longing on the virginal bodies of young girls who weren't fully matured. This led to copious production of 'young girl' paintings and later photographs, in response to rising demand among the elites who could pay for their fantasies of girls on the cusp of sexual maturity. Now, we have swung to the other side of the pendulum where sexual imagery around the female body is so rampant that young girls who are 'socializing' and playing at being 'adult', are posting twerking videos and getting 'likes' from random strangers on the Internet.
Far too little has been said or explored when it comes to female coming-of-age sexuality -- be it in Victorian England or now. The confusion, the strangeness, the way the body changes are all unsettling. The signs of 'womanhood' -- from menstruation to pubic hair to the sudden too long hugs or touches of some adults -- are more fitting in a horror story than a joyous one. This is why the story of 'Cuties' should be told -- but this film and the way it is told is not the way to go about it.
Clips of the movie are already being edited together and being shown out of context on YouTube and this will happen repeatedly -- these overly sexualized images of young girls will be taken and repurposed for the very things this film is supposedly advocating against. There is also the matter of what these girl actors will experience once they have a full understanding of what they have put out there and what images will forever be linked to their bodies. For these reasons and also because a lot of the felt experiences of girlhood sexuality is so internalized, a book version would have done Amy's story far more justice by being unflinchingly honest with words instead of visuals.
And then, we wouldn't have to worry about how this essential girlhood story was becoming a sick pedo bait instead.
'Cuties' is currently streaming on Netflix.