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Cuties: A Problem of our Own Making

I watched the Netflix film, Cuties, earlier this week. If I weren’t a children’s pastor, I honestly wouldn’t have been interested at all. However, I take my responsibility seriously and want to be able to give an intelligent answer to parents or congregants who ask me about the film. Something you should know about me before going forward is that I’m not and never have been a huge advocate for boycotting things. I don’t expect culture to reflect my own Christianity and go into most experiences, especially entertainment-based experiences with the knowledge that I don’t share the larger worldview of the culture in which I live. All of that to say, I tend not to jump on bandwagons and when I do, I want to do the research for myself and examine all sides. I’m not here to tell you whether or not to cancel your Netflix account. You need to decide that for yourself. I’ve read the reviews from strangers, friends and colleagues alike. I’ve spent the last few days trying to gather the sum of my thoughts in order to share with you. If there is a silver lining at all, it may be that Cuties has got us talking, posting and reading on the subject of children, pornography and child-trafficking at the very least!

A Brief Synopsis of Cuties:

Cuties is a French-film that’s been dubbed in English for our market. It was directed by Maimouna Doucoure and was the winner of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival for directing. The main character is 11-year-old Amy (pronounced Ah-Mee) who is a Sengalese-French girl living in a lower-income neighborhood in Paris. Amy is the oldest of three, with two younger brothers and it’s clear that she is responsible for aiding in their care. She lives with her mother and her aunt. The audience comes to understand that her father is away and has married a second wife, both of whom will come to live with Amy and the family soon. Amy’s family is religious and there are often scenes showing their commitment to the Muslim faith to some regard, as Amy and her mother attend prayer. The audience picks up on the fact that Amy regularly attempts to understand the culture she finds herself in. It is not stated whether she is in an immigrant who remembers life in Senegal or whether she was born in France but it is apparent that she doesn’t fit in with the wider culture. Soon, Amy happens upon another young girl living in her building, Angelica, who, believing she is alone while doing laundry, dances to a hip-hop song. Amy is intrigued and through a series of circumstances begins befriending Angelica, who is a part of a dance team self-named the Cuties, seeking to win a dance-competition coming up in a few months. Amy eventually steals a phone from an older family member (a cousin) so that she can learn dance moves from YouTube and begin her own presence on social media. Amy begins living a sort of double life. Angelica opens up a new world to her; Angelica is free, Amy is not. Amy finds herself increasingly pulled in two different directions: the conservative, tight-knit, duty-bound family and the popular girls at school who make her feel like she fits in, she’s a part of the popular group and all the temporary rewards that come with that position. Eventually, the dance competition is upon the group and the Cuties go on stage to dance. During the dance, Amy remembers her mother, who is attending the wedding ceremony of her husband to his second bride, she runs off stage and home to her mother, who embraces her. The film ends with Amy trading her dance clothes for jeans and a hoodie and going outside to jump rope with the other kids in the street.

An American Tragedy:

While researching the film, I came across the film’s poster for both the French audience and the American audience via Netflix. You can see the picture below:

If you didn’t know any better, it looks like two different films. While both posters are snapshots taken from the movie itself, the French poster comes across as a movie about a group of girlfriends. The Netflix poster heightens the nuanced sexuality of the overall storyline, posing the actresses in sexually provocative stances. I find it imperative to ask why America was marketed to in this fashion? Would you have been as startled by the poster on the left? If there hadn’t been a hashtag to #CancelNetflix would you have paid any attention? There’s a problem here. It’s a tragedy really. That it takes such explicit sexuality to get our attention to the plight of young girls. That we don’t even realize this is happening every day in all forms of media with both young girls and adult women, until we’re asked to cancel our subscription to an entertainment platform. What does it mean about our own culture when Netflix chooses to promote this movie with the poster on the right? Believe me, marketers are going after a demographic for sure. But to do so, they have to know that that demographic exists in the first place. They won’t waste the money otherwise. The film is rated MA (for mature audiences). This film isn’t being marketed to young children, it is targeted for adults. (Of course we know that children and teens will find ways to get their eyes on adult content if they want to). However, are we more worried that our children will see this film and want to emulate it? Or are the chances higher that adults will see this film and be aroused by it? If the answer is yes, we’ve got a problem and it didn’t begin with Cuties.

The Ubiquitous Presence of Pornography:

When I was in 5th grade, I had a best friend that lived in my neighborhood and whose dad worked for Frito-Lay. Their house has THE BEST SNACKS out of all my friends houses. You can guess where I spent the most time after school in the afternoon. Often my brothers would hang out with her older brother, shooting pool upstairs or playing basketball outside. On this particular day, however, it was just she and I. She whispered to me with a mischievous smile “I HAVE to show you something but it’s a secret!” Intrigued, I smiled back, “what??” “Follow me!” she said as we went down the hall to her father’s bedroom. She walked over to his dresser, opened the drawer, moved some clothing out of the way and pointed down to a pile of pornographic magazines. I remember feeling curious, guilty, intrigued and disgusted all at the same time. While I knew I wasn’t supposed to see the images that I was seeing, I also couldn’t look away. So this was what having sex meant. It looked weird. But even weirder was having magazines full of it. Why would a dad or anybody want to have these? What did this mean? That was in 1995. Before we (me, my friends and my wider community) even knew the word internet. Because it involved sex I knew I wasn’t supposed to talk about it. I never told my parents what I had seen. I never processed it with any adult in my life. And as I continued to grow up and become a pre-teen and then full-fledged teenager, I’d continually be exposed to pornography both at my house and in other circumstances with friends and school-mates.

Why am I telling you all this? Because in 1995, it took some work to “find” pornography. It wasn’t available with a tap over a phone screen. Phones didn’t even HAVE screens. And now, we (and our children) live in a world where pornography is available to them as long as they have their own device.

In the film, there is a scene where Amy is using the restroom and she overhears the girls in a group commenting on what is clearly a pornographic video they’re watching on one of their phones. They know and use specific words for anatomy, talk about size, and oral sex. In a world where the church has largely been silent on authentic sexuality (outside of regularly saying “just don’t do anything sexual until you get married”), it makes most Christian adults cringe to hear young girls talking in such explicit detail and acting as though pornography watching is the norm. It’s hard for me to see the difference in me and my friend standing in her father’s bedroom in 1995 and the cuties in a school bathroom in 2020. This isn’t defending the right of 11-year-old girls (or boys) to watch porn but to say perhaps we’ve gone about teaching sexuality completely wrong.

As a children’s pastor, I get regular phone calls from moms (they’re always from moms) usually in a frenzied panic because they’ve discovered that their daughter (never their son) has found porn and has watched it several times. Usually, when I ask, “do you know how long they’ve been watching it?” its at least several months if not a year. The moms are mortified for several reasons: 1. They’re embarrassed that their daughter was watching porn and what does it mean about her that she went back to it? 2. They thought their daughter was too young to know about sex much less WANT to watch it. 3. They weren’t and aren’t ready to have what parents have universally dubbed “the talk” at age 9, 10 or 11. They thought that was for late teen years when they started dating.

Pornography is a problem. But it’s not a new problem. It feels like a new problem because the mode and medium have morphed. And I have to be honest, the Church has not done the greatest job of teaching, discipling and modeling what a Christ-driven, whole and holy, authentic human sexuality is or how to live it. It’s a taboo subject (it certainly was when I was in youth group!) that we don’t talk about, know “bad kids” that “do it” already, and never admit that we have any sexual desires before we’re married (other than the “silent” prayer requests). That is how one stays pure: avoidance. Besides the fact that sex is reduced to the act of having sex that should be avoided, our complete silence, both as church leaders AND as parents, is a problem. Because when we refuse to talk about something that is so pervasive in our culture, we give up our ability to influence that culture.

Your daughters (and your sons) KNOW or WILL KNOW what sex is even if you never talk to them. How did you find out about it? When was your first exposure? Our parents never talked with us, or maybe had one talk before Prom Night, but didn’t we already know by then and realize how little they knew us by coming to us so late and having an awkward conversation? It won’t be an awkward conversation if we make it a regular thing to discuss sexuality in age-appropriate ways throughout our child’s lifetime.

Most likely Cuties won’t be the place your kids discover porn. It’ll be in their bedrooms on their phone or tablet. It’ll be on TikTok or Snapchat. It’ll be in the text message from a boy or girl in their class who thinks that sending a “dick-pic” or a “nood” (nude) is the way you begin a conversation with a person of the opposite sex.

Again, I’m not concluding that you should watch Cuties for your next family movie night (or maybe with your older teenagers you should and pause it to have open, honest family discussion about it throughout!), but what I am saying is that we must continue to stay vigilant if we want to battle an inauthentic message that sexuality is reduced to what you do with another person in a bedroom and not a greater message that our sexuality is all-encompassing of who we are and there’s so much more to living and having a whole and holy life as a sexual being created in God’s image.

The Push of Girl Culture and The Pull of Social Media:

In the film, Amy steals a phone from a family member to be able to connect with her social world online. She creates a social media account and begins to ‘friend’ kids from school. She can look up videos online and use them to create new dance moves and practice in the bathroom. When Amy has a confrontation in the school yard, one girl pulls her pants down while a handful of her classmates whip out their phones to film it. Throughout the film, Amy is bullied, at first by the Cuties who don’t want to let her in because “she’s weird” and “quiet” and “she spied on us dancing!”. Then Amy becomes a part of the group. She’s encouraged to take a “dick pic” of a boy who is using the bathroom at school, but having little experience with camera phones her finger covers the picture and she is reprimanded by the group for botching it. Later on, she posts a picture of her uncovered vagina on social media, not understanding how the backlash would come to her the next day. Her inexperience and immaturity in handling the social pressures of her world continue to exacerbate her feelings of loneliness and being an outsider. She is kicked out of the Cuties for her post. At the end of the film, deciding she wants to take her place in the Cuties dance competition, she viciously attacks and pushes the girl taking her place into a river and runs off to join the team, who graciously let her in, unaware of what she’s done because at the end of the day, they just want to win the competition and the ends justify the means.

Make no mistake about it, girls are mean. They have been since just after the beginning of creation. (Eve had it good for just a little while being the only woman for a while). While boys certainly have their own forms of “being mean” shown through peer pressure, hazing, and strong-arming each other; for girls, fitting in is a powerful force. The girl world is one of comparison both of each other and of the current celebrities: am I pretty enough? Strong enough? Smart enough? Is my butt too big? Not big enough? Does my Instagram feed have enough likes? Are more people following me than I am following? One wrong move (or post) and you’re popularity is over. While that may feel familiar to most women, the girl world has become increasingly vicious in a way that most Millennials and above never experienced. It is hard not to connect this new intensity to the rising social media usage among young girls and their peers. In today’s world, girls have to be smart, cute, popular, fashionable, up on all the latest trends, and yet, humble, wise, friendly to everyone while still not being friends with the wrong people, Instagram photo worthy at any time, fierce, brave, able to speak her mind at a moment’s notice but also not causing a scene.

When I was a new children’s pastor, Snapchat was brand new and had connected with a rising demographic: pre-teens and teens. This generation (Z) who grew up getting lectured about how whatever they post on the internet is permanent, fell in love with an app that apparently made anything they post disappear….or so they thought. Now, almost a decade later, Snapchat isn’t the problem, TikTok is. Besides the proven fact that TikTok mines an individual’s phone for data, there seems to be even less security from fake accounts or management of content. This app has become wildly popular for creating fun videos and dancing. However, it is imperative to keep a proper perspective; the enemy isn’t TikTok. Because when TikTok is no longer popular, it will be another app, and after that another.

The question we must ask is why do our children NEED to be on social media? Why do we grant them the permission to do so? Why do we give them the devices to begin with? “Oh Taryn,” you’re thinking, “There’s no way I can take the phone back now! I’ll just do a better job managing it.” Here’s the deal, this post isn’t to tell you to take away the phones but to have an honest conversation about WHY we ever gave (and continue to give) children unfettered access to the world via a device that fits in their pocket.

As a Millennial (by the way we’re in our 30s now), how many times have we stated to ourselves and each other “I’m SO GLAD we didn’t have social media when we were kids!”? If that is the case, then WHY are we handing this off to our children as if the problems that have resulted from it in adulthood are somehow nonexistent for children and teens?

I wonder if it’s because of our own feelings regarding how we parent. (Sidenote: You know what is worse than girl world when it comes to judgment? Parenthood.) Ask yourself what is the outcome and goal of your child having a social media (of any platform) account right now? It’s not just whether or not they’re mature enough to not post illicit content but are they ready for the culture that will inevitably sweep them into the tide that is coming? Think about, as an adult, how you feel when no one likes your post that you thought was hilarious? Or how you take a picture several times so that you don’t look like you have a double chin? Now transfer that to a 9 year old who hasn’t fully developed the rational part of their brain yet. Perhaps we gave in because we wanted our children to fit in, because we know what it’s like to not fit in as an elementary kid. Or maybe we gave the device to get the squeal and the incessant “I love you so much!”es because we needed validation as a parent and instead of doing the hard work, we just bought it this time as a sort of gift to ourselves. Or perhaps we want to be the popular parent. The one who gives what their parent never could gift them. After a decade of working with kids and their parents, I’ve learned that there’s not much a parent would withhold from a child if it meant their happiness.

Will having a social media account encourage your child? Will it nurture them? Will it affirm them? Help them set limits for themselves? Will it help them connect with others in a meaningful way or give the illusion that a friendship is based on someone else “liking” your pic. For parents who are Jesus followers, does your child’s social media account help them follow God, deepen their theological growth? Or does it simply have them asking themselves why God made them so ugly, unlikeable, not-funny, or whatever adjective they’re using about themselves from week to week?

Ask any youth pastor, high-school or lower teacher, coach or anyone else who works with or volunteers with children and students on a regular basis if social media is helping children learn, communicate, problem-solve, increase self-confidence or create true friendships. The answer will be a loud and collective “NO!”

The Power of Parental Presence:

While watching the film, I observed that both Amy and Angelica are missing an important part of home; their parents. Amy’s father is away. Her father’s absence also means her mother must work hard to make ends meet, pay the bills and keep the household running. Effectively, Amy doesn’t really get quality time with her mom either. Although he comes home at the end of the film (with a second wife) the audience never meets him. Angelica has both parents at home but tells Amy, “I am always disappointing them. I’m never good enough like my brother.”

The single greatest predictor of how a child grows up is parent involvement and presence. And by presence, I don’t just mean in the physical sense, I mean engaged, involved, connected, aware and in tune. While there are of course exceptions to the rule, the greater the parent connection and engagement, the more likely the child grows up to be a fully-functioning, positive, and productive member of society. The trophies they win, the medals they earn, eventually, they’ll all be considered meaningless. Do you know of anyone who still wears their Little League championship ring as an adult or has their national trophy on display in their house as a 30-year-old? No. Do you know of anyone who is still dealing with the effects of a parent who wasn’t present? Who was always disappointed? Who was too busy with work or other obligations to listen?

Sports are wonderful. Activities and hobbies are great for well-rounded development. It is good to have other adults in our children’s lives who champion them and cheer for them and teach them. While all these things and more are breeding grounds for life lessons, memories, and first achievements, they are nothing compared to a relationship with a parent that is based on true connection and engagement. While you’re spending the evening driving children to and fro, are you talking at them or connecting with them? Was quarantine the first time you realized that you’ve never used your kitchen table to actually have a meal together? Apart from just knowing the trivia facts about your child like their favorite color, game, or song…do you KNOW your child? Do you know what fears they have? No just what they’re scared of like storms. But what are their fears like never being good enough? Or feeling stupid in math? Do you know what they love and when they feel most alive? It may not be when you think? Especially the older they get and the more they stop naturally talking to us.

I can’t help but wonder what might Amy’s and Angelica’s story have been had they had a father at home that was encouraging, nurturing, affirming, engaging, and championing her? A mother that could slow down and spend time together. That connected and was in tune with her as a person. Would she feel such a pressing need to join a group of girls that bullies her, makes her feel less than, encourages her to use sex as a means of getting what she wants?

What might our children need from us?

A Word on Abuse:

If you’re still hanging in there with me to get this far (bless you) you may read this post and think that I don’t have a problem with the movie. Ovearll, my intent is to create a discussion that is larger than the movie. I do believe that Cuties is indicative of our culture at large. While many are outraged by the premise of the movie (or what they have been told about it) many more have come to the end, with credits rolling, asking, “that seemed pretty normal to me!” While I believe that products of entertainment are largely based on the culture they are created within, that is not an excuse to continue creating them.

Make no mistake, the movie Cuties, while not showing explicit sexual content enough to be rated as outright pornography, the implicit messages abound. Abusers use a process called grooming. It is usually a slow and patient process meant to earn the trust of their victim.

There are several specific instances of this process subtly shown throughout the film to normalize this culture:

  • The YouTube video that shows the bare breast of a teenager

  • Using sexuality and sexual dancing to get out of being arrested by an older male security guard who clearly enjoys the dance. His partner questions his response by saying “Seriously?”

  • Lying to an older (teen) guy about your age because he thought the girls were older than they were

  • Video chatting with a cute guy from school with the camera off asking him if he wants to touch her tits

  • The sexually suggestive and provocative dance moves put into their routine

  • When caught with the stolen phone, Amy unbuttons her pants, silently suggesting that she will perform a sex act in order to keep the phone. (To his credit, the male cousin is disgusted at the suggestion and continues to confront her).

  • The group of girls watching a pornographic video on their phone in the school bathroom

  • The group of girls who pressure Amy to go into the boys bathroom and take a dick pick of a classmate

  • The pulling down of Amy’s pants in the schoolyard

  • The picture Amy posts of her exposed vagina on social media

  • The aggression that Amy shows when pushing a member of the Cuties into the water to effectively gain her place in the dance competition

And while the film ends with Amy’s decision to what we assume is innocent, normal childhood, jump-roping with kids in the neighborhood, it never explicitly states that what she’s been through or exposed to is unequivocally wrong. Call it creative license or storytelling. That it may be.

However, we must do what the director failed to do: openly and blatantly declare that while unfortunately common across multiple cultures and generations, Amy’s story is not normal and it should not be so. May we do more than #CancelNetflix. May we fight for our children and their children and their children to have a world where the abuse of children, women, and groups of people has ceased; where sexuality is not scandalous but put in its proper place as authentically whole and holy; where children have identity, purpose and security from the commitment of the grown-ups in their world; where being human is enough to belong.

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