I'm Destinee and this is where I share my life, my work, and my heart. As a multi-passionate creative, you'll find a little bit of everything I love here: my photography, my writing, and my advocacy for mental health and social justice. I may not be for everyone, but I hope that you'll feel welcomed, encouraged, and inspired from this online space. 

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September 17, 2020

Cuties was disturbing on Purpose

Netflix's Film "Cuties" was disturbing, and it was disturbing on purpose. A lesson on the importance of context written by Destinee Stark, social justice activist and writer.

The internet is absolutely losing their bananas, their marbles, and their minds over the new French film, Cuties. It came to the U.S. Netflix market fairly recently. Many people were upset about it, almost immediately. The angry, internet mobs claim that it’s promoting pedophilia and that Netflix should be the next grave in Cemetery Cancel Culture™. I agree, Cuties was disturbing and it was intentionally disturbing for a reason.

A little backstory on the film: Cuties tells the story from the perspective of an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant girl named, Amy. She and her family just moved to a housing project in Paris, France. Her family is Muslim, and urges her to be conservative, modest and obedient. However, she quickly becomes fascinated and obsessed with modern teen & social media culture. So, she begins a journey to not only fit into that culture, but climb her way to the top as quickly as possible – no matter the cost. She diligently pursues friendship with a popular dance group at her new school. The film makes it very clear that she is willing to do absolutely anything to fit into this group – whether it’s age appropriate or not.

As Kristy Puchko at Pajiba, an independent entertainment website, writes, “I can confirm: Cuties does have scenes of 11-year-old girls twerking and wearing revealing clothing while doing so. However, Cuties is not promoting or glamorizing the sexualization of young girls. Presentation is not the same as promotion. Instead, the film critiques these choices by exploring why girls might engage in such behavior and how they feel about it.

A Lesson on Why Context Matters

First, I think most of us can agree that context is important. Without context, intention and purpose can often be misinterpreted. Which, I believe, is exactly what happened with this film. The angry folks have completely disregarded the context of this film in order to fit their conspiratorial narrative that it’s promoting pedophilia.

Second, Cuties is directed by a Senegalese woman of color who has made her intentions clear. It also won Cinematic Dramatic Film Directing Award of the year at the Sundance Film Festival; and was nominated in other categories as well. Surely the highly accredited Sundance Film Festival would not allow a film that “promoted pedophilia” to even be nominated for such titles….right?

That’s because Cuties does not promote pedophilia, but has been misinterpreted by folks, whom many of which have not even seen the film. Personally, I believe the film is an ostentatious representation of how social media influences young girls and emboldens them to replicate the overt sexualized behavior of adult women, without accurately comprehending the dangers, consequences, and risks in doing so.

Maïmouna Doucouré, the director, says in an interview, “I realize that the people who have started this controversy haven’t yet seen the film. Netflix has apologized to the public and to myself. I’m hoping that these people will watch the movie now that it’s out. I’m eager to see their reaction when they realize that we’re both on the same side of this fight against young children’s hypersexualization.

So How Did it Start then?

The outrage initially began after Netflix chose a key image for the U.S. that was a painfully inaccurate representation of the storyline. They have since apologized for their lapse in judgment. Then, a woman on twitter strategically selected a mere 90 seconds of the film’s most inappropriate scenes, and shared them without context. And although, I agree that the original image Netflix chose was an atrocious representation of the storyline, I would also argue that it was nothing more than what you would see girls, as young as toddlers, wearing at any dance or cheerleading competition in the U.S. But, I digress.

It’s also important to note, that many of the people outraged, have admittedly only seen those few clips without any context of the storyline or purpose of the film.

An article by the online publication, Mic, explained it really well, “While Netflix may have goofed with its choice of key art for the film, the calls to cancel Cuties (and Netflix) entirely are misguided and symptomatic of the reactionary ignorance that runs rampant on social media. If successful, the virtual mob will have erased the work of a female director of color, all because they couldn’t be bothered to actually research and understand her film. That’s the real tragedy here. Cuties aims to understand and dismantle the toxic trappings of femininity that society foists on young girls.

And here’s the thing…

Creative films and works of art, in general, have used this approach of overtly uncomfortable subject matter to bring attention to important issues that cultivate necessary conversations between viewers. That’s what makes them marvelous works of art. Good art is meant to incite thought provoking conversation and reflection, and hopefully propel you to action.

Miki Johnson, writer and anthropologist for Medium wrote, “Most people see something like [this] and think, ‘Ew, I don’t like this. This makes me feel weird. This makes me sad.’ My reaction starts there, but includes a follow-up question that makes all the difference. ‘Why don’t I like this? Why does this make me feel weird and sad?’. I am a proponent of ‘risk with rewards’; and I believe that being made uncomfortable is a powerful way for us to learn what we care most about, [and] where our boundaries really are. The power of creative works is only half in the seeing/hearing/reading. The other half is in the reflecting back of other’s perceptions. Of weighing your own reaction in comparison to theirs.”

We can make a conscious effort to diversify our understanding for the lived experiences of others by listening to their stories. Many of us are visual people, but we often only see things through the lens of our own experience. This means that in order for us to fully believe or understand another’s experience, we need to see it through their lens. And Cuties gave us that.

A Few Film Examples of This…

A few films that immediately come to mind for me when I think of this artistic approach to activism are films like: Thirteen, Unbelievable, Thirteen Reasons Why, Just Mercy, and When They See Us. *This is your SPOILER ALERT in case you don’t want to know details of these films.*

Thirteen

Take the movie, Thirteen, for example. It depicts an incredibly smart, young girl who is trying to navigate middle school, academically and socially. She meets a popular, rebellious girl at school and immediately wants to impress her. The film takes you through her journey to social acceptance. It portrays her doing literally anything to be accepted into the popular girl’s circle. Including: drinking alcohol, doing drugs, having sex, stealing, and even bullying other people. There are so many scenes in this film that are uncomfortable to watch as the main character goes down the path of self-destruction all for the sake of popularity. Personally, I think that Cuties is quite reminiscent of the film, Thirteen.

Unbelievable

Another example is the Netflix limited series, Unbelievable. The main character is a young woman who is a survivor of sexual violence. A man breaks into her apartment and brutally rapes her for hours. The storyline develops as it follows her journey for justice. The film series does a very good job of captivating the reality of just how difficult, and sometimes impossible, it can be to get justice for survivors. She is forced to jump through so many hoops by law enforcement. They gaslight and manipulate her for so long that she ends up giving up her pursuit for justice altogether. Although, many of these scenes are difficult, and uncomfortable to watch, I think the parallel between the film’s storyline and the reality survivors face, is really powerful. To be totally honest, I don’t think the series would’ve held as much emotional weight without those uncomfortable scenes.

Thirteen Reasons Why

In Netflix’s series, Thirteen Reasons Why, the series follows a young girl through her high school experience. It shows what drives her to take her own life, and how it affects the people who knew her. It displayed a full, from start-to-finish, suicide scene. And it honestly still haunts me to this day. It was so incredibly hard to watch. There are almost no words to describe it. I found myself wanting to look away every second until it was over.

This series also depicts several, very intense, violent sexual assault scenes that near impossible to watch. However, I think this series was a catalyst to normalizing dialogue about suicide, sexual assault, and mental health issues. Necessary conversations were formed about bullying, hazing, and other issues that face teens today. Personally, I feel it gave me the opportunity to gain more empathy for teens and what they go through day-to-day. Again, without those intensely graphic scenes, I don’t think it would’ve affected me as much as it did.

Just Mercy

Just Mercy, is a true story about Bryan Stevenson. It follows his journey to kickstarting the Equal Justice Initiative to get wrongly convicted prisoners off death row. There were so many scenes depicting police brutality, extreme racism, and violence. Other than those scenes, the hardest part for me, was the execution scene of Herbert Richardson.

He was a Black Vietnam war veteran who fought on the front lines. Due to the time he spent serving our country, he developed PTSD and was honorably discharged. He killed someone unintentionally during a mental crisis, and instead of getting the help that he needed – they put him on death row. I sobbed the whole way through the execution scene, but I think these are stories that deserve to be heard. These are stories that often get erased from this country’s ugly history. If we want to avoid repeating history, we first must know history.

When They See Us

My last example is Ava DuVernay’s, When They See Us on Netflix. This reenactment series told the story of the notorious “Central Park 5” (now known as the “Exonerated 5”). It demonstrated the unfair and brutal treatment by the legal system they experienced as young Black and Latino teens. They were all convicted of a crime they did not commit, and served years in the prison system before they were finally released. They were wrongly imprisoned, manipulated, terrorized, and tortured by the criminal justice system. They’ve experienced horrific trauma at the hands of our government. It was incredibly hard to watch. However, it was just another example of how unjust our “justice system” really is for people of color.

My point in sharing these stories is to establish a common theme in “activist film culture“. That’s not an official term or anything. That’s just what I consider films that bring attention or awareness to systemic issues. They all are difficult, and at times, uncomfortable and even disturbing to watch. They were all terribly sad stories. However, they sparked necessary conversations about issues in our world like racism, sexual assault and purity culture, suicide, bullying, mental health issues, systemic oppression, and so much more.

How this ties into Cuties

Something that I’ve noticed is left out of the Cuties conversation is what Amy is going through at this point in her life. This is important context because her life experience may have contributed to her curious and promiscuous behavior.

First being that her father left and married another woman. She moved to a new home in an unfamiliar place. One could also assume that they were not financially privileged, seeing how their apartment is described as a “housing project”. She started at a new school where she didn’t know anyone. Kids at school bullied her. Amy tries desperately to fit in. She steals her cousin’s iPhone, and discovers apps that allow her to enhance her appearance. She also discovers social media, and the addiction that comes with social media likes. Her family is very strict and dedicated to their Muslim culture. She starts her menstrual cycle for the very first time. She gets slut shamed for sharing promiscuous photos of herself online. That’s all on top of the basic transition into becoming a pre-teen that every child goes through.

The film makes it abundantly clear that Amy is so absorbed in the validation she receives from social media that she is willing to do anything for it. When her cousin discovers that she stole his phone, he tries to get it back. In her mind, she couldn’t so she was even willing to go as far as attempting to seduce him. He is horrified and immediately declines. This was one of the most disturbing scenes, I think. Consider how much she had to have valued the online validation she got from social media, to be willing to submit her own body to an adult male in her own family.

“Do as I say, Not as I do”

It’s truly disturbing. And it’s disturbing on purpose. It was all to prove the point that the hyper-sexualization children witness, has an actual effect on their developing brains. We all know the saying that many parents use: “Do as I say, not as I do.” For kids, that’s usually not how they operate. Studies show that children will mimic the behavior they witness. Children’s brains aren’t developed enough to analyze the risk that accompanies sexualized adult behavior. Therefore, they are willing to put themselves and others at risk, without the safety net of understanding consequences.

Kylie Rymanowicz, a graduate of Michigan State University, wrote in a paper. She says, “Whether or not they demonstrate a new behavior, they are picking up new knowledge. Children are learning about the behavioral choices of others and also about the consequences of those behaviors. What modeled behaviors children will imitate depends partly on what sort of reinforcement those behaviors receive. People are more likely to imitate a behavior if they get some sort of positive reinforcement for it.” 

When children only see positive reinforcement for sexualized behavior in the form of popularity, social media likes, dance competition awards, etc., it makes so much sense why they would want to mimic that behavior.

It’s all in the ending…

The entire point of the film comes full circle in the last two scenes of the film. After Amy posted a very disturbing photo of her privates parts online, she is introduced to the consequences of her behavior. She was ostracized from her friends, kicked out of the dance group and replaced with another girl. Before the competition, she followed that girl and pushed her in the river so she could “save the day” for the dance team. When she arrives to the competition, they have no choice but to allow her to dance with them.

But, the power of the entire film happens in this last dance scene. The girls were performing their not-age-appropriate dance, and the look on the audiences faces is absolute disgust. The crowd knew that the girls went too far.

After a few moments, Amy comes to the self-realization that she doesn’t even recognize herself anymore. She realizes that she went way too far, and that the consequences of her behavior were not worth her losing herself. She freezes on stage in the middle of their routine. She’s in tears and hyperventilating as the crowd watches. She rushes home, and the first thing she does is call out for her mom. Her mom takes her in her arms and hugs her for an extended period, in silence. It. was. powerful.

The ending scene shows Amy, dressed in jeans and a long sleeve shirt with no makeup on. She is looking like herself again. She walks down the stairs to her apartment building and goes outside to jump rope with the neighborhood kids.

How it all ties together…

Kids today are growing up in a totally different time. It’s one that adults can’t even begin to understand. It’s so far from what their reality was at that age. When they were kids, they didn’t have access to the things that kids have access to now. And whether you like it or not, kids are watching and they are curious. It’d be impossible for them not to be. And that’s what Cuties is trying to make a point of. That no matter how conservative or modest your family values may be, our hypersexualized culture can still take hold of and wreck your child’s life. You can either ignore that reality; or you can use this as an opportunity to have necessary, but difficult conversations with them about self-worth and value.

To teens, their self-worth is measured in social media likes and shares. And the unfortunate reality is that sexualized behavior and images get the most social media engagement. It is your job as a parent or guardian to have difficult conversations with them. If you don’t, they may not know they are playing with fire.

And I’m sure you’re wondering – No, I’m not a parent. But, I was a kid once. I remember vividly being curious about “adult things”, like sexuality, my body, and relationships; even to the point of getting myself in some trouble as well.

My final thoughts

So as I mentioned, you can avoid it and shelter your children as much as you want. You can act as if their curiosity isn’t there, or you can face these issues head on and have tough conversations. Your choice. But they will get answers somehow, whether you ignore their curiosity or not. Sheltering them from reality may seem like it’s keeping them safe, but I believe that knowledge is power, and they can either get that from you, or from people around them. Your choice.

If you’ve seen the full length film and still believe it’s “promoting pedophilia”, then you’ve completely missed the point. This is a story of redemption and restoration; it’s a story of reclamation and revival. It’s a story of self-discovery depicted in a very realistic scenario facing many pre-teens today. Cuties was disturbing, and it was disturbing on purpose.

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