August 24, 2020

Netflix: Too Cute by Half

Remember the good old days when the likes of Target and Walmart were being hounded by both sides of the political spectrum for sexualising young girls with their ranges of hot pants and crop tops?

For one side it was the industrial capitalist machine at work, pulling out all stops at making a buck. For the other side it was simply a progressive narrative in the arts and fashion world speeding up the decline of society. As the little girl says in the Taco advertisement, “Why can’t it be both?”

As someone with a daughter in that age bracket at the time, I kinda shook my head sadly and just muttered “When hell freezes over…” as I walked with my ten year old past that part of the store.

Now the latest furore over the new French movie, Cuties, is taking that look out of the department store, and putting it where it belongs, there on our screens, ripe for prime time viewing – or voyeuring. Or so it would seem.

French director Maïmouna Doucouré‘s new movie is being panned as a basic sexploitation of young pre-pubescent girls who are, according to the now-deleted Netflix promotional material, involved in a twerking and shopping extravaganza that ropes in a young, conservative Muslim black girl, who is increasingly drawn into conflict with her heritage and her new found friends. Think Mean Girls but younger.

The names Epstein and Weinstein have been bandied around in conversations about the film and its sexual nature. Netflix has withdrawn the advertising campaign behind the film, and made an apology of sorts (more of that later).

Now, of course, the liberal media is in a bit of a frenzy about all of this, claiming that those who are most invested in seeing Cuties shut down are the conservative types who have not seen the film and are pre-judging what is a worthy piece of art talking about a clash of cultures.

Here’s her own take on her movie. Note what she says:

The day I saw, at a neighbourhood party, a group of young girls aged around 11 years old, going up on stage and dancing in a very sensual way while wearing very revealing clothes. I was rather shocked and I wondered if they were aware of the image of sexual availability that they were projecting. In the audience, there were also more traditional mothers, some of them wearing veils: it was a real culture shock. I was stunned and I thought back to my own childhood, because I’ve often asked myself questions about my own femininity, about evolving between two cultures, about my Senegalese culture which comes from my parents and my western culture.

If you have seen the older movie, Kids, set in a pre-9/11 New York, there’s the same vibe going on there, the overt sexualisation of a younger generation who have no idea of the mess they are getting themselves into. It’s a hard movie to watch because you can see the inexorable end of things, things that kids being kids won’t see. And it would seem that this is the same with Cuties.

Doucouré goes on to say:

… this isn’t a health & safety ad. This is most of all an uncompromising portrait of an 11-year-old girl plunged in a world that imposes a series of dictates on her…Today, the sexier and the more objectified a woman is, the more value she has in the eyes of social media. And when you’re 11, you don’t really understand all these mechanisms, but you tend to mimic, to do the same thing as others in order to get a similar result. 

Doucouré sounds like a smart, bright and talented woman who has something important to say about the cultural moment we are in, and the clash of civilisations we are experiencing. She’s only 35 years of age, and clearly has a future as a director in front of her. I think this movie would be worth watching with a group of theologically and culturally savvy people who can talk through its implications.

But hey, that won’t sell this movie, right? Netflix had other ideas! Whatever else you think of a movie that uses pre-pubescent girls to act as er, pre-pubescent girls, Netflix decided to go for the “Dance Moms after 10pm” approach and pull out all stops to make this about conservative religious culture (bad), and progressive sexually liberated culture (good). And a whole lot of twerking.

I won’t link the trailer, but have a look at the difference between the movie promo for general release in France, and the Netflix promo:

Let’s cut straight to the chase eh? The trailer is the usual smash and grab of visuals that show conservative (bad) values slapping down (literally) a young girl who just wants to be liberated and realise her sexual power (good).

But don’t take it from me. Here’s the “before” shot: Netflix’s own promotional words about the movie on Twitter, which they eventually took down:

And here’s the after shot, with Netflix wringing its hands:

So In order to celebrate diversity Netflix celebrates skin. Never religion. Never long-held tradition. Never values that an 11 year old girl might be too young to understand are going to be, in the end, good for her, and which she might want to come back to if and when she has children of her own. Sexuality is the diversity shibboleth of our culture. Sign up to the sexular age and you’re good to go. If not, then you’re kicked to the kerb Say what you like about Target and Walmart, they were ahead of the curve.

And here I was thinking that Netflix was paying its PR department people squillions of dollars to come up with an advertising campaign that would be appropriate and would actually be representative of a film that won an award at Sundance! Silly me!

But hey, maybe Netflix assumes that the best way to get bums on seats is by getting young girls bums in hot pants. I wonder why anyone would come to that conclusion? Could Netflix be so crass? So all consumed by gaining a dollar from titillation that it would resort to tapping into the paedophilic tendencies of some of its huge anonymous audience?

Of course some progressives saw this outrage as a conservative conspiracy theory or plot to derail the cultural direction we’re headed in. And for sure there’s been some over-reaction from people who have not seen the film.

The Netflix promo pitches life exactly how they see: Religious and conservative = bad. Secular and sexy = good.

The Netflix love of diversity – is only skin deep, and that often apes the progressive love of diversity. True, actual diversity of belief and thought and values and tradition? That’s way too complex! But hey don’t we love our halal store on the corner and the African dance competition at the par!

And let’s face it, Netflix pitched it like soft porn with young girls because it didn’t shock Netflix. No one at Netflix knew anyone who would be shocked by it being pitched that way, otherwise they wouldn’t have done it. That’s how diverse the crowd is at Netflix. It’s group think the whole way down.

Netflix knows that pitching it that way would titillate and excite. Netflix knew that to touch on the one aspect of the movie, that could then be stretched to be the whole movie, would be a killer marketing strategy. There’s no moral framework or reasoning that says don’t do it that way. So they did.

Netflix execs no doubt looked at the promo and whooped with delight. Are they paedophiles, as was asked of them on Twitter? In one way, who cares about their equivocating answer, Netflix deems itself beyond categorisation, and indeed feels compelled to declare that they are all things to all people so that they might win some:

Perhaps that’s the part where someone in the Netflix office asked Siri, cos they sure couldn’t come up with a binary response to a question like that.

When the streaming service was once asked who its competition was, CEO Reed Hastings replied “sleep”. I don’t think he’ll be losing any over this latest furore. We’re all locked in too tightly for that.

What does Doucouré think about the whole furore? And does it really matter any longer? I don’t know. It seems complicated, especially if she made that film as a piece of social commentary on the sexualisation of young girls, and their inability to see who is exploiting who.

But in the past few weeks I’ve read – horrified -, screen shots from a concerned parent of a girl the same age as the Cuties. The language and ideas (coupled with threats of violence) are even more disturbing than the language, ideas (and threats) purportedly in the movie. The horse has well and truly bolted, and Netflix, rather than seek to redress the cultural rot, is simply taking us along for the ride. They’ve been too cute by half.

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