Revisiting Netflix’s Cuties: An Acute Controversy

A few years ago, we all saw a lot of high-horsing by members of the critical film establishment when it came to the Netflix’s movie Cuties. The general tenor of the commentary (incredibly enough, not laced by the humility of an industry chastened by repeated and proven allegations of sexual misconduct toward women and children) was utterly dismissive of the lay audience reaction. Some reactions ventured beyond dismissive and were delighted by the negative reaction, reveling in the fact that plebs were so “triggered” by potential child exploitation.

In the midst of the conflagration it was simply human nature to engage with the worst of both sides, nutpicking the most egregious examples of condescension/creepiness or benighted ignorance in order to buttress a polemical point.

Many critics I respected hammered the anti-cutie contingent. Arguing repeatedly that until the vociferous critics have sat down and watched the entire movie, they have no right to be a part of the discussion and nothing of value to add. There is logic to this position. And oftentimes, it is the position I hold in moments like these.

Courtesy of Netflix

When film scenes are ripped from context, clipped for maximum effect, and attached to a pre-written narrative, the truth is lost in a hail of clout-chasing. With alarming regularity, dialogue and scenes are stretched and deformed by bad-faith actors. They are then are weaponized to slander films — those who made them and those who love them.

The aforementioned critics implicitly argued that this was the case for the Cuties controversy. In their view, there was no vantage point available to the uninitiated that could justify a negative response without viewing the entire context. It cannot be stated more strongly that this is merely common sense. We’ve all been raised to not judge books by their covers, people by their looks– a myriad of phrases that mean essentially the same thing.

I don’t think this is the entirety of the story, though. I share the critic’s general perspective on not watching things ripped out of context with an eye to judge. I defended Tarantino against aggressive nonsense about usage of the n-word, I defended Snyder on Johnathan Kent’s “maybe,” and I defend older films on their distressing lack of decorum on a variety of issues. Looking back, I found myself unable to defend Cuties for two reasons.

  1. We had in fact seen enough of the movie to make a determination
  2. The child exploitation happened regardless of the ideas of the filmmaker

The arguments are similar but distinct. (1) references the fact that for some crimes just the offending clip offends and (2) argues that there is no way to redeem certain offenses by critique.

Let me jog the reader’s mind and once again layout the anti-Cuties argument in schematic form

  • Child exploitation is wrong
  • Cuties engages in child exploitation
  • Cuties is wrong.

This is straightforwardly deductive. If the premises are true, then the conclusion is certain. Notice the nuance here though – the argument proceeds by way of complete agnosticism about the motivations of the director in making this movie. This is not a conspiracy theory arguing that Netflix was by some nefarious means attempting to normalize child exploitation on purpose. Whatever side those people are on, I was on the opposite. I am charging Netflix with making a mistake. Two years ago “Netflix promotes child exploitation” was the buzzword in the fever swamps. That, of course, was never the argument made by intelligent critics. And it does nobody any good to engage with them. QAnon knuckle draggers may believe in some nefarious conspiracy throughout the entirety of Hollywood but their fulminations didn’t represent the substantive critiques then and they don’t know. Sane critics argued that a well-meaning attempt at condemning something awful but still engaging in the behavior that it condemns represents an error but not a malicious one.

But let us say this: even the reasoning that I’m employing here isn’t inviolable. It is entirely possible to plug different values into (a) and (b) and arrive at the conclusion that all sorts of movies are wrong. Nuance and context are the names of the game here.

So what’s the difference between Cuties and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (featuring Mickey Rooney’s disgusting character)?

Courtesy of Netflix

The answer is simple. We treat children differently than we treat adults, and we treat child endangerment differently than we treat other crimes. Affronts to cultures, races, and religions when acted out or portrayed are affronts by extension. They relate to masses of people. They portray evils but do not instantiate them. Depictions of the Holocaust are not the Holocaust. Child exploitation is a personal affront, the portrayal and the portrayed are equally sinned against. You cannot showcase photorealistic child exploitation with a child and not engage in child exploitation. indignities suffered by extension do not hurt less because they are somewhat impersonal but they are substantially different than direct affronts.

That leads me to my first point:

In fact, we had seen the movie.

Stipulating a non-conspiratorial view, by viewing the media that was publicly available in 2020 we had seen just enough of the movie to make the charge that it engaged in child exploitation. The clip that made the rounds after the Sundance Release – a group of young girls gyrating, implying sexual contact, and twerking to inappropriate music in front of adults is classic child exploitation by any fair definition. Now were we arguing a conspiracy – that the director is attempting to normalize child exploitation in bald view of the world we would have needed to watch the entirety of the movie to see whether or not the director ends up condemning it. Since we aren’t arguing that it is sufficient to point out that the media we saw fit the classic definition of child exploitation. So, contra those critics, we had seen enough.

The response to this argument has been that viewed in proper perspective the clip presented was a merely disturbing portion of an entire broadside against child exploitation. Again, this was not disputed by non-conspiratorial critics. What was disputed is whether the conscious decision to include what is obviously child exploitation in a film critiquing it is justified.

In the clip the camera leers at the girls, zooming in on them in their state of undress, imitating the way that creeps and monsters may seek to strip them of their innocence.  The idea of condemnation is transparent and laudable but poorly executed.

Does a bad apple truly spoil the bunch? That is the question and frankly one that the Cuties apologists never adequately answered. We treat child exploitation different than other crimes, the simple act of portraying it is seen as wrong.

 “But what about including racist action or language in a film that critiques it?”

Let us remember again the difference between an affront by extension and a direct hurt. Actors portraying great evils can insult or harm others but that is an undifferentiated hurt. Children portraying child exploitation of course can hurt children worldwide by extension (this is the argument of “normalizing exploitation) but they also hurt themselves. By that logic, you cannot include child exploitation in a movie without the movie itself engaging in child exploitation.

And that is my second point.

Courtesy of Netflix

Child exploitation happens in the portrayal of child exploitation that the film presents.

This is the simple logic that the defenders missed. It simply is not sufficient to include a critique of child exploitation in a movie that self-consciously includes it. Why? Because there cannot be a mitigating factor for a direct hurt. Consider the emerging knowledge about the inhumane way that Stanley Kubrick treated Shelley Duval. Now imagine if The Shining had been a movie about the abusive and entitled nature of male genius and people today used that as a defense of his actions. Nobody would accept that, and we would all agree that such tactics are completely unnecessary. 

Now imagine further that Kubrick’s abuse would somehow be replicated on screen for the entire world, not contained to the big screen. That is exactly what the anti-Cuties are arguing. The acting, the portrayal itself is the abuse, and the process of filming it for mass audiences does not redeem it. It simply widens the audience. This fact does not mean that the director was filled with some nefarious purpose. A good faith interpretation of this art should lead to critiques more insightful than incendiary.

The simple fact is this: something can be wrong regardless of how it is intended. Unintended consequences are real. “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt” apologies are lame precisely because all of us understand that nobody is perfect enough to not cause harm unless they are intending to.

I’ll give one more example. Let’s say you walk down the street and see a white man berating a black man with repeated uses of the n-word. He is in the man’s face, yelling, his entire being contorted into a portrait of bigotry. Nobody reading this would hesitate to call this wrong. Imagine going over to confront the man and seeing a camera crew. a director and other elements filming what is clearly a movie scene. That changes things, right?

Now imagine walking into a room, seeing scantily clad young girls dancing in sexually suggestive ways in front of adults while explicit music plays. You know this is wrong… Would your opinion change if you saw a camera crew filming? Of course not. It is still gross and made worse by the threat of distribution.

You cannot present photorealistic child exploitation acted by child actors without engaging in child exploitation.

A prebuttal

A favored argument by the cutie-defenders was that it is unfair to judge a movie by who may or may not enjoy it. To them, the fact that pedos may enjoy something is not reason enough to discard it.

To that, I reply, “fair enough.” As a society, we have rejected that reasoning for video game violence and adult pornography. We cannot dismiss a film out of hand simply because the wrong people might enjoy it, this stretches affronts by extension beyond merit.

Nevertheless, this response lacks nuance, denying the possibility of a critique based on the way certain elements are portrayed and denying that half-hearted condemnations could serve as a fig leaf for the ill-intentioned.

Again, that was not my argument. I had no reason to accuse Netflix and co. of promoting child exploitation, but too many are using the above logic as some knockdown argument, and it is manifestly not so. Further, as I’ve mentioned above, we treat child exploitation differently than other crimes that are difficult to display on screen. As a society, we (with good reason) have decided that we don’t treat every crime or sin the same. Child exploitation is treated differently from murder, arson, and theft. By the reasoning I provided earlier, it was entirely consistent to be opposed to showing photorealistic child exploitation and appreciate movies like The Godfather or even The House that Jack Built. For the simple reason that the affront is by extension in the latter and the affront is direct, personal, and bounded in the former.

What can we learn from all of this?

We cannot be a film community of hypocrites. We cannot be sensitive to dog whistles only when it pleases us or discomfits our enemies. We cannot pick and choose when we want to “look behind the explicit” and “find deeper meanings.” How strange it would be to suddenly lose our discernment at such an hour, in the fear that the benighted hoi polloi might claim a scalp.

The critical community is in a state of crisis. Not because of this movie but because critics have lost their courage and their voice. As critics, we cannot let ourselves be politicized into degrading ourselves or allowing others to degrade children by mistake. We must also be fair to inexperience and artistic failure, allowing the grace for others to fall short without evil intent. A critical community should never despise its audience or flaunt ideas of “nuance” and “gradation” that are hypocritical and offensive. Said another way – is it the case that the voices for “nuance” in this area shared the same passion for those things when it came to other movies? The nearly criminal slander of The Last Duel is a good example.

The point I am making is this: Cuties depicted something in photorealistic form that should never have been mass-produced. You cannot waffle about whether the wrong people like it because the thing we fear- the harm we claim is not reliant on their perception. 

In conclusion, I want to point out that two years ago I was arguing for very limited use of this “judge movies by clips” power. I remain in the same place now. That power should be indulged with great caution when the context absolutely demands it. I’m of the opinion that potential child endangerment is just a significant enough moral and cinematic issue to be judged by clips alone.

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