The Cuties Tragedy, and How it Highlights Our Country’s Cultural Divide

By Aaron Shamp Published on September 23, 2020

Do you want to see just how breathtaking the divide is in our culture? Look up the Rotten Tomatoes page for Cuties. The page presents film critics’ consensus, along with an average score from the general audience. The early critics’ consensus score was an extraordinarily high 91%. The audience score was as low as it gets: 11%.

Most films are generally close in the two scores. For example, The Shawshank Redemption has a 90% critic consensus and 98% audience rating. Although, it’s not uncommon for there to be a contrast between the critics and general population. Consider how the biggest blockbusters of the year never win any Academy Awards. In the case of Cuties, though the contrast is stark — and telling.

Monica Castillo opened her RogerEbert.com of Cuties, “There’s a saying in criticism that ‘depiction does not equal endorsement.’” True enough; but then she continued, “Art should be able to address taboos without necessarily advocating for them, but some surface-level readings miss what the work digs into because it’s not obvious at first glance.”

She was compelled to defend the film that way in order to justify the four stars she gave it. She said the rush to judgment was unwarranted and premature.

I must disagree. The judgments are fully warranted, and obviously so, to my mind. You’d think both conservatives and liberals could get behind the idea it’s wrong to sexualize children. Yet here we are in an ongoing battle over Cuties. So, why the controversy? Who exactly is defending this movie and why?

The Cuties Defenders

Many have read the divide as being between right vs. left. I don’t think that explains it well enough, though. People across the political spectrum — from far-right Paul Joseph Watson to far-left Tulsi Gabbard — have condemned the movie. Cuties’ defenders aren’t the political left, broadly speaking. The most visible of them are in a sub-category of the Left: film critics and their oh-so-sophisticated sycophants.

I haven’t seen anyone defend Cuties except the film critic class, and those who wish to be approved of by these “experts.” Richard Brody at the New Yorker called it “remarkable.” The prestigious Sundance Film Festival gave director Maïmouna Doucouré an award for it. She defended the film, saying, “It’s bold, it’s feminist, but it’s so important and necessary.”

Bold? Maybe. Necessary? No, disturbing. As Brett McCracken at The Gospel Coalition wrote, “Many ostensibly sophisticated, ‘cultured’ people seem bent on defending and redeeming what is, in the end, an irredeemably problematic film.”

How do they try to justify it? Let’s take a look at their argument.

Cuties Doesn’t Get a Pass for Being “Art”

According to Todd Spangler in Variety, Netflix’s defense is based on its being a “statement about pressures young girls face in conforming to societal role models of female sexuality.” The film’s lascivious portrayal of children, they said, was actually “a social commentary against the sexualization of young children.” Naturally, they highlight that it’s an award-winning film, “about the pressure young girls face on social media and from society more generally growing up.”

For even when creating art, filmmakers who intend to depict while not endorsing must do so with a sense of responsibility. They need utmost precision, so as not to cross ethical boundaries. They must avoid being transgressive for the sake of shock.

Richard Brody at The New Yorker says it’s a piece of art which tells a coming-of-age story; that it warns of the effects of “sexualized media and pop culture” on very poor, very young girls, who are often left alone and unsupervised.

That’s the argument. How well does it work? First, all can agree that depiction does not equal endorsement, and that artists should be able to shed light on dark topics through creative expression. Outstanding examples of this would be Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Both films are graphic and disturbing as they portray the reality of humanity’s brutality against one another. Sometimes that really does make for important art.

Cuties defenders argue that the same standard should apply to this movie. Just being “art,” however, doesn’t give Cuties a pass. Cuties is anti-art. It should be offensive to anyone who appreciates true art.

For even when creating art, filmmakers who intend to depict while not endorsing must do so with a sense of responsibility. They need utmost precision, so as not to cross ethical boundaries. They must avoid being transgressive for the sake of shock.

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One cannot make a film warning against the effects of pornography while presenting gratuitous nudity and sexual content. A filmmaker who tried to do that would be exploiting real people’s bodies in front of the camera while trying to protest the very thing they are doing. Cuties is no different. This film casts actual children, 11 year-old girls, to portray highly sexual content. It tries to warn against sexualizing children by sexualizing children.

Cuties’ defenders think the film’s “social commentary” gives them moral ground to stand upon, but this is moronic nonsense. As Justin Lee wrote at Arc Digital:

If one only reflects on the amount of practice these 11-year-old girls had to do in order to master dance moves simulating rough sex, the wretchedness of the whole enterprise becomes apparent. An actor must become proficient in martial arts before starring in a martial arts film. In Cuties, these young actors had to become proficient in their own sexual commodification.

Not only does the movie transgress that which it claims to warn against, Doucoure was explicit in her intentions for making it. She told Refinery29 that she explained to her actresses “the real activism that this movie was coming from, and the feminist ideology it represented.”

Activism. Ideology. It’s not a film, it’s a statement. It calls to mind Francis Schaeffer’s prescient 1976 observation, “The further question is: Is this really art? Is it not rather a bare philosophic, intellectual statement? … The more it tends to be only an intellectual statement, rather than a work of art, the more it becomes anti-art.”

Cuties is anti-art child abuse.

Beware the Conditioners

However, if you listen to Cuties defenders, I’m a right-wing pearl clutcher for having any problem with such a film. Tim Robey at The Telegraph calls the film a “provocative powder-keg for an age terrified of child sexuality.” Translation: If I don’t like the film, it’s because I’m weak and sexually repressive.

That’s just gaslighting. It’s the 91%-approving critics abusing the power of their position, against the 11%-approving rest of us. And it opens a window on an even deeper, more insidious problem with the Cuties controversy.

C. S. Lewis warned in The Abolition of Man about a class of people who would attempt to remake society. He called them the “Conditioners.” Their main job would be to debunk traditional values and mold a new mankind into shape. Lewis wrote, “They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’, applied to them, are words without content: for it is from them that the content of these words is henceforth to be derived.”

Lewis explained the Conditioners’ prime strategy: to re-train the heart as much as the mind, the affections as much as ideas. They seek to cut out the part of humanity which has an appropriate emotional reaction to reality; to create (in Lewis’s memorable phrasing) “Men without Chests”: people with no power to discern what merits “our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.”

The Conditioners position themselves as elites, cultured, and intellectuals. They view themselves as anointed and progressive. “This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence,” Lewis wrote. Instead, he countered, “It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of chest beneath that makes them seem so.”

This is the great divide once again revealed by Cuties. The Cuties defenders are the Conditioners of our society. Beware of them. Do not fall for their nonsense. Do not be allured by their “expertise.” We do not need these anointed ones’ approval.

 

Aaron Shamp is a writer, speaker, and the lead pastor of Redeemer City Church. He holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Aaron lives in Lafayette, La., with his wife and daughter. You can follow him at aaronshamp.com and at @aaronmshamp on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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