In today’s heavily digitalized world, technology is king, and the coronavirus pandemic has only intensified this, particularly through the influence of digital media. Around the world, people cooped up in their homes are streaming content more than ever before, and Netflix’s content is popular with viewers of all ages. One of these options is the film titled Cuties, which was released September 9 on Netflix’s streaming site. It stars an 11-year-old actress with a supporting cast of girls from their middle school in Paris, but forget sleepovers, toys and rainbows: This is a big-girl movie.
Netflix sparked a backlash with a promotional poster showing the young girls in short, tight costumes and sexually suggestive poses. As if this was not enough, the description for the movie was just as appalling. The original promo on the website read: “Amy, 11, becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew.” Twerking is a dance where people wiggle their hips and shake their buttocks. “Hoping to join them, she starts to explore her femininity, defying her family’s traditions.” This description, I believe, represents much of what is wrong with today’s society.
Netflix apologized for the “inappropriate artwork” and revised its approach after the outcries, replacing the tasteless poster with a more family-friendly one and added some euphemism to the description – the “twerking” dance crew was now described as “free-spirited.” Regardless of the change, the debate remained on whether or not this movie was safe to air. Although the movie’s focus is on preteens, it is rated TV-MA, meaning that young children, including 11-year-olds, are not allowed to watch it. This is quite the worry. Barring the demographic that the story should resonate with is a sign of their lack of readiness to be exposed to that content. Young children are quite malleable and easily influenced by examples presented to them. We’ve watched it happen with social media – children see their online idols gaining fame and followers by posting sexually enticing content, extreme pranks or forms of bullying, and the young viewers start doing similar things to emulate their idols, possibly aiming to reach the same level of fame. Nowadays, many children have access to adult content, even pornography, and despite parental guidance to prevent this, loopholes are easily found. While it might not seem immediately harmful, content that depicts children engaging in sexually suggestive dances and wearing revealing clothing can easily inspire real-life boys and girls who view this content to engage in similar actions.
The normalization of despicable acts has had a huge impact on society. Rape, domestic violence and substance abuse are all examples of awful acts that have become ever so common and, unfortunately, acceptable in some communities. As an African male born and raised in Southern Africa, I’ve seen it happen myself in my own culture. I’m now 18 and have come to learn and witness how the abuse and ill-treatment of women is considered normal in many African families. This did not come from nowhere. It is the result of centuries of patriarchal structures and communities that have allowed the oppression of African women. If we condone, even applaud programs that openly present younger and younger groups performing sexually suggestive content, we risk tearing the very fabric of society, and the pernicious effects might not be so easy to notice until it’s too late.
So what if this movie, when it’s released, turns out to tell a beautiful story that educates the public and ultimately opposes child sexualization? What if the doubters, who have not yet seen the film, are wrong and the movie ends up having substance? Cuties was originally released under the title Mignonnes in France, and its proponents have defended it by stating that the movie was meaningful, and educational and received a Sundance Film Festival award.
Young children are vulnerable. We need to ensure that we allow them to remain free and innocent, by not exposing them to material that they are not emotionally mature enough to fully understand. Some stones are better left unturned. Even if all intentions are good and holy, parents and adults should wait until children are developmentally ready for movies’ messages. If we are not careful, an overload of media activism and content exposure will hurt children, with the damage done when they are young taking its toll expressing itself when they are older. Men and women may regret harmful choices they made when growing up, which were the result of decisions based on a lack of accurate information and readiness. At a time when the world faces unprecedented challenges and change, awareness of and exposure to important topics through the amazing power of technology is a crucial part of personal growth. But the line must be drawn somewhere. We have to protect our children.