In 1989, when I was 5, I spent several weeks in a children’s psychiatric ward. My father, who began abusing me sexually three years earlier, was outraged by the hospitalization because he feared I’d become perverted by listening to “all the sex talk” from the counselors. A social worker told him I’d been admitted because of some of my new behavior: acting out toward other kindergartners, making comments about my private parts and theirs, telling my mom I was going to kill myself, before laughing uncontrollably.
I have few memories of the treatment. I remember my roommate liked to pull the fire alarm and that, at some point, my mother came to visit. I remember wrapping my hands around the fence between us, crying for her not to go, until a nurse guided me back inside. I remember the feelings of helplessness and rage were more than I knew what to do with. Afterward, I did my best to wade through adolescence and young adulthood, working diligently to assure everyone that I was fine.
When I found out my father died in the spring of 2019, an unholy swell of despair rose to the surface and couldn’t be pushed down again. I started using the word pedophilia in casual conversation, as if to mark the source of my emotional breakdown. I’d always thought the word was so ugly. Suddenly, it was all I could think about. Which was why in mid-September, when I first heard about a new Netflix film accused of promoting pedophilia, I decided to watch it.
Cuties, I learned, was a French movie directed by Maïmouna Doucouré that premiered to acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It follows an 11-year-old girl named Amy who, like Doucouré, is the child of Senegalese immigrants. As she struggles to accept her family’s cultural and religious traditions, Amy befriends a group of girls who are part of a dance crew called the Cuties. Hot pants, hair dye, and twerking ensue. The film also grapples with class, race, and the role social media plays in shaping young women’s self-image, but that’s not what pulled it into a cultural firestorm.
By now, the beats of the controversy are familiar: Ahead of the film’s release, Netflix shared a misleading poster showing Amy and her friends in their stage outfits—mid-competition, midriffs exposed, knees spread. The poster was so bad I wondered if the provocation was deliberate. Netflix apologized, but the damage was done. #CancelNetflix became the No. 1 trending hashtag on Twitter the day after the film dropped. The director received death threats. Movie critics and Twitter users who defended Cuties were called rapists or pedophiles. Politicians, most notably Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard and Republican Senator Ted Cruz, accused Netflix of promoting child pornography.
Last week, news surfaced that a grand jury in Texas indicted Netflix for promoting work depicting the “lewd exhibition” of girls under 18 (the company is standing by the film). The indictment also declares that Cuties “has no serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
This claim is reckless, and untrue.
After my father’s death, I began trauma-informed therapy, the kind designed to pull the patient out of the vortex of shame that pedophilia creates in its victims. Part of the recovery process involves giving up what I call “the search”: an impulsive hunt for fictional portrayals of sexual abuse in movies or books, anything that could trigger a sense of nausea. This compulsion has eased, but it lingers—this desire to find portals to the origin of my pain, to the imagined place where I can make sense of what happened to me once and for all.
When I sat down to watch Cuties, I expected to disassociate or panic. Instead, I just felt wistful and a little sad. Although at times uncomfortable, the film I watched was hardly the sordid filth that its detractors were claiming. (“Disgusting and wrong,” Cruz called it. “Appeals to the prurient interest in sex,” the indictment stated.) This was a coming-of-age story, told with obvious care and emotional sensitivity—a meditation on how lonely, complex, and occasionally joyous the road to adolescence can be. When the credits rolled, I thought to myself, That’s it?
Cuties thoughtfully portrays Amy navigating the exhilaration and cluelessness that can emerge between true childhood and early puberty—especially in an era when young people spend so much time on platforms such as TikTok and YouTube, where sexualized content abounds. While researching the movie, Doucouré spent a year and half interviewing more than 100 Parisian girls about their experiences with social media so that she could better understand the forces that shape young women today. Cuties has plenty of contemporary relevance, but it has a timeless quality as well: The film shows what it’s like to desperately need your mother and hate the life she’s given you at the same time. It depicts the intense, capricious love that can undergird young friendships.
The movie does include scenes of the Cuties dancing that will make viewers cringe, and these are the scenes that called Doucouré’s responsibility to her audience into question. But the argument that images of girls dancing like women will “delight pedophiles” forgets that pedophilia is a perversion, a sickness unworthy of consideration in the process of creating sensitive, highly contextual art. Netflix’s marketing team deserves scrutiny, but Doucouré’s vision is not exploitative, callous, or cruel. On the contrary, she shows restraint in the moments when the potential for audience discomfort is greatest. As a director, she brings her characters right to the edge of disaster, but she never leaves them there too long, nor does she let them suffer consequences they’re unable to handle. In one tense scene often singled out by the film’s opponents, Amy snaps a photo of her genitals and posts it online. She makes the impulsive decision after a video of her involved in a schoolyard tussle reveals that she wears “baby” underwear. Taking cues from the provocative celebrities she watches videos of on her phone, Amy believes the picture is her path to being treated seriously. The sequence is shot from the side, so that the Amy we see is covered by her clothing; the audience never sees the photo she takes.
The fallout is swift: Amy’s classmates call her a slut; her friends kick her out of their dance group. But the movie’s lens, both literal and figurative, matters in the bathroom scene. Doucouré invites the viewer into this moment not to leer, but to empathize; by the end, it is Amy’s pain and confusion over her choices that we’re left with. The image of Amy seated on the bathroom floor, phone in hand, seconds before she posts the picture, is the saddest moment of the film. Organizations such as the Parents Television Council called it one of several examples where the protagonist “hungrily seeks out examples of sexualized dancing and behavior to emulate so she can fit in.” I found their language more charged than the actual scene.
The collective rage that Cuties evoked isn’t terribly surprising. Dramatic works depicting female sexuality and sexual awakening have long been fodder for moral panic, regardless of critical reception. Cuties isn’t a tender tale about a first crush or first heartbreak, both surely more palatable themes for a tween film (think My Girl, or 13 Going on 30). It’s a movie about girls not wanting to be little girls anymore. About girls spying on classmates in the bathroom, girls who want to wear tight pants and hump the dance floor, without understanding why no well-intentioned adult wants to look at that, and without understanding the danger of the adults who do. The roughness in the slow transition from girl to woman—the fumbling, the misunderstanding, the pain—has been left in for the viewer to see. Cuties is a reminder of the dangers of the digitally connected world, but also of the fact that sexual feelings aren’t always contained within bodies old enough to understand them.
At the end of the movie, I thought of my own early adolescence. I was awkward in the way all middle schoolers are, but I’d been stripped of the natural impulses that my peers seemed to have. I didn’t want to be touched. I didn’t want to be visible. I wanted to cry really hard during love scenes between young actors, and pretend their world was where I lived instead. Watching Cuties, I wasn’t envious of Amy’s journey. But at age 36, I still found myself desperate to feel the pure emotions she and her friends felt. I live with a permeating sense of nostalgia, sometimes, for memories that have never taken place.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that some of the angriest critics of Cuties are far-right conspiracy theorists, as other journalists have reported. Although some detractors have good intentions, I’m not convinced that everyone who is professing disgust about this gentle film is motivated by morality or reason. A few days before my father died, I learned he had a website. Since 1999, he had mostly used it to promote UFO conspiracy theories, but eventually it became a place for him to rant about the supposed spread of liberal perversion in America. The last entry before his death was in part dedicated to me, whom he called “childless, barren, and alone.” I imagine he would have detested Cuties, and the empathy it showed for its young characters.
This empathy, which suffuses every frame of the film, is why claims that Cuties is absent of serious artistic value hold no water. In one of the final scenes, Amy is dancing onstage when she realizes—in the middle of the number—that performing with the Cuties isn’t where she wants to be. This change of heart comes quickly, and when it registers, Amy begins to cry. She is suddenly, painfully her age again. The crowd watching the girls is horrified by their movements, and we see the audience’s shock at the same time we see the smallness of the girls’ bodies, the mismatch of their gyrations and the tears rolling down Amy’s face. Afterward, Amy changes out of her costume and into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. We see her wander out of her apartment and take a turn jumping rope. The camera slows down, and it leaves us with Amy’s face, gleeful, grinning, moving in and out of the shot. She had gone too far before, and she knew it. But she was able to come home.
I thought of how worried the film’s critics were that showing young girls discovering their own selves would “whet the appetites of pedophiles” and threaten young lives. I thought of how pedophiles are cowards who rely on secrecy and the shame their victims feel to act in the first place. To say that Cuties enables sexual abuse is to miss the point of the film. This movie brings a rare vision of girlhood to light, and posits that sexual exploration—in all its discomfort and modern complexities—is actually okay, even normal.
Cuties celebrates the sense of self I didn’t feel at age 12. The kind that pedophilia kept hidden in the dark. The kind I’m working on finding now.
The post Watching Cuties as a Survivor of Pedophilia appeared first on The Atlantic.