ON THE SUBJECT OF “CUTIES,” OR WHY OUR KIDS GET SEXUALIZED
by Gennady Shkliarevsky
With less than fifty days out before one of the most decisive, if not the most decisive, election in recent American history, cataclysmic political clashes rock this country. In this highly charged political atmosphere few have expected that the release of the French film “Cuties” by Netflix “Cuties” by Netflix would become a major political event. No one could predict the backlash that the film would cause. Yet here it is.
The film has touched the raw nerve of the American public. The release polarized America. Numerous critics from both sides of the aisle have expressed their extreme disapproval of the film, chastising it for sexualization of preteens. Critics charge that the film caters to the vile tastes of pedophiles, encourages child pornography, enables child sex trafficking, and much else. Conservatives mince no words, accusing Netflix of “tempting pedophiles by delivering child pornography straight in their living room.”
Conservative politicians have wasted no time in condemning the film. In a letter to the DOF, Senator Ted Cruz has called for a full investigation into Netfix practices. “I urge the Department of Justice,” the letter says, “to investigate the production and distribution of this film to determine whether Netflix, its executives or the individuals involved in the filming and production of ‘Cuties’ violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography.” Several other politicians, including Senator Tom Cotton and Representative Jim Banks have also voiced support for investigation. In all thirty-three Republican lawmakers added their names to a letter that Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) sent to Attorney General William Barr last Thursday urging him to prosecute Netflix for distributing child pornography.
The criticism has not come exclusively from conservatives and Republicans. Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, former presidential candidate, has weighed in on the subject and so has Nancy Pelosi’s daughter. In her tweet last Friday, Gabbard stated that the film “will certainly when the appetite for pedophiles and help fuel the child sex trafficking trade.” “Netflix, you are now complicit,” Gabbard concluded.
The mainstream media has defended the film and supported Netflix decision to release it in this country. Liberal journalists describe the reaction to the film as a backlash of misguided conservatives and QAnon conspiracy theorists who judged the film before ever watching it. Slate has even opined that the conservative obsession with the film is nothing short of being perversely “creepy.”
Maïmouna Doucouré, who directed “Cuties,” has defended “Cuties” as being “important and necessary.” She has explained her decision to make the film by the need to bring attention to the subject of sexualization of children and to sound an alarm. “We need to protect our children,” Doucouré said in her interview to The Hollywood Reporter. In its response to criticisms, Netflix has also defended the film as “a social commentary against the sexualization of young children.”
The storm around the “Cuties” has certainly caught my attention. I took time to watch the movie so as to make up my own mind about it. I did not like the film and yes, I think that the film sexualizes its characters. Most of my reasons for disliking “Cuties” have little to do with sexualization but that’s a separate subject. This is not to say that I like sexualization of children—far from it. Strangely enough I do not find anything in this movie that I have not seen on Netfilx, YouTube, on the pages of glitzy magazines, in beauty pageants for kids, commercials, and numerous TV shows like “America’s Got Talent” and others of that ilk. Critics talk about “Cuties” as if the movie represents something unusual or extraordinary in our culture. In a sad way, I find what I see in “Cuties” rather commonplace and mainstream. The phenomenon of the sexualization of children is much broader in our civilization—not just in America or Europe but also in many other parts of the world–than criticisms of “Cuties” may suggest.
Sexualization involves an open and brazen display of sexuality and accentuation of sexual characteristics. Such display consists in using symbols with explicit sexual connotations and innuendos. Many such symbols exist in our civilization: in art and literature, in dance, fashion, manners, and behavior. All these are specifically coded symbols that are associated with sex and sexuality.
Sexualization does not relate exclusively to children. It is a much broader phenomenon that widespread in adult culture. Ms. Doucouré is really on to something when she says that the sexualization of children is an imitation of what is going on in the adult world. Children see sexually coded signals as associated with success. They imitate adult behavior even though they do not quite understand its meaning and significance. Children who use sexually coded forms of behavior have one purpose in mind: they want to be successful.
The scale of sexualization in our civilization is very broad. We sexualize men and women and turn them into sexual symbols. Sexualization is not limited to our mainstream culture but also to countercultures. Gay, LGBTQ, or feminist subcultures also embrace sexualization. Paradoxically, feminism that decries sexualization of women also sees women expressing their sexuality as a path toward liberation.
So, what is going on? Why sexualization is so inextricably woven into the fabric of our culture?
Displaying sexuality and accentuating sexual characteristics are forms of self-expression.
Their purpose is to draw attention to oneself or to some other individual. In nature, the target of sexuality is sexual act. In our culture, the real purpose of displaying sexuality is to attract attention. So, sexualization in our civilization involves a broader issue that has to do with attracting attention.
Attracting attention is endemic to our culture. It is highly rewarded. Our culture socializes us to be successful and being successful is associated with the degree of attention that one enjoys. We celebrate people who command public attention. Their fame and status of celebrities bring handsome rewards in publicity, influence, and wealth. But fame and money are not the only reasons for seeking celebrity status. The real reason goes much deeper into our individual and collective psyche. It has to do with the way we see our self and its worth. Attracting attention gratifies our ego and makes us feel good about ourselves. By trying to attract attention we seek to gratify our ego and thus attain happiness.
Seeking gratification is natural. Gratification, satisfaction of life functions is a form of conservation that is fundamental to our universe. The law of conservation is one of the most ubiquitous laws in nature. For humans, conservation, and gratification as one of its forms, is the way to affirm their life. They serve as the path to what we call happiness that consists in gratifying and conserving our essential function, or our human nature—that which distinguishes us from other animals.
Human race is a product of the process of creation that sustains our universe. This creation constantly generates new and increasingly more powerful levels of organization of reality. Everything that exists in our universe, including humans, partakes in this creation. In this sense, humans are similar to the rest of the universe. But they are also different. The distinct feature of the human race is that humans create on the symbolic level. Unlike all other animals, humans, since they operate on the symbolic level, are not limited in their creative capacity. They can create an infinite number of new and increasingly more powerful levels of organization—and that is our distinct human nature.
In order to sustain civilization and ourselves, we have to constantly create new and increasingly more powerful levels of our mental organization that give rise to new ideas, theories, and new approaches with new applications. This is our essential human function. By creating new constructs we gratify this function and, thus, conserve it. Such gratification brings us happiness. Thus the process of creation is what affirms our life; it is a path to true happiness.
When we seek to draw attention to ourselves and gratify our ego, we subvert our nature. We create a false objective. Rather than focusing on creation as the source of our life, we focus on our own self. We create an idol. The substitution does not provide a true gratification; it leaves us unsatisfied and ultimately unhappy.
Focusing on our self is not conducive to creation. It impedes the process of creation. Attracting attention does not require creating something new. One can achieve this objective by merely re-arranging or inverting existing forms or norms, which does not create anything new.
Sex plays an important role in nature and its evolution. Sex is about procreation. Nature made sex a powerful attractor. The natural goal of sex and sexuality is sexual act that serves procreation. Symbolic forms that center on sexuality changes the natural purpose of sex. These forms use sex as a stimulus to draw attention to one’s own self. That is the reason why sex sells and why sexualization works.
Children use sexual symbols without any natural underpinnings of sex or sexual act. Our civilization socializes children to be successful; and successful people are those who attract attention. With the help of adults, often including parents, children make this connection. When they see a celebrity openly displaying sexuality, they associate this display with success and try to imitate this behavior without fully understanding the deep meaning and significance of sexuality.
The true reason behind the sexualization of our children is the general tendency of our culture to seek attention to our self. Sex and sexuality are incidental in this case. They are mere trappings. The real goal is to draw attention. Sex and sexuality are in this case merely a means to the end.
Our civilization uses sexuality—very often gratuitously. We often use sexuality to substitute for true creativity. Sexualization creates a double trap for children. The imitation of adult behavior creates subliminally an impression of the level of physical and mental maturity that children simply cannot and do not have. The open display of sexual symbols strengthens this impression and may even suggest to some that children are really ready for sexual activity, as it does to pedophiles.
The real culprit in sexualizing children is not a particular film, show, picture or other incidental form of expression. The true culprit is the prevalent attitude and behavior that this attitude encourages and perpetuates in our culture. We all—children and adults—are affected by this corrupting attitude of focusing on our self, rather than what is essential for our life—the production of new and increasingly more powerful levels of organization. We all pay the price for this corruption, but the price paid by children—the most vulnerable group among us—is by far the heaviest. For them, it often leads to tragedies such as, for example, the still unresolved murder of a child-woman Jon Benet Ramsey. We burden our children with our sins that they have to carry for the rest their life.
Gennady Shkliarevsky is a Professor Emeritus of History at Bard College in New York.