You may have seen on social media, or in the papers, some of the fierce debate about the Netflix TV film Cuties. It was released on Netflix in the US and the UK on 9th September, having already been shown in France, where it was made. The film features young girls engaging in frank discussions about sex and also dancing in a highly suggestive and aggressive manner (which is sadly de rigueur in too many music videos these days). The four main characters are aged 11 – the actresses portraying them were 13 years old when the film was made, except for one who was herself 11.
It’s hard to know how many people have seen the film, as Netflix do not release viewing figures, but it has become the subject of much debate. I am firmly on the side of those who consider the film completely unacceptable; something that should not be made and should not be shown.
Given its content, I was slightly surprised by the vigour with which some renowned critics defended Cuties. The Telegraph’s film critic Tim Robey gave it a glowing review, calling it a “provocative powder-keg” which has upset “all the right people”. Robey was defended by his colleague Robbie Collin when the review proved controversial on Twitter, with Robey linking to a defence of the film which stated that criticism of it was based “mostly on hearsay rather than on reasoned arguments”. In the USA, both The New Yorker and Slate – widely-read in liberal arts circles – praised the film, framing their praise as defiance of what they suggested was a cynical and puritanical assault by traditionalists. The New Yorker, for example, called it a “remarkable first feature” and said that those who criticised the film were “scandal-mongers” linked to the “far right”.
There are some things our eyes simply shouldn’t see, even if we come to the right conclusions about them. – Dan Hitchens
Some of the defences mentioned above claim that the film portrays and criticises the sexualisation of pre-pubescent girls without endorsing it. According to The New Yorker, Cuties “dramatizes the difficulties of growing up female in a sexualized and commercialized media culture”. I don’t find this defence remotely persuasive, for a number of reasons. One of these reasons was well-stated by Catholic Herald editor Dan Hitchens, who Tweeted that “There are some things our eyes simply shouldn’t see, even if we come to the right conclusions about them. It’s just wrong, for instance, to install hidden cameras in your neighbour’s house, even if your ultimate goal is to issue a searching critique of surveillance capitalism.” Additionally, even if we accept that the intent of the film was benign, the actresses performing in it – young girls – had to be coached and instructed to perform the obscene dance moves and speak the explicit dialogue.
The arguments over Cuties are part of an ongoing debate about the moral standards and expectations that should govern our society and its artistic output, and our common life together. That is to say, they are part of the dreaded “culture war”.
I approve of the culture war.
Disagreements about which values and which norms should have the dominant role are inevitable in a fractured post-Christian society like ours, and Catholics need to fight our corner just as enthusiastically as everyone else. Anyone who says they are not interested in their moral norms being influential in society is either not being honest or has not considered the power of these so-called norms.
How much nudity and blasphemy should be on TV? Should public swearing be acceptable? Must we be permissive towards pornography? Should the state privilege marriage? What about divorce and abortion? As I noted a couple of weeks back in my column about the weakness of secularism, there is no neutral territory in these debates. To opt out of the culture war is simply to opt in on the side of permissiveness.
I don’t much care whether Rishi Sunak puts up income tax at the next Budget. I do care very deeply about what kind of moral imagination is being developed in my children.
People sometimes say that arguments about moral issues are a distraction from the real concerns of politics: economic policy, constitutional arrangements, funding for the NHS and schools and aircraft carriers. I couldn’t disagree more. In the medium- to long-term, the kind of country we live in will be shaped much more by our collective beliefs about manners and morality and the nature of human existence than by how many new hospitals are built in a given year or which powers the Scottish Parliament is given. Fundamentally, I don’t much care whether Rishi Sunak puts up income tax at the next Budget. I do care very deeply about what kind of moral imagination is being developed in my children’s schoolmates and their future friends and spouses. I care very deeply what kind of messages about the good life and the meaning of human existence are going to be communicated to them by their teachers and the institutions of government, and by the mass media and advertising and popular music.
If that means I am a culture warrior, so be it. Measure me up for a uniform, and put a sword in my hand. It is grotesquely irresponsible for the mainstream media to praise films that involve young girls being coached to talk about sex and simulate inappropriate dancing, and I will happily take up the fight against a society where such things happen.
Niall Gooch is a columnist for Chapter House. He also contributes to UnHerd.
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