Is Cuties a dangerous movie?
Katharine Birbalsingh and Brendan O’Neill clash over the controversial French film.
Brendan O'Neill & Katharine Birbalsingh
Earlier this month, Brendan O’Neill wrote an article in defence of the controversial French film, Cuties, that caused a furious response. Here, Katharine Birbalsingh, headmistress of the Michaela school in north-west London, and Brendan continue the debate.
You and I are friendly. I have been on your podcast. You have visited my school, Michaela, in Wembley. We agree on a number of things and I am grateful for your ongoing support of what our school is trying to achieve in the realm of education. We do things differently and we get over 600 visitors every year (mostly teachers) who find what we do fascinating. I am the headmistress of Michaela, a school in London’s inner city, and I have worked with children who are vulnerable to the ways of the street for over 20 years.
Your recent article in defence of the Netflix film Cuties gave me cause for deep concern. You, keen as ever to hear opposing views, said you would happily print an email exchange between us discussing this matter. Thank you for being open to the discussion.
Your defence of Cuties is the standard one: you believe the film is a sensitive commentary on the problem of the sexualisation of young girls. But what makes you think this? Apart from the last few minutes, the film glorifies and endorses the hyper-sexualised behaviour of children.
Zangro, a 46-year-old French white man who produced the film and interviewed the 650 girls who auditioned for the part of the main character, Amy, says it ‘was a very emotional moment’ when they finally found Fathia Youssouf, clearly cast because she is tall, thin and black, with extraordinary big hair, and is distinctly more attractive than the other girls cast around her.
What of those 649 girls who didn’t make it? Are they practising in their bedrooms right now to sexify themselves even more, so that next time they might be in with a chance of impressing Zangro?
Cuties does an excellent job of ticking off men’s fetishes with the girls. Porn directors try to do this but they are at disadvantage: they aren’t allowed to use real children. Porn directors have to make do with 20-year-old porn actresses and then they try to dress them in such a way to make them look younger. But Cuties isn’t restricted like this and is free to use children as young as 11 because this is ‘art’.
The fetish ‘spotty girl’ makes shy and girly faces. The fetish plump girl satisfies any man who likes them a ‘little big’. The girl with abnormally big glasses satisfies the awkward and goofy fetish. No real edgy 11-year-old would wear ugly oversized glasses. The film departs from an accurate portrayal of reality in order to make the girl look a certain way to satisfy an adult male audience.
The film is poorly edited, very slow and, apart from the tantalisation, boring. The juxtaposed storyline of the exploitation of the mother and grandmother is the only saving grace, and there it is clear that Amy’s mother is being exploited by Amy’s father. Amy, however, develops hugely in confidence when she discovers dancing. She isn’t pressurised into dancing and nor are her new friends. They enjoy it and revel in the discovery of their sexual selves.
The numerous gratuitous sexy scenes that do not add to the plot are disturbing. One scene has the girls practising their dance scenes, squeezing each other’s bottoms. This is yet another departure from reality. Girls don’t do this in real life. It is invented to make the film sexier and more tantalising for an adult male audience. Throughout the film, the director has chosen gradually to make the girls more attractive in the way that some romantic comedies do with women: the woman begins unattractive (hair tied up, no make-up), but by the end she is a princess. Amy, the main girl, clearly cast for her beauty, halfway through the film has a hairstyle change for exactly this reason. The film is so lacking in depth that the characters of the girls do not develop in the film, but they do get prettier.
The camera is constantly at an angle to exaggerate the girls’ bottoms, sexualise their lips and linger on the sexier parts of their fragile, prepubescent bodies. Their dancing sees them doing slut-drops, suggesting that they are sliding their young bodies over a penis, grabbing their crotches, pulling their fingers out of their mouths suggestively and writhing around on the floor as if they were having sex. The scene where they dance in front of the security guards lasts for far too long and adds nothing but tantalisation.
Your belief that 11-year-olds don’t know what condoms are is naive. That is, again, another invention of the film. Frankly, 11-year-olds who dance like that know much more than what a condom is (even nerdy young kids know this in the inner city). They get taught this and other things, like Female Genital Mutilation, at school. It is also naive of you to equate sexualisation of youngsters with extreme violence in war films. People don’t get killed in war films. The war isn’t real. They are acting. Tom Cruise didn’t die in the making of Mission Impossible. But in order to depict the sexualisation of young girls, more than 650 young girls were hyper-sexualised. Had the director chosen to show the dancing using silhouettes or blurred-out images to keep the girls safe, then the audience would have understood the gravity of having girls behave like this. It would not have glorified this behaviour but instead would have done what you claim it is doing: showed how horrific it is that girls in the inner city are at such risk.
The fact that the director, Maïmouna Doucouré, is a black woman is of course the main reason so many people are cooing over the film, wanting so badly to be edgy and cool themselves. Rather like the young girls, if they can appreciate that which is taboo, created by a black woman, who by very definition tantalises in our modern age, then they are no longer a boring white dentist who pays the mortgage.
I don’t believe this is the case with you, Brendan. Instead, I think you have allowed your libertarian streak to get the better of you, pushing you to support any and all activity in the name of freedom. But surely libertarianism can understand that it is our role as adults to protect our children? I, too, believe in a smaller state. But just as the state prevents the porn industry from using children in this degrading way, so should it prevent the film industry from doing so, even if the director is a black woman. The 15 rating given to the film is useless. Not only are the dance scenes all over social media, but also ratings do not prevent young children from seeing films. Frankly, the fact that our society deems it acceptable for 15-year-olds to be watching 11-year-olds degrading themselves in this manner is worrying in itself.
Do you have any idea what a film like this does to children in the inner city? Most of them will have seen that horrifying dance scene because it is being pinged around social media. Children as young as seven have their own smartphones. A few will have seen the whole film but no one will see it as being critical of that lifestyle. My girls will be desperate to be as edgy and as badass as the girls in the film. And my boys will expect their girlfriends to behave in this fashion and will now only find attractive girls who behave like this.
You rightly mention Cardi B and her song ‘WAP’ as being problematic. It is. So is Cuties. So is Stormzy. So are most drill and grime artists and some rap artists. Much of the music and video that too many inner-city children indulge in destroys their lives. Many of your middle-class counterparts make the argument that Cardi B is a great feminist liberator, so much so that Joe Biden was happy to be interviewed by her. Cardi B legitimises porn in music videos just as Cuties legitimises the sexualisation of children. Grime and drill music glorifies violence, stab vests and encourages our inner-city boys to join gangs.
This ‘entertainment’ that you defend changes the culture in which my children live so that it becomes unrecognisable to the safe, middle-class culture which you inhabit. Middle-class adults can dabble in grime or Cuties and it doesn’t affect you. But what it does to youngsters in the inner city, often black youngsters, is to create a situation in which boys cannot grow up into gentlemen who have respect for women, might open doors for them and give them flowers. As for the girls, the only way they can be viewed as ‘attractive’ is to turn themselves into hyper-sexualised women who look and act much older than they are and to copy porn stars. The pull of the street is magnified a hundred times by the entertainment industry.
All children have the right to be children for as long as possible. This particular entertainment industry robs my children of their childhood. I promise you that even though in 2020 11-year-olds dancing in such provocative ways is extremely rare, by 2030 it will have become the norm in the inner city and this will be entirely down to this sort of entertainment. My assemblies this week are me begging the children to reject this sort of entertainment, not to copy it and to seek dignified behaviour instead. But my words will find it hard to compete with the seduction of the street.
I am curious, Brendan, if you had a daughter, would you encourage her to try out for a part in Cuties? Would you then want her to hang out with girls who dance in this fashion? Or would you be deeply concerned? Families in the inner city worry about their kids. They love their kids just like the middle classes do. They don’t necessarily know how dangerous smartphones are and they have no idea what their children are watching. By the time they realise, it is often too late. Some single mothers are working two or three jobs and cannot supervise their kids. Some are dealing with typical inner-city problems and so a smartphone is used as a babysitter.
Sure, we can blame the absent father or, if he is there, the fact that he has to work all hours to support his family. Or we can take some personal responsibility, and look at how our middle-class, freedom-loving, wanna-be-edgy culture impacts negatively on working-class families that simply aren’t as robust as we are.
We work very hard every day at Michaela to ensure our kids have a fighting chance of one day becoming a boring dentist and paying the mortgage. We want our kids to have a fighting chance at the life you lead. We don’t want them joining gangs and we don’t want them getting pregnant. We want them to leave school with the best GCSEs they can get, with ambitions to achieve any number of things in their lives.
We all talk about the precautionary principle when it comes to Covid, saying that lockdown measures, even if they only might work, should be enacted. Some say that the attack on the economy and on our freedom is too much to justify doing something ‘just in case it works’. I understand both positions.
But when those of us on the ground have been screaming for decades about the destruction of our inner cities thanks to the frivolities of the middle classes, what do you all have to lose by not endorsing a film like Cuties? Is it really necessary to have slut-dropping 11-year-olds on your TV for you to understand what is happening in the inner cities? Why can’t you just listen to people like me who work in the inner city? Why insist on broadcasting this stuff when many of us are warning of the dangers?
I am often accused of making stuff up. Apparently, our schools don’t have behaviour problems. Our teaching methods are excellent everywhere and the entertainment industry is a vehicle for both black and female liberation. Now, apparently, it is even liberating children.
I suppose it is possible: maybe I am making this stuff up for a laugh. But what if the reason I have been saying this stuff for over 20 years is that I am simply telling the truth?
Thank you for your serious, considered response to my piece on Cuties. My article provoked a furious response, including hate mail and insults, so it is good to have a more reasoned discussion about it. In an era when people are swiftly cancelled if they deviate from correct thinking, it is important that we defend the idea that disagreement should be the start of the discussion, not the end of it.
So, on to your criticisms. I know you won’t want to hear this, but I believe we agree more than we disagree. What I mean by that is that on the fundamental issue at stake here – the pornification of popular culture and of society more broadly – we are at one. Indeed, I have written a fair amount over the years about the disorientating impact that porn saturation has had on culture and on young people’s understanding of sex and relationships.
Seven years ago, I wrote that ‘you don’t have to be a blue-rinsed prude to recognise that there is something off about seven-year-old girls sitting around eating Wotsits while watching Lady Gaga whip her backing singers with a bicycle chain’. Four years ago I wrote in agreement with Pamela Anderson when she said there is too much pornography in the world and that we need to start pushing the message that ‘porn is for losers’. I argued that the ‘industrialisation’ of sex, and the easy availability of this grotesque industry to everybody who owns a gadget, is a deeply worrying development.
You suggest that my ‘libertarianism’ has got the better of me and pushed me to ‘support any and all activity in the name of freedom’. That is just wrong. I differ from many libertarians on issues such as pornography and prostitution. I don’t think either of these things should be banned by the state (more on that shortly), but I also think some libertarians and the bizarrely ‘pro-porn’ sections of the SJW movement are entirely wrong in the way they discuss these phenomena. They support these things as legitimate forms of sexual expression, failing to see the cynicism and exploitation that motor the porn industry and the desperation that drives women to engage in prostitution. Their belief that ‘sex work’ is like any other kind of work is profoundly naive and morally reckless.
I also differ from some libertarians on the issue of porn attitudes and styles trickling down into mainstream popular culture. Libertarians are so concerned with defending things like drill music or Cardi B’s ‘WAP’ from the censorious condemnation of people who disapprove of these cultural styles that they forget to question the value of these cultural styles. Drill music is deeply nihilistic. Cardi B’s ‘WAP’ is a degrading, highly pornified song. However, my belief, indeed one of my core beliefs, is that it is possible to disapprove of something morally while also supporting its free expression. I don’t want drill music or Cardi B or any other nihilistic culture to be censored. You must understand this belief. After all, you support freedom of expression for people who hold racist ideas while also being one of our most implacable critics of racism.
I thought the media discussion of ‘WAP’ revealed some of the problems we face today. There was even, in my view, a racist component to some of the defences of Cardi B. Seeing white middle-class feminists defending Cardi B’s ‘daring’ forms of sexual expression, it struck me that there was a perversely vicarious form of moral relativism taking place here. The message seemed to be that it is fine for Cardi B to rap about sex acts in graphic terms while wearing hardly any clothing because that is ‘her culture’. Like you, I find these double standards and low expectations that emanate from the chattering classes very concerning, and I worry about their impact on young people from ethnic-minority backgrounds.
But here is where we differ: how to deal with these problems. I disagree that control or censorship are the solution to the problems you and I are concerned about. On Cuties specifically, you say that the 15 certificate that has been attached to the film in the UK is useless because young people will still find a way to watch it. That is no doubt true, but the same could be said of any kind of culture. Young people have always found a way to watch horror films or read erotic literature that is not suitable for their age.
We cannot organise cultural life around the risk of underage people viewing a movie, a play or a book that is off limits to them. Very little serious culture would be created if we adhered to the precautionary principle that the risk of a young person seeing something he or she shouldn’t see ought to outweigh the right of an artist or creator to express themselves as they see fit. ‘Won’t somebody think of the children!’ has long been the rallying cry of censors; this deploys young people as a moral shield against the creation of culture which actually certain adults find difficult or discomfiting. Of course parents and teachers should control what children see, but we should not ask the state to censor for the good of children, because that will severely limit the right of adults to express themselves culturally and politically.
I take issue with the way that Cuties has been discussed in the same breath as ‘child pornography’. (I hate the term ‘child pornography’, for the simple reason that it is not possible for children to create pornography. What is referred to as ‘child pornography’ is in fact filmed rapes which absolutely do not fall under the banner of freedom of speech. These films are criminal offences and everyone involved in making and distributing them should be punished severely.) Indeed, I think there is a risk that the comparison of Cuties with ‘child pornography’ downplays the seriousness of ‘child pornography’. To describe this film in those terms suggests a serious withering of reason and society’s ability to categorise and discuss things on their own moral or cultural terms.
You talk about the audition process for the film. But the truth is we don’t know what the audition process involved. If you think there was a criminal element to the audition process, perhaps you should raise that with someone? I am willing to give the director the benefit of the doubt in terms of how the film was made. She says the children’s parents were closely involved in the making of the film and that everything was done sensitively and with the assistance of child psychologists. I trust that the authorities of the French Republic would have found out by now if anything untoward had taken place.
The film is a critique of the culture of hyper-sexualisation. The storyline makes that clear, and the director has explicitly said that this was her intention. We can disagree as to whether it is a successful critique of hyper-sexualisation, but surely this is a difference of opinion over the quality of a particular movie, rather than a clash over whether this film is ‘good’ or ‘evil’?
I am very sceptical that any form of censorship or government-led control is the solution to the 21st-century cultural decadence you and I are concerned about. For two reasons. Firstly, censorship is an unwieldy beast. Its targets always increase. What would start as censorship in the service of protecting children from harm would swiftly become censorship to protect young adults from ‘intellectual harm’ (as we have seen on campuses in recent years) or censorship to protect women from harmful sexist material (a misogynistic idea that has gathered pace as a result of the New Feminism of the past decade). The argument today might be that children need protection from Cuties or drill; the argument tomorrow might be that they need protection from the blood and gore and occasional depravity of Shakespeare. That would cause problems for your excellent school.
And secondly, censorship never addresses underlying social problems. It fantasises that removing problematic material from the public realm will fix social problems, but this never works. I share your concerns about certain forms of contemporary nihilistic culture, but I question the idea that this culture is the cause of young people’s disarray or of social decay more broadly. On the contrary, usually such culture is merely a reflection of deeper-seated social problems.
My view is that the industrialisation of pornography, for example, springs from a broader crisis of intimacy, so that people seek self-gratification more readily than they do intimate experiences. I think the pornification of popular culture reflects a broader breakdown of the boundaries between adults and children, so that society now thinks nothing of young people consuming styles and attitudes that were previously strictly the preserve of grown-ups. And controls on grime or drill music would do nothing to address the genuine social problems that many of the young fans of such music face: poverty, family breakdown, a dilapidated education system, and a political culture that encourages them to see themselves as victims, as permanently aggrieved outsiders, rather than as full and aspirant members of British society.
These social and political problems are real. You accuse me of wallowing in a middle-class view of culture, but actually I grew up very close to where your school is based, with the kind of kids your school teaches. So I understand these problems. But they need serious discussion and meaningful tackling, at root, rather than being turned into moral panics about dangerous culture. Tighter control on culture would represent the worst of both worlds. It would stifle freedom, and it would leave unquestioned and unchallenged the social and moral rot that is the true cause of young people’s disorientation today.
Katharine Birbalsingh is head of the Michaela Community School in north London and editor of Michaela: The Power of Culture.
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