‘Cuties’ is not what you might think, but it’s still bad

In the hyper-partisan world of today’s culture wars and political battles, it seems like most issues require us to pick a team, then fight to the death against ‘the other side’. “Whoever is not for us is against us” has now been applied to almost every sphere of life—or at least to every sphere of online life. 

That’s certainly how I felt about the controversial Netflix film Cuties. I knew the issues, I knew the teams, and I knew the team that I’d be joining.

Then a funny thing happened: I actually watched the movie. And it’s not quite as simple as I thought it would be.

If you haven’t caught up with the controversy, Cuties is a French film recently added to Netflix; the streaming service acquired the movie’s rights after it won an award at the Sundance Film Festival. It has attracted significant opposition for its overtly sexual depiction of children. For example, when asked to comment on the film, well-known Christian author and theologian John Macarthur said, “We’re absolutely where you would expect to be if you had 30 years of trying to destroy morality—if you had 30 years of a sexual revolution, a homosexual revolution, and you thought you were going to be able to stop it at some point and say, ‘Well, that’s far enough, go no further’. Well, that’s just not possible.

“The slide is greased, and it’s rapidly going downhill at a warp speed.” 

In the US, a prominent group of lawmakers—people that I generally respect and agree with on most policy matters—have called for an investigation into whether Netflix violated any laws around the production and distribution of child pornography.

On the other side, plenty of film reviewers—mostly from more liberal, left-leaning publications—have praised Cuties. For example, Sam Adams at Slate dismissed criticism of the film in a review headlined “The Creepy Conservative Criticism of Netflix’s Cuties, Explained”. Netflix, meanwhile, issued a statement defending the film, even after having “deeply” apologised for the promotional image it used before the film’s release. “Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children,” Netflix’s statement said. “It’s an award-winning film and a powerful story about the pressure young girls face on social media and from society more generally growing up—and we’d encourage anyone who cares about these important issues to watch the movie.”

So the battles lines were drawn. Politicians and theologians whom I respect versus left-leaning film critics and a Hollywood media conglomerate dedicated to making as much money as possible by filling our lives with dross.

I think I know whose side to take.

But, after watching the movie, I believe a little nuance is required. While there are genuine issues here—the sexualization is real, gross, and troubling (as I’ll explain below)—a blanket condemnation of Cuties is too simplistic. I thought this review would be a matter of “I watched Cuties so you don’t have to”, but there’s a bit more to it. 

Cuties focuses on Amy, an 11-year-old girl from a strict Muslim family living in France but hailing from Senegal. Early in the film, Amy discovers that her father will soon be bringing a second wife home to live with the family. As she struggles to make sense of this new living arrangement—and of the misogynistic religion that could justify it—Amy is drawn to a particular group of girls at her school. Though only 11, these girls dress provocatively, dance erotically, watch pornography online together, and talk graphically (but cluelessly) about boys and sex. They’re being raised by the internet. For Amy, they represent a shot at popularity and liberation, a total break with her family’s bewildering, oppressive traditions. 

Driven by her desire to enter this exciting new world, Amy steals her cousin’s phone and quickly becomes hooked on social media, especially obsessing over photos and videos of young women who parade themselves online in exchange for that most valuable of currencies: likes. After teaching herself the sexualized dance moves she watches online, she earns friendship with the girls that she’s idolized, and is invited into their dance troupe as they prepare to audition for an upcoming competition. 

As Amy becomes more and more devoted to her new friends, her family becomes more and more despairing, leading to some fairly dramatic forms of intervention. But her behaviour only spirals further and further out of control, particularly as, in her pain and confusion, she gives herself over to some crude and awful behaviours. 

The film’s central theme, then, is based around this dramatic clash of cultures. But only a fool could watch Cuties and believe that the intended take-home message is “freedom of expression and sexual liberation are better than patriarchy, tradition, and religious dogma”. Still less does Cuties proclaim that children should be sexualized; that is most emphatically not what the filmmakers intend to convey. On the contrary, the hypersexualization of children is precisely what lies in the crosshairs. Director Maïmouna Doucouré has said that the film was conceived when she saw a group of Parisian pre-teens dancing in “a very sexually revealing way”, and that her desire was to explore issues of self-image in the social media age. 

Cuties depicts a society that is desperately lost. We may have abandoned the old ways of religion, but look at the evil we’ve put in its place. This nihilistic, sex-worshipping, freedom-obsessed culture is without hope and without a moral compass. Spiritually thirsty people are being left to drink sand. Any culture that can treat children this way is clearly at a dead end, longing for a way back to innocence (as the film’s moving ending makes clear) but lacking any kind of map to get there. Or maybe we’re just so lost that most people don’t even know what ‘home’ looks like anymore, and they possess no will to look for it.

In this sense, some of the more simplistic criticism of the film is genuinely misguided. To take the most obvious example, a clip that circulated widely online last week shows the young foursome dancing very provocatively in extremely skimpy outfits. Stripped of context, it’s utterly horrific, and it left many people calling for Netflix to be cancelled (and perhaps even prosecuted). But the viral clip cut off before a key moment (spoiler alert): as the dance progresses, Amy freezes. In a flash, the scales fall from her eyes; she glimpses the horror of what she’s been chasing and what she’s let herself become, and she breaks down in tears. She can’t even finish the routine, and runs home in search of comfort and safety. 

Now, if it sounds like I’m apologizing for this film, I am—but only up to a point. If you can’t already tell, Cuties left me feeling quite disoriented and more than a little confused. In some ways, I found it genuinely moving. Yet the film itself (not just its subject matter) is deeply problematic.

In the end, despite its noble intentions, I think the criticisms are mostly right. For there’s simply no getting around it: Cuties crosses the line in its own sexualized depictions of (at least) four innocent young women. And that’s a line that simply can’t be crossed. One child sacrificed on the altar of a filmmaker’s good intentions is one child too many.

There’s no point dwelling on the details, but there are just too many times when the camera lingers longer than necessary where it shouldn’t, or where it shouldn’t even be in the first place. The point could have been made in so many other ways. There were moments where I felt I needed to look away, and that should simply never be the case in a film about pre-teen girls.

To be sure, Netflix made the film appear worse than it is by choosing a horrible promotional image (especially when compared to the original French poster, above, which actually captures the essence of the film very nicely). But even so, a movie about the sexualization of children shouldn’t make me feel uncomfortable through its own sexualization of children. 

I’m sure the film’s defenders would insist, “that’s the point; it’s meant to make you uncomfortable!” Fine. Well done. But that’s simply too low a bar to justify film-making of this kind. Any dolt can make an adult viewer feel uncomfortable by showing pre-teen girls in sexual situations. The real gift would have been to make me squirm and feel the weight of these issues without having to show them to me. I mean, do you have to hit me over the head with a sledgehammer to make me reflect on how I feel about serious head injuries? 

I suppose these questions are as old as film-making; in fact, they probably go hand-in-hand with any art form. How much is too much? An artist desires to depict something in order to denounce it, but when does he go too far? When do those depictions become part of the problem? Must a film depict violence to make you abhor violence? What about drug abuse? Rape? Pedophilia? 

In the end, then, Cuties takes aim at the right target. But rather than carefully and discretely shining a light on the problem, it becomes too much part of the problem—thus, in the process, inadvertently highlighting just how deep the problem goes. If you need this film to make you realize that our lost, depraved, hyper-sexualized culture is starting to devour even our children, may I politely suggest that you’ve had your head buried in the sand, and it’s time to wake up and become part of the solution? You absolutely don’t need to watch Cuties to know that “child sexuality” is—or at least should be—an oxymoron.

If nothing else, the confusion I felt after watching Cuties has made me want to pray for and encourage Christian artists. Storytelling of all kinds is an incredibly powerful tool, and in the right hands it can be a force for enormous good. But it takes great skill to navigate a field in which you’re constantly trying not to cross blurred lines. It takes a crystal-clear grasp of the gospel, a heart for the Lord, and a desire to tell meaningful stories in a way that honours both their audience and their subjects. 

All that said, the lines here are not particularly blurry: children are not objects to be sexualized for the purposes of storytelling. I’m sure a Christian couldn’t have made Cuties. I’m sure the injunction to “flee sexual immorality” would have led to some very different choices. The fact that Doucouré felt the need to make this film to highlight this problem tells us just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Courage and grace under fire

Screen Shot 2020-08-02 at 4.00.07 pmYou’ve probably never heard of Jonathan Isaac. But that needs to change, because he’s shown himself to be a man worthy of some attention.

Isaac is a promising young forward for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. He’s long and athletic with brilliant defensive instincts and a developing offensive game. If things break his way, he could be something special. (After I wrote those words but before I got around to posting this, Isaac tore his ACL in a game and probably won’t play for at least a year. He still has time, but the mountain is a little steeper now.)

But that’s not why he deserves to be talked about. He’s worth our attention because he has shown extraordinary courage, integrity, and grace at a unique moment in the league’s history, and he has done so in the name of Jesus Christ.

The NBA’s restart this week has, unsurprisingly, been marked by players banding together in carefully orchestrated protests. Every player from every team has linked arms, donned a ‘Black Lives Matter’ t-shirt, and knelt during the playing of the American national anthem.

It’s been a powerful show of unity and commitment. And, of course, the players have every right to protest and advocate in this way, and most are doing so for generally admirable reasons.

But one man stood out from the crowd. Continue reading

Of earthquakes and pandemics: lessons from a decade of disruption and trauma

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Eight months. Eight normal, peaceful months. That’s what my family enjoyed after moving from Sydney to our new home city of Christchurch. Then, in September of 2010, the first of our major earthquakes hit, and life was never the same. (That’s if you count adjusting to life in a new country with a new job, a newborn baby, and two other children under five as ‘normal’ or ‘peaceful’. I guess these things are all relative.)

Whether it’s the ongoing ordeal of the earthquakes or the sudden shock of 2019’s terrorist attack, the last decade of every Cantabrian’s life has been characterized by more than our fair share of disruption and trauma. Hopefully, somewhere amid these disasters, we’ve learned a few lessons that might help navigate the coronavirus pandemic. So here are eight brief lessons I’ve learned—one for each of those long-forgotten months before life in New Zealand was turned upside-down.

Go easy on yourself (and on others)
In a fast-paced society oriented around productivity, struggling to get things done can make us feel worthless. But these types of traumatic events have a significant effect on almost everyone’s capacity. Post-earthquake, there were days where my brain felt clouded in fog. There were days where, after pushing on for too long, I hit the wall. It happened to almost everyone. Continue reading

A prayer about the coronavirus

Heavenly Father, I praise you as the sovereign Lord of the universe. I praise you that, to you, the nations of the world are like a drop in a bucket and like the dust on the scales. I am so thankful to know that you own the cattle on a thousand hills, and that nothing is too hard for you. I thank you that you care for me—that you number even the hairs of my head, and that all the days ordained for me were written in your book before any of them happened.

I thank you that you can be trusted. And I do trust you.

Help me to trust you more. Continue reading

Calvinism in the Time of Coronavirus

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Photo by tam wai on Unsplash

When I was about nine or ten, at the height of worldwide panic about AIDS, I stumbled across a newspaper article that outlined the symptoms of the dreaded disease. I can still recall reading, to my horror, that one of the tell-tale signs was ‘thick, white matting on the tongue’. You see, I had a few small but obvious patches of white matter on my tongue. And my ten-year-old self became utterly convinced: I had AIDS. The fact that I was in the world’s lowest-risk category didn’t matter, nor did the fact that I was asthmatic and regularly took large doses of medication that left white deposits on my tongue. For at least a week, I was convinced that my end had come.

In my early 20s, it was a brain tumour. After all, I had a few really bad headaches on the way to uni one week; what else could it be?! As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become slightly more sanguine, but I’m still highly susceptible to fear setting in. Honestly, I feel like I’m tempting fate (even though I totally don’t believe in ‘tempting fate’) by even writing this piece.

I am a card-carrying hypochondriac.

So you can imagine how the last few weeks have made me feel. I’ve had to dig in and battle hard to not give in to the paralyzing fear of the coronavirus that’s been sweeping the globe. Continue reading

‘Completely defeated already’: The case against non-disclosure agreements in churches

cytonn-photography-GJao3ZTX9gU-unsplashThis may be controversial, but I’d like to briefly put forward a thesis:

No Christian church or ministry should ever ask a Christian to sign a non-disclosure agreement (or non-disparagement agreement, or any other similar document to the same effect).

You may read that and think, “Okay, but big deal. Which churches or ministries are doing that anyway? Aren’t you tilting at windmills? This sounds a bit like calling on churches not to insist that everyone must eat KFC for lunch on Thursdays.”

But, sadly, NDAs have become all too common in Christian circles.

The most common situation where an NDA may be used (to my knowledge) is where a Christian leader is being accused of ungodly behaviour—spiritual abuse, verbal abuse, bullying, dishonesty, manipulation, and the like—by someone within their church or ministry.

Continue reading

Gaslighting in a world of Submission – anonymous guest post

“Silence is part of what allows abuse to continue. I have found my voice, and I will use it to warn others and to remind them that this is not a normal Christian experience.” 

As some readers of this blog will know, my family and I experienced significant spiritual abuse many years ago in a church in Australia. It was a horrific experience, made all the more challenging by the struggle to make (some) people understand the reality of what we were enduring.

This anonymous article came to me some weeks ago from a woman who has her own first-hand experience of spiritual abuse. Having endured this abuse and largely come through, she now has a deep desire to support others—especially other women—who are experiencing this very real, very dangerous situation. Though the author has wisely asked to remain anonymous, she can be confidentially contacted here. Continue reading

The Death of an Icon

kobe-bryant-shoes-logoWhy do celebrity deaths stop us in our tracks and shock us so deeply?

Kobe Bryant is dead. It feels like a sick joke to type those words, but it’s much worse than a sick joke. It’s real.

I have an old but powerful memory that’s making it feel unreal.

In 1997, I ran a 2-on-2 basketball tournament where the winners’ prize was to meet Kobe and take a few shots with him during his off-season tour of Australia. The event with Kobe was held in a small high school gym in the inner city of Sydney. Probably 40-50 people were there on the day, and maybe 6 or 8 people had the chance to play against him for various reasons. We all figured Kobe would glide in, fulfil his obligations, smile for a promotional photo, and glide out again as quickly as possible.

But we didn’t know Kobe. Continue reading

The (Temporary) Triumph of Secularism: Religion in New Zealand at the dawn of the 2020s

The inevitable has happened: the number of people with ‘No Religion’ in New Zealand now far exceeds the number of Christians. We are officially one of the most godless nations on earth.

This is hardly breaking news—because I’m a bit late to the Census data party, but also because Visually Impaired Freddy could have seen this coming for years, if not decades. It was only a matter of time.

The 2018 Census[1] records no fewer than 2.26m people (48.6% of the population) as saying they have ‘No Religion’. As I’ve pointed out before, there are no nominals in the No Religion category. Meanwhile, the number identifying as Christian continues to plummet, with just 1.74m (38.3%) ticking this box. And let’s face facts: the overwhelming majority of those people would be ‘Christian’ in name only, lacking a saving trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Here, in the form of several graphs (along with the odd extra note or editorial comment), are the key findings from the most recent Census (with figures going back to 2001 to help us see the trends).

1

While we all knew that ‘No Religion’ would become New Zealand’s dominant ‘belief’ in this Census, it’s more of a blowout than expected. Growth from 1.63m to 2.26m is clearly a very pleasing result for the secularists. That’s 629,000 more people (in a small country) in the space of five years. Continue reading

Stop talking about God calling you (because he already has)

crossroads.jpgWords are endlessly fascinating. As a card-carrying pedant, I’m forever analyzing the way that words are used in various contexts. I find it especially intriguing to observe the ways in which subcultures develop their own idioms and jargon.

Christians are no different. We tend to spend a lot of time within our own communities, with each Christian subculture developing its own slightly nuanced, quirky ways of speaking.

Often this can be positive, reinforcing biblical ways of thinking and encouraging one another in the truth. Sometimes it can be completely neutral, nothing more than the development of quick and easily understood references. Christian jargon becomes unhelpful when it excludes newcomers or outsiders, confusing them or perhaps making them feel like unwelcome onlookers who are sneaking a peek at some exclusive, odd little clique.

But sometimes our Christian jargon can become unhelpful in another critical way—not just for outsiders, but for those within the community. We can inadvertently develop ways of speaking that cause confusion and lead us away from clarity in our thinking about God and his ways.

So I’d like you to pause and think with me about one important word that probably has a place in your Christian subculture’s jargon: call. And let’s include all the variations: call, called, and calling. Continue reading