Friday, September 18, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, September 18, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Moral Insanity on Netflix: An Abuse of Human Sexuality and the Denial of Dignity
The controversy over the Netflix film, "Cuties," just continues, and it expands. And as it does, so it becomes even more important in our cultural conversation. Christians watching what's going on here should be paying even closer attention. I covered the issue on Monday on The Briefing and here it is, Friday, so we're book-ending the week, and that tells you something about the importance of this issue. And the importance of the issue is also underlined by how many people are doing their utmost to try to tell you this isn't important. When you have a considerable sector of the intellectual and political elite saying this isn't important, you can almost count on the fact it's really important. And even as we talked about this on Monday and looked at the fact that the film represents the sexual exploitation of young girls, the reality is that, as we said on Monday, the response to the film is, if anything, more telling than the film itself.
And now we have not only the response to the film, we have the response to the response to the response to the film, all of this in the course of one week, still unfolding. By the time we get to the end of the week, you have members of the United States Congress and the United States Senate demanding that Netflix take down the film and if not, there's some kind of sanctions be brought against the company. You have people who are now celebrating the film in a way that itself is nothing less than pornographic. And you also have the fact that the defenders of the film have now decided to take their defense up to a new level.
Now, as we think about this, I want to point to something else, which comes down to a major division in the United States and beyond. But let's just look here in the United States. A major divide between those who think issue A is a big issue, it's definitional about the moment it's important for the culture, or issue A is not. Now just think back a few months to when the controversy was over Drag Queen Story Hour, when it was targeted to young children in public libraries. I'm amongst those who think that is a very big story, that there's no way around the fact that it tells us something incredibly important about our culture. But at the same time, there were those even some who claimed to be conservative, saying it's not really a big issue. This is a part of American conservatism, a part of American Christianity getting far too upset about something that isn't all that important.
Well, upon reflection, I just have to say, I think it's just as important as we thought it was, maybe even more important because once again, it's not just that it happened. It's that so many people are trying to tell us it doesn't matter, it's not important that you have pornographic drag stars, in some cases, presenting themselves to young children, reading books as if their identity as indeed a drag queen is something that's supposed to be universally celebrated in the culture. You either see this as a basic hinge point in the culture or you don't. And if you do, you see it. If you don't, I guess you just won't see it.
I think the same reality is at work in the controversy over the film Cuties and in the controversy about whether there should be a controversy about the film Cuties. Now let's just take a closer look at more recent developments. First of all, the director/writer of the film, Maïmouna Doucouré, wrote a piece defending her film at the Washington Post. It's entitled "I Directed 'Cuties.' This is What You Need to Know About Modern Girlhood." She tells a story of how she became interested in what she decries as the sexualization of young girls, including immigrant girls. She herself identifies as both French and Senegalese, and she says that gives her a heightened sensitivity to the pattern of the sexualization of women and young girls, and in particular, the immigrant and more vulnerable women and young girls, and that's what's behind the film. But that doesn't explain the film because the film is itself becomes what it decries. In order to tell the story about the sexualization of young girls, it blatantly sexualizes young girls.
Indeed, in her defense of the film, Maïmouna Doucouré actually says things in defense of the film in this article in the Washington Post that I'm not about to read out loud to the audience of The Briefing. In her second paragraph, Doucouré writes, "I wanted to make a film in the hope of starting a conversation about the sexualization of children." She says, "The movie has certainly started a debate, though not the one that I intended." Well, think about this. She says he wanted to make a film in the hope of starting a conversation about the sexualization of children.
Now here's where we need to note something that is happening in the language of our society right now. You have more and more people using the language of wanting to start a conversation. It's become au courant. It's become a very popular way of talking. You speak of wanting to start a conversation, the same way you speak about the fact you want the conversation to take place in this space, this space, meaning a particular arena of cultural conversation. In this space, I want to create a conversation. In this case, a conversation, she says, about the sexualization of children. But the point is, well, she did start that conversation and she tells us it's not the conversation she intended, but what did she expect?
And not only we're talking here about Doucouré as the writer/director, we're talking about Netflix, which bears ultimate responsibility for this film because after all, they are the platform on which the film is now being presented to the public, and Netflix promoted the film with what can only be described as the overt sexualization of young girls, so much so that I'm not going to describe the ads they ran digitally that caused the original concern. I'm going to argue, very legitimate concern.
But I discussed the major moral issues related to the film itself in the first round of response on Monday. Here we are at the end of the week, just a matter of four or five days later, and the situation is already more complicated and more interesting. You not only have this defense of the film that was issued by Maïmouna Doucouré, the writer/director, you also have her argument, "I made 'Cuties' to start a debate about the sexualization of children in society today so that maybe — just maybe — politicians, artists, parents and educators could work together to make a change that will benefit children for generations to come. It's my sincerest hope that this conversation doesn't become so difficult that it too gets caught up in today's 'cancel culture.'"
Well, bringing in cancel culture here is also extremely revealing because any sane society, let me repeat this, any sane society cancels certain speech. Every society does. And let's be honest, we'd at least hope to think that most of the people making this argument would agree that there would be some displays of the sexualization of human beings, for example, or violence against human beings, that simply should not be allowed to be presented to the public. Period.
But Maïmouna Doucouré goes on to make another argument. She said, "All my life, I have juggled two cultures: Senegalese and French. As a result, people often ask me about the oppression of women in more traditional societies. And I always ask: But isn't the objectification of women's bodies in Western Europe and the United States another kind of oppression?" Let's stop there. Of course, it is another kind of oppression. And this is where we have to understand that the Christian worldview holds up the dignity of every single human being, and that means the inherent God-given dignity of every woman, every child and in particular, in this context, every girl, regardless of the girl or the woman's age, and that dignity is denied by objectification, sexualization, sexual abuse, sexual misuse, or even wrongful sexual interest. Period. That's something every sane society must recognize as something that is deeply rooted in biblical truth. We understand that it goes beyond even what might be described by some as initial moral judgements. For us, it's a theological issue. This is an insult to the dignity of human beings made in God's image.
The biblical worldview holds up a certain modesty that is required of human beings in a fallen world. And of course, the first symbol of that in scripture is the fact that Adam and Eve, feeling the shame and experiencing the guilt of their sin, tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. And that's exactly what they did. God even called them out on it. "Who told you, you were naked?" And God then didn't tell them in a fallen world, now marked by sin with all its distortions and temptations, that they should go around naked. Instead, he made clothing for them out of the skins of animals. God clothed the creatures he had made in the garden naked because they were in the garden, naked and unashamed. But outside of the Garden of Eden, we are not naked and unashamed.
We live in a society in which modesty is routinely denied as a bourgeois Victorian value, not something that is rooted in human dignity. And that's something else that Christians have to see here. Rooted in this controversy is the fact that our secular society is finding it virtually impossible to argue about what kind of dignity human beings are to be recognized to possess and why it is that human beings, men, women, old, young, would possess that dignity and what that dignity would require of us. There's a deep heart cry found in this controversy and evident in this film, and it comes down to why is any human life worthy? Why should every human being be treated with dignity?
But theologically, the saddest thing is that this film robs these girls of their dignity, even as it is indignant about the fact that society robs women and young girls of their dignity. But the strangest sentence in Maïmouna Doucouré's article is when she asked this question, "When girls feel so judged at such a young age, how much freedom will they ever truly have in life?" Now wait just a minute. How does that sentence fit the sentences that came before? How does it fit in this article at all?
Now you have the suggestion that the problem to which the movie is addressed is that young girls and women don't have adequate sexual freedom. Well, that's an equal and opposite argument to what she's been making thus far. But upon reflection, that kind of argument is actually one of the issues to which we need to pay attention. It comes out in a column written by Alyssa Rosenberg for the same newspaper, the Washington Post, this time on September the 11th. The headline of her article, "The People Freaking Out About 'Cuties' Should Try It. They Might Find a Lot to Like." Well, that's the headline. Let's look within the article. And more than halfway in the article, Alyssa Rosenberg writes, "'Cuties' doesn’t use cliched scare tactics, such as the paranoia about child sex trafficking that has infected U.S. politics, to make this point."
Now what's she talking about there? Well, maybe she's talking about conspiracy theories, but otherwise, is she really saying that there's an infection in U.S. politics about child sex trafficking? Is this not a legitimate issue that demands to be taken out of the context of conspiracy theory and dealt with publicly and with morally serious terms by the general public? But then Rosenberg writes, "But Doucouré is blunt about the fact that real harm can be done when a child behaves in ways typically reserved for grownups." Again, alarm, moral insanity here. What we're being told is that the only problem with the sexual behaviors that are so problematic in this film is that the girls are young rather than being adults. This columnist twice makes the argument that this would not be morally problematic behavior among them women, but it is troubling at least to some when it has to do with girls.
Rosenberg writes a couple of paragraphs later, "This is very much a film about what happens to kids when their parents aren’t physically or emotionally present in their lives. It’s highly skeptical of social media platforms and what sexualized mainstream culture teaches children about what behavior is normal or desirable. Though its characters post provocative dance videos and wear revealing costumes, “Cuties” doesn’t present their actions as liberated or admirable: Instead, the movie repeatedly shows other characters reacting with sadness or disgust when these girls try to act like grown women." Well, there it is again. Now we're being told, again, that the morally problematic angle here has everything to do with age, nothing to do with modesty or human dignity or the abuse of sexuality. We're being told here explicitly twice in this article that the issue is that these are girls who are acting as if they are adult women. As adult women, this way be celebrated behavior, but not when it comes to girls. That's moral insanity.
In another response to the controversy, Jessa Crispin, writing at The Guardian tells us, "Cuties is not a good movie, but it's an artistic failure rather than a moral one." What's the artistic failure? She says, "It strings together a series of coming of age cliches and engages in them same over-the-top handwringing that its congressional audience does." Now, again, look at the language here. Those who have moral concerns about this film are dismissed as representing "over-the-top handwringing". Now that always raises a certain kind of logical question, which is what exactly would be exactly the right level of handwringing as compared with over-the-top handwringing?
But then in her own article, Crispin writes, "The problem is that the film's underlying message it is bad to sexualize young girls kind of gets lost in all of the sexualization of young girls happening on the screen." Now the columnist goes on to express her moral concern about the film with language I'm not going to use on The Briefing. But the point is this, we are told that conservatives are engaged in over-the-top handwringing whereas those who might have artistic concerns, well, they have a more elite and valid form of concern about the movie. It's an artistic failure, she says, not a moral one, but then notice, she contradicts herself because she then gets to a moral point. Those words I just read from her are inescapably moral.
And that just shows you something else. How many people in our society don't want to be caught dead making a moral argument about sex? A moral argument about diet? Yes. A moral argument about animal rights? Yes. A moral argument about, well, just about anything else? Yes. But when it comes to sex, no, because there can be no moral right and wrongs when it comes to adults and sex. Get over it.
Why Is Modern Society Opposed to Any Form of Sexual Restraint: The New Celebration of ‘Sexual Agency”
But now we need to shift to a different issue, a different controversy of sorts, although a much lesser controversy when it comes to the media, but one that includes arguments that will help us to understand the rightful concerns about Cuties and what's going on in our society. In this case, the article is by Jon Caramanica at The New York Times, but I'm not going to mention the headline of the article because I can't and be modest. And I'm going to have to read only a few words out of this article, which has to do with the behavior of certain female celebrities on TikTok, very highly sexualized behavior that is here being celebrated. But it appears that there's at least some question about how much celebration should go on here.
But then I want to read these words. This is what's so crucial. We're told that the conflagration over this development has been predictable and fatiguing. "The morality police working overtime against the sexual agency of Black women, a resurgence of shaming and grievance that felt like a relic of an earlier time." What are the key words there? Sexual agency. In this case, it has to do with black women celebrities, but notice the words sexual agency. What is that? Well, the entire context of this article is to argue that these women are acting on entirely valid moral terms by giving themselves over to this extreme sexual expression in the name of exercising their own sexual agency.
This is a part of the modern corruption of thought that claims that anything that would argue for sexual restraint has to be a form of oppression. And that's exactly how so many people in the mainstream culture look at historic Western civilization in general and biblical Christianity in particular. It is because the Bible has rules, thou shalts and thou shalt nots about sexuality. And here, what you have is the argument that the controversy over this particular development is evidence of the fact that there is still discrimination against the sexual agency of some, in this case, those who are identified as the black women celebrities here, sexual agency, where does that come from?
Well, this is really important for Christians to think about. Where does the word agency come from? Well, agency comes down to the human experience of making choice, moral choice. We are moral agents because we make decisions about whether or not to do A or B or C. We have the experience of making those moral decisions. Now, again, the Christian worldview tells us that we are indeed moral agents. The Bible is very clear that being a moral agent is a part of what it means to be made in God's image. But we're not only moral agents, we are sinful moral agents. And not only that, we are moral agents who are not free to develop our own moral agency, but are addressed by the creator with his law, his purpose, his design, his intention for us.
But what we have to recognize is that throughout the history of the Christian Church, Christians have understood, Christian theologians have given enormous attention to this in the orthodox, that is the rightful historic biblical, tradition of the church. Enormous attention has been given to the fact that we are morally responsible and that we will be judged for our exercise of moral agency. As a matter of fact, we are told that everything we have done, every deed, seen or unseen by humanity, even every idle thought, will be judged. God holds us responsible as moral agents.
The Crumbling of the Foundations of Society: What Happens When You Tear Human Sexuality Out of a Biblical Context?
Okay, so why is this so important? Well, in the great turning point in Western civilization, and especially the 18th century, but gaining energy in the 19th and 20th centuries, going back to the Enlightenment, the issue is that the Enlightenment philosophers sought to describe human beings as moral agents without a doctrine of creation, without a strong theology that had either referenced to the gospel or to the final judgment.
Immanuel Kant, the father of the Enlightenment, said that the two great mysteries to him were the starry heavens above, that's the cosmological question, and the moral life within, the moral question. And Immanuel Kant wasn't even exactly actually sure, as the grandfather, you might say, or the godfather of the Enlightenment, how to describe human moral agency. But he said it comes down to the fact that we experience, we have the experience of making moral choices. And Kant then gave attention to how, in secular terms, humans should make rightful moral choices that is rightly exercise our agency.
So again, in the Christian tradition, moral agency fully recognized the part of the Imago Dei being made in the image of God. The issue is whether or not we obey God or disobey him. Even with Immanuel Kant recognizing in attempted secular terms, the human beings are moral agents. We have the experience of making moral choices. The issue is whether we make the right ones or the wrong ones. You'll notice the shift. God's out of the equation. Creation's not fundamental. And God, as the moral judge, is really not much a part of the picture.
But then fast forward to where we are now. The use of the term agency appearing here in The New York Times as if it is the mere exercise of agency that is the great act of human liberation. And now, well, our eyes are opened because here's the issue. If we're living in a society that just celebrates agency, you'll notice that moral agency has disappeared. This article in The New York Times did not speak about the sexual moral agency or the moral sexual agency. Instead, moral agency has been replaced with sexual agency, right here in an article in The New York Times. Moral agency? Gone. Sexual agency, all that's left.
And then that raises a crucial question, who is to be recognized as a moral agent? Well, the answer is all humanity. Now we also understand that moral agency becomes more important over time in the development of a child. We treat a child at various stages of development as one who is increasing and the responsibility of moral agency. We hold a child more accountable the older the child gets.
One of the legal marks of adulthood or what used to be called legal majority in Western civilization was that it was at that point that a human being, having become an adult, was recognized by the entire culture as now being fully, morally responsible, a fully, morally responsible moral agent. But we're a society that is now completely confused about that. And as we just seen, moral agency is now replaced in this argument by sexual agency. And the question is, then who possesses sexual agency? Well, looking at the defenses of the film 'Cuties,' just over the last several days, it is interesting how many people are arguing that in its own way, 'Cuties' liberates, celebrates, validates the sexual agency of these young girls.
Now here's the ultimate insanity. We have a society that says we must rightly protect children from sexualization, from any kind of deviant sexual interest, from any kind of sexual manipulation, objectification, from any kind of sexual abuse. But at the same time says, oh, by the way, if as individuals, the very same actions were undertaken by others, that would be a celebration of sexual agency. It goes back to that argument I cited in which people said, the problem here is that these are girls acting out what should be adult behavior. No, it shouldn't it be adult behavior.
But here's the issue, if children are watching adults say, this is what is celebrated as me acting out my sexual agency, then don't be surprised when you see young people acting out the same agency. And Christians understand that this is exactly what happens when you rip this entire issue of such moral urgency out of any kind of biblical context, you're left with nothing but agency.
But agency by itself turns out to be an empty category, a dangerous notion. In this sense, agency, sexual agency, you might say, is what is left when all moral sense and moral truth has been evacuated from the room. And now you have this ridiculous argument that Cuties is not so much a moral failure as an artistic failure.
That sound you hear in the background is the crumbling of the very foundations of society.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
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