Defending the Indefensible: With “Cuties,” Yet Another Boundary Falls

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
September 22, 2020

Over the last few decades, the sexual revolution in America has pushed the boundaries of what is morally acceptable quicker than what could have been anticipated. One after another, the boundaries fall, the norms are torn down. The latest example comes directly to the homes of the nearly 73 million Americans that subscribe to Netflix in the form of the new movie, “Cuties.”

“Cuties,” originally released as “Mignonnes” in France, is a fictional film about the supposed sexual awakening (and dangerous sexualization) of pre-adolescent girls. The main character is brought up in a traditional Muslim home and finds herself struggling between two different modes of womanhood: the traditional values in which she is raised and the hyper-sexualized values of Western culture seen on the internet. The film has seen extreme backlash from the right and the left for inappropriately sexualizing the young actresses in the film.

But one very troubling dimension of this controversy is the defense of hyper-sexualizing young girls. Carly Mallenbaum of USA Today asked whether the “backlash” against the film is fair. As she posed the question, “does the movie actually deserve the backlash it received for an image of pre-teen actresses dancing in midriff-baring tops and short shorts with their backs arched?”

Actually, the sexualization of the girls goes beyond that. Even the look on the girl’s faces in the film’s trailer and advertising images is blatantly sexualized.

USA Today does not seem to see “Cuties” as troubling, telling us “there’s more to the movie than its marketing material.” The paper reports calmly that the film is about an 11-year-old girl who is “fascinated with a twerking dance crew.”

When promotional images of the movie were released by Netflix, vitriolic reaction surfaced on Twitter. Defenders of the film argued that the criticism came mostly from people who had not seen the movie. Tessa Thompson, who saw the movie at the Sundance Film Festival, called it “beautiful.” Thompson went on to say, “The film comments on the hyper-sexualization of preadolescent girls” and she is “disappointed to see the current discourse.”

Well, the current “discourse” about the movie is troubling for sure, but for the opposite reason.

Maïmouna Doucouré, the writer and director of the film, said about the movie, “Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she is successful. Children just imitate what they see, trying to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning. It is dangerous.” We cannot read Maïmouna Doucouré’s heart, but we can look at the argument she is making. The reality is that even if she somehow intended the movie to offer a critique of the sexualization of women, that purpose doesn’t justify sexualizing girls in order to supposedly produce a film that is supposed to have the effect of moral outrage at the sexualization of girls.

This is a huge issue. It is a fantasy of the artistic community that it can sexually exploit children in order to oppose the sexual exploitation of children. The movie trailer and the promotional images are, beyond dispute, examples of the sexualization of pre-adolescent girls.

More recently, Doucouré wrote a piece defending her film at The Washington Post, 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 young girls. But that hardly justifies producing a movie that advances the very practice you are supposedly trying to oppose.

Doucouré goes on to make another argument, stating, “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?”

Yes, Western objectification of women and girls is another kind of oppression. The Christian worldview holds up the dignity of every single human being, including every woman, every child, and in this particular context, every young girl. Objectification, along with sexualization, sexual abuse, or even the misuse of sexual interest denies that dignity.

The biblical worldview asserts a certain modesty that is required of human beings in a fallen world. Adam and Eve, feeling the shame and experiencing the guilt of their sin, tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. When God came after them in the Garden, he asked, “Who told you, you were naked?” God, however, did not 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 more suitable clothing for them out of the skins of animals. In a sinful world, we are put to shame by our sinful desires, and therefore it is right for us to be modest.

We live in a society in which modesty is routinely denied as a bourgeois Victorian value, not something that is rooted in human dignity. The movie “Cuties” flows from secular society’s inability to identify why humans bear dignity —and to be clear, the film peddles a sexuality contrary to the biblical worldview, robbing girls of their full dignity as God’s image bearers.

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?” Her argument abounds with inconsistencies. Now she suggests the problem to which the movie is addressed is that young girls and women don’t have adequate sexual freedom. That contradicts what she argued before, but it is this statement that deserves further attention—the theme of sexual freedom.

This theme of sexual freedom comes out clearly in a column written by Alyssa Rosenberg for The Washington Post with the headline, “The People Freaking Out About ‘Cuties’ Should Try It. They Might Find a Lot to Like.” 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. But Doucouré is blunt about the fact that real harm can be done when a child behaves in ways typically reserved for grownups.” Again, we are being told that the only problem with the sexual behaviors in this film is that the girls are a little too young. This columnist twice makes the argument that this would not be morally problematic behavior among women, but it is troubling (at least to some) when it has to do with girls.

Rosenberg continues, “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.”

There it is again. The morally problematic angle here has everything to do with age, nothing to do with modesty or human dignity or the abuse of sexuality. As adult women, this would be celebrated behavior, but not when it comes to girls. That is moral insanity.

While the content of the film is objectionable, there is also something we cannot miss about the context of the film’s release and a particular kind of response that deserves our attention. One individual decried the ridicule the film received, saying that it was disappointing “to see the current discourse.” That kind of language takes us back to the controversy over Drag Queen Story Hour, which targeted young children in public libraries. The sexual revolutionaries wanted to maintain Drag Queen Story Hour because it introduced young children to the transgender sexual ethic at a young age—they just wanted to “start a conversation.”

A conversation is merely people expressing their ideas. There is not necessarily a right or a wrong answer, and in the process of a conversation, perhaps people get to know each other better and come to a consensus.

When it comes to pedophilia, however, there is a right and a wrong. There is no room for conversation. We are talking about the sexualization of children.

Doucouré wants the conversation. Indeed, she hopes that “this conversation doesn’t become so difficult that it too gets caught up in today’s ‘cancel culture.’” This is moral lunacy of the highest order. The only proper response to the sexualization of human beings, especially children, is to see it ended. It should never be presented in the public; it should never see the light of day because it operates from an insidious, specious ethic that is utterly destructive to society.

But there is something deeper going on in all of these controversies. Jon Caramanica at The New York Times wrote an article that discussed the recent release of a song by Cardi B. The article argues that women act on valid moral terms by giving themselves over to extreme manifestations of sexual expression in the name of their own “sexual agency.” This kind of thinking represents yet another liberation ethic that demands that any restraint on human sexual expression is a form of oppression that must be dismantled.

“Agency” means the ability to make moral choices. We are all moral agents because we make moral decisions. The Christian worldview affirms our responsibility as moral agents—indeed, the Bible reveals that our moral obligation is part of what it means to be made in the image of God. Throughout the history of the Church, Christians devoted enormous attention to our responsibility before God and that we will be judged by God. Everything we have done, seen or unseen, every idle thought, will come under the scrutiny of God.

That, however, began to change in the 18th and 19th centuries in the wake of the Enlightenment, which sundered humanity from the doctrine of creation and the reality of final judgment. Immanuel Kant, for example, tried to lay out in secular terms moral agency—he even asserted moral imperatives in line with biblical Christianity. Without God, however, and without the ontological reality of a final, eternal judgment, the logical question to ask of Kant’s moral code is, “So what? Who cares if I act morally or not?” Kant’s moral code plunged ethics into a spiral of subjectivity that attempted to liberate all humanity from a responsibility to God.

Fast forward to where we are now: The New York Times uses the term “agency” as an act of human liberation. Language matters. Notice that The New York Times does not speak of moral agency, but sexual agency. Moral agency has been replaced with sexual agency—we are all free and liberated to sexually express ourselves as we desire.

That raises a crucial question, who is to be recognized as a moral agent? The answer is all humanity, but we also understand that moral agency becomes more important over time in the development of a child. We hold a child more accountable the older the child gets. Legal adulthood in the West is defined as the age that a human being is recognized by the entire culture as now being fully, morally responsible. But we now live in a society completely confused about responsibility.

Instead, our society turns towards sexual agency. This new and increasingly prevailing moral code of our day now extends its aspiration of liberation towards young girls, validating the completely unfettered sexual expression of children.

Therein lies the ultimate insanity. We live in a society that says we must rightly protect children from sexualization, manipulation, objectification, and abuse. Yet, at the same time, it celebrates those very same sexual acts, so long as they are done by adults—all of this in the name of liberation and sexual agency.

Christians understand that agency in and of itself is utterly insufficient. It is empty and offers no moral or ethical hope. When all moral sense and moral truth has been evacuated from the room, unfettered and liberated sexual expression is all that is left—and we can see where this kind of ethic is taking our culture and the consequences it will have on children.

That sound you hear in the background is the crumbling of the very foundations of society.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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