September 16, 2020

Conservatives are currently losing their marbles over the Netflix film Cuties, because it depicts 11-year-old girls dancing in explicitly sexual ways. Having watched it, I can confirm that yes, it’s uncomfortable to watch. The camera lingers. And there are points where it crossed a line.

But, despite lasciviously-shot footage of tween girls dancing in wildly inappropriate sexual ways, to my eye it’s not kiddie porn, as has been alleged. It’s a tragedy.

I can still remember being aged 11, like Amy, the main protagonist in Cuties, and reaching puberty. How disorienting that was, even in an age before smartphones and internet porn. Up to that point male strangers had been irrelevant to my world, but now all of a sudden such men reacted to me, in a way that made no sense. I don’t remember the first time a White Van Man wolf-whistled or beeped at me on the street but I can’t have been older than 11 – still a child, like Amy.

Like Amy, I was lonely and unhappy. I didn’t really understand why men in vans had started beeping at me, but I remember it felt good. I bought a short dress, and found excuses to put it on and wander about my Home Counties village, vaguely hoping for more White Van Men to beep at me and make me feel briefly appreciated. If I were that age today, I imagine I’d be posting pouty selfies on Instagram. Perhaps, like many of those girls, I’d attract the attention of grown men pretending to be teenage boys.

Like my younger self in a too-short skirt, Amy has little interest in real-world contact with boys. Like I did, she wants validation: her main motivation in learning the sexually-explicit dance moves she finds in music videos is acceptance by her female peers.

But the film teases out a principal challenge of being a tween girl. That is, girls reach puberty – the beginning of sexual maturity – the best part of a decade before they reach any kind of emotional maturity. This means you notice that men start looking at you sexually, and realise the power that brings, long before you have any real grasp of what being an object of male desire implies.

More from this author
How sexual empowerment screws women

By Mary Harrington

It all takes place in a context where sexual self-expression is seen as a social good. The 1960s sexual revolution drew on theorists such as Reich and Freud to argue for the harmful effects of repressing human sexuality. Contraception was becoming more widely available, meaning ‘free love’ was suddenly an option for women without such a high risk of pregnancy. Some decades on, the consequence of that revolution is a general belief that the free play of sexuality is almost always good by definition.

This was the core of most defences of Cardi B’s recent, sexually explicit Number One song WAP: that the artist was simply expressing a liberated female sexuality. But for young girls just reaching puberty, suddenly being handed what might be termed ‘liberated sexuality’ in an adult is a bit like being given a lit flamethrower with the safety catch off.

To me, the most powerful and icky moment in Cuties was not the now-notorious dance scene that’s done the outrage rounds on Twitter. It’s a much earlier episode, where the girls are caught sneaking into a laser tag venue without paying, and the security guards threaten to call the police. They beg the guards to let them go, because they’ve just qualified for the dance contest final, and Amy backs this up by dancing for them. As the guards stare at this twerking child, one man’s face slides from officious anger to open leering. He lets them go.

Shortly after, when Amy gets into trouble with her cousin, she tries the same move again on him, gyrating provocatively and unzipping her jeans. Her father is of course appalled. But those scenes capture the position in which very young girls find themselves at puberty: suddenly conscious of a powerful new way of influencing adult males, and wholly unaware of how adult men might construe those signals.

In my own youth, I met plenty of adult men perfectly happy to overlook the emotional immaturity behind a layer of makeup, preferring to conclude that someone who acts provocatively must understand what she’s doing. Such men find plenty of support within pop culture. The only well-known pop song I can think of about a man declining to flirt with an attractive girl because she’s too young is Abba’s 1979 ABBA song Does Your Mother Know. In contrast, here are 18 lascivious songs about very young women. The list is far from comprehensive. Ted Nugent’s Jailbait even explicitly says the song’s object of desire is just 13 years old.

Further reading
What the West gets wrong about consent

By Jenny McCartney

All those songs celebrate men who’ve chosen to ignore (or to fetishise) a young girl’s actual innocence for the sake of a handful of pert young flesh. At a cultural and institutional level, they’re backed up by our liberal tendency to err on the side of individual freedom – at least when it comes to sexual self-expression – even if that means freeing individuals to offer themselves up for abuse. Consider the towns all across Britain where over 18,000 underage girls were methodically abused for decades by grooming gangs, while the police shrugged their shoulders and called the girls ‘slags’.

The grooming gangs have become a nativist talking-point, with most debate on the subject focusing on the rapists’ South Asian and Muslim heritage. But it’s easy to treat girls in Rotherham care homes as a kind of faceless victim class on which to project anti-immigrant feeling. It’s much more challenging to reflect on the mores that helped normalise the abuse of countless girls barely into puberty, as not a matter for intervention but as undesirable but legitimate ‘lifestyle choices’.

Hyperfocusing on Pakistani or Muslim rapists just means we fail to see that this dynamic is everywhere. ‘Teen’ has been a top 10 search term on PornHub for six years running. In 2019 there were 42 billion visits to PornHub. Those millions of men inputting ‘teen rape’ and ‘underage slut’ into the search box can’t all be Rotherham taxi drivers.

Further reading
Labour's fun feminists are enabling exploitation

By Julie Bindel

The porn industry will shrug and say so what, it’s all fantasy. But the fact that sexual contact with barely-adolescent girls is a male fantasy is precisely the point. Because when you become a barely-adolescent girl, you suddenly have to deal with that. And here our sexual culture fails girls woefully, thanks to the utter inadequacy of ‘consent’ as a means of regulating the collision of female adolescence and adult male lust.

Because our vision of each human individual as a rational, choosing autonomous subject leaves little space for partial, coerced, ill-informed or pseudo-‘consent’. Nor does it have much space for the young girls who consent to sex when what they crave is love. Teenage girls now frequently ‘consent’ to acts they find painful or degrading, because that’s just what you have to do to retain a boy’s affection. And the most heart-breaking part of the grooming gang scandal was the number of girls who genuinely believed that the men who were grooming, raping and pimping them were their boyfriends.

Even among those who escape this grim fate, I doubt there are many adult women today who’ve made it all the way from girlhood to maturity in our ‘liberated’ culture without surviving a measure of sexual trauma. Early-90s Home Counties village life offered limited opportunities for my particular mix of loneliness and emerging adult sexuality to be exploited; but it still happened. I have memories I prefer not to recall. Relative to the world Cuties depicts, I got off lightly.

The internet gives the flamethrower of female adolescence a whole new level of lethality. Selfies and webcams enhance its power – as well as its capacity to burn girls when they try to leverage their youth and beauty in search of affection. But rather than discouraging this toxic dynamic, the internet has swarmed to monetise needy young females.

OnlyFans, a kind of Patreon for user-generated porn, enables girls (there are relatively few male OnlyFans performers) to publish nudes and interact with paying ‘fans’. Popular accounts on the site can rake in tens of thousands of dollars a month.

For a glimpse of the bottomless well of unmet longing that bubbles just beneath our brave new world of female sexual exhibitionism today, consider ‘Neesi’, a young OnlyFans performer. She recently tweeted ‘my dad just subbed to my onlyfans & tipped me $100, THAT is how you support your child’s business!!’. Then in the following tweet, the one-two punch: “do what my dad did [onlyfans link] (by that i dnt mean abandon me)”.

Further reading
How the Left betrayed feminism

By Sarah Ditum

I’ve argued elsewhere that hypermediated, hyper-sexualised ‘empowerment’ offers women no space for the emotional intimacy that by far the majority would prefer. For young girls craving affection (and especially those like ‘Neesi’ with absent fathers), it delivers only the hollow consolation prize of ‘hotness’, long before you need or want it. And being desirable doesn’t mean you’re loved; but by the time a girl works that out, she’s probably already ‘consented’ many times over.

We can decry the lascivious camera angles in Cuties. But the Hobson’s choice it depicts for young girls is brutally accurate: self-objectification as a route to love and social status, public shaming if you embrace it. Nor, the film points out, are ‘traditional’ cultures much of an improvement, as underlined by the scene where Amy’s elderly Senegalese ‘Auntie’ reminisces about being married off when only a couple of years older than Amy.

Cuties leans into our absolute betrayal of pubescent girls. It depicts in uncompromising detail how young girls who crave affection are encouraged by liberal culture to fill the void via their newfound power to elicit male desire. The film shies away from depicting the sexual abuse that all too often comes to girls who take that counsel; but the jaded, wounded young women who’ve survived it are all around us today.

If I have one criticism of Cuties, it’s that the ending implies there’s a way out. But for many girls, there isn’t. Not while we’re so squeamish about the mixture of power and vulnerability that’s unique to female puberty. Not while we prioritise sexual freedom over girls’ wellbeing, and celebrate adult women as ‘liberated’ for sexualised behaviour we wouldn’t want our daughters to copy. And not while we blame those girls for their own abuse, when they follow the examples we provided.

Comment


  • September 19, 2020
    However, something nobody wants to deal with is the fact that it is almost always mothers who push their daughters into these sexualised situations and promote their early sexualisation.
    Do you think this includes the mothers of the pre-adolescent girls in the film? Read more

  • September 19, 2020
    No I havnt seen the movie, and probably wont, but I see the problem..Thats right underage boys are not the problem, but possibly bemused voyeurs of media activity that probably intriges, excites and terrifies them. Even my own father and his chum secretly muttered a few "Phwors" when they see their... Read more

  • September 19, 2020
    Yes, author, we all know that the film isn't meant to exploit girls. But the young girls shown being sexualised are, in fact, real little girls. They aren't some sort of computer generated actresses. At 11, or 12, young women are not in a position to say "I want to have this depiction of me... Read more

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