There has been much controversy over the film Cuties (or Mignonnes), directed by Maïmouna Doucouré. The film centres on an 11-year-old French-Senegalese girl (Amy) from a strict Muslim household. Amy rebels when she joins a girls’ dance group that involves a highly seductive and sexualised dance routine, including twerking. The trouble begins and ends there.

A funny kind of ‘liberation’

Netflix commentators such as Brendan O’Neill and the director herself, have all defended the film, arguing that the point is to criticize, not to endorse, the hyper-sexualisation of children.

I cannot agree. The way in which the story is told glorifies that kind of behaviour. It shows a young girl from an oppressive religious household ‘freeing’ herself. This involves wearing nicer, more fashionable clothes (including crop-tops and tight leggings), suggesting that because these items make her more noticeable and attractive they also advance her freedom. In short, viewers do not see a girl who is being exploited, but one who is being liberated.

The actresses who play the other girls in the dance group, all of whom were underage (including the lead, Fathia Youssouf who plays Amy), performed highly suggestive and inappropriate dance moves. The angle of the camera arguably deliberately emphasized their posteriors. They were even filmed touching themselves. These scenes could have been handled very differently. The head of the Michaela Community School, Katharine Birbalsingh, for instance, suggested that silhouettes could have been used instead. The fact that they chose to shoot the film in this particular way, suggests that the makers were more concerned with gratifying a certain type of viewer than with exploring a sensitive issue.

The Lolita appeal

In film, television and literature, there is a fine line between telling a story of sexual exploitation and treating children inappropriately in the process. Cuties is by no means the first film to have crossed this line. Lolita, a risqué 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov has become a firm literary classic. It tells the story of a middle-aged professor, humorously named Humbert Humbert, who becomes infatuated with a 12-year-old girl named Delores (nicknamed Lolita). The book is so disturbing because of — as Bret Anthony Johnston says — ‘… the reaction the author somehow manages to elicit from his readers: empathy’.

Two film versions have since been made. The first was directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1962. Although this film is fairly faithful to the book, the erotic elements were tactfully omitted. Humbert (James Mason), painting Lolita’s (Sue Lyon) toenails, and Lolita holding his hand during a horror film, is about as intimate as it gets. At the time, the Hays Code (the industry’s moral guidelines), prohibited certain types of content, including ‘any inference of sex perversion’. In a 1969 interview, Kubrick himself said:

‘… if I could do the film over again, I would have stressed the erotic component of their relationship with the same weight Nabokov did’.

Then came the 1997 version directed by Adrian Lyne; this time memorably explicit. Lolita (Dominique Swain) is seen putting her hand between Humbert’s (Jeremy Irons) legs, sitting on his lap, and constantly blowing and chewing gum in a seductive manner. She kisses him on the lips too, whereas in the Kubrick version she gives a mighty hug. The dress code reflects the story. Lolita is often seen wearing tiny figure-hugging tops, seductive shorts and provocative skirts, all designed to accentuate her pubescent form. Similar to Cuties, Swain was just 17 when she played the role and has since claimed that she never regretted playing the iconic part — but technically, she was a minor.

Opening the door to explicit content

What we have then is a clear progression of the increasing sexualization of minors in film. More than thirty years after the original version, Lyne was able to make the film Kubrick himself said he would like to have made. Some would say this is a sign that society has become less censorious. Perhaps. But I believe it also shows we have become less ashamed of the most depraved aspects of human nature; namely, the obsession with child sexuality.

These instincts have always existed, which is evident from the very fact that there is a taboo on the subject. Conversely, there has never been any formal prohibition against consuming urine or faeces. Why? Because unlike childhood sexuality, this is not something that many people desire. This complex human drive towards innocence is why films such as Cuties can now be made and even win awards. It’s also why a 9-year-old girl can kiss a man in his twenties in an episode of the popular television series ‘House’, and it will be portrayed as ‘sweet’. It may also partly explain why Lolita (both the book and the films) is so widely celebrated.

In fact, Lolita has become something of a cult, influencing both music and fashion.  A few years ago, the American clothes company Dolls Kill caused controversy with its ‘Lolita’ clothing line. This collection included a crop top and a lingerie set with the word ‘Lolita’ stamped on them. The models used by the company to advertise the clothes were noticeably young with no visible body hair, just like Lolita herself. Lolita encouraged a culture that fetishizes and celebrates the bodies and clothes of pre-adolescent girls and underage sexuality. Cuties does nothing to counter this money-making obsession.

This is not to suggest that people cannot be over-sensitive and overreact. The BBC received complaints relating to a storyline on ‘EastEnders’ that involved a teenage girl (Whitney, played by Shona McGartey) being sexually abused by Tony (Chris Goghill). Whitney is supposed to be 15, and the abuse is said to have started when she was 12. However, McGartey was 17 when she played this role, so audiences never actually see a 12-year-old Whitney being abused. This particular storyline was specifically designed to emphasize the horror of child abuse, and the fact that Tony had committed a crime. The point here was not to glorify paedophilia, but to condemn it.

Writers and filmmakers should be allowed to explore the hyper-sexualisation of children, especially in this day and age when social media puts such pressure on young people. But there is a difference between exploring something and exploiting it. There has always been a certain type of person who finds children and young teenagers sexually appealing. That predilection does not mean they should be pandered to, which is what films like Cuties accomplish.

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