Substance over Spin: Thoughts on Cuties

On August 19, 2020, Netflix released the film Cuties, billing it as a coming-of-age story that deals with the pressing cultural issue of how social media affects young girls. The director, Maïmouna Doucouré, says that the film comes with “an activist message: we must all together figure out what is best for all children.” The main character in the film is a young girl growing up in a Muslim family with traditional mores, who is exposed to a new world through social media and a friendship with a group of young dancers. This new world is especially shocking and alluring because it is highly sexualized—something the film makes quite clear, depicting young girls in a number of obscene situations. The direction and camerawork emphasize this erotic atmosphere by lingering on the young girls’ sexually charged dance moves, as does the film’s promotional material.

After an initial burst of controversy, Netflix apologized for some of that promotional material, but continued to defend the film itself. Meanwhile, criticisms and defenses of the film continued to appear online and in news outlets. Senator Ted Cruz called for an investigation into whether the film violated child-pornography laws. Now that it’s been a few months, the storm is starting to blow over, and Netflix seems to have gained as much in media attention as it lost in moral credibility. And that is really the heart of the problem: media attention is more valuable in our world than moral credibility. Spin has overtaken substance so completely that it is possible to hire children to perform lewd acts for a global audience and call it advocacy.

The priority of spin over substance is also evident in the defense of the film. As just one example, consider the reply a friend of mine received from his Congresswoman after expressing his concerns about the film: “As many critics and the director of the film have noted, Cuties critiques the sexualization of girls and young women in our society. I appreciate your concerns, and Netflix has apologized for some of the promotional materials associated with the movie.” One could be forgiven for supposing that this note was written by someone in Public Relations at Netflix. Spin triumphs over substance: the critics have given their approval and the director has said she cares about children, so there is no need to be concerned about the film’s content, the girls employed to produce it, or the audiences it will reach.

Then there is the spin about how conservatives are obsessed with pedophilia. In an article for The Rolling Stone E.J. Dickson wrote that the film’s detractors are making a “wild-eyed, hysterical allegation” that there is “an underage child sex trafficking cabal in Hollywood.” Such accusations, he went on to explain, have long been used for political purposes, whether in a panic about Satanism in the 1980s or in Donald Trump Jr.’s recent memes about Joe Biden. In Dickson’s view, the furor around Cuties is just another example of conservatives’ politically motivated fretting about secret child sexual abuse in Hollywood. In fact, critics of Cuties are not complaining about secret child sexual abuse in Hollywood. Our concern is about something even worse: open child sexual abuse in Hollywood. The real story here is not that conservatives are obsessed with pedophilia; it is that the world’s largest streaming service has invested heavily to purchase, distribute, and promote child pornography, and nearly 200 million people are paying them $12.99 a month to watch.

Critics of the film need to avoid spin, too. Rachael Denhollander, a Christian attorney, abuse survivor, and a prominent advocate on issues of child sexual abuse, called Ted Cruz’s letter “posturing and using abuse for political purposes” because he sent a letter without working for much-needed legal and political reforms. Denhollander’s comments should carry a great deal of weight, since few are better able to sort spin from substance on these issues. Still, I would maintain that letters do have some value. Children are safer when we identify and reject behaviors by which adults use them for sexual gratification. Netflix has invested heavily in normalizing some of these behaviors, and it is worth pointing that out in a letter if we can.

Denhollander’s frustration is not so much with the letters, but with the possibility that a letter is covering for inaction. In this she is exactly right. If high-minded letters and outrage on social media our only responses, then we are putting spin over substance ourselves. We must love “not in word or talk, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). What can we do, then, to back up our words with actions?

There are already some encouraging signs of substantive action. Netflix has reportedly lost 2.5 million subscribers since releasing Cuties. Hopefully, we can convince more of Netflix’s roughly 180 million subscribers to stop sending money to a company that is pioneering the normalization of child pornography. Netflix has also been indicted by a grand jury in Texas for “Promotion of lewd Visual Material Depicting a Child.” From initial reports, it seems unlikely that the case will go anywhere, but we can prayerfully hope for some good to come from it.

While we should reject the spin that Cuties is a tool for promoting child welfare, we should share the concern to do something about the massive cultural challenges of hyper-sexualization and runaway use of social media. Where Hollywood offers deceptive spin, Christians can offer substantive action. Pastors can preach the length and breadth of the seventh commandment, issue Christ’s call for heartfelt repentance, and proclaim his offer of forgiveness and transforming grace. As they do so, they should make pointed comments about the sin of using pornography, which feeds into a massive industry of sexual evil and cruelty with millions of victims.

Pastors and other church leaders must recognize that the prevalence of child sexual abuse in our churches is the log in our own eye. Substantive action must involve understanding, preventing, and responding well to sexual abuse in our own contexts. For most of pastors, the most important aspect of this work will be working with parents to ensure that children are taught biblical truth about sex in a wise and useful way, so that they are never faced with the challenges portrayed in Cuties.

Ms. Doucouré is right that “we must figure out what is best for children,” but she is terribly wrong about how to set about this work. It is our privilege to be able to show the world a better way.

Calvin Goligher is the pastor of First OPC in Sunnyvale, California. He and his wife Joanne have four young children.

Related Links

Podcast: "Pornography: A Perpetual Pastoral Problem" (with Tim Challies) 

"Game of Dethroning Sexual Sin" by Nick Batzig

"What Would Justin Martyr Do?" by Richard Winston

PCRT '15: A Reformed View of Sex and Marriage

The Gospel and the Song of Songswith Iain Duguid