Each month, Netflix releases a slew of new content. September’s list included the Back to the Future trilogy; Sister, Sister; and a French film, Mignonnes, translated into English as Cuties (MarketWatch). The film is pitched as a coming-of-age story about an 11-year-old immigrant girl from Senegal who joins girls from her neighborhood in a dance group (Netflix). But just one day after the film was released internationally, two hashtags started trending—#CancelCuties and, more dramatically, #CancelNetflix (Twitter). Several senators joined in, calling for a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation and a Netflix meeting with Congress (See tweets from Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley).
The problem, opponents say, is that Cuties is pedophilic—or it could be. In almost every scene, girls wear “suggestive” clothing. In many scenes, they dance “sexually.” In one scene, the protagonist exposes herself, though not to the audience.
There’s no question that child exploitation is bad, but there is a question of whether Cuties actually exploits children, and whether it even should be banned. The answer is probably no. In Miller v. California, the Supreme Court held that first amendment speech could only be banned if it is obscene and lacking “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” (Lexis Nexis). In New York v. Ferber, the Court held that child pornography falls outside the Miller ruling and need not be obscene to be banned, making it easier to restrict than other materials (Lexis Nexis). But Cuties is not child pornography.
In 1955, Vladamir Nobokov published his infamous novel Lolita, which was promptly banned in several countries (Politics and Prose). The problem people had—and continue to have—with Lolita is similar to the problem many have with Cuties: Lolita is narrated by a pedophile, Humbert Humbert, who depicts his stepdaughter Lolita in disturbing ways. He calls her a “nymphet,” a term used to describe an attractive pubescent girl. He blames her for seducing him. He describes her ankles in great detail. His vision of Lolita is that of a sexual object, which apparently makes her one.
Lolita and Cuties are different stories told in different languages at different points in history, yet they both elicit calls for free-speech bans that, generally, the U.S. is against; yet, they do so in the name of protecting children from sexual exploitation. But banning Lolita or Cuties does nothing to protect children. In fact, it does the opposite.
At no point in Lolita does Nabokov suggest that Humbert Humbert’s view of reality is correct. It is clear, however, that most of what he perceives as Lolita seducing him is actually just Lolita being a child: playing with her friends, walking around barefoot, playing dress-up, etc. Similarly, it’s completely clear in Cuties that the girls are dancing for themselves, for the fun of it. They are making up the routines on their own, eating gummy bears off of their parents’ beds, and often laughing. For this reason, reading Lolita does not make a person a pedophile, and watching Cuties does not make the viewer a consumer of child pornography. No matter how children dance or whether a man calls them a “nymph,” they are not sexual objects, and their conduct should not be regulated as such. In fact, the importance of stories like these lies in that very reality: we cannot, and should not, blame children for acting like children simply because those actions may elicit vile responses from adults.
Canceling Cuties and banning stories like it tells children that they need to protect themselves from the possibility that they might attract a pedophile. It’s a form of blaming the victim no different from telling a girl her sexual assault happened because of the dress she wore. If reading Humbert’s flowery descriptions of his stepdaughter or watching 13-year-old girls dance in skimpy outfits for unseen Instagram viewers is disturbing, that’s a good thing. The stories should be disturbing. But that’s not because they’re child porn—it’s because they aren’t.