Netflix’s new film, Cuties, has attracted a significant amount of criticism over recent days and weeks due to its overt sexualisation of young girls — both in its promotional material and in the film itself. The original thumbnail used by Netflix to promote the film (the featured image of this article) has since been replaced by a decidedly more wholesome image after the streaming service were inundated with complaints. However, the film still features extended scenes of young girls dancing in an overtly sexual and provocative way — scantily-clad, twerking, gyrating, leg-spreading, lip-biting, spanking.
The director (a French Senegalese woman named Maïmouna Doucouré) intended the film to be a coming-of-age comedy-drama which drew on her own experiences of witnessing the creeping sexualisation of young girls which she says ‘shocked’ and ‘stunned’ her. Recalling seeing young girls dancing in her own neighbourhood she says: ‘I wondered if they were aware of the image of sexual availability that they were projecting’. Yet Doucouré’s pensive, critical reflection is not communicated in Netflix’s marketing choices, which instead glamourise the precise aspects of the film which the director seems to invite criticism of.
Worryingly, those who oppose this sexualisation of young female children are characterised as prudish. Tim Robey, a male film critic writing for The Telegraph, described Cuties as ‘a provocative powder-keg for an age terrified of child sexuality’ — implying that those wishing to safeguard children from adult sexuality are ‘phobes’ of some sort. He instead directs viewers to ‘forget the moral panic’, framing concerned parties as hysterical, pearl-clutching traditionalists who simply aren’t woke enough to embrace ‘child sexuality’.
This is demonstrative of a contemporary political culture in which being a prudish traditionalist is framed as the most abhorrent thing a person can be. A culture in which paedophiles, rapists and abusers can move freely amongst the sex-positive left — scoffing at anyone who raises concerns, denigrating them as prudes or pedantic, point-scoring political enemies. Violence against women and girls is now presented as a mere matter of ideological disagreement; the position of paedophiles and abusers becomes politically respectable once it is shrouded in the sex-positive jargon of ‘agency’, ‘autonomy’ ‘identity’, ‘expression, and ’empowerment’.
Unfortunately, this Netflix saga is merely symptomatic of a deeply unsettling trend which has gathered momentum over the past few decades. The latter part of the twentieth century has seen a notable increase in the sexualisation of children. At the same time, adult women have undergone a period of infantilisation. This is evident in various forms of advertising, media, and even in linguistic choices. This reprehensible societal trend, created and encouraged under capitalism, must be acknowledged and taken seriously in order to resist misogyny and ensure the ongoing safeguarding of children.
The Sexualisation of Children
The #metoo movement has shone a light on the prevalence of sexual assault, particularly within Hollywood. Unfortunately, unwanted sexual advances are not exclusive to adults. Child celebrities such as the Olsen twins, Emma Watson and Stranger Things’ Millie Bobbie Brown have all been subjected to internet countdowns to the day that they can legally have sex. Natalie Portman, who rose to stardom whilst still a child, famously recounted receiving her first fan letter when she was 13 years old. It detailed a rape fantasy.
In any discussion of sex and sexualisation, it is sensible to examine trends within the pornography industry. An analysis of mainstream porn demonstrates a definite shift in public acceptance of implicit and explicit paedophilic sentiment. Porn depicts women who look very young, with many doing their first scenes within days of their 18th birthday. In fact, based on a 2013 study by Jon Millward, the most common role for porn actresses in their twenties is to portray teenage girls. It is common for these women to be discouraged from having breast augmentation surgeries until later in their careers in order to retain their profitable adolescent or prepubescent appearance. Popular title keywords like ‘teen’; ‘daughter’; ‘young’; ‘tiny’; ’schoolgirl’; ‘innocent’; ‘first’; ‘virgin’ etc all demonstrate that mainstream porn normalises the sexualisation of minors. These keywords are some of the most popular searches and most can be found in titles on the ‘most popular’ pages of mainstream porn websites. This cannot be dismissed as a ‘minority’ issue; it is a mainstream one and ‘average’ porn users contribute to it. Porn comprises many men’s first experiences of sex and undoubtedly shapes their sexual tastes and attitudes towards women. If they are presented with women who look very young, paired with language which deliberately sexualises their youth, it is unsurprising that porn has helped to cultivate a paedophile culture.
Porn is big business — estimated to be worth almost 100 billion dollars. The Internet Watch foundation reported that recorded child sexual exploitation (known as ‘child porn’) is one of the fastest growing-online businesses. Similarly, the International Labour Organization estimate that one million children per year are trafficked for the purpose of forced sexual exploitation (prostitution). We cannot afford to be naive where the safety of children is at risk. Producers of porn deliberately cast ‘barely legal’ girls or adult women who can pass as teenagers. They intentionally choose scenes in which the female ‘character’ is implicitly or explicitly young. It is not difficult to imagine that investors in the porn industry may interpret the fiscal ‘success’ of child pornography to be demand for such a ‘product’ and therefore seek to satisfy that consumer demand through mainstream porn. Producers of pornography are so far removed from the values of ordinary people that the sexual exploitation of children becomes just another business venture. There is nothing that capitalism will not corrupt and exploit in the name of profit.
The Infantilisation of Adult Women
In the same way that girls are sexualised as though they are adult women, so too are adult women infantilised as though they are girls. The desirability of youth is not a new concept, but it has been taken to sinister levels in recent years. Women are consistently encouraged to emulate the innocence, interests and behaviours of prepubescent girls. We see this manifest in the influx of unicorn, mermaid and princess-themed products and in stereotypically ‘girly’ colour palettes — pinks, pastels and glitters. Not only are women encouraged to act like girls, but they are also encouraged to look like girls. The beauty industry obsessively promotes anti-aging whilst fashion and dieting industries shrink the idealised vision of the female for to child-like proportions.
Even advertising campaigns which have been lauded as feminist and progressive utilise language that infantilises women — consistently using the word ‘girl’ to refer to women. This conflation of adult women and female children is alarming. Is the implication that women are immature, incapable and inane? Or, more ominously, that this liberal empowerment has imbued female children with the emotional maturity of adulthood and the age-appropriate things that come with it?
There has also been a worrying rise in ‘big and little’, ‘adult baby’ or ‘age play’ sexual fetishism. More formally known as paraphilic infantilism, this fetish is characterised by receiving sexual gratification from role playing as infants. It is troubling to see such clearly paedophilic tendencies treated as mere ‘fetish’ in documentaries and articles. This ostensibly amicable attention from the mainstream media attempts to humanise those who express a sexual interest in minors. Society is invited to view these ‘adult babies’ and their parent/carer figure with whimsical curiosity rather than with the appropriate disgust. Whilst the vast majority of the general population rightly find the sexualisation of children to be detestable in the abstract, the subtle normalisation — or even the sympathetic portrayal — of paedophiles seems to be going undetected and unchallenged. It is gravely irresponsible to dismiss this behaviour as the harmless private acts of consenting adults; the natural conclusion of this ideological shift is horrifying.
Economic and Political Motive
Driven by advancements in technology, the growth of capital in the latter half of the twentieth century has been exponential. Having expanded the market to its fullest geographically, big financial players have sought to surmount market saturation with new or rebranded commodities. As a result, we have entered an age of hyper-commodification. It is true that sex has always been bought and sold in capitalist economies; sexual slavery are prostitution are evident throughout historical protocapitalist societies. However, the recent rapid growth in capital has brought the commodification of sex to new heights. Sex has evolved to include much more than the act itself in contemporary markets. Now, the intangible quality of ‘sexiness’ is revered and a range of commodities exist which allow consumers to ‘buy’ sex appeal. Unfettered by traditionalist or religious notions of chastity, the sex industry has grown to mammoth proportions. Sex has proven to be very profitable business; it was inevitable that capitalists would sexualisation children in the pursuit of profit.
The ill effects of the commodification of sex have been masked by the liberal promotion of ‘sexual freedom’. Stemming from the free love movement of the 60s, postmodernist schools of thought on sex and sexuality have lent credence to the capitalist commodification of sex and, by extension, the sexualisation of children. Postmodernism challenges objective, material truths and instead asserts that truth is subjective — a matter of personal experience. It is a fundamentally self-centred and individualistic world-view. This approach has been emphatically embraced by liberals in order to reject any criticism of their morally suspect political positions. Sex trade lobbyists repeatedly cite the individual’s ‘agency’ or ‘autonomy’ in order to abrogate responsibility for partaking in, endorsing and perpetuating the capitalist commodification of bodies and sex. The absence of any absolute boundaries within postmodern theory leads to worrying conclusions regarding children and sex. The language of liberalism is often used to encourage sexual freedom and exploration in youth and — in societies where the accumulation of capital is paramount — this becomes another sector to be warped and manipulated in the name of profit. It is vital that our attitudes towards the safeguarding of children do have absolute boundaries and that these are rigidly enforced. There can be no room for subjective interpretations of right and wrong on the issue of child protection.
Presently, we are experiencing a bizarre role reversal which sees adult women infantilised whilst young girls are sexualised. Yet why does this hyper-sexualisation and infantilisation not extend to boys and men in the same way? Aligning women and girls as one homogenous female class of silly and vacuous sexual objects removes the barriers which discourage misogyny. Any perception of women as intelligent and capable is replaced with condescension and derision. Awareness of girls’ vulnerability and the inclination to protect them from harm is replaced by entitlement and depraved lust. Through this unsettling absorption of paedophilia into misogyny, the predominantly male elite is able to retain absolute control. This sexism serves the ruling class. Through its insistence that men and women are to be separate, one always above the other, it pits men against women; male workers against female workers; boys against girls. It divides the working class quite literally in half and halves our organising ability. As long as society perpetuates female subjugation to men, the working class can never be united.
We must challenge the commodification of sex. In ascribing monetary value to commodities, we disguise the social relations required to produce them. As capital grows, our perception of social relationships becomes more blurred. In contemporary market exchange, we experience several layers of marketing which further alienate the consumer from the human relations of production. We lose sight of the negative impact that the commodification of sex has upon the social interactions between men and women.