At The American Conservative, I’m talking about why visual representations of exploitation are almost always pulled into a kind of exploitation themselves.
The initial advertising for Cuties presented the hypersexualization without any hint of critique. It showed the young actresses in provocative poses, and made it appear that the intended audience for the film was people who wanted to see prepubescent children sexualized.
To an extent, Netflix was right about the audience—though the goal of Maïmouna Doucouré, the writer and director of the film, was to unsettle these people, not titillate them. She drew inspiration for the story when she was shocked and sickened by seeing a group of eleven-year-old girls perform risqué dances. She interviewed pre-teen girls to make her film, learning from them the double pressure they felt: first, to exploit themselves for social media attention and second, to call their experience of exploitation liberation.
I’m very sympathetic to her critique, and I appreciate that she grounded her film in real experiences, but I’m profoundly skeptical of offering that critique through film. Critiquing hypersexualization through visual art is very difficult. How can you show the exploitation of a child to critique the exploitation of children? How can you expose the ugliness of a culture that’s entered the mainstream without being even uglier than what people have already acclimated themselves to?
I go on to discuss the show I love that arguably glamorizes what it criticizes: Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. You can read the whole piece at The American Conservative.