It’s weird, given how many magazines I used to plough through, that I’ve never forgotten this one piece. Even my recollection of Smith’s particular pose for the photograph was correct. I guess that no matter how hard I tried to persuade myself otherwise, there was still something about it that creeped me out. Embedded in it is what I might now think of as groomer logic. It takes things that you might find exploitative or harmful and presents them as normal or even positive; it takes advantage of the fact that you haven’t yet got the vocabulary or conceptual framework to articulate your discomfort; it alienates you from those who might validate this discomfort (the faux ‘outraged’); it confuses you by insisting rules that might apply elsewhere — don’t rape teenagers — don’t apply in this particular case. Above all it makes you feel like a massive idiot for still having that feeling, deep in your stomach, that things aren’t okay.
There’s something of this I see in the backlash to the backlash to the film Cuties (Mignonnes). Having criticised the marketing and one of the scenes on twitter, I felt I had to watch it “to be fair” (which is annoying, since had I not been offended, I might have overlooked it completely). And, to be even more fair, I thought the vast majority of the film was brilliant. The actresses are superb and it somehow manages to depict the viciousness of female friendships without resorting to crass “girls are just bitches” tropes. I’d have liked to see even more of the friendships. More friendships and fewer close-ups of gyrating bodies.
To be clear, the “bad” clips from the film circulating on social media show most — but not all — of the unpleasant scenes. There’s a point (I was about to say how many minutes from the end, but then thought, no, don’t make looking it up that easy) where you suddenly think “hang on, why are they filming it this way? It was fine up to now!” Yes, there is a point to be made: little girls simulate pornified performances from popular culture without fully understanding what they are doing. But it is surely possible to film this in a way that does not replicate the production values and principles of pornography. The close-ups are excessive and it is frankly jarring in a film that spends so much time conveying the perspective of the main character, Amy, to suddenly find yourself watching from the viewpoint of a dodgy porn consumer. And yes, that may be the intent — see how this girl, who you know is so human, is now just an object! See how you, the viewer, are made complicit in her objectification! But intentional or not, this is harmful.
I am conscious of how much of a twat you sound when you start declaring certain artistic productions “harmful”. Ooh, hark at Mary Whitehouse over there! Get you and your moral panic! This has been the tone of much of the response to the original criticism of Cuties. The Telegraph’s review declares it a “provocative powder-keg for an age terrified of child sexuality”, insisting that “Netflix’s controversial French import is disturbing and risqué because that’s exactly what it aims to be”. Meaning, if you find it problematic, you’re the problem (because obviously, sexually objectifying children is exactly the same as recognising that children will wish to explore their own sexuality. As opposed to, I don’t know, being the exact opposite).
Then again, the issue might not be that you’re a prude; it might just be that you’re stupid. Alyssa Rosenberg declares that “if conservatives [because all critics must be ‘conservatives’] who have jumped on the debate over #Cuties, want to be taken seriously as cultural arbiters, they have to be able to talk about the *text* of a movie like this in an honest, responsible way”. Ooh! The TEXT! As though having a problem with close-ups of pre-teens humping the floor isn’t enough. As though saying so out loud reveals you to be shallow, lacking in learning, too dumb to grasp the broader message. As though, like some moron who never even noticed that FHM and Loaded sexism was, like, totally ironic sexism, you’re just too thick to differentiate between the thing in itself and a critique of said thing (what with both things looking exactly the same).
I’m not saying the question of “how do you produce a criticism of X without replicating X” is an easy one to answer. I’m put in mind of Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and Marti Noxon’s To The Bone, both of which fall down by assuming the answer is “it’s criticism because I say so”. Yes, in its extreme misogyny and violence American Psycho “holds a hyper-real, satirical mirror up to our faces” but really, this is something the reader will have already worked out about a quarter of the way in. Only the book goes on and on, and it kind of has to, because nihilistic repetition is part of the point, innit, and oh look, you’re at one of the ‘women being raped and tortured’ bits again and yes, maybe as a cultural event (ahem) the book would otherwise fail. Part of the genius of American Psycho is that it is so unremitting, yet the misogynistic fantasies aren’t any less misogynistic because of this. The narrative rhythm depends on Patrick Bateman tearing women to pieces and fucking their corpses, then listing men’s toiletries and pondering the work of Whitney Houston or Huey Lewis and the News. It’s clever, yes, but it’s also hate-filled. It’s higher art but if you can get in a tizz about Blurred Lines, you might also want to question the impact of books like this.
Meanwhile the film To The Bone tells the story of an anorexia sufferer, played by Lily Collins, who lost a significant amount of weight for the role. I reviewed the film when it was released and felt that, had I still been suffering from anorexia, I’d have found it dangerous. What struck me was that Collins — herself a former sufferer — wasn’t performing starvation. She was literally starving, just as the girls in Cuties are literally thrusting for the cameras. To me, this is unjustifiable. There are times when the gap between being and critiquing is unclear, but this is not the case with American Psycho, To The Bone or Cuties. There is no gap at all.
Anyhow, that’s enough on the complex tension between artistic intent and the uncontrollable demands of a fluid audience . What really pisses me off about those defending the pornified scenes in Cuties is the intellectual snobbery, the way in which it’s suggested that those who raise concerns about child safeguarding are just incapable of grappling with the complex socio-cultural themes of the oeuvre. I totally agree that Cuties explores some fascinating themes. I’m just guessing that those who fast-forward to particular scenes in order to do particular “things” aren’t particularly arsed about those. I don’t think anyone sits down to “focus on” those scenes then thinks “hang on, there’s a broader message here about the immigrant experience and the way in which patriarchy is transmitted intergenerationally by women themselves and how social media blah blah blah”. The girls who are featured in these scenes have no control over how others respond to them and these scenes are out there, forever.
One of the aspects of Amy’s characterisation that I loved was that she’s the one who pushes things too far without realising what she’s doing, and while remaining the least dominant member of the group. It felt entirely relatable, yet I’ve never seen this dynamic portrayed so well before. This could so easily have been the story. It’s almost as though there’s a point at which Amy’s inner life, so beautifully portrayed, ceases to be considered interesting enough to hold its own. These actresses deserved better, so much so it is very tempting to stay quiet about the film’s bad parts (in much the same way that it is difficult for feminists to criticise any aspect of the sex trade without being told they are undermining sex workers. Industries which sexually objectify create their own human shields).
In recent years Mandy Smith — who divorced Bill Wyman at 20 — has become a born-again Christian and recommended raising the age of consent to 18. Speaking of her past, she has said “You are still a child, even at 16. You can never get that part of your life, your childhood, back. I never could” (so much for “acts much older than her 16 years”). One could argue that she is replacing one patriarchal regime with another (in much the way defenders of Cuties have tried to use the film’s exploration of different forms of patriarchal control to defend its explicit scenes). In any case, it seems clear to me that the ‘outraged’ were onto something all along.
Newspapers today might not salivate over “wild children” as they did in the eighties; they wouldn’t get away with it. Still, I don’t find it hard to imagine a similar phenomenon being repackaged by Teen Vogue as “teen girls exploring their sexuality”. It is very easy to shame people out of expressing misgivings (you’re prudish, you’re immature, you’re stupid, you’re in league with the Christian Right). But things that are done to bodies can’t be undone. Young girl goes for it. There is so much spirit in girls. We shouldn’t be crushing it while claiming to celebrate it.