Somewhere on my coffee table lurks a recent Boden catalogue. It shows pictures of beautiful, healthy, impressively clean – and, of course, very well dressed – children. They spend their time cavorting on sunny beaches or striding down iconic London streets.
This week, images of children have provided a rare moment of consensus in our ongoing culture war. Promotional material for a new film coming to Netflix, Cuties (or Mignonnes in the French original) has sparked widespread condemnation for portraying a sexualised image of young girls. The publicity campaign shows the film’s scantily-clad child stars in a provocative twerking pose. Following a social media backlash and a petition, Netflix has now apologised for ‘inappropriate artwork’ and removed the picture.
No one seems particularly upset by this decision. Those who might normally be relied on to cry ‘snowflake’ or shout ‘Get woke, go broke!’ have been at the forefront of arguing that Netflix was sexualising young girls for ‘the viewing pleasure of paedophiles’. At the same time, few are defending Cuties. Which is a surprise because it’s an award-winning French film, directed by a black woman, Maimouna Doucouré.
Cuties offers a rare glimpse of the realities of working class and ethnically diverse girlhood. Sadly, it seems this is a reality that many would prefer to remain hidden in favour of the glorious simplicity and beautiful innocence of childhood as portrayed in the Boden catalogue. But this is a million miles from the reality of most children’s lives. For many families, £60 represents a week’s food budget, not a cashmere cardigan for a five year-old.
And – shocking though this may seem – some parents simply don’t like stripy Breton tops and unicorn print primary colours. Shop in Primark or Matalan and girls clothes are shorter, tighter, skimpier. Such outfits might not be to everyone’s taste but the bottom line is if they didn’t sell, they wouldn’t be stocked.
Likewise, plenty of children don’t spend their days frolicking on foreign beaches but are left to make their own entertainment. The 2017 film, The Florida Project, shows life through the eyes of a six-year-old girl, Moonee, living with her mother in a cheap hotel on the edge of the Disney resorts. She moves from spitting on a neighbour’s car, to rampaging through an abandoned building, to hustling tourists for money for ice cream. This is no sentimental story. We are not asked to feel sorry for Moonee – at least not until the very end – she’s resilient and copes with all that life throws at her.
Ultimately, what stops us wallowing in pity is that Moonee is so determined to have fun. Despite living in the most precarious of circumstances, she wrings more pleasure out of one day than many of us manage in a year. It is definitely not the kind of pleasure middle class parents want for their children and, sure enough, Moonee finds herself in some risky situations. At one point, it’s left to the hotel manager to chase away a man paying inappropriate attention to the girl and her friends as they play in swimsuits around the pool.
Cuties explores similar themes. The 11-year-old protagonist joins a dance group with other girls who dress and perform sexually provocative routines. They no doubt do this for many reasons: to escape a boring home life, for adult attention and to shock. Maimouna Doucouré points to the negative influence of social media on the lives of young girls. But whatever their underlying motives, dancing and dressing this way clearly makes the girls happy. It brings them pleasure.
This raises all kinds of complex issues. Why are young girls socialised to find pleasure in behaving in a way that is sexually provocative to men? How should parents and teachers respond to this? At what age do we accept that girls have agency to dress and behave as they choose? Do we, as adults, interpret girls’ behaviour in ways they do not intend? Do we judge the tastes and pursuits of working class girls more harshly than their middle class peers? Asking these questions is not for one second to condone child abuse. It’s just to acknowledge that for some children life is not the idyll we may wish it to be.
Maimouna Doucouré directs us to acknowledge the complexity of some girls’ lives and sit with the discomfort of our response. Sadly, it’s far easier to condemn the messenger, close our eyes and stick our fingers in our ears than it is to dwell in ambiguities. The rush to condemn Cuties and blast Netflix for its publicity material shows us that cancel culture isn’t a phenomenon confined to the social justice left.
No doubt Netflix deliberately selected a provocative image to promote Cuties and draw in viewers – thereby playing into the very discussion the film hopes to generate. But in the rush to condemn the publicity material, I hope viewers can keep an open mind about the film.