Cuties, human dignity and cancelling Netflix 

Mary Beth Bonacci

I love Netflix. I love that I can watch sitcoms and movies, as well as virtually any documentary I like, at any hour of the day or night. For a kid who grew up with three channels, rabbit ears and the occasional VHS rental cassette, its quite an amazing advancement. 

But Netflix has been letting me down lately. 

The latest offender is a French movie called Cuties. Its the story of Amy, an 11-year-old Senegalese girl living in Paris who rebels against her conservative Muslim parents by becoming involved with a free-spirited” girls’ dance group who call themselves the Mignonnes.”  

And if by free-spirited” they mean highly sexualized” then yes, thats exactly what these girls are. 

Netflix has defended the movie, saying that critics should watch it before making assumptions. I didnt really see the need, as a (since withdrawn) promotional photo Id seen earlier, of scantily clad pre-pubescent girls in clearly provocative positions, told me pretty much everything I needed to know. But I figured I would take them up on the suggestion, both because it would help me to write an informed critique, and it would allow me to unpack and set up my new furniture while still technically working” on my column. Honestly, I was probably motivated more by the second than the first. 

Ironically, when I logged into Netflix to find the movie, the first show on their featured” page was a jaunty-looking little series called Lucifer, which featured a wry photo of a clearly naked man. This didn’t bode well neither for my day, nor for my future with Netflix. 

The movie started out going back and forth between the drama of a Muslim family in crisis, and daughter Amys increasing involvement with a quartet of girls in her school class who are obsessed with erotic dance and male genitalia. At about 30 minutes in, a young girl — make that a VERY young girl — seductively exposed a budding breast. On camera. Five minutes later, several 11-year-olds were simulating sexual acts. 

I was done. Im told there is a lot more. I will take their word for it. I saw enough to understand why the National Center on Sexual Exploitation has condemned Netflix for airing a film that has permitted the sexual exploitation of children. 

A spokeswoman for Netflix defended the film, saying that Cuties is a social commentary against the exploitation of young children.” I saw none of that in the 40 some minutes I watched. But I will gladly stipulate to it. Maybe it is. Maybe it ends up making the most powerful statement against child sexualization that has ever been uttered in the entire history of streaming television services. I dont care, because the point — and I cant believe I actually have to say this out loud — is simply that you dont protest the sexual exploitation of children by sexually exploiting children. Let me say that again: you dont protest the sexual exploitation of children by sexually exploiting children. 

Those young actresses arent cartoons or holograms. They are real, flesh-and-blood young girls. Young girls, with real, developing human bodies and immortal souls, created with immeasurable dignity in the image and likeness of God. As St. John Paul II said in his Theology of the Body, what we do with our bodies matters. And what the producers and directors of this film have done is exploit and sexualize their young bodies and put those bodies on display for every pedophile and pervert in the world who can scrape together $11 a month for a Netflix subscription. I dont care if they did it to make a point, or to make a profit, or to save the entire free world. It was wrong, very wrong. 

Consider this. Somebody taught these girls those moves — the writhing, the crotch grabbing and thrusting, the sensuous expressions. They no doubt rehearsed it for weeks. They were observed and critiqued and judged by producers and directors and choreographers. Before that young girl flashed her breast to the entire Netflix world, she flashed it to an entire camera crew. Live and in person. Repeatedly, Im sure. 

Im told the movie ends with the fictional Amy running away in tears, trying to regain her innocence. But who is going to restore the innocence of the real life 14-year-old Fathia Youssouf, who portrayed her? 

The end, no matter how noble, does not justify the means. 

Even if the images were holograms, the impact of this movie on society would still be terrible. The images we put out into the airways, and into peoples brains, matter. This movie normalizes images of child sexualization, which endangers kids everywhere and risks their further sexualization. 

When I was praying this morning, I asked God what he wanted me to say in this column today. And the immediate thought that came to me was Satan hates innocence.” I think it was no coincidence that the first show Netflix pitched to me was entitled Lucifer. It was confirmation. Satan does hate innocence. And innocence is under attack. One in every four sexual trafficking victims is a child. The state of California is on the verge of relaxing its statutory rape laws when the perpetrators age is within 10 years of the victim. Former child stars are calling press conferences and writing books to denounce the rampant sexual abuse they and other young actors and actresses have endured in Hollywood. 

The very last thing we need right now is a mass market film sexualizing preadolescent girls. 

Several members of Congress are calling for the Department of Justice to investigate Netflix over possible violation of child pornography laws. The hashtag #CancelNetflix is trending. A petition on change.org has already gathered over 600,000 signatures, including mine. Netflix has apologized for the aforementioned promotional photo. But they are standing by the film. 

Im sure gonna miss those documentaries. 

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.