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 I didnt really see the need, as a (since withdrawn) promotional photo Id seen earlier, of scantily clad pre-pubescent girls in clearly provocative positions, told me pretty much everything I needed to know.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: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!