Cuties. We’re digging into Netflix’s controversial new flick

It’s Spooky Season!

Speaking of spooky, have you seen the Netflix movie Cuties yet?

Perhaps “spooky” isn’t what you would call it, though I have heard many people say it is downright frightening.
I hear you, and I’d like to share with you some additional perspectives.

If you haven’t heard of it yet, Cuties is about an 11-year old Senegalese girl living in Paris who befriends (after some turmoil) a diverse group of girls who are part of a dance group. The movie takes you on a journey of what life is like for a group of 11-year old girls who are navigating crushes on boys, weight stigma, social media, and most notably, sexualization.

The concern over girls’ sexualization isn’t new; it’s been raging for years (believe it or not, it was a prominent concern even in your grandmother’s time). And it is understandable. With the statistics around intimate partner violence, exploitation, and sexual violence all painting a very concerning picture regarding the safety of girls, it is hard to argue that parents shouldn’t be wanting to protect their daughters.

But did you know that sexualization is a normal part of young girls’ development?

Before you run away and think “This Erin chick is absolutely bonkers”, let me assure you I am not saying sexualization is something you should embrace without question. I simply want to share with you a bit more about how nuanced this issue is so that you, as a parent, teacher, or coach, can support your girls in a way that will genuinely raise their self-esteem and self-awareness.

Bonus, if you have young boys, this is just as important for you to know because the genders are immersed in this sexualized culture equally, just with very different outcomes.

The good news is…well, frankly that there IS good news! I understand how scary the word sexualization can be to a parent of a tween or teen. You’ve seen Instagram content, you’ve heard all the horror stories, you’ve maybe caught your teen sexting, or uneasily watched an impromptu dance recital from your tween mimicking the “hot” dance moves of today’s music videos. You want to know what to do, and you want to know how to do it kindly and effectively so you don’t push your daughter away.

Today’s coffee break is all about giving you hope and reassurance that you can raise a strong, confident, self-aware girl in a culture that can be damaging for them if left unaddressed.

More importantly, you can address these concerns with your girls (and boys!) in a such a way that brings you closer.

Let me show you how.

A long time ago when I made the ridiculous decision to get a PhD (see, we all make expensive mistakes in life that force our grey hairs to appear well before their time, it’s finnneeee), I chose to focus my studies on the sexualization and empowerment of young girls and women.

Like you, I was looking around me terrified at the state of the world. Particularly, I was concerned about the hyper-eroticized “options” (yeah right!) available to girls and women.
When I was growing up, it was the era of Spice Girl’s “Girl Power”, but it was also the era of Girls Gone Wild and Carmen Electra’s Stripper-cise (workout videos that told you how to get in shape while doing lap dances).

The “options” seemed to be the same: Be cute, be sexy, be “powerful”…

Growing up in this era I learned a) you have to look good at all times b) you have to look good for the men who are evaluating your “desirability” and c) that desirability is what gives you power.

I wondered, at what point do girls learn about feeling good? When do they get to feel powerful for themselves, and not because other people (like the boys they have crushes on) determine for them whether they are worthy of it or not (depending on how cute and sexy they are)?

I felt sad and confused because, I too, found myself participating in this culture that I was critiquing. I desperately wanted to fit in, I wanted to be seen as desirable, I wanted to be noticed – particularly by boys I liked.

And trust me when I say with full confidence that I was not.

Something in me always rejected the way I was “supposed” to be. I was disappointed that I couldn’t be accepted on my own terms.

I remember thinking at a young age: “Why can’t I get the guys to like me by being me?” Or, at the very least, by being like them? (aka strong, smart, having fun, dressing in a relaxed, carefree manner that didn’t necessitate I hike up my tube top every 30 seconds and monitor whether my underwear was showing just enough but not too much as these were the days of the exposed thong…bless the early 2000s…)

I couldn’t understand that what would make me “acceptable” as a woman was to hand over my body (figuratively speaking). I was stuck because I didn’t choose it, I didn’t enjoy it (I’d like to have a word with whomever invented g-strings)…but it worked! And that was addictive.

I finally felt I was “enough”. I was finally being noticed…

Maybe you felt this too…particularly, let’s say during Spooky Season, when you had to pick a Halloween costume for the upcoming party and saw your options were: sexy nurse, slutty cop, sexy pumpkin, sexy, sexy, sexy, slutty.

Fun side note: In my first year of undergraduate studies I went to a club for Halloween dressed as a prominent rapper complete with baggy coveralls, Band-Aid under my eye, ball cap and sneakers. I felt awesome! (So comfortable!! And warm for standing in line outside because of course we never brought jackets because who pays for coat check??). When I got into the club, everywhere I turned I saw people dressed exactly like me. Finally, I had done something “cool”. I was vindicated!!! It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized it was all the men dressed as this rapper (fully clothed and comfy) and all the women around me were wearing the same “sexy fireman” costumes with the words “I put out” across their tight white t-shirts. The gender divide was alarming (excuse the pun). Suffice to say my coolness factor dropped back down to it’s regular nerd levels pretty quick that night 🙂

Why am I telling you all this?

Because, like me, young girls today have very strong reasons and inner motivations to participate in this hyper-sexualized culture whether they actually want to or not.

They have so few options to be seen as valuable and worthy, that they will pick the one most available and effective for getting noticed.


I’m also telling you this because after 15 years of university (did I mention my grey hairs?!), I realized that how I had been looking at and critiquing the hyper-sexualized culture around me was…well…just as harmful to the girls I wanted to help.

Let me repeat that: The fear and anger I had towards the hyper-sexualized culture, the desire I had to shield and to protect girls at all costs from the dangers of sexuality, the snide remarks I made about those sexy fireman costumes on Halloween…was causing just as much harm to girls than the sexualization itself.

Wait. WHAT?

So hold on! You’re telling me I need to be OK with my tween or teen dancing sexy and wearing crop tops, and posing seductively on Instagram??

No.

I understand your worry there. I really do.

I am saying we need to first understand why girls are making these choices before we shut them down completely.

Studies have shown that full out preventing girls from exploring, experimenting, and expressing themselves can have negative repercussions for her ability to have healthy relationships in the future.

Girls who are allowed to explore what is developmentally appropriate, who are given correct sexual and dating health information early enough, and who are provided options and choice around their body, their style, and their social and romantic desires end up being much healthier and more well-adjusted than teens who are not afforded this type of support.

They also develop more effective boundaries for themselves, show greater levels of confidence, engage in less damaging intimate partner relationships as they get older, and can navigate issues of consent more effectively!

Knowing what girls are seeing in the media, what pressures they are facing, and how they are making sense of it all will help you as a parent, teacher, or coach support them in these endeavours.

Understanding girls’ motivations can help you create a world for them that they feel powerful in – on their terms! One where they have choices, and can express themselves authentically in such a way that empowers them and elevates their self-esteem.

How would it feel to you knowing that you have created that opportunity for them?