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Scene from Netflix's Cuties.Netflix / YouTube

Shortly before the coronavirus epidemic, I went to see a major exhibition of the work of William Blake in London’s Tate gallery: artistic visionary, political radical, and follower of the peculiar religious opinions of Swedenbourg. One of the exhibits was a book about the horrific treatment of African slaves in the plantations in Blake’s time, which he had illustrated. The book was open at a page illustrating the torture of a slave. Blake is most famous for his naïve and fantastical drawings, but he was classically trained and understood anatomy and realism. The illustration is absolutely unbearable. Like the famous illustration of slaves crammed into a ship used by abolitionists, it was part of a movement that successfully brought home the horrors of slavery to the British public.

The information card next to this item noted that, according to some critics, Blake’s illustration was voyeuristic. This is an indication of the extreme sensitivity affected by some progressives over anything to do with race. It strikes me as an extraordinary feature of modern society that this coexists with a complete lack of sensitivity by the cultural elite to anything to do with sexuality.

I’m not going to review Cuties because I’ve not watched it, and I have no intention of doing so. What I can comment on is the reaction to it, particularly those of people defending it. One might expect defenders of the series to claim that it does not endorse what it depicts — sexualized dancing by underage girls — and they do say this, up to a point. But actually, they do want to endorse it. Here is the New York Times reviewer, Richard Brody:

The subject of “Cuties” isn’t twerking; it’s children, especially poor and nonwhite children, who are deprived of the resources — the education, the emotional support, the open family discussion — to put sexualized media and pop culture into perspective.

What does this story tell us, exactly? Brody patiently explains that in the oppressive, patriarchal society these girls are supposedly part of, despite their complete lack of supervision or effective moral formation, their adoption of sexualized dancing is a way of rebelling and establishing their own identities. So it’s actually good. But it’s also bad, because they are doing it only because they lack resources and education, and are oppressed.

Tim Roby, the film critic of the Daily Telegraph, supposedly a conservative newspaper, does the same thing. First, he tells us that “its very subject is the disturbing, premature sexualization of young girls in French society.” So this is bad, right? But then he adds that critics of the series are “terrified of child sexuality.” It is the second statement that The Telegraph chose to make its headline, not the first.

It would be perfectly understandable to claim that underage girls who engage in sexualized dance routines or get drawn into prostitution do so because of poor education and bleak prospects. What does not make sense is to lament the fact that they end up being sexualized and exploited by predatory men and simultaneously claim that premature sexualization and prostitution are actually life-affirming, positive choices expressive of female liberation. I’m used to the idea of progressives trying to have their cake and eat it, but they really need to make up their minds on this one.

What the defenders of the series like Brody and Roby have strangely missed is that the producers of the series are themselves sexualizing and exploiting the child actors, and serving up their sexualized performances for consumption by male critics like themselves. If there is a power dynamic going on here, the consumers are at the top, Netflix as pimp or enabler is in the middle, and these poor children are at the bottom. Brody and Roby are in danger of mistaking fiction for reality. The real story here is not about girls spontaneously organizing a twerking troupe in order to stick to “the man”; no, that is a made-up story. What is happening in the real world is “the man” corralling girls into a twerking troupe to tickle the jaded appetites of Netflix subscribers.

Netflix is not just giving us a story about the sexual exploitation of children. It is engaging in the sexual exploitation of children.

How convenient and delightful it would be for the consumers of pornography and prostitution if everyone involved in the industry were empowered and validated by it. This is the message of “sex positive feminism,” which has got such a hold on our cultural elite that Amnesty International, which once stood up for the persecuted, now condemns laws restricting the exploitation of women in prostitution. But it is a lie. However miserable the prospects of children in French immigrant communities, pushing them into the sex trade makes those prospects a whole lot worse.

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.