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Who needs to apologize about ‘Cuties’?

Ted Cruz and the hysteria over a French film

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). (Tom Williams/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
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I owe an apology to Ted Cruz. The junior senator from Texas owes a bigger apology to his constituents.

Let me explain. This all started with a weekend kerfuffle over the French film “Mignonnes,” which Netflix called “Cuties” and made available to its subscribers last week. The film is about an 11-year-old French-Senegalese girl named Amy who feels increasingly alienated by her austere Muslim family and gloms onto a neighbor and her pack of girls training for a dance competition that involves an awful lot of twerking.

Beginning last month, Netflix promoted “Cuties” in the United States in a way that did not perfectly capture what the film was about (and for which Netflix subsequently apologized). Vulture film critic Alison Willmore aptly captures what happened next:

As the controversy grew, Cruz felt the need to get involved. He announced that he was calling for the Justice Department to “investigate whether Netflix, its executives, or the filmmakers violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography.”

The idea that Netflix would traffic in child pornography by releasing a Sundance Award-winning film seemed risible, and I responded to Cruz on Twitter with the suggestion that he was not even aware he was railing against a film produced and financed overseas.

This is where I owe Cruz an apology: He clearly did know that, as his letter to the attorney general spelled out. And Cruz is also correct to point out that if Netflix was involved in the distribution of child pornography, an investigation would certainly be warranted. The hard lesson for me, which must be regularly relearned on social media, is not to comment on something without having read or watched it.

Here is where Cruz owes his constituents an apology, however. His letter to Attorney General William P. Barr included the following: “The film routinely fetishizes and sexualizes these pre-adolescent girls as they perform dances simulating sexual conduct in revealing clothing, including at least one scene with partial child nudity. These scenes in and of themselves are harmful. And it is likely that the filming of this movie created even more explicit and abusive scenes.”

Having now watched “Cuties,” I find it pretty obvious that Cruz has not.

Let’s dispense with the “partial child nudity.” There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene in which the film’s protagonists are watching video of a rival, older dance troupe in which one of the dancers exposes one breast. It happens too fast for anything to be sexualized. As for whether the film also shot more explicit and abusive scenes, this is Cruz’s speculation and nothing more.

Cruz is on slightly firmer ground with the dancing. No doubt, the movie has a lot of twerking, and director Maïmouna Doucouré focuses her camera on the girls’ posteriors a bit too much for my taste as they learn their provocative dance moves.

That said, however, it requires a willful ignorance of the film itself to claim that these scenes sexualize the girls involved. Indeed, the point of the film is to demonstrate the real risks to the girls when they try to sexualize a situation. The few times the protagonists do this, it inevitably blows up in their faces. What is striking about the final dance number is that it is interspersed with spectators looking on in a disapproving manner.

The film is mostly a cautionary tale about what happens when preteen girls lack parental authority figures and instead seek approval from social media likes. In other words, “Cuties” is a film with a rather conservative message. By my plain-language reading of U.S. law, it does not come remotely close to the “child pornography” label.

My Post colleague Alyssa Rosenberg has an excellent essay about what the film is actually about, and if Cruz refuses to watch the film, he should at least read her essay to educate himself. As Rosenberg notes, “Cuties” “is a film about how difficult it is to become a girl when your role models take you from one extreme to another.” More importantly, the film “doesn’t use cliched scare tactics, such as the paranoia about child sex trafficking that has infected U.S. politics, to make this point. But Doucouré is blunt about the fact that real harm can be done when a child behaves in ways typically reserved for grown-ups.”

Cruz needs to apologize to his constituents for a misplaced set of priorities. The United States is suffering from the most disruptive pandemic in a century and the most serious social unrest in a half-century. There is at least one crazy right-wing conspiracy theory rooted in hysteria over child sex trafficking. One would think that the junior senator from Texas could take his Princeton education and put it to good use to help solve America’s persistent problems.

Alas, it would appear that Cruz would rather complain about a professor than do his job better. That did not end well the last time he tried it. I suspect it will end badly for him yet again.

Again, I sincerely apologize to Cruz for not reading the text of his letter to the attorney general before commenting on it. I just wish he would do the same about the film he is railing against.