By: Suzanne S. La Pierre
In a 2018 Vanity Fair article, Brooke Shields reflected on her decades-earlier role as the 12-year old daughter of a prostitute in a New Orleans brothel performed when the actress was just 11 years old. While proud of her role in the 1978 film Pretty Baby, she lamented the feelings of separation and loss of her “movie family” at the conclusion of the filming, remembering breaking down and “just sobbing… That kind of heartbreak can only happen to an 11-year old.” The trauma was so severe she was, for some time, reluctant to make any further films.
Importantly, when asked if the movie could be remade today and if so, would she let her own daughter star in it, she replied “In this environment and with social media and with the dangers on that level and just being a mom now, looking at my 11-year-old, I would not facilitate it.”
Had only the parents of the 11-and 12-year old child stars of the current film Cuties heeded her advice. Obsessed with garnering “likes” on social media platforms, the preteen protagonists adopt hypersexualized dance routines they see approvingly reviewed online, posting their own version in hopes of similar ratings. Not having a clue as to why the “dancing” they emulate receives such accolades, but confronting the stresses of burgeoning adolescence, including disavowal of parental values and peer pressure, they devote their energies into perfecting every degrading gyration they have witnessed. And while the film’s director insists that she made the film to highlight the problems associated with unrestricted access to social media and the internet by children, she has gone too far, and yet not far enough, in pursuit of her professed goal.
Most disturbing is the casting of preteen girls whose exploitation in the making of the film is the very abuse the director affirmatively decries. These girls, like all kids, are cognitively immature; their brains have not yet developed to the point where they can understand the consequences of their actions. They are physiologically incapable of giving informed consent, and tragically, society has failed in its responsibility to protect them from this kind of harm. What will be the impact on these girls years from now? They won’t be able to erase this public exposure. How will they handle the attendant, everlasting notoriety?
Rather than requiring social media platforms, advertisers and filmmakers, to take all reasonable steps to prevent viewing and parroting age-inappropriate material by any child with access to a cellphone, computer or other internet-enabled device, we have totally abdicated our responsibilities. Even more disturbing are the affirmative actions we take encouraging our children, particularly our girls, to glorify and prematurely embrace adult behavior. Child beauty pageants instantly spring to mind. If we continue to model such behavior as both desirable and acceptable, what do we expect from our impressionable youth?
But even if “of age” actors had assumed the preteen roles in Cuties, the steady stream of increasingly sexualized images obliterates any educational message that may have been intended. Aside from disparaging frowns on the faces of a few spectators viewing the girls’ live performance, and the female lead’s abrupt departure from the stage in tears followed by her seemingly recovered innocence while jumping rope, none of the negative realities of the objectification of women as perpetuated in contemporary film/advertising and social media, and the detrimental effects of these images on our kids are portrayed.
21st century technology has radically altered the landscape in which our children are growing up. No longer will an “R” rating on a film shown only in a movie theater, hardcover porn pedaled only in adult bookstores, or the occasional unearthing of a sibling’s girlie magazine limit our kids’ exposure to material not designed for their immature minds. Parents, advertisers, and social media must do more to protect children from these harmful images. Equally important is the role of filmmakers and the platforms that provide large audiences for them. They must not exploit children in pursuit of making a point — or a profit. No matter how noble the intentions, the message will be lost. And, ironically, these purported educators will have committed the very wrong they vilify. Cuties’ exploitation of four young girls — who cannot themselves consent — in an effort to sound a public alarm through film is a price we cannot and should not pay. Ever.