A GREAT DOUBLE BILL ON THE LIVES OF YOUNG GIRLS: CUTIES AND EIGHTH GRADE

You may have heard already of Cuties (original title Mignonnes), the debut feature film by French-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré (b. 1985) author also of the screenplay. Her film, partly based on her own childhood experiences, narrates a turning point in the life of eleven-year-old Amy, a young girl with the same migrant ethnic background as the director. When news that her father is bringing home a second wife, as the Islamic religion permits him, and in view of her mother’s resigned humiliation, Amy starts rebelling. She not only disobeys the injunctions of her stern grand-aunt, the veritable custodian of the family’s patriarchal values, but also joins unbeknownst to her mother a troupe of multi-racial classmates training for a dance contest. Amy’s appropriation of a cousin’s smartphone introduces her to the social networks everyone her age is already using and, what’s more important, teaches her the sexualized dance routines uploaded by older girls that she has her companions imitate. When they take part in the contest, spectators are far from enthusiastic about their bumping and griding and Amy understands that neither world–her family’s repressive understanding of femininity, the so-called ‘liberal’ West’s exploitation of female bodies–can offer her what she truly needs.

When this film was released on Netflix, on 9 September, it immediately caused a major uproar among the most conservative American spectators. A scene interpolated in the narrative in which the director shows the girls fooling around in their sexy dance outfits elicited accusations that this was child pornography. The dance routine the girls display at the contest was found to be unwatchable (that was the director’s intention but for very different reasons). Netflix, which was simply the distributor and not the film’s producer, even had to apologise for the poster showing the girls’ bare midriff (remember the four friends are eleven). Since then, USA Today informs, “at least four state attorneys general [have] asked Netflix to pull the film; Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) urged a criminal investigation; Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said he was unsatisfied with Netflix’s apology; and a Texas grand jury indicted Netflix earlier this month for promoting ‘lewd material of children’” (https://eu.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2020/10/20/netflix-tiny-subscriber-growth-pegged-cuties-scandal/5991684002/). This is part of an article claiming that the Cuties scandal has lost Netflix perhaps even hundreds of thousands of subscribers (in the USA) after the #CancelNetflix smear campaign connected with the film.

Many others have defended Cuties and the argumentation in its favour is very easy to understand: Maïmouna Doucouré wanted to denounce the sexualization of young girls at an age when they don’t even have a clear understanding of their own erotic impulses (and when their bodies are not even fully developed). She explains with great precision how the process works: the girls want to be liked and for that they imitate what is most appreciated on the social networks–the self-exhibition of young, sexy female bodies. If, as the many likes show, this is a valid strategy for the older girls, it must also be valid for the younger girls, they naively assume; in the absence of any adult who can explain the crucial differences, Amy and her friends go down that path without truly grasping the nuances of what they are doing.

Please note that there is nothing sexual in the film in the sense that there are no scenes between the girls and any boys (a pathetic moment between Amy and her smartphone owning cousin is stopped by him in consternation). The girls’ dance outfits are not age-appropriate, I agree with that, but they are not really different from what you can see among very young cheerleaders or what is promoted these days on Tik-Tok. In fact, let me tell you that when I first heard that there was some kind of trouble with Cuties, I assumed that it came from the Muslim community in France. I supposed they might have been annoyed by the presentation of Amy’s resistance to her father’s patriarchal choices but, as you can see, the scandal erupted in the USA.

This is ironic, to say the least, as the strategies for sexualized self-presentation that French Amy and her friends learn come from the social media invented in Silicon Valley. They come from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and similar, all of them American products routinely used by pre-teens and teenagers all over the world to poison their lives. Proof of this is the other film which I am recommending today: Eighth Grade, also available on Netflix. In fact, my recommendation is that you see the two films together for they constitute a splendid double bill about the lives of contemporary young girls. They might seem unrelated at first sight but you can see for yourself that both narrate a state of matters that must be extremely difficult to navigate, and I say this as a fifty-something adult woman that would not know what to do in these girls’ position.

Eight Grade (2018) has been written and directed by Bo Burnham (b. 1990) an American comedian, musician, actor, filmmaker and poet, who “began his performance career as a YouTuber in March 2006” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bo_Burnham) and who is quite well-known as such. This is his first film. I knew nothing about Burnham but I must say that I totally applaud his brave decision to immerse himself in the world of shy thirteen-year-old Elsie Fisher to show the rest of us what it is like to be an American teen girl today. Neither Cuties nor Eight Grade have been made for children but I think it makes perfect sense to see them with the teens in your family, if you have any, not only for them to validate what the films narrate but also to open up a much needed discussion about what girls specifically should accept or reject in their lives.

Elsie’s narrative arc is very simple and very simply limited by her eighth grade in school. Most films about teenagers focus on the high school years but this one pays, exceptionally, attention to that grey area between early childhood and adolescence properly speaking. As I recently told my students it’s funny how the -teen suffix conditions an understanding of adolescence in the Anglophone countries. In Spain we take it for granted that adolescence begins at 12, which is in the English language an age in the pre-teen years (supposedly starting at 10). In any case, Elsie, who lives with her divorced dad Mark (a loving, supporting man), faces difficulties that while common to any adolescent since the term was invented 120 years ago are enhanced by the impact of social media in her age group. Having pimples, being body-conscious, making awkward moves to approach someone you like, fighting a losing battle against the most popular girls in class and so on are hardly novelties. What is new is the obsessive documentation in the social media of every single step taken, for good but mostly for bad, and the dangerous pressure this puts on all teens. Burnham has chosen a girl but it would be interesting to see a companion piece about a boy, perhaps the nerdish but also charming guy that befriends Elsie, for no teen is free of that tremendous burden.

It seems to me that all those Americans so offended with Cuties have missed the ways in which Eighth Grade is also lewd, even though these are different. There is a very uncomfortable scene in which Elsie picks a banana, a fruit she hates, to teach herself how to give a blow job, as the YouTube videos she is checking suggest. Her befuddled father catches her in the act, totally misreading the situation, and Elsie tries to eat the banana only to choke on it. This is not at all American Pie-style dirty humour but a comment on how pathetic it is that 13-year-old girls need to give blow jobs in order to be sexually enticing to boys their age (at least to the most coveted ones). Predictably, Elsie is interested in a popular boy that Burnham portrays with no compassion as a total jerk undeserving of her attention; the scene when she tries to awaken his interest by pretending that her private nudie pictures can be seen in her smartphone is another sad moment.

Worst of all is the terrifying encounter with a boy who, as he informs Elsie, just wants to train her into the type of sexual activity that will make her popular at parties and who is miffed when she rejects that kind of favour (though she is in tears at this point). I wonder, then, why Eighth Grade has not provoked and even bigger scandal than Cuties, though I think I know the answer. Even though there is much talk of sex in Burnham’s film, Elsie cannot be said to be sexy (though she is prettier than she assumes). In contrast, even though there is hardly any talk of sex in Cuties, Amy and her friends do look sexy in their dance outfits. Any healthy spectator understands why this is necessary. The ones disturbed by their sexiness are, in short, the dirty-minded individuals that enjoy that sexiness too much. How do they deny this ugly truth? By calling for a witch-hunt against the female film director, accusing her of being dirty-minded. How truly sad.

A personal anecdote to finish. Elsie has a YouTube channel in which she gives advice about how to face the crises of being a teen like her. She has very few followers but it is obvious that the advice she gives is solid. Unlike her everyday shy self, Elsie appears to be confident and quite wise in her videos. The day after I saw the film, my youngest niece (eleven) messaged me to say that she wanted me to buy her a sleeve for her smartphone. Knowing that she had to negotiate this purchase, she offered to upload a video of herself on TikTok and I had to determine how many likes it should get. I accepted her offer but stipulated, thinking of Elsie, that it should be a video in which she said something clever. Ah, no, my niece replied quite cross: either a dance video or nothing; the kind of video I proposed would get no likes… In that way she deprived herself of her coveted sleeve and I learned yet another lesson about young girls and social media. See Cuties and Eighth Grade and learn their lessons.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/sararamartinalegre/

BOYS, GIRLS, AND SEX: STATE OF THE MATTER

American journalist Peggy Orenstein became a much sought-after expert on girls before becoming herself a mother, at which point she realized that theory hardly ever matches practice. Her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (2012) describes the discomfiture caused by her inability to steer her daughter Daisy away from the glaring pink world of girls’ toys and the allure of the Disney princesses. Next came Orenstein’s insightful exploration of sexuality among high school and college female students in the USA, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (2016). As she herself explains, this volume brought in many petitions for a companion study of boys, which she has recently published as Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity (2020). I must clarify that neither volume is specifically addressed to girls or boys but, rather, to the adults interested in their experiences. Boys and Sex is, therefore, similar in its main theses but very different from Respect: Everything a Guy Needs to Know About Sex, Love, and Consent (2019) by Swedish sex educator Inti Chavez Perez. Thus, whereas Orenstein wonders how many US boys really know about the clitoris, Chavez Perez gives his target male readers detailed didactic information about its location and functionality.

Orenstein’s portrait of teen US sexuality is necessarily limited because she focuses her attention on just a handful of informants (87 girls for the first book, about 100 boys for the second) mostly in high school and college, thus ignoring the many youths in other situations. It would be actually interesting to learn whether sex among the young is similar across class and educational differences. Her informants are, besides, overwhelmingly white. Orenstein makes a point of discussing race, especially in the book about the boys, but she deals only with non-white young men immersed in all-white colleges, with all the difficulties this entails. Certainly, their racially-marked position has a significant impact on these boys’ chances to meet sexual partners, given the covert and overt racism they often encounter even in liberal colleges. As you have possibly guessed, the sexuality which Orenstein explores in both books is mostly heterosexual though, to be honest, she does not really endorse its current practices. My impression, from both books, is that lesbian girls and gay guys are navigating ‘the complicated new landscape’, to quote from Orenstein’s title, with more maturity than their heterosexual peers despite still rampant homophobia. Orenstein, in any case, tries to be as inclusive as possible, integrating asexual and trans teens in her twin studies.

Peggy Orenstein, born in 1961, one year after the contraceptive pill was first commercialized, belongs to a post-sexual revolution generation. This means that although there are obvious differences between the 21st century young sexuality she describes and that of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s youth the differences are smaller than with the pre-pill generations. The main difference, obviously, has to do with the emergence of the internet, made accessible in most homes between the early and the mid-1990s, and of the smartphone, popularized already in the 2000s. Computers and smartphones made online porn generally accessible to boys, which is certainly a key factor. Next came the social media and texting apps: MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), Whatsapp (2009), Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011) and so on. If the internet made porn accessible, the social media and the texting apps have put in the hands of teenagers an extremely dangerous tool to make or destroy sexual reputations, as many know. The dating apps, such as Grindr (2009) or Tinder (2012), though satisfactory for many of its users have given the hot body a centrality it should not have in general human sexuality.

I have read Girls and Sex after reading Boys and Sex, and I find that the discourse is very similar in both books, though in Girls the boys are presented with little nuance as almost faceless sexual companions, and in Boys, logically, there is much more detail about who they are. It is not an easy book to read because the portrait that emerges from the average US high school and college boy is very far from flattering. In the case of the girls Orenstein is worried by the distance between the feminist personalities of the girls and their acceptance of sexual practices which are not really satisfactory for them. In the case of the boys feminist Orenstein struggles to combine lessons in respect with the reality of the rape culture rampant in colleges, especially in Greek life (i.e. frat life, in reference to the Greek initials by which fraternities and sororities call themselves). In fact, the most painful sections of the book deal with the efforts made by some young men to understand that pushing your girlfriend down to give you a blow job is part of that rape culture: that push on the shoulders is already robbing the girl of her capacity to give consent.

As many researchers have been explaining in recent years, boys now start watching porn at an age before they have had any sexual feelings of their own which they can identify as such, sometimes as young as seven or eight. They get the wrong impression that the heavily staged sex they see on screen faithfully represents actual sexuality. This has a negative impact on girls, not only because they can find themselves disrespected and abused as often female porn stars are, but also because boys expect from them sexual favours which the girls might not be ready to perform and that, most often, are not reciprocated. Blow jobs, Orenstein insists, are now as common as kissing and a practice far more habitual than intercourse with penetration because, pay attention!, somehow blow jobs are not considered to be intimate and teens prefer impersonal hook-ups. Blow jobs, then, are just an indication that the girl is sexually active and of interest to boys. The problem is that, Orenstein explains, few boys are willing to reciprocate with cunnilingus, candidly declaring that it grosses them out and apparently believing that some clumsy vaginal fingering will do. Whether with or without intercourse boys are mostly satisfied with the sex they get but girls report many hook-ups with no orgasms. Why do they keep on accepting bad sex, Orenstein asks them? The girls reply that they don’t want to seem prudish (in my time the preferred slur was ‘frigid’) nor disappoint the boys. The additional problem, Orenstein explains, is that boys are asking for more and more… Because of the porn they see boys are demanding anal sex from girlfriends more than ever to the point that the current marker to establish whether a girl ‘does or does not do it’ is her acceptance of this practice, which is for most women painful and unrewarding. Many girls, though, oblige.

The scenario Orenstein presents is one in which dating that leads to intimacy has been pushed aside to make room for hook-up culture and in which romantic relationships have been delayed to a more adult post-college age. It is important not to ‘catch feelings’ and to perform sex as a sort of sport, with no attachments, which probably explains, I would add, why platonic friendship between men and women has grown. The young are mostly keeping the personal intimacy of friendship and the sexual prowess of the hook-up separate until a later age, when the ‘one’ (or ‘ones’) may appear after a period of experimentation. It wouldn’t sound bad if it weren’t because of some factors: the persistence of the double standard, the unequal sexualization of boys and girls, the use of the social media for bragging and for shaming, and the pervasive presence of alcohol in hook-up culture. And the matter of consent.

I believe that, on the whole, Orenstein makes too much of hook-up culture and too little of the young persons who follow other paths, either because they eschew sex altogether or because they manage their relationships in more intimate, romantic ways. I’ll suppose, however, for the sake of argumentation, that the pattern which Orenstein describes is common to, say, three quarters of young people, leaving the other quarter for the less susceptible to peer pressure. According to her, sex does not happen in US colleges without heavy drinking because sober sex is too serious, and might involve icky, uncool feelings. Casual sex, then, from kissing to anal sex, starts in parties, which boys attend in their daytime clothes and girls dressed up in mini-skirts, tank tops, high heels, their faces obligatorily made up to look sexy. The Dutch courage which drinking gives boys and girls lowers inhibitions but, as we all know, it also lowers the ability to ask for and give consent, hence the countless cases of boys accused of rape who claim they had no idea they were forcing the girl. Orenstein writes that we need to make sure girls enjoy alcohol with no risk to their physical integrity but I myself fail to understand why alcohol is so essential for both boys and girls to express their sexuality. If naturally induced sexual chemistry does not happen, why force it by drinking? The result can only be bad sex for both and, always, a greater risk for the girl of being raped. To her credit, though, Orenstein also describes the opposite situation: one in which boys incapacitated by alcohol to say no are abused by girls who wrongly assume that all guys are into sex all the time.

The double standard also continues unabated and made even worse by the social media and the texting apps. Girls, Orenstein explains, need to strike an almost impossible balance between being a prude and being a slut, whereas boys need not worry except by whether their score card is full enough. This matter of numbers is mind-boggling and a question that can hardly be solved for good, for there is no fixed perception about when a person is too promiscuous or not promiscuous enough. According to Orenstein, most teens lie about how much sex they have, pretending they have more than they do, and assume that the others have plenty. The figures she gives are rather modest in view of the apparently widespread hook-up culture but what really matters is the perception of the group to which the teen in question belongs. Some girls might be slut-shamed for a number of encounters others might consider low, some boy Don Juans might be bottom of the list in different places. It’s all relative. What is not relative it how reputation can be ruined to the point of suicide by the nonchalant (or malicious) sharing of sexting and videos, and the use of social media to send detailed reports of the sexual encounters. Even this is subjected to a double standard: girls’ behaviour in bed tends to be openly discussed by uncaring boys but, from what I gather, the girls do not use so frequently the same tools to discuss boys’ deficient performances, hardly ever shaming them as poor lovers or even rapists depending on the case.

All this amounts to something very simple: whereas now is the time for young persons to be enjoying sex with more freedom and pleasure than ever the reality reported by Orenstein and others is quite different. The mixture of porn, alcohol, social media reputation, and hook-up culture has resulted in a sexuality that seems at points a compulsory chore for both boys and girls rather than something genuinely celebrated. As an older person I should be feeling envy but after reading Orenstein I feel both relief and anxiety. I’m glad I am not a teenager today and I worry about what the teens in my family are finding in their love/sex lives. I think I am most dismayed by the idea that for both boys and girls, but above all for the girls, looking sexy (for the others) is so disconnected from feeling sexy (for yourself).

Orenstein portrays boys as persons who mostly truly accept gender equality but who are much confused about what respect and consent mean in a sexual relationship. She also presents them as much more likely to bow down to peer pressure and do terrible things in groups that they would never do individually. Of course, she refers to the USA and within it to specific lifestyles and possibly other cultures are very different. To be honest, I don’t know what is going on with teens here in Spain. Orenstein names the Dutch as the most advanced culture when it comes to teen sex, thanks to the good communication between parents and children. That is an important factor indeed but in the end, the impression I get is that if guys worried less about how they are judged by their male peers and rejected peer pressure against showing their feelings, sex would be much, much better for them and, above all, for the girls. I don’t know how they can be taught to change, though listening to them, as Orenstein does, seems a good way.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/