I’ve tried twice before to express on Facebook what I felt when I watched the Netflix movie, “Cuties.” Both times, before, I thought that most people got the gist of what I was saying, but there were still several people who needed to chime in about child pornography and perverts masturbating to the movie. I felt that people were looking for things to be offended about and arguing about things that were, in my opinion, completely irrelevant. By the legal definition of child pornography, “Cuties” is not pornography. I never encouraged anyone to watch it if they were uncomfortable with it. I just asked that people watch the movie before judging it.
I consider myself a writer. It gnaws at me when I feel like I’m not being heard the way that I had intended to be. I wouldn’t say I’ve been obsessing about it, but I’ve been thinking about it for some time.
So I’m going to try this one more time. Consider this your trigger warning. I plan to be frank and thorough in my discussion of my own experiences of growing up in The United States of America, which includes what some may consider sexual abuse.
One of my earliest memories was of playing alone in my front yard. It was 1975, and I was 4 years old. A man who lived a few houses down, asked me and some other kids if we’d like to see his newborn kittens. We went into his house, he showed us the kittens, and then he had us sit in his kitchen while he served us candy.
It wasn’t long before I could hear my mother frantically calling for me. When I went to her, she took me home, sat me down, and told me that I couldn’t go into strangers’ houses without her permission. She was very serious when she told me that “some men like to look at little girls’ panties.” And that was my first experience with “the talk” that most girls have heard at some point in their lives.
Another memory around that same time was of my mother leaving me alone with her grandpa – my great grandpa, while she ran to the store to get diapers for my brother. Grandpa told me that his fingers were stiff. He needed me to help him button his pants, which I did, because I craved opportunities to be told I was a good girl. Then he told me that I didn’t need to tell my mama bout this. I did, of course, not wanting to miss the opportunity for praise. It was years before I understand why she got angry and didn’t tell me that I was a good girl.
My favorite toys, then, were Barbies and their back-breaking bosoms. Of course, I couldn’t have a Barbie without a Ken, because a girl is not complete without a man to tell her how beautiful she is.
My other favorite toy was a Barbie head and shoulders to which I could apply makeup, color and style her hair, and apply various accessories.
Sexuality was marketed to me as a child all the time, and it still is.
While thinking about all of this last night, I came across this Cracked article, about items marketed to children that are uncomfortably sexual, including a stripper pole, g-string panties, pushup bras, and tramp stamps. The article is from 2011, so the children in this movie would have been babies when these products were on the market.
I wondered what might l be out there, today, and it took me about a five minute search on Amazon to find little girls’ padded bras, thong underwear, and see-through panties, that were accompanied by this charming photo to the right.
The experience of transitioning from little girl to young woman was particularly stark for me. When I was six years old, my stepfather was transferred to Germany. We lived there for three years, and then in Texas for three before moving back home, to Northern California. When I left California, I was a little girl with a little girl’s body. When I returned, I was still a little girl, but had developed breasts, hips, and a waist, and was often thought to be much older than I was.
There was no gradual transition for me. When I’d left home, it was common for me to sit on people’s laps and give hugs and kisses when asked. So when we moved back, and a family friend asked me to sit on his lap, I did. I had grown up calling him “Papa Bear,” and did not realize that that had become inappropriate at some point between 6 and 12. When he asked me to kiss him, I did. That’s when he put his tongue in my mouth.
When I told my mom about it, she told me that I was “too big to be sitting on men’s laps, anyway.” In other words, if I had behaved differently, it wouldn’t have happened.
He was not the only one, but he was the most disappointing. I could and have listed dozens of moments like this in my own experience. I had a teacher in 8th grade who told a very popular boy that he should “go for” me. I was mocked mercilessly for the remainder of that school year.
I had a teacher in 9th grade who told me that if he were 10 years younger, he’d give my boyfriend some competition.
My high school counselor would cruise my street in the mornings to offer me rides to school. I never accepted. When I was in his office planning my schedule for the coming school year, he told me he wanted me to take aerobics for PE, because I’d put on some weight.
I never knew that any of those things were in appropriate. My mom tried to prepare me, but her experience was different from mine. She just told me that “boys only want one thing.”
It was the 80’s. Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” was the standard by which my friends and I modeled our wardrobe. At least until high school, when Glam Rock became the thing, and then it was leather miniskirts and fishnet stockings. My stepfather told me I looked like a hooker. I had never seen a hooker, and he and I didn’t get along anyway, so that just made me more determined to dress that way. It’s what my friends were doing. It’s what the girls in the videos were doing.
By the time I reached high school, I loathed my body. I thought I was fat because women could only be fat or skinny. No in between. I hated my breasts, because I felt like that was what had attracted so much unwanted attention.
In the midst of all of this, my great-grandmother was obsessed with my virginity. She took me to McDonald’s one day and told the poor kid behind the counter, “This is my great granddaughter. I’m so proud of her because she’s going to be a virgin when she gets married!” TRUE STORY!
That had been my intent, but I did not realize that I could expect a boy who tells me he loves me to keep his hands to himself without an absolute wrestling match. Every boyfriend I had, including the one I married, pushed the boundaries as far as he could. I married the one who pushed them too far. I married him out of shame. I thought marrying him would make it o.k. During our divorce, I told him that saving myself had been important to me. He said he knew. I asked him, “then why?”
He said, “The challenge.”
I honestly don’t know any woman who hasn’t been trespassed at some point in her life. I’m not saying there are none, but I have no doubt that they are the minority.
As a teacher, I struggled with wanting to protect my students by talking to them about the provocative things they wore and how just as approaching a strange dog, you have no idea what kind of training a boy/man has had, so it’s best to protect yourself. But girls have a right to express themselves in ways that make them feel good. It’s not their fault if men can’t control themselves.
So when I heard that Netflix was showing child pornography, I wanted to know what everyone was talking about. I absolutely felt uncomfortable watching those little girls do those moves, and I have wondered if they were counseled in any way during or after. But ultimately, I felt kinship with their confusion. I know their confusion. I know what it’s like to be expected to live up to impossible standards, and I know what it’s like to live so long thinking sex is a negative that it never felt positive, even when I was married.
But as I have said before, this is a conversation that we must have and keep having. When is it ok for a girl to be sexualized? Don’t tell me never because we do it all the damned time. We begin before birth with gender reveal parties so that we can immediately put little girls in dresses that don’t cover their asses so that their lacy panties are on display. We do it to boys, too, but no one ever really criticizes boys for being sexual.
When does showing off panties become inappropriate for little girls? When does going topless? These are mysteries when we’re little kids.
The boundary between inappropriate and healthy are blurred beyond recognition. We must stop acting like children don’t know about these things. They know more than we want to talk about and that’s what “Cuties” uncomfortably brings to the table.