No foreign film in recent memory has attracted quite as much scrutiny as Netflix’s Cuties. Directed by French-Senegalese filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré, Cuties, which was a hit when it premiered at Sundance last year, tells the story of an 11-year-old girl, Amy, who strays from her strict conservative and religious Muslim upbringing to join a hip-hop dance troupe. At its essence, Cuties is a coming-of-age narrative and a commentary on social media’s role in sexualizing children, but that was not what the film’s poster — a luridly hued image of made-up prepubescent girls, pouting at the camera and crouching in various suggestive poses — suggested.
Many correctly pointed out that the poster was inappropriate; those who had seen the film also correctly pointed out that it was a misleading and offensive image to market what was actually a sensitive portrait of female adolescence by a gifted woman of color. Many more people still, incorrectly, suggested that Cuties and its accompanying marketing materials were evidence of an underage child sex trafficking cabal in Hollywood.
It was the kind of wild-eyed, hysterical allegation that, in previous years, would have primarily been promoted on fringe message boards and in Facebook posts authored by crackpot aunts, only to quietly wither on the vine. Yet this was not the trajectory of the Cuties debacle. In September, the film finally premiered on Netflix, giving people on the internet a chance to actually see it and weigh its merits for themselves. Mainstream public figures and organizations purported to be outraged by the film. In a letter, Sen. Ted Cruz called for the Department of Justice to investigate Netflix and Cuties; Sen. Tulsi Gabbard tweeted on Friday that the film “will certainly whet the appetite of pedophiles and help fuel the child sex-trafficking trade.”
Such accusations ended up fueling the discourse that Cuties was not a commentary on childhood sexualization, but a vehicle for childhood sexualization itself, to the degree that its defenders, including the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody and Rolling Stone‘s own David Fear, were subject to intense harassment on social media. Ultimately, the discourse surrounding Cuties not only drifted from the fringes into the mainstream, it was also framed entirely as entirely apolitical, powered by little more than a stark moral imperative to oppose child sexual exploitation. In the hands of the film’s detractors, the discourse surrounding Cuties morphed from that of a complex film addressing faith, race, and sexuality, to a war between two opposing groups, one with obvious moral leverage over the other: those who support child sexual exploitation, and those who do not.
.@netflix child porn "Cuties" will certainly whet the appetite of pedophiles & help fuel the child sex trafficking trade. 1 in 4 victims of trafficking are children. It happened to my friend's 13 year old daughter. Netflix, you are now complicit. #CancelNetflix pic.twitter.com/GI8KFH7LFq
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) September 12, 2020
Accusing leftists of pedophilia has become the latest rhetorical cudgel among those on the far right. The tactic has its roots in conspiracy theorist circles, such as the QAnon community, which is centered on the belief that a shadowy cabal of prominent left-leaning celebrities, such as Tom Hanks and Chrissy Teigen, are involved in a child sex trafficking and baby-eating ring. As Rolling Stone has previously reported, QAnon has become increasingly mainstream in recent months, thanks to the explosive popularity of the #SaveTheChildren movement on Facebook and Instagram, as well as the success of a child trafficking conspiracy theory centered on the furniture brand Wayfair a few months prior. And much of the apoplectic discussion surrounding Cuties was, indeed, clearly driven by conspiracy theorists.
But the politicization of this discourse is not restricted to fringe circles. In May, Donald Trump, Jr. posted a photo of former Vice President Joe Biden with the caption, “See ya later, alligator,” next to a photo of an alligator responding, “In a while, pedophile.” The post garnered more than 181,000 likes; Trump, Jr. later attempted to claim that he was joking, yet also appeared to double down, tweeting, “If the media doesn’t want people mocking & making jokes about how creepy Joe is, then maybe he should stop the unwanted touching & keep his hands to himself.” (It goes without saying that Trump, Jr., in promoting the baseless claims about Biden, made little mention of the more than two dozen sexual misconduct allegations against his own father.)
The claim that Joe Biden has been accused of child molestation has blossomed over the summer, flourishing in darker corners of the internet but also trickling into the mainstream, as demonstrated not only by Trump Jr.’s vile posts but by the discourse surrounding Cuties. And during a rally in Portland, Oregon last week, in which far-right Proud Boys were captured on camera beating BLM protesters, a man is heard jeering: “Another Joe Biden pedophile right here. He’ll touch another little boy like that,” to a naked man who is being sprayed with a fire extinguisher. The far-right’s quest to ferret out this secret cabal of pedophiles has resulted in not just online harassment and finger-pointing, as was the case with Cuties, but in real-world violence: in Texas, for instance, a QAnon supporter was recently arrested for using her car to attack two strangers she mistakenly believed to be child molesters.
1. The 3 🤣 emojis in the caption should indicate to anyone with a scintilla of common sense that I’m joking around.
2. If the media doesn’t want people mocking & making jokes about how creepy Joe is, then maybe he should stop the unwanted touching & keep his hands to himself? https://t.co/Jy98aq6yWD pic.twitter.com/Kcr9jdPSbC
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) May 16, 2020
Accusations of pedophilia are “not new,” says Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters for America, a nonprofit watchdog organization focused on right-wing media. The tactic has an extensive history that traces all the way back to medieval anti-Semitic allegations of blood libel to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, in which parents en masse accused day care centers and teachers of engaging in ritualized Satanic sexual abuse. “It happens oftentimes when there’s a lot of sweeping change happening in society,” says Carusone, drawing parallels to the tumult of the Reagan years as having set the stage for the Satanic panic.
The media also plays a central role in perpetuating the hysteria cycle off which phenomena like the Satanic panic feed, says Carusone; this was also the case with Cuties and similar controversies such as the outrage generated by a Trolls doll accused by conspiracy theorists of promoting child grooming, both of which were covered fairly uncritically by many news outlets. Newsweek, for instance, dutifully wrote up a statement from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation decrying Cuties, without noting the organization’s roots as a religious right-wing group.
As the Cuties debacle and the Biden allegations demonstrate, one of the major differences between the Satanic panic and the current age of hysteria is that pedophilia allegations are being utilized in a hyper-specific and politicized way. “It actually became an arrow in the quiver and a tool to use against political opponents in a much more explicit way following the 1980s,” he says. “[And] that is complicated by social media….it’s a new twist on the tactic borne out of the aftermath of the Satanic Panic that has become part of our mainstream political discourse, and that is really terrifying.” (It’s also worth noting that pedophilia allegations are a fairly common tactic used to discredit political enemies of the Putin regime in Russia.)
As a rhetorical tactic, the effect of calling someone a pedophile cannot be overestimated: Much like conspiracy theories themselves, whose power lies in the fact that they can neither be proven nor disproven, there is virtually no way to determine whether someone is, in fact, sexually attracted to children. There may be no evidence to support the fact that a former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model is involved in an underage child sex trafficking ring, but there is also no evidence to refute it, only adding fuel to those who cannot be swayed either way. Worse still, there are no effective defenses against such vile allegations; to defend oneself against the accusation of pedophilia, or to point out the hysterical nature of such baseless claims is to invite accusations of attempting to normalize it.
Real-life allegations of child sex rings, such as the Jeffrey Epstein case, only serve to bolster the argument that such evil is widespread, and patriots must take it upon themselves to ferret it out from the shadows. “Epstein added fuel to the fire, and it made it much more explicitly political and partisan,” says Carusone. “It allowed for [the far-right] to say, ‘look at all these Democrats, he was a donor, oh and by the way so was Weinstein.’”
The politically charged nature of the discussion surrounding Cuties has made it impossible to wade into any dialogue on the film without being perceived as taking a “side” on the issue one way or the other. Indeed, when I reached out to various organizations that address child sexual abuse and exploitation for this piece, most declined to comment. “Because of the political/politicized nature of this issue, we don’t feel that we can comment,” a spokesperson for one of these organizations told me, underscoring the highly precarious nature of the current discourse.
Against the backdrop of a once-in-a-century health crisis and a movement of marginalized people calling for massive social change, with the world shifting beneath our feet, it’s understandable the #SaveTheChildren mentality would thrive during the pandemic. “Today you have a very large number of disempowered people all across the political spectrum, but especially on the right because you feel like you are constantly maligned. They’re feeling not just powerless, but vilified,” says Carusone. “Think about how awesome it feels to go up to somebody like Tom Hanks or Chrissy Teigen or big brands like Wayfair and just with a couple tweets have them running and scrambling. That just feels good.” In this context, calling someone a pedophile is the far-right equivalent of a rejected teenage boy calling a girl a slut: a way for people on the right to reclaim power at a moment when they feel it rapidly slipping away, while also retaining a moral high ground.
Child sexual abuse is real and horrifying, and it is all too rampant in our culture: according to statistics from the Rape and Incest National Network (RAINN), one in nine girls and one in 53 boys is subject to child sexual abuse before the age of 18. Yet the assailants are, more often than not, neither beloved A-list Hollywood actor/directors nor former Vice Presidents. They are not shadowy traffickers or kidnappers or any of the other figures of stranger-danger myth. They are fathers, uncles, grandfathers and cousins; they are coaches, neighbors, teachers, and trusted authority figures who tend to have unquestioned access to the victims in question.
“What we actually know is that not unlike other forms of abuse and exploitation, kids who are trafficked are most likely to know the individuals trafficking them,” says Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance. “They’re not strangers to them or far-flung figures.” Many child victims of sex trafficking are trafficked by their own parents, for drugs or money; others are runaways who have fled home due to unsafe conditions, or LGBTQ kids who have been kicked out by their parents.
This is in part why child sexual abuse is such a heartbreaking and insidious issue: the dominant cultural narratives dictating who the perpetrators are are woefully misleading. It’s unhelpful when people keep bringing up rare or unlikely or completely imaginary events” such as child sex trafficking rings, “instead of focusing on what we actually know about these kids in cases and how these situations arise,” says Huizar. By using the term “pedophile” as a cudgel to bash in the skulls of their ideological opponents, people on the right are taking attention away from actual children being abused, an issue that is often much closer to home than anyone would care to imagine. “It’s galling to see this recent explosion of people who suddenly care about pedophilia and child sexual abuse as long as it suits their political agenda,” a survivor of child sexual abuse, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. “That anyone would opt for this deranged delusion before taking accountability for their own households and communities wounds me every day.”
In decrying the supposed evils of cancel culture, those on the right are fond of pointing out that, once one is labeled a racist or a misogynist or a homophobe, one has little recourse to defend oneself against such allegations; the label clings to the accused whether it is merited or not. Being labeled a racist on social media may be painful for the accused, but it is not life-ending. Yet being branded a promoter of or complicit in heinous crimes such as child sexual exploitation, as Doucouré and even her defenders were, is far more insidious and difficult to combat, not only because it is illegal, but also because it is a crime that is, at least in theory, bipartisan in its horrors; everyone, regardless of political affiliation, can agree that you are a monster, and anyone who dares to question the narrative is also immediately rendered suspect.
The tragic irony is that in focusing so heavily on Cuties and other accused purveyors of child sexual exploitation, those on the right have virtually ignored the actual harm being done to children in their own homes, an epidemic that requires even more attention now that caretakers are stuck at home with their children and domestic abuse rates worldwide are rising. The discourse surrounding Cuties “has been a distraction at best and a complete disservice at worst” to those doing the work trying to help survivors of child trafficking, says Huizar. But clearly, it is far easier for people to trade in fever dreams of imagined demons than to grapple with the reality of a demon lurking in your own home. It is much easier to pin the blame on leftist boogeymen — Joe Biden, Tom Hanks, a young French film director — than to deal with the actual monsters in your midst.
“I always wondered when the nation would scream about the myriad ways in which children are hurt and abused like I was,” says the anonymous sexual-abuse survivor. “I am instead met with a dark, distorted version of that very cry for justice.”
Survivors of sexual abuse may contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) to get in touch with a trained sexual assault service provider in your area.