Wednesday, December 30, 2020

On Cuties, Euphoria, and Promising Young Woman

My social media feed is full of political scandals that I have no ability to affect, so I've immersed myself in movies and shows. Bechdel test for the win for this trio!

Film both reflects and affects society, like all forms of art but even more than most as it's a visual, auditory, and narrative medium. We sometimes see ourselves in the movies more clearly than in novels or paintings or songs. It's this reflection in the film Cuties, I suspect, that got thousands of people riled up enough to cancel their Netflix subscriptions and garner it an embarrassing 3.1/10 on IMDb. But beyond Netflix's many second rate sequels and unwatchable remakes, I'd argue that Cuties is one of the better films on the current marquee. 

Cuties is about an 11-year-old girl, Amy, who's new to town and trying to fit in with the cool kids. She's successful because she takes their competitive dance moves to the next level with sexy additions that she's seen online. Those dance scenes are what's driving the outrage, but it's the most realistic part of the film (which steps into the surreal from time to time). Kids are made to imitate what they see, and this is what's out there for real. 

Amy is raised in a uber conservative home and only sees the internet through a phone she stole. She later runs into problems with everyone when she crosses a line that she didn't realize exists. In part, the film is a lesson on ignorance. If we don't talk to our kids about what's out there, then they won't know how to differentiate between what's a little troubling and what's seriously dangerous. It's like when we taught kids that all drugs are evil and a puff of a joint will send you careening off a rooftop; it might have kept a few from trying anything at all, but it might have prevented others from clearly distinguishing between trying pot and dope, which might have had life and death consequences. Amy makes some stupid choices expecting to win friends as well as tons of social media likes as she makes the tragic error of crossing into "whore" territory. (For another great take on this current internal struggle between real life friends and the dopamine rush of online likes, check out The Girl from Nowhere, episode 5, "Social Love." It's like Black Mirror, but entirely set in a high school.)

Finding the line is a classic problem for girls: the double edged sword of being a prude or a slut. But, for many, gone are the days when primary school girls were oblivious to their potential attraction. Instead, many young girls today are trying to walk that line between being sexy and skanky instead. Some see the power that comes with being hot. In the film, the girls' world is a competition for attention. That drive to escape the confines of a strict moral upbringing is nothing new, but the age is lower and the dangers are far greater. That pic that Amy posts will be online forever. 

Is the outrage around the film in the display of the girls, who are always clothed in the camera's view? Or is it because it disturbs our attempts at denial and prevents us from ignoring that this type of behaviour is being emulated in pastel pink bedrooms right this minute? Some argue that pedophiles will use it for masturbatory material, but we can't censor any potential viewing of children just in case someone finds it erotic. When assessing a film for censorship, we have to look at the intention of the film and the message it sends. Cuties frames the sexualization of young girls in an entirely negative way, making us nervous for their safety throughout. It doesn't sexualize the kids, but shows the audience how children are sexualized. It also takes a very sympathetic view of the girls themselves. They know not what they do. And we follow Amy clear through to the other side of her dilemma as she resolves her relationship with her peers and with her mother and with herself.

At the risk of just being an old-fogey about it all, it's possible my perception of my youth is skewed by my math nerd years, which kept me from any concern for popularity. When I was in grade 8, I knew one girl who was raped and another who got pregnant, but I saw them both as outliers in our class instead of, possibly more likely, the tip of the iceberg - just the girls I knew about. But the internet has definitely had an effect on the outcome of preteen dilemmas.  

If we have issues with Cuties, then we can't solve it by banning the film. We might want to look at the types of videos our youngsters are privy to, except we want to keep watching them. At some point, we might have to come to terms with the reality that what entertains us could be harming our kids, and then make a hard choice. But that's tricky and a long way off. At the very least, we definitely have to look to new ways to discuss these topics with younger kids. That was brought home for me in Euphoria

Euphoria just finished a brilliant season one before the pandemic, following the friendship between high school seniors Rue and Jules. Rue is trying to recover from drug addiction, and Jules is new to town. Like Cuties, the characters wander into a fantasy from time to time, and it's not always clear what's real, what's a dream, and what's a drug-fueled hallucination. It's far more sexual but without nearly the same public outrage despite the fact that the cast are all still depicting minors.  

There's one scene when Rue breaks the fourth wall to teach the audience about sending nude pics. She explains that it's the "currency of dating" right now, and I thought back to the many, many times I spread the "Just say no!" gospel far and wide to encourage kids to never ever post a nude picture. I mean, if they're underage, then it's automatically illegal to share or possess, so surely nobody's going to actually send them, right?? But, apparently, that's naive of me. I recognize how ridiculous that slogan is when it comes to drugs, maybe because I was a bit of a pot-head in high school, yet there's a part of me that wants to believe it's enough when it comes to online pictures that can follow a person for life. It's not that everyone's necessarily doing it, but that, in some circles, it's not possible to stay within certain social dynamics without participating. I watched the series with my 16-year-old, who gave me the deets on how accurately it all does or doesn't fit the scene in our little city. If you want to try watching with your kid at home, expect to see a good tenth of the series through your fingers like watching a horror movie. Awkward? Yup. 

Euphoria does a good job of getting a first hand understanding of mental health issues and trans issues and addiction issues, although with a dealer with a heart of gold, and the dialogue of the girls often feels entirely credible. It portrays a wide range of three-dimensional characters with complex problems, which is a refreshing change from so many teen dramas. BUT the sexuality is a different cause for concern. While Cuties shows the results of porn culture filtered through music videos, Euphoria shows the direct results of porn. One character practices looking and sounding like a porn actor during sex, concerned only with how she appears during it all, and many others have a primary concern with giving without receiving. In a show with tons and tons of explicit sex scenes, there's almost zero screen time given to female enjoyment of sex. For that aspect alone, it may as well be porn. The only relationship that doesn't entirely hinge on sex, the only depiction of clear enjoyment of common goals and conversation, is between Jules and Rue. The rest are superficial or we're led to believe there's some unexplored bond that goes beyond any civil discourse. And the very realistic sex scenes of teens is a questionable choice. Isn't the excellent characterizations, dialogue, dilemmas, and film production with nods to a variety of genres enough of a draw without the eroticization of teens? Pan away to mix it up a bit, geez! Or did I just step over that line into prude territory? Am I just old, or is this a troublesome trajectory in teen dramas?

About half a century ago, I remember catching that old Robbie Benson movie, Jeremy about first love, which included a pretty racy sex scene for the times that was entirely about discovery: exploring, and experimenting. There's nothing out there now that presents sex in that way. It's all pretence and presentation in order to be the best for him in some warped competition, always smiling for the camera. Didn't we learn anything about equity from the women's rights movements? At least they have that one younger sister who watches the mess the older girls are in and goes down a different road, dressing up like Bob Ross for Hallowe'en among a sea of sexy-everythings. I hope she gets more screen time in the second season.

Promising Young Woman could well be the final act in this trio. An adult woman takes mild vengeance on random men for an unpunished crime committed by a guy back in college. There's a campy vibe to it that makes for light viewing about sexual assault. While the film appears to take place in reality, it asks the audience to suspend disbelief that a small woman could shock hundreds of men out of having non-consensual sex just by suddenly revealing her sobriety to them. The movie suggest that a firm tone of voice, while alone in a man's apartment, is all that's really necessary to stop any untoward behaviours. Curious. It's a revenge fantasy with some twists and turns to keep it going, but there's nothing to learn in it, except, maybe, that to get someone convicted after a sexual assault, you have to provoke them to actually kill you and then have them charged with murder instead. Something like that.

In other films so far this break, Mank was boring; The Prom was unwatchable; The Two Popes was a delightful surprise; Soul was almost great but didn't quite get there; Tenet was fun nonsense but way too long, and Death to 2020 was silly but actually made me laugh out loud a few times!

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