Stories About Girls, Sex, and Power Are Vital—If We’re Brave Enough to Look

On Watching Cuties, Teaching Lolita, and Moral Panic

I was 11 years old when I started surreptitiously entering the Hello Kitty chat room.

The year was 1999, my family had just gotten dial-up internet, and the coquettish “uh oh!” of the ICQ (an acronym derived from “I Seek You” that managed to be clever, coy, and creepy all at once) chatroom had just become recognizable to my ear as a beckoning call for my sister from her crush.

Surfing the internet in boredom, I began finding these “chat rooms.” I liked Sanrio characters—silly round animals with no edges—and the “hello kitty room” sounded innocuous enough. I can still see the yellow borders of the screen, the anthropomorphized cat mouthless and wearing a bow in the corner. It was there in the Hello Kitty chat room that a stranger told me he wanted to fuck me.

A/S/L?

Sitting in the glow of the monitor, there I was: 11/f/Singapore.

“I want to fuck you.”

My heart pounded. I squeezed my eyes, shutdown the computer, and jumped into bed. I couldn’t tell if I was scared or excited. I know now, it was a bit of both. I kept going back.

*

The tagline to Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) was: How did they ever make a film about Lolita?

In some ways, Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties, not Kubrick’s film, is the answer to that question. Cuties, a recent Netflix-produced film, debuted to scandal and controversy. The film follows Aminata (Amy for short), an 11-year-old Muslim Senegalese girl living in a poor neighborhood in Paris struggling against her conservative family and coping with her father’s impending second marriage. To curry favor with the “Cuties,” a dance group of girls she desperately wants to be a part of, she learns their dances, teaches herself increasingly salacious dance moves and in turn teaches these to them.

I thought I had found the perfect audience for my feminist reading of Lolita, but in my first semester of teaching, I found that students bristled at the very name of the novel.

The film incited moral panic across the political spectrum, with politicians on both sides denouncing the film. Nancy Pelosi’s daughter accused it of “[whetting] the appetite of pedophiles.” Ted Cruz asked the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into the film. Doucouré received death threats. Netflix executives have publicly defended the film, maintaining that it is in fact “social commentary against the sexualization of young children.” In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Doucouré observed that many of the films strongest detractors did not in fact watch the film, shocked simply at the clips that were taken out of context and expressed hope that the film will not be “caught up in today’s ‘cancel culture.’”

In late September, a friend who had not seen the film yet texted to ask what I thought of it. “Read the controversy, haven’t seen it. Reserving judgement, but seeing as I am a lover of Lolita, I have my guesses as to which side of the debate I will fall,” I replied. “Dude there is no debate here. If you are ambivalent about your side then I guess I’ll have to cancel my trip (to see you), not Netflix!” he joked. I lobbed back some weak witticism of my own, but the moment bothered me. It’s easy enough to pick sides based on hateful people (of course I choose #TeamNOTTedCruz), but in order to develop a take on a film, I first have to see it and the push in this moment to pick sides or to #cancel before actually engaging with any piece of work is troubling.

I had been struggling with how to manage this desire for quick and easy moral judgements and for “cancelling” texts at work. I teach at a gender-diverse and historically all-women’s college. I thought I had found the perfect audience for my feminist reading of Lolita, but in my first semester of teaching last fall, I found that students bristled at the very name of the novel. In hindsight, who could blame them? We were at the height of the #MeToo movement; Jeffrey Epstein had just been put in prison amidst headlines about his private jet—a very perverse plane—named Lolita. I consulted colleagues, friends, mentors. Invariably, each conversation began, “You’re very brave…” This scared me further. Were people no longer teaching Lolita? Would I be cancelled? I couldn’t sleep for days. This was my first job! I had just moved across the world to teach here!

I stockpiled an arsenal of defense. Undeterred, I prepared trigger warnings and content notes, offering multiple framing devices: Cold War novel, postmodernist novel, program era novel, road trip novel. I tell students they are welcome to leave the class for a breather, that no one was obliged to read things that traumatized them. (One student who refused to read the novel never took me up on this but chose to glare at me for the entire duration of class.) I dedicated a full half hour to adumbrating Nabokov’s colorful life—“This isn’t Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, Vladimir Nabokov was a good man!” my voice a little shrill. The notorious R.B.G. was a student and fan of the notorious V.N.! I cited the women risking their lives to read Lolita in Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Sitting with discomfort, bearing witness—when it comes to a text like Lolita, the looking is the point.

Nonetheless, I could not seem to get some students to see beyond the novel’s central scandal, a fixation I resented—as if observing the occurrence of pedophilia and denouncing it counted as critical work. I coaxed their attention to Nabokov’s mesmerizing style and demonstrate that the aesthetic can have an ethical pedagogy. “Nabokov tells you!” I heave excitedly, “early on, that “you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”” I delighted in pointing out words like “callypygean” (having shapely buttocks) and “canthus” (the corners of the eye where the upper and lower lids meet) and explain that we are meant to question this delight, to observe how our narrator manipulates us, but perhaps some students felt I should be judged for delighting at all.

Then, finally, I decided to throw it back to them. We live in the golden age of television, I’d been told. Their generation is enthralled by a TV culture that is often specifically violent towards women (think Game of Thrones, True Detective). I asked them to explain their willingness to consume violence in one form and their irate refusal in another. After some moments of silence, one student put her hand up. “I guess with TV… It’s easier to look away…” I let the words marinade in the silence, wondering if she understood that she had made my argument for me. Sitting with discomfort, bearing witness—when it comes to a text like Lolita, the looking is the point.

Arriving in Berkeley from censorious Singapore at 18, my appetite for banned content was as undiscerning as it was insatiable. I joined the Vagina Monologues; I went to a bondage club; I drank more than I should have. I read Lolita. The sheer perversity of it electrified me; its beauty swallowed me up. How does one casually use “cuneate” in a sentence? How does one imagine a scene of craven, stolen intimacy as rolling a tongue across an eyeball? When it came to Lolita, I could not look away. In the years since, I’ve read the novel for graduate classes, written part of my dissertation on it, taught it in my classes. Each time I read it, I pick up on an instance of violence I had missed before, and this realization always hits me with the force of a heart attack—the belated discovery of what I did not see, the fact of my carelessness, the invariable cruelty of my inattentiveness, like the ghost of a child I had let down. But in this, too, Lolita was my teacher: for Nabokov, there is no such thing as the first reading, only the rereading. The good reader is always a rereader.

By the end of that semester I had won over most of my skeptics, but I was exhausted and wracked with anxiety. That one student continued to glare at me. I decided I had not come to America to be returned to repression; I would not stand for this self-imposed censorship, either by students who judged the work while refusing to engage with it or by feeling pressured to disclaim the novel as I taught it. I vowed not to teach the text again.

*

It is precisely this refusal to look, to engage, that resulted in the Cuties controversy.

Presumably the moral panic about Cuties is the hypersexualization of young girls (by directors, by production companies, and so on). But I suspect that what is discomforting to critics of Cuties who have actually seen the film is that the girls appear to be sexualizing themselves. After all, they mimic the sexy dance moves, mannequin themselves into suggestive poses, butterfly their legs open.

There is a fine line between trafficking in scandalous content and satirizing or offering commentary. Indeed, the two can share a border, or even simply look like the same thing. But absent in all this commentary are questions about why these girls are doing this; critics focus only on the perversity of their (male) gaze.

“Cuties” is the diminutive form of “cute,” itself already a word connoting diminution. Sianne Ngai writes that the “cute,” associated with the infantile and the feminine, also often calls forth affects such as helplessness or pitifulness. It is a testament to the aggressive misogyny of our culture that even so, only the film is condemned, while the culture that gave rise to these desperately attention-seeking children is never taken to task. Consider too that girls twerking incites moral outrage, but—to go Godwin’s law on everyone—imagining little boys as literal Nazis is creative genius: Taika Waititi won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Jojo Rabbit.

In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, listening to people gossip about Pecola’s misfortune, the girls Claudia and Frieda searched for “eyes creased with concern,” but found that they were only “disgusted, amused, shocked, outraged, or even excited by the story.” The scandal of Cuties for me, is similar. In the midst of pearl-clutching defenders of children thundering in on their high horses to warble about pornography, none of them seem, in fact, to be concerned about the girls on the screen. What even the liberal commentators defending the film miss is that both sides focus on the male gaze instead of pausing to consider what the girls are going through.

Far from violating the girls, the film in fact holds a mirror up to the audience, reflecting the cultural violence that is enacted on girls and especially non-white girls.

No one remarks on Yasmine’s bulimia, Angelica’s neglectful and abusive parents, Amy’s being saddled with adult homemaking and caregiving duties, or indeed, that all the girls are sorely in need of actual sex ed. It’s as preposterous as Lionel Trilling offering a touching liberal defense of Lolita and calling it “a great love story” in the same breath. A student in Azar Nafisi’s class calls this out in Reading Lolita in Tehran: “it’s strange…but some critics seem to treat the text the same way Humbert treats Lolita: they only see themselves and what they want to see…I mean, the censors…our politicized critics, don’t they do the same thing, cutting up books and re-creating them in their own image?” Vera Nabokov, Nabokov’s beloved wife, said it best:

Critics prefer to look for moral symbols, justification, condemnation, or explanation of HH’s predicament…I wish, though, somebody would notice the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along culminating in that squalid but essentially pure and healthy marriage, and her letter, and her dog… They all miss the fact that the ‘horrid little brat’ Lolita is essentially very good indeed—or she would not have straightened out after being crushed so terribly, and found a decent life with poor Dick more to her liking than the other kind.

Dolores Haze has often been read as guilty—naughty and misbehaving. Likewise, the girls in Cuties have been accused of hypersexualizing themselves. But what these readings miss is that 11-year-old girls are naughty, and that they do have sexuality; they can be curious about sex and not want to be raped. Therein lies the lesson and the rebuke of the detail of Dolly Haze’s lost sweater in the woods, among other suggestions of her precociousness. So what? Nabokov plants tricks to allow a reader to prevaricate precisely because the ethical lesson is that no amount of frolicking or waywardness can sanction what Humbert does. The experience of being an 11-year-old girl is one that is complicated and fraught, exhilarating and laced with danger. Cuties and Lolita in fact capture something poignant and painful, joyful and heartbreaking—something very true—about being an eleven-year-old girl.

Far from violating the girls, the film in fact holds a mirror up to the audience, reflecting the cultural violence that is enacted on girls and especially non-white girls. Lee Edelman writes in No Future that “the cult of the Child permits no shrines to the queerness of boys and girls.” This also applies to non-white girls, to non-white children (think of Tamir Rice, think of children taken from their parents at the southern border), and especially to Black girls. The film highlights this in a tongue-in-cheek moment, mocking culture’s hypersexualization of Black children in particular. When one of the fellow Cuties teases Coumba for being embarrassed and blushing, Coumba retorts: “I’m black, so how can I turn red?” From the mouths of babes, the moment serves as a comedic challenge to racist stereotypes that rob Black children of their childhood and their innocence. Of course Black kids get embarrassed! In another scene, Coumba finds a used condom and blows it up, laughing that it is a uniboob. The girls scream and back away, recognizing it for what it is. When it comes to matters of sex, Coumba is the most innocent, so to speak.

But all of them are. As they scream, they warn that she may get “AIDS… or cancer!” and they scrub out her mouth with soap at home. Elsewhere in the film, they discuss sex in hilarious conversations which demonstrate to the viewer just how ignorant they are of these matters: “What if he pees in her mouth?” “It goes through your body!” I chortled on my couch as I was visited by a memory of myself in middle school:

“Teacher!” my hand shooting up. “Wait. For the boys it’s the same hole?? Does that mean a bit of pee comes out as well..??” “That’s gross!” one of the Cuties yips, echoing my own response from years ago as I snap out of my excursion into nostalgia, so uncomprehending then of the—in more ways than one—dirty qualities of desire. I thought I was laughing when I tasted the salt of my own tears, finding that I was also crying. How dear these girl-children felt to me! How innocent, how wonderfully naughty, how clueless, how heartbreakingly… cute.

As the girls scream at Coumba to toss the condom away and back away from her, Coumba’s smile falls off her face and is replaced with not fear or anger but a confused adjuration as her eyes well up with tears, her face hot with shame and hurt. Coumba’s quiet questions beseech not only her gal pals but also us: “But it isn’t my fault that I didn’t know what it was. How was I supposed to know?” The girls aren’t bad girls; it’s society that has failed them.

Britney Spears said it first when she crooned, “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman. All I need is time…while I’m in between.” Eleven is a funny age to be. In between and not fitting in anywhere, the exploration of one’s own body can feel quite detached from any real understanding of sexuality or even sex itself. By the time I was 11 I had known for a while how to make myself shudder deliciously by rubbing my bolster between my legs. When I learned about “how babies are made” in school, I made no connection between the reproductive act and my private pleasures—my curiosity and confusion about my school lessons culminating with me squatting in the shower while brushing my teeth, peering between my legs, wondering if the end of my toothbrush would do the trick.

*

Perhaps what is most heartbreaking is that the cult of the Child permits no space for little girls at all. Aminata lives in the body of an 11-year-old, but we watch her as she performs all the duties of an adult. She cares for her brother, does the grocery shopping, makes the bed, puts the baby down to sleep. Angelica, who lives in Amy’s building, is constantly doing her brother’s laundry—the older, more favored child. She meets Amy for the first time not at a playground, but in the laundry room. When Angelica sees the cut on Amy’s forehead, she asks, “You didn’t disinfect it?” then spits into some detergent powder and rubs the goopy mix onto the wound. These are clearly children who do not even know how to take care of themselves yet are made to care for others. In their happiest moments, Amy and Angelica are just being naughty girls, stealing into a forbidden room to jump on the bed and eat gummies.

Throughout the film the girls display an alarming lack of understanding about sex and sexuality despite their efforts to perform what they think sensuality and maturity look like. When Amy blurts out to the older boys that they are 11, Coumba laughably tries to salvage the situation by yelling, “We’re 14! We know that Pythagoras stuff! I know my multiplication tables by heart!” In the next scene, they lounge languidly eating cotton candy and play with makeup. These moments betray just how in need of protection these girls are. These instances of their ignorance accrue and come to a head in the film’s crescendo, Amy’s peripatetic fall. Desperate to prove she is not just a little girl, she takes a picture of her naked crotch and posts it. We know what she has posted—a picture of her vulva—but we can only guess at what she imagined she would prove by it. Was there blood, as suggested by the recent onset of her period? Pubic fuzz? Whatever it was, all it highlights is the awkward in-betweenness of adolescence, where one’s understanding of sex, one’s body, and how the two interact don’t line up—when blood can gush from between your legs marking you as graduating from girlhood while you wonder if toothbrushes can take away your virginity.

In Cuties, Amy gets her period after “Auntie,” a family friend, tells her she will teach her to become a woman by preparing her father’s wedding meal. In Lolita, after Humbert first rapes her, Dolores Haze complains of pains in her abdomen and they stop to buy a list of items including “a box of sanitary pads.” The pathos of this quiet revelation is heart wrenching. Either Dolly has just gotten her period—her emergence from innocence marked doubly by the maturation of her body and by her rape—or she is bleeding from sex with Humbert. The ambiguity of the moment means that the possibility that both these things may be true hangs in suspension, painful and haunting at every moment.

*

In many ways, Cuties is equally a film about female bullying as it is about female friendship. Aminata’s name in the film is shortened to Amy and pronounced as the French Ami, meaning, “friend.” In other words, her name articulates her desire. She is desperate for friends. The film trains an unblinking eye on the self-harm and self-sabotage that so many girls and women learn to subject themselves to in the hopes that they will be loved.

The year before I turned 11, I became a ghost. The most popular girl at school, V, who had only months before been my best friend, decided, for sport, to institute a “friendship test”—testing not my loyalty, but everyone else’s. Overnight a hit had been put out. “Stop talking to her,” she had said, for no other reason than to see if they would do it. The other thing about 11-year-old children is that they can be cannily cruel. For a year, in a bid to prove the mettle of their friendship to her, no one spoke to me. Somedays, I would pat myself all over, wondering if I was all there, digging my nails into my forearm just to observe the effects of a roiling indignation that was otherwise ineffectual. One day, in a fit of rage, I ran to V. I knelt and kowtowed, smashing my forehead into the ground. Blinded by the pain that blistered between my eyes, I screamed: “Is this what you wanted? There!” V only smirked, my audience only blinked. I walked away dizzy, felt my anger tip over, my forearm bloomed with the calligraphy of my nails.

It was because of this memory that my heart ached upon seeing Amy witness her mother being bullied by Auntie, who shames her mother into humiliating herself, forcing her to call up relatives to tell them that her husband will be taking a second wife. Under the weight of this self-humiliation, her mother slaps herself in a bid to regain some modicum of control, as if to assure herself that only she could hurt herself. I recognized in her act something of myself, and therefore not only of her pain, but of her misguidedness—of smashing forehead into concrete in a self-abasing act that I naively believed would redeem myself in my own eyes. If no one can hurt me more than I can, I am in control of my hurt. It is upon witnessing this that Amy thrusts herself into a similar dynamic with the Cuties, for even though they provide community, they can also prove to be cruel.

Even though, or perhaps precisely because, my students came to the novel already knowing, my job was made both more difficult and easier.

V’s family moved when I was 11, taking my tormentor with them. I began entering the Hello Kitty room then in part because of loneliness, yes; I had just spent a year as a ghost. But I had also been seduced by the force—with all its prurient vigor—of the stranger’s desire. It is an intoxicating, exhilarating thing, at 11, to discover that you possess something that the world wants and which you can perform and wield—like a weapon, or like a game—before you even understand what it is. Like a weapon, it is often double-edged, and like a game, one can be a player without realizing that one is not in control at all. I did not yet understand the ways of patriarchy in the way little girls often do not understand the dangers of the world they live in. I had learned that men could be baited, but I did not yet understand that I was the bait. Later in life, I would recognize the damage already done as these feelings returned to me in different moments—while being gaslighted by some guy to put out because I had been a flirt; while being pinned to a bed for having titillated with my penchant for dirty jokes, always wondering if I had sought out my own misfortunes, been felled by the swelling of my self-grown McFate. The world doles out gifts to little girls that it will repossess without warning and with interest a thousand-fold.

It was this that I recognized in the Cuties, too. That anyone can criticize the girls in Cuties for being sexual seems to me completely ridiculous. In Cuties, the girls literally rehearse and perform a version of sexiness that they have been conditioned to believe will earn them affection and attention—sexiness that they have no understanding of at all. They awkwardly manipulate their faces to mirror the come-hither looks they see on screen and puppeteer each other’s bodies to mimic the suggestive dance moves while looking vaguely bemused, even confused or tickled. Their successful imitation is endorsed by increased popularity, more “likes” online—in other words, more attention.

And yet in the midst of it all, there is nonetheless a certain joy, pleasure, and ecstasy when they give themselves over to their dancing—the exuberance of learning how to enjoy one’s blossoming body. Out of sight, they dance with pure euphoria and glee. Away from prying eyes and in each other’s company, the sexy pouting faces they make are silly and comical, the vigorous salacious dance moves, yet another way for them to live in their bodies. These scenes for me embodied a sense of girls coming into an awareness of their bodies, of power, of what the nourishing nectar of friendship can feel like, however warped it may yet prove to be. And who can blame them for being intoxicated by it?

*

My favorite reading of Lolita is Namwali Serpell’s parsing of the novel’s opening lines, a reading she shared with me in a dim office in Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall. She suggests that these first lines introduce the reader to Humbert in a way that forces a visceral complicity with the narrator. His heavily alliterated description of the speech organs moving to wrap around the name induces in the reader a physical urge to test his hypothesis—“Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” We, too, want to see where the tongue taps. Right from the beginning, in speaking her name—the name Humbert gave her—we almost speak as Humbert. Indeed, only Humbert calls Dolores Haze “Lolita” in the novel. It is this reading that birthed my own. If Nabokov puts us so close to Humbert that we speak as him, a breath away from being him, then the challenge of the novel is to find Dolores Haze’s voice—even though she is silent and indeed, already dead. Her little acts of resistance and rebellion, her naughtiness, in fact demonstrate that this was a child who was wholly her own—that, as Humbert admitted, “there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate—dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to [him].”

Even though, or perhaps precisely because, my Mount Holyoke students came to the novel already knowing, my job was made both more difficult and easier. Because they already hated Humbert, I was robbed of the pleasure of demonstrating Humbert’s literary gifts. But, it also meant that they were firmly on the side of Dolores Haze. Without prompting from me, they sought out instances of Dolly Haze’s “brattiness,” her “sullenness,” and her “mischief,” delighting in what was really her resistance to unbearable oppression, inescapable brutality. It should not have surprised me that a classroom in a historically all-women’s college should have known instinctively what the redemption of Dolly Haze would look like: the particular, precious, feminist freedom to be a naughty girl.

And perhaps this is something little girls do know. Observing my young niece getting reprimanded once, she was told: “Don’t do that! Bad girls do that!” Unblinking and without flinching, she responded only with this: “I am a bad girl.” In a patriarchal world that tells girls how to be good—a foil for instructing them in how to be—there is a necessary rupture, a possibility, a deep joy in the freedom to be bad.

Cuties begins with an image that readers of Lolita will be familiar with: a wincing child. It’s because of this that the last scene of the film left me paralyzed with joy. For a film that followed a form of realism to a painful degree, it closed completely opposite to how it opened—with a kind of magic realism. In jeans and a cardigan, Amy joins a group of kids on the streets for a game of jump rope. She jumps and the camera tracks up, following her flight. She jumps again and the camera tracks further up—too high: somehow, she is borne aloft. Defying gravity, as the camera tracks ever upwards, she continues to bobble into the frame, grinning with the jubilation of a jumping child. I felt I understood in her magical transcendence, the pain and joys of growing up—of approaching and overcoming the many obstacles that one thrills to surmount. Amy will grow up, as I did. She will make better friends, as I did. She will jump and jump, with effort and with triumph, into fuller understanding, into her choices, into womanhood, as I did.

Jerrine Tan
Jerrine Tan
Jerrine Tan was born and raised in Singapore. She has a PhD in English from Brown University and currently teaches Global Anglophone Literature in the English department at Mount Holyoke College. Her essays have been featured in WIRED, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and are forthcoming in Modern Fiction Studies and The Cambridge Companion to Kazuo Ishiguro. Her Twitter handle is @jerrinetanew.





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