One of the pet topics I’m prone to geeking out over (as anyone who knows me in person will wearily testify) is the “video nasty” scare that hit Britain in the 1980s. This was a moral panic whipped up mostly by social conservatives about horror films available on video; dozens of movies got caught up in the controversy, ranging from the admittedly exploitative (Faces of Death) through to mainstream horror films (The Evil Dead) with a whole lot of cheesy zombie flicks in between. Films like The Werewolf and the Yeti, Night of the Bloody Apes and Zombie Flesh Eaters were deemed obscene publications, video rental outlets were raided by the police, and distributors were taken to court for selling films which, today, you can pick up on Amazon no problem.
The public mood in regards to films like The Evil Dead appears to have been that only a shameless reprobate could even think of arguing against their banning. I wasn’t around at the time, but having read about the controversy and watched Jake West and Marc Morris’ two documentaries on the subject, I’ve sometimes found myself wondering what it would feel like to have been in the shoes of the people who railed against the censorship of the video nasties – and, in the process, been vilified for defending the indefensible.
Well, with the recent controversy over the film Cuties, I think I’ve got a clearer idea.
I don’t plan to either defend or condemn Cuties with this post. There are two reasons for this. One is that I haven’t actually watched the film (although, granted, I’m fairly certain the same can be said for the bulk of people in the debate). The second is that, from what I can infer, the film uses the story of a junior urban dance troupe to explore the topic of how media depictions of sexuality femininity impact girls growing up. I was never a little girl, nor am I the parent of a little girl, so these themes are entirely abstract to me; I just don’t think that I have anything particularly insightful to say about the topic. (I would like to point out, though, since a lot of commentators appear unaware of the fact, dance troupes like the one depicted in Cuties do exist in real life, and a moral panic over the fictionalised depiction of a subject rather than the subject itself strikes me as misguided).
Instead, what caught my attention was how the debate was being framed. I looked through the #CancelNetflix hashtag and saw tweet after tweet citing positive coverage of Cuties as evidence of the left defending paedophilia. This is a statement that rests on two assumptions: one, that defence of the film is inherently paedophilic (sort of like how defence of video nasties was a mark of depravity in the eighties) and two, that the controversy can be neatly divided into a pro-Cuties left and an anti-Cuties right.
The reality is more complex. Left-leaning outlets defending the film have also acknowledged that there are valid objections about how its promotion was handled by Netflix: to pick one example, The Mary Sue presented the film as a thoughtful exploration of gender, culture and coming of age while pouring scorn on what it termed “voyeuristic” promotional imagery. Meanwhile, certain conservative outlets put in a positive word for the film. The Spectator ran an article hailing Cuties as “a rare glimpse of the realities of working class and ethnically girlhood” and noted the irony that people “who might normally be relied on to cry ‘snowflake’” were leading the charge against the film.
Going back to the video nasties controversy, the main result of the scare was that the BBFC – which previously censored only cinematic releases – was granted the power to censor videos. James Ferman, then head of the BBFC, was notoriously cut-happy. To defend his censorious policies, he performed lectures in which he screened a selection of the most graphic scenes he had cut during his career, all played end to end. In the documentary Draconian Days, film critic and horror buff Alan Jones speaks of the effect one of these presentations had on him: he was initially swayed to Ferman’s pro-censorship position, until he stopped to think about the matter of context. What he had been shown by Ferman, a series of clips with no surrounding narrative or meaning, was not what a viewer of a horror film would see.
I’ve now seen something similar playing out with Cuties. The film’s detractors are on Twitter posting clip after clip of the juvenile actresses performing raunchy dance moves, completely devoid of any context or narrative justification that might appear in the full film. The irony of objecting to Netflix streaming these scenes, while posting the exact same scenes across social media, would take some time to untangle.
Moral panics tend to age badly. Thirty-odd years down the line, the idea that anyone could have gone to court for selling a Bruce Campbell comedy-horror looks even more ludicrous than ever, and we can only wonder how the Cuties controversy will date. To choose a different reference point from the eighties, think of the music video for Queen’s “Miracle”, where four young boys played members of the band; the kid performing as Freddie wore a miniaturised version of the rather revealing leotard sported by Mr. Mercury back in the seventies. I can’t find any record of the video having been controversial at the time, and looking back, it seems harmless enough – just kids playing dress-up.
Is it possible that someday Cuties will look the same? Or perhaps, will future generations view it the same way we see The Black and White Minstrel Show, and think “they’d never get away with that nowadays”?
For my part, I think the last word should belong to the actresses starring in the film. I don’t believe their thoughts on the filming process have been made public – if they have, then they’ve been roundly talked over. But in the future there will be four grown women who spent an early period of their acting careers in the controversial Cuties, and they – and they alone – will be able to speak with insight on the moral panic that once surrounded the film.