Should You Criticize Movies You Haven’t Watched?
It is inherently problematic to condemn a specific film or television show from the sidelines, without personal experience of what that work of art communicates. When Christians dismissed Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film Noah, for example, many of them did so on erroneous grounds, not knowing what was actually in the movie. Blind condemnation is dangerous and unhelpful.
When it comes to pornographic content, however, we move away from the debatable and ambiguous elements of artistic merit, and toward more solid distinctions between right and wrong. Hypersexualized storytelling methods are an aspect worth criticizing. A Christian can—and should—condemn pornographic material without having to engage each instance on a case-by-case basis.
Thus, I am comfortable and confident to condemn pornographic techniques used in any mainstream film, whether I’ve seen that film or not. Such condemnation is not unfair to the work as a whole. That is why I have spoken up about certain films I haven’t watched—Cuties being the most recent example.
Now, in a sense, you could throw out much of what I recently said about Cuties regarding its problematic content (merely from a viewer perspective) and we would still have a serious problem. We would still have a strong reason to critique the hypersexualization of children, because it inherently violates the dignity of human beings made in the image of God.
THE UNFORTUNATE UGLINESS OF CUTIES
Women’s rights activist Melinda Tankard Reist is no proponent of Scriptural ethics, but she has, along with many others, noted the actor-violation component of the filming of Cuties:
[T]here is an ethical principle at stake: do we treat human beings as means or ends? And the complexity here is that in trying to make a serious ethical point about girls and sexuality, the girls may have been used unwittingly — but still inappropriately — to a noble end. The scene could have been filmed differently, from a greater distance, certainly not panning to their small arching backsides and crotches. While we appreciate the intention of the director in confronting us with the reality of life for an 11-year-old, these are real children. Yes, the young actors matter.
A film critic friend of mine who watched Cuties recently said in a private Facebook chat, “I don’t doubt for one second that the filmmakers intended to be critical of Western culture’s hypersexualization, but they didn’t have the aesthetic imagination to avoid participating in said sexualization while critiquing it.”
According to a report by the American Psychological Association, “sexualized and sexually objectified girls can experience many negative cognitive and health consequences, such as difficulty with concentration, low self-esteem, reduced sexual health, depression, and eating disorders.” What lasting damage has been done to the hearts and minds of the young actors of Cuties? Only time will tell.
In spite of the film’s good intentions, the sexual dignity of Cuties’ teen and pre-teen actors was sacrificed on the altar of Sounding an Alarm and The Greater Good (both of which are great aims—but not when we use human dignity as collateral because “the end justifies the means”).
As a film fan, I’m all for art and free speech, even if a movie promotes a message I find problematic or disagreeable. What I’m not a fan of is exploitation. Not even just a small amount of it to show how bad it really is.
When it comes to Cuties in particular, I honestly wish I could be a proponent of the film, because I agree wholeheartedly with its intended message. Besides, based on other reviews and testimonies I’ve seen, it sounds like the film gets so many things right. Nevertheless, the wrong thing (utilizing sexual exploitation) for the right reason (condemning sexual exploitation) is still the wrong thing.
SPECIFIC, NOT SIMPLISTIC
Coming back to where we started: no one should write a review of a film they haven’t watched. That’s just dishonest. And as a general rule, anyone who is going to critique a movie should watch it first.
As with most rules, however, there are exceptions—not to dismiss a film solely because of scandalous hearsay knowledge. Rather, an exception exists for when actors are sexually exploited—whether those actors are men, women, or children. Such content doesn’t need to be seen to be condemned.
When I focus my critique on the exploitation of actors in a particular film—especially when I have not seen said film—I am focusing only on that one aspect of the movie. I am not disputing the artfulness of the product as a whole. That would be uneducated and uncharitable. For all I know, the film I have critiqued may be one of the most artistic, competently-crafted, and otherwise insightful movies to come out in decades. Ethically speaking, that’s a moot point.
Not because artfulness doesn’t matter. Not because film criticism doesn’t matter. But because the wellbeing of actors made in the image of God matters more.