This article will consider some of the theological and ethical implications related to the recent Netflix Cuties controversy. The material below is nothing new. The narrative of the cost of rejecting a universal moral standard is a common evangelical response to perceived societal moral failings, and truth be told, is probably an oversimplified response. Nevertheless, we cannot overlook the reality of the existence of a film like Cuties, and once again the controversy is back in the news cycle after a Texas grand jury indicted Netflix on felony charges. Thankfully, the outcry over the film has been significant, but Cuties also has powerful supporters who are framing the provocative material as a noble, even a morally good, project for speaking against child sexualization. So, I will attempt to shed light on the typical Christian response and offer, what I hope, are a few helpful additional insights.
A Christian worldview understands morality to be grounded in the holiness and goodness of God. Holiness is what Jerry Bridges memorably refers to as God’s “infinite moral purity.” As image-bearers of God, humans have the capacity, even in a fallen world, to make sense of right and wrong. Paul argues in Romans 2 that our conscience bears witness to God’s moral standard which is universally written on the human heart. It is this moral awareness that serves as a means for both human flourishing and individual protection.
The potentially surprising twist in this God-grounded moral code is its universal authority for both believers and non-believers. Christians sometimes mistakenly believe that non-Christians lack the ability to pick up on various moral cues since they are founded on the God of the Bible. But this argument misses the impact of being created imago dei. Every human inherently possesses the capacity to discern right from wrong and the ability to do good toward our neighbor. Total depravity does not mean utter depravity. This is sometimes referred to as God’s “common grace” because it is true for all people, in all places, at all times.
Of course, the concept of a universal moral standard is rejected by critics of Christianity. Ethical considerations have become a privileged, personal pursuit that reject higher authorities or outside judgment. However, those who deny Christianity’s moral code are not seeking the abandonment of morality altogether. The desire is not for amorality, which is a common charge levied against the progressive left, but rather is rooted in a philosophy that actually makes moral claims against the morality of Christianity, especially as it relates to sexual ethics. The angst over Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s position on feminine submission is one example. The strongest supporters of Cuties, and those who ridicule its detractors as being “terrified of child sexuality,” typically fit into this new morality.
But it becomes even more complicated when we consider how this progressive morality has created a confused moral landscape of competing ideas. Body policing is strongly opposed since it perpetuates the concept of the body as a source of shame. No doubt, the body is not to be viewed as shameful. That was the first human reaction in the Garden of Eden after the fall. Unfortunately, the push back to body policing has led to provocative and sexualized entertainers heralded as champions for individual expression. On the other hand, the last several years have brought about increasingly necessary movements for resisting the sexualization of women for financial gain or mere physical pleasure. Brett McCraken observes how the intersection of mixed messages has led to a “soul-searching reckoning for Hollywood” and Cuties falls right in the middle of the confusion.
Confusion is also inevitable at the individual level. Those who deny a universal moral standard but are not ready to embrace the sexualization and commodification of children have nowhere to turn. It is possible that the existence of a show like Cuties, readily available to instantly stream in millions of American homes, could be the first moment of awareness for some that the relative, social moral ethic they have embraced might now be advancing beyond what their own personal moral compass is willing to accept. And then what? Since there is no moral standard to which such a person can make an appeal, there is no moral argument available against the very existence of the film. The only option for this person would be to say, “it’s not for me.” But that’s not good enough.
Thus, denying a universal moral standard grounded in the character of God necessarily means that we are left with a fluctuating moral position largely decided by the spirit of the age.
But another factor must be briefly considered. The current culture of alarming allegiance to a particular American political ideology is also wreaking havoc on our moral discernment.
Consider this thought experiment. If President Trump had quickly issued a statement (or a well-crafted tweet!) in support of Cuties due to its supposed noble intentions of providing social commentary against child sexualization, would some on the right be less emphatic in their denouncement of the film? How many on the left would quickly become repulsed at its erotic imagery? Our political determination to avoid even the appearance of conformity with the other side has placed us on a disastrous path of inconsistent moral conviction where both conservatives and progressives are responsible for paving the way.
In other words, moral confusion abounds, and that is nothing new.
It is perhaps cliched to suggest that revival – another Great Awakening if you will – is necessary for the prosperity of the American people. But something must return us to a standard beyond ourselves. May God help us.