Americans cannot afford to let the latest object of public outrage — a Netflix release of the French movie “Cuties” — become just another touch point in an endless culture war that reduces important issues to stereotypes and cliches.

If a divided country can agree on anything, it ought to be the need to protect children. That protection goes beyond guarding against physical abuse. It must include protections against the types of psychological damage that could destroy a child’s chances to develop into a functioning, self-confident adult.

“Cuties,” is a movie whose creator, Maïmouna Doucouré, wanted to start “a conversation about the sexualization of children,” as she put it in a recent Washington Post op-ed. It is the story of Amy, an 11-year-old girl whose family has immigrated from Senegal to France. She becomes torn between her family’s strict religious and social expectations and her newfound friends who are caught up in a hyper-sexed world of social media. 

In the end, Amy chooses her family and a return to innocent childhood, after the pressures to obtain “likes” and compete in a confusing and often vicious new culture overwhelm her.

But it’s the journey to that happy ending that causes problems.

“Cuties” is filled with bare-midriffed young actresses portraying 11-year-old girls gyrating seductively, twerking and otherwise trying to look sexy in the incessant videos they film on their cellphones. The viewer cannot escape the reality that actual young teenage girls are being paid to do these things on film. These actresses are being sexualized in order to make a point against their sexualization — an irony apparently lost on many of the film’s reviewers.

Netflix show prompts backlash and a conversation on objectionable content
Sen. Mike Lee might seek federal investigation of Netflix film ‘Cuties’

This ought to go beyond simply making viewers uncomfortable. It ought to provoke outrage. 

However, that reaction will be of little value if it doesn’t extend to every corner of the culture, from the way girls are portrayed in fashion and advertising to the not-so-subtle expectations of social media, especially in popular video apps such as TikTok.

Girls are literally being sold lies about their worth and how to measure it. Why not make this the next phase of the #metoo movement?

In a Deseret News article published today, psychologist Christia Spears Brown of the University of Kentucky said that In just one year, grade school-age children could take in as many as 80,000 “sexy girl” portrayals just watching kid-targeted TV programming. The story, headlined, “How the sexualization of girls creates long-term problems,” shows the impact not just on girls, but also on the attitudes of boys.

This isn’t a matter only of religious or ideological bias. Several scholarly studies have been devoted to the effect of cultural sexualization on the development of girls. Perhaps the most frequently quoted of these was a 2007 report by the American Psychological Association. It found strong links between cultural sexualization and problems such as “eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression or depressed mood.”

The study said the culture “has negative consequences in terms of girls’ ability to develop healthy sexuality.” It also has negative cognitive effects that can be linked to girls performing worse in school and on tests than they otherwise could.

A 2017 paper published in the Journal of Psychiatry noted: “Emerging empirical research also corroborates the notion that while sexualization of females is rewarded online (usually by males), females are also punished for these same displays and are quick to be labeled by other female peers. ... This perpetuates sexual double standards that reinforce gender stereotypes.”

In her op-ed, Doucouré laments that the conversation her movie started was “not the one that I intended.” By harming young girls in order to bring attention to how young girls are being harmed, she displayed, at best, a tone-deaf naivete. 

Netflix, whose inappropriate poster for the movie sparked much of the backlash, has seen cancellations rise eightfold, according to Variety. Some in Congress are threatening an investigation.

These will be hollow gestures, however, if they don’t lead to united efforts to address one of the most important non-political questions of our time: How do we reverse the cultural sexualization of girls and women that is distorting their true value as human beings?