What Art Scolds, Whether Conservative or Woke, Have in Common

I had a revelation this weekend, finally understanding something about what the woke left has in common with conservatives.  The revelation had to do with Plato and Aristotle, which won’t surprise people who know me well, but will require some explanation.

The insight was sparked by a long Facebook discussion about the controversy surrounding the French film Mignonnes, released on Netflix as Cuties.  The film’s promotional material featured 11-year-old girls dressed in skimpy dance outfits, and a clip circulating on the internet showing their dance routine was decidedly age-inappropriate, filled with twerking and assorted other sexually-suggestive moves.  Conservatives on social media were apoplectic about the exploitative oversexualization of young girls, calling for Netflix and the filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré to be cancelled, and in some cases brought up on charges of child pornography.  They seemed to be imagining defenses of the film involving the idea that girls were “empowered” by owning their sexuality, though I actually didn’t see anyone advancing that argument in defense of the film.  The defenses I did see were mostly along the lines of  “that’s a three-minute clip, maybe the film isn’t as smutty as it seems.”  But the response to that was “anyone defending this trash is defending sexual exploitation of children.  You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

That’s a familiar script: woke critics of films like 16 Candles or 48 Hours criticize those films for sexist and racist tropes, and respond to any defense of the films with “you’re defending a racist film, you should be ashamed of yourselves.”  You see the parallels: conservatives accuse the defenders of Cuties of being soft on pedophilic exploitation of children, and the left accuses defenders of 16 Candles and 48 Hours of being soft on sexism and racism.   But are the defenders of those films defending the sexism or the racism?  Mostly no; they’re pointing towards some kind of contextualiztion, or differentiating between depicting an attitude and endorsing an attitude.  Nick Nolte’s character Cates calls Eddie Murphy’s character Hammond the N-word, for example, yet one of the key payoffs of the film is when Cates apologizes to Hammond for doing that, and upbraids his lieutenant for doing it, defending Hammond as smarter and braver than anyone else in the precinct.  So: 1, calling someone the N-word is bad.  2, a clip from a movie where someone does that looks bad.  But 3, the full context of the film may reveal that the story shows that doing it is wrong.   Nevertheless, the critics maintain, it’s bad to even show characters talking like that because it “normalizes” the behavior, influencing  viewers to approve.

Similarly, conservative critics of Cuties point out that there’s something wrong with a society that pushes young girls to embrace a hyper-sexualization, especially at a too-young age.  But is the filmmaker saying “no, it’s fine if 11-year-old girls dance in a sexually suggestive way”?   No. Turns out the filmmaker, Maïmouna Doucouré, an émigré to France from Senegal, agrees with the conservatives that there’s something wrong with a society that pushes young girls to embrace a hyper-sexualization, especially at a too-young age.  She says (I haven’t seen it, but several reviewers confirm this) that the film shows the young protagonist uncomfortably pressured into embracing this oversexualization, and rejecting it.  Nevertheless, the critics maintain, it’s bad to even show characters dancing like that because it “normalizes” the behavior, influencing  viewers to approve.

What finally hit me this weekend was the realization that what the woke left and the conservatives have in common is that their view of art is Platonic, and they both oppose an Aristotelian approach.  On Plato’s view, certain artistic representations should not be allowed, as their very existence can have a baleful influence on impressionable minds.  To be sure, Plato gets a bad rap from people who overstate and caricature his view to imply that all artistic representation is bad – he can’t literally mean that no representative art can be allowed, since he himself expresses his theories in artistic representations.  But he does seem worried that art, because of its ability to communicate in a way that bypasses the intellect, can give people bad ideas.  By even depicting bad things, he thought, people might get the wrong idea – what they call today “normalizing.”

Aristotle’s theory was a little more nuanced.  He’s aware of art’s ability to influence, but he argues that it’s not depiction that is of chief importance, but portrayal.  I’m oversimplifying a bit here, but basically the artist can depict good people or things or bad people or things, and can portray them as good or bad, or leading to good or bad outcomes.  If a good thing is made to look good, or a bad thing is made to look bad, that’s morally correct.  There’s nothing wrong with depicting vice provided that the vicious do not flourish as a result of vice. The essence of tragedy, conversely, is when a basically good person meets a bad end due to some weakness or character flaw.   What would be morally bad, on this theory, would be when the artist makes the noble appear base or the subject of mockery, or makes the vicious flourish.  So a story about a racist character isn’t per se bad – if the character learns why racism is bad and rejects it, the story is morally edifying. 

American History X is a good illustration.  The film shows us vile, racist invective (and violence) from a neo-Nazi character.  But the point of the film isn’t to glorify these attitudes, it’s to condemn them.  The protagonist comes to renounce hate and try to redeem himself, but is (tragically) too late to save his brother.   Similarly, Cuties shows us lewd and age-inappropriate dancing from 11-year-olds, but the point of the film isn’t to glorify pre-pubsescent twerking, it’s to condemn a culture that makes young girls think they should sexualize themselves to get ahead.  A Platonist would respond to both by saying “these portrayals are made with good craftsmanship, therefore they’re dangerous, because people might get the wrong idea and emulate what they’ve seen portrayed.”  But an Aristotelian would say “these bad things are in fact being portrayed as bad, so no sensible person would draw the wrong lesson here.”  Although the racist speeches in American History X really are the sorts of things neo-Nazis say, and are delivered credibly and passionately by a talented actor, it’s plain that the filmmaker sees these as bad ideas, as indeed does the protagonist by the end of the film.  The film doesn’t “normalize” neo-Nazis.  No sensible viewer would see this film and think “yes, I should become a Nazi.”   John Hinkley seemed to be have been “inspired” to attempt to assassinate President Reagan by the 1976 film Taxi Driver, though most sane people would have no trouble recognizing character Travis Bickle as someone who is very disturbed and not the object of emulation.  In Cuties, the dance routine is indeed disturbing (a clip of that has been circulating on the internet), but it’s portrayed as disturbing in the film.  The in-film audience watching the dance is not cheering.  They look shocked and saddened and disapproving –  the same response as critics of the film.  And the protagonist realizes she shouldn’t act that way. 

So the woke critics of popular culture on the left, and the conservative critics who have been calling to jail the CEO of Netflix, share in common a Platonism about art that fails to adequately differentiate depiction and endorsement.   But Aristotle was right.  A film can depict bad people and bad things and still be a morally edifying film, if the filmmaker portrays them that way.  To be sure, some artists portray bad things in such a way as to glorify them or endorse them.  Criticizing those is one thing, but criticizing a film merely for depicting them is to have a mistaken conception of how art works.   

I should add that some of my interlocutors argued that unlike fictional portrayals of racism or violence, Cuties actually does have young girls engaged in age-inappropriate dancing, namely the child actors portraying the dance team.  That’s true of course: Joe Pesci was just pretending to shoot Michael Imperioli in the foot, whereas these young actors really are twerking.  But that argument proves too much: this would imply that child actors couldn’t do anything that would inappropriate to do in real life.  Child actors have portrayed victims of traumatizing crimes, as murderers themselves, as prostitutes, thieves, drug users, con artists.  Presumably, as actors, they’re clear about the distinction between real life and acting, and their parents support their budding careers.  The actors in Cuties, having read the entire script, would surely have seen that the filmmaker’s point is not that it’s awesome to have young girls oversexualized, but that it’s sad and dangerous.  Meanwhile, of course, there really are dance competitions for tweens that feature these age-inappropriate oversexualizations.  The difference between those young girls and the actors in Cuties is that the latter know it’s a portrayal of something bad.

The Platonic view has it that art has this tremendous power to influence, but simultaneously that it doesn’t matter how the story or movie portrays things. I think that’s self-contradictory.  The Aristotelian view on the other hand, accounts for art’s power precisely in its ability to make something look good or bad. If it makes good things look good and bad things look bad, there is no cause for moral concern. The problem arises when a movie makes good things look bad or bad things look good. Trainspotting is not morally problematic, because it makes a bad thing look bad. 1776 is not morally problematic, because it makes a good thing look good. If there were a movie that made the oversexualization of tween girls look like a desirable thing, that would be a morally bad film.  But it seems as though Cuties is not that film.  I say “seems” because I haven’t seen it – just like the conservative Twitter mob calling it pedophilia.  Reviews seem to indicate the mob is wrong, but the bottom line is, these conservatives are united with their counterparts on the woke left in sticking to a Platonic view: it’s enough to know something bad is depicted to know the art is bad.  Aristotle would disagree, and, on-brand for me, I’m going with Aristotle on this one.  It matters how people and ideas are portrayed, not just that they’re there.