Pausing the Panic ButtonCan Religious Scholarship Teach Media Literacy?

Fathia Youssouf as Amy in Mignonnes (Photo credit: Bien Ou Bien Productions)

Rebecca Epstein-Levi is Bitch Media’s 2020 Sacred Writes Writing Fellow

Sexual depravity—real, imagined, and all the miry ground in between—is, as ever, in the news. Especially where any hint of teenage and preteen sexuality is concerned, America’s collective imagination, primed lately by child sex–trafficking conspiracy theories, is quick to spot sinister intent. And the recent outrage over Maïmouna Doucouré’s film MignonnesCuties, in its Anglophone markets—is no exception. Cuties, which follows 11-year-old Amy’s (Fathia Youssouf) fraught attempts to navigate between the sexual pressures of present-day France and her Senegalese family’s expectations, is a thoughtful and nuanced critique of the hypersexualization of preadolescent girls that also acknowledges its subjects’ agency and sexual curiosity and centers Black girls’ perspectives and experiences. You wouldn’t know that, however, from the YouTube comments on Netflix’s trailer for it, which accuse the film of promoting child sexual abuse and outright pedophilia—a claim repeated by U.S Senator Ted Cruz.

Moral panics about sexually disturbing or explicit media, including literature, films, and music that even hint at acknowledging the existence of teen sexuality, especially if that sexuality carries even a whiff of queerness, are hardly new or uncommon—especially in the United States (By contrast, Cuties enjoyed a positive reception in both France and Senegal). Nor are moral panics about Black women’s expressions of their sexuality, of which the right-wing backlash to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” is only one recent example. Even within the fanfiction community—a space that’s been historically welcoming of a wide range of sexual expression—there’s a sizable camp that advocates for the censorship of a range of explicit fanfic on the grounds that it “glorifies” rape, pedophilia, or incest. These panics can, to outsiders, look like subcultural feuds, but they have larger political consequences: In the past few years a number of state legislatures have introduced bills declaring pornography to be a “public-health crisis.”

I’m tempted, in response to these moral panics, to say that if you can’t distinguish between a critique of the sexualization of young girls and a glorification of it—or between pornography featuring consenting adults, as opposed to brutalized children—then I don’t know what to tell you. But that’s too hasty a response for two reasons. First, the particular ways U.S. media and pop culture industries censor some types of sexual content, sensationalize others, and frame Black and queer creators in particular as morally suspect and even predatory shape our collective understanding of and reactions to media—often in ways we’re unaware of. Second, as an expert in sexual ethics who studies classical rabbinic texts, which contain numerous examples of sexual content that I would call extravagantly disturbing—I actually do know what to say to counter this kind of social conditioning: Learn to read more carefully.

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Because I regularly work with material that has both deeply disturbing content and significant moral authority, I spend a lot of time thinking about the ways texts—including and especially disturbing ones—can be interpreted, and exactly what effects such encounters have on us as reader. And I can tell you that how carefully you interpret media has far greater moral and practical consequences than the simple fact of what media you consume. You don’t have to be a Talmud scholar to understand the importance of reading critically, but such scholarship can offer important tools. Media-related moral panics tend to take one of two simplistic positions: One is that media or popular culture that depicts a certain bad thing causes its consumers to approve of or even reproduce that thing. The second, alternately, is that these cultural products exist in a vacuum—that they are “only” stories and have no human consequence whatsoever. Engaging well with classical texts is one way that we can learn to treat the media we engage with as conversation partners. 

Our encounters with media shape us in a range of ways, few of which are simple and about most of which we have, in fact, significant agency. For example: There’s a passage in the Babylonian Talmud, in Ketubot 11b, that is, at first glance, horrendously disturbing—so much so that antisemites have frequently deployed this particular text as “evidence” of Jewish sexual monstrosity. In it, a sage named Rava seems to be saying that when an adult man sexually violates a girl younger than 3 years old, it’s inconsequential, “like putting a finger into the eye.” Horrifying, right? Except that’s not at all what Rava’s saying. If we push past our initial shock and look at the context of that statement, we see that they’re discussing the contours of “virginity” as a contractual category. In this textual universe, there are two basic categories of wedding contract—that for a virgin and that for a widow—and the virgin’s contract guarantees her twice as much money if the marriage ends.

This case comes up as one of a number of borderline situations where a bride’s contractual status as a virgin is in doubt—so by treating the girl’s violation as inconsequential according to this very specific legal category, Rava is actually putting her at an economic advantage. To be clear, the text remains deeply disturbing in other ways, and reading it without considering the role of gender and power risks excusing those troubling dynamics. As readers, we should not be sanguine about the casual way, for example, that an all-male group of sages exercise legal and taxonomic control over the imagined state of women’s hymens. We also shouldn’t look past the potential rhetorical effect of treating the girl’s violation as inconsequential, even if the legal effect of it is favorable. But these critiques are only possible if we actually engage the text beyond our initial recoil at its most appalling line.

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Doing so allows us to examine its oppressive gender dynamics and to ask broader questions about the limits of legal frameworks in responding to sexual violence. The extravagantly disturbing text is worth engaging both because of and in spite of its content, and parsing why that content is or isn’t disturbing helps us think with more nuance about how to evaluate other disturbing content. That said, religious texts aren’t the same as popular media, particularly given the different ways we expect to encounter and engage with them. We watch a movie or TV show or read a work of fiction primarily to enjoy and be entertained by it; we expect a religious text to help us access some connection—to our community, to our history, to the divine—or offer guidance. But there’s more entertainment and enjoyment in the study of religious texts (and, likewise, more deliberate guidance and moral formation in the consumption of popular media) than one might think. And the interpretive habits that studying such texts can cultivate help us engage more thoughtfully and responsibly with media of all kinds.

So how might we apply the lessons from reading this passage to media like Cuties? First, we should learn that it’s incredibly easy to make something seem far more horrifying than it actually is by taking its most shocking parts out of context. It’s not accidental that some of the most vitriolic condemnation of Cuties has been in reaction not to the full film but to Netflix’s promotional material for it. Second, we should learn that if we fail to engage a piece of media beyond our knee-jerk recoil from its rawest aspects, we often lose the opportunity to have critical conversations about aspects of it that might actually have potential to do important moral and political work. Shutting down at Rava’s specific comment in the Ketubot text means forfeiting the opportunity to think about the ways the text tries to establish epistemic control over women’s sexual status.

Similarly, shutting down at Cuties’ intentionally appalling portrayal of scantily-clad 11-year olds means forfeiting the opportunity to think about how to acknowledge the existence of preteens’ sexual curiosity in ways that neither shame nor exploit or about how to interrogate the roles of colonialism and racism in white portrayals of nonwhite sexual norms. Finally, we should learn that backlashes against extravagantly disturbing media tend to be powerful tools for maintaining extant hierarchies of sex, race, gender, culture, and religion. Citing the Ketubot text to “prove” that the Talmud considers it acceptable to have sex with a 3-year-old girl is a classic antisemitic canard, one that’s linked to broader representations of vampiric, sexually depraved Jews preying on children. 

You don’t have to be a Talmud scholar to understand the importance of reading critically. But thinking about media like one offers some important tools for such reading.

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Similarly, it’s not accidental that Cuties was created by a Black woman—portraying Black women as sexually monstrous is a core tactic of misogynoir, and it’s imperative that we recognize the ways that such misogynoir is foundational to the vitriol leveled against the film. Indeed, this is where we can perhaps draw the strongest connection between interpretive care and social justice. There’s a long history of willfully misinterpreting extravagantly disturbing media to malign marginalized groups, and it’s a standard move to smear members of those groups as sexually depraved child predators—think, for example, about how so much queerphobic rhetoric is couched in appeals to the safety of children.

Even the seemingly chaotic disinformation spewed by the president and the neo-fascist and white supremacist movements that support him has this as a constant theme, from Trump’s characterization of undocumented immigrants as rapists to the QAnon conspiracy movement, which directly invokes antisemitic blood libel and child predation tropes. So, dear reader, I implore you: When you see a massive backlash against a piece of sexually inflected media, don’t take it for granted—especially if the creator’s a member of a marginalized group. Ask yourself whose interests are being served by discouraging you from examining that media more closely. Think about what important conversations you might miss the opportunity to have if you go no further than your knee-jerk recoil. And if you’re shocked at an out-of-context snippet of something, consider engaging further and more deeply. It just might help you work toward actual sexual justice.

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by Rebecca Epstein-Levi
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Rebecca Epstein-Levi teaches Jewish Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies at Vanderbilt University. She’s an expert on Jewish sexual ethics and is revising a book about sex, risk, and rabbinic text. In her copious free time, she enjoys cooking, sharpening her overly large collection of kitchen knives, and hanging around (and just maybe writing for) her smallish corner of fandom. You can follow her on Twitter @RJELevi.