Maïmouna Doucouré, a French-Senegalese director, has made a film that aims to grapple with her own past and the reality of young girls in our world today. Cuties has sparked controversy and even death threats toward the director for its suggestive representations of young girls. Despite winning the “world cinema directing award” at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and receiving an abundance of critical acclaim, the backlash has been persistent with petitions floating around on Twitter for Netflix to drop the film off its roster.
Of course, Netflix is in great part to blame for the film’s backlash – much of which has come from people who have not watched the film- for its sexualizing marketing without the permission of Doucouré. As Women’s Republic Contributor, Valentina Ciuffreda, highlighted in her piece on Doucouré, Netflix’s promotional material demonstrated the irony in and of itself that its sexualizing nature confirms her argument with Cuties (the normalization of such content toward women and girls in media).
Doucouré explained to Time Magazine:
“For me, this film is sounding an alarm . . . This film tries to show that our children should have the time to be children, and we as adults should protect their innocence and keep them innocent as long as possible.”Originally published in Time Magazine, “‘This Film Is Sounding an Alarm.’ What Cuties Director Maïmouna Doucouré Wants Critics to Know About Her New Film”
Doucoure was inspired to write the film when she had seen a young group of girls dancing rather provocatively at a party a friend was hosting, that the experience was a “culture shock” to her. As a result, she consulted many girls in writing this narrative, listening to their stories and consequently translating them to the screen. She recounted,
“There were actually many stories which were so far beyond what you see in the film, and I just did not have the artistic courage to tell those stories on the screen . . . Stories of young girls who are 12 years old and prostituting themselves. All of these stories just made my blood run cold, and it made me even more determined to make this film, and to speak out about this issue that is so prevalent in today’s society.”Originally published in Time Magazine, “‘This Film Is Sounding an Alarm.’ What Cuties Director Maïmouna Doucouré Wants Critics to Know About Her New Film”
Therefore, the film’s uncomfortable moments are grounded in the everyday experience of young girls. The uneasiness of these scenes serve to remind us how commonplace things such as child prostitution are, yet how horrifying it is to see children sexualized on screen. According to World’s Children, 1 in 4 victims of trafficking are children. Doucouré’s intent is to have us experience the same “culture shock” that she felt seeing young girls dancing, and to recognize the complicity we hold in the normalization of objectifying women and girls.
As Castillo’s review on Roger Ebert pointed out, “depiction does not equal endorsement.” Cinema as a medium walks a fine line between commentary and perpetuation due to the fact that it is “the art of moving images.” Therefore, to have a film comment against the over-sexualization of girls, you must “see” the over-sexualization of girls (keeping in mind that what we are seeing is merely a representation or fabrication).
The real question is, however, regardless if we know that the film is a commentary and that the director is a woman drawing on personal experience, does that make it okay to watch young girls dance suggestively on screen? An analysis of the film may help clear up this debate, at least to some extent.
So what is Cuties really about?
At its heart, Cuties is a film about a young, first-generation Senegalese immigrant to France, Amy, who struggles to find the balance between two extremes: adhering to the conservative religiosity of her family and fitting in with the cool girls at school that embrace sexuality in an age-inappropriate manner. The film is utterly human. As the film progresses, Amy’s attire gets increasingly scant as she tries to veer further away from her “family’s values.” The major motif in the film is the blue dress that she is supposed to wear on the day of her father’s wedding to take a second wife.
Amy feels hurt, and of course, abandoned by her father. She knows the devastating effect it has had on her mother as she snooped on a phone conversation that ended in tears. Amy’s mother is confronting her own inner battles, and as a result, Amy doesn’t know where else to turn for attention other than the girl who lives in her apartment building (and leader of the Cuties Dance Troupe).
Amy sees Angelica with her long hair and crop tops comically using a clothes iron to straighten her hair, and it is an awakening experience. The film opens with Amy and her mother in prayer at the mosque reinforcing the values of modesty and duty to one’s husband. Angelica represents everything that is not; her whole vibe is uncharted territory. As a pre-teen, her desire to explore is only natural. This, in combination with moving to a new environment and feeling estranged from her family, creates a perfect storm for embracing change.
An undoubted period of self-discovery, middle school is the backdrop to these girls’ lives, and the film proved very relatable. Middle school is the existence of still being a child but simultaneously being given more of the responsibilities associated with adulthood. Amy embodies this experience: she must take care of her two younger brothers, but she herself is only 11-year-old.
To put the cherry on top, she gets her first period half-way through the tun-time donning her with the quintessential mark of “womanhood.” Amy exists in this weird limbo of feeling both disempowered by her adult role models, such as the uber traditional auntie, and empowered by the Cuties and the world of social media. Stealing her cousin’s phone, searching social media for the first time, and taking selfies is her way of forging -or at least attempting to forge- an identity of her own. Online, she sees the images of what “femininity” is supposed to be. In this case, it is often the gross over-sexualization of women.
The Cuties embody this middle-school desire to be older and to be taken seriously. They idolize the high school dance group (The Swaggs) and watch their video to inspire determination to beat them in the upcoming competition. Their video, as you can guess, is hypersexual and ends with a teenage girl flashing her breast on screen. They are jealous of their greater amount of views online and want to assert: just because they are younger doesn’t mean they aren’t as cool, or talented, or as deserving of attention for that matter.
Throughout the film, the girls are disregarded due to their age. Once boys find out they are 11, they go running. But haven’t we all been there? Sitting in the school lunchroom talking about sex at age 12 because its something so foreign yet intriguing (even though we were too young to be experiencing it), crushing over the 8th graders, cursing because no one was there to stop us, etc.
There is something inherently funny about Amy watching a twerking video while she is supposed to be praying at the mosque because we know and recall our own rebellious tendencies. We all identify with the adolescent struggle to find a sense of identity. While seeing these experiences as an adult is super cringy, we cannot ignore the fact that we did these very things.
However, we also can’t ignore how uncomfortable we feel watching these 11-year girls dance so sexually on screen. It is especially hard to watch when they dance for adult men in order to get out of trouble. Amy starts dropping to the floor and shaking her behind, and the security officer is gawking at her.
What makes it even more disturbing is the fact that these girls don’t know how bad this situation really is. They are not really aware of how “sexual” these moves are, and as they twerk and make suggestive hand gestures and facial expressions, it essentially goes over their heads. But the problem that arises from being exposed to the constant over-sexualization of women online is that these girls are taught to believe they are only valued for their bodies. They give in to the success=objectification paradigm.
They perform as pleasure objects for men because that is what gets the “views.” This is what garners them the attention they might lack from their parents (which are mostly absent during the course of the narrative). Cuties depicts this to an extreme when Amy begins to take off her clothes, hoping that it would appease her cousin and let her keep the phone she stole from him. Moments later, she uploads a nude picture of her vagina to the internet. How could she be so naive?
But she can. In fact, it’s natural. 11-year-olds are extremely impressionable, unable to make fully informed decisions, and are not knowledgable enough about sex and the expression of sexuality in general to understand the consequences of such actions. All Amy knows is that it gives her the attention she feels she lacks at home. It offers her an avenue to escape.
But at the climactic moment of the film where she abandons her father’s wedding to dance in the competition, she stops blind in her tracks. Mid-performance, she freezes, runs off the stage, and back home to her mother. It’s as if the gravity of the entire chain of events leading up to this moment all clicked in her mind, and she realized that there must be a balance between family and tradition and individuality. As a result, the film ends with an appropriate attire change. She neither embraces the blue dress nor the blue dancing costume and opts for jeans and a red shirt. She finds her equilibrium.
Cuties is a compelling film for the emotional development of its protagonist, but it’s also a very uncomfortable viewing experience (with that said, this is not for children). Watching the camera zoom in on these girls’ behinds felt wrong, and it is. If someone decides they are uninterested in watching the film precisely because they do not want to see these images, that is their prerogative.
However, to call for an international ban is hypocritical. The things that unfold on this screen are only reproductions of the media we all know and consume on a daily basis. We don’t spark controversy over the millions of sexualized women on the screen every second under the supervision of male superiors and creators. As Karen Attiah recognizes in The Washington Post, “I don’t recall mass movements to have cheerleading, reality shows such as “Dance Moms” or competitive dance troupes canceled for literally making money off American girls and their moms.”
Why does it suddenly become taboo when a Black woman makes a point to criticize its very existence? With female representation in film already as low as it is, bringing down a director of color is only a reflection of our society’s fear of the empowerment of not only female bodies, but BIPOC people.
Only recently has the feminist discourse of empowering women to dress and act “provocatively” gained mass appeal (because it is not our responsibility to accommodate to men’s learned objectification of women). Further, the idea of Intersectionality between gender and race is a concept that is still misinterpreted. However, 11 year-olds are not cognizant enough of these radical notions of undermining traditional norms; their decisions to act as something perceived as “sexual” were not made as a protest against white patriarchy. Therefore, they easily fall victim to the structure. That is the difference.
The controversy surrounding the film is misguided. While being forced to see these girls as objectified on screen in order to comment on its wrongness is inherently problematic, there is no doubt that because of the controversy, we are engaging in the same discourse the film promotes. The most uncomfortable films are often the most effective, and I believe that to be the case with Doucouré’s first feature. We see the Cuties in ourselves, and we want to make this change. Empowering Doucouré and female directors is the action we need to take.