Thoughts on the Cuties Controversy After Actually Watching the Film

Angelica and Amy in Cuties

This week #CancelNetflix was trending on Twitter in response to the release of a French film by Afro-French director, Maimouna Doucoure, Mignonnes, or as it is called here in the U.S., Cuties. The film focuses on an eleven-year-old immigrant from Senegal who becomes “fascinated” by a dance troupe and their provocative style. Those who want to cancel Netflix over the film are accusing the streaming service of distributing child pornography. Although I watched the widely-circulated clip of the group’s racy performance and was very uncomfortable with it, I hesitantly watched Cuties because I suspected that the outrage was lacking context. 

What I found was that Cuties is a fairly tame coming of age story with several moments of uncomfortably sexual content that, when taken in context with the rest of the film, build toward a critique of the models of femininity girls are presented with as they mature. A key to this critique is how much of the film is focused on Amy watching other girls and women. She watches her mother and other women in her community as they model a specific, traditional femininity shaped by their Muslim faith and their culture in Senegal. As Amy’s mother and Auntie begin to teach her how to be a woman in their culture, she starts to grow increasingly upset by the burden her mother carries, represented by the pain caused by her polygamous father taking a second wife. Amy watches the Cuties modeling a rebellious, precocious version of young femininity. And, she watches women in music videos perform an even more sexualized version of this same femininity. In the women and girls Amy watches, she therefore sees two extreme versions of womanhood. The film makes this contrast explicit in its last minutes when it lingers on a shot of Amy’s racy dance costume and the traditional dress she is supposed to wear for her father’s wedding, both laid out on her bed.

That so much of the film is centered on Amy watching also depicts how much she feels like an outsider. At the film’s start, Amy does not have any friends and through her watching the other girls, it is clear that she just wants to fit in with the Cuties, particularly her neighbor Angelica. In trying to fit in with them, she gets drawn into pushing the Cuties’ agenda more aggressively than the Cuties themselves do. The Cuties want two things: to win a dance competition and to prove that they are not little girls.

The Cuties, however, are little girls, and the movie’s cringe-inducing moments stem from them behaving in ways that are out of step with what is expected of little girls. Their precociousness is uncomfortable, but the film often puts this precociousness in tension with their innocence. For example, the girls are in the park practicing their dances and one of them finds a condom and starts blowing it up like a balloon, not knowing what it is. When the other girls realize what she is playing with, they are aghast and she is humiliated. She cries, defending herself, “It’s not my fault; I didn’t know what it was.” The scene cuts to the four of them in a bathroom, washing their friend’s mouth out with soap and (I think) hand sanitizer. At this moment, the girls’ innocence (by which I mean lack of knowledge) is in direct conflict with how they pursue an image of themselves as sexually knowing (for example looking at pornographic images on a cell phone). Later, Amy seeks to prove herself by getting into a fight with a member of a rival dance crew. In the tussle, she is pantsed and the crowd laughs at her girlish underwear. To save the girls’ reputations as “not little girls,” Amy makes the terrible decision to post a picture of her vagina on social media and is subsequently ostracized from the group for crossing the line. “Have you even read the comments on your post?” the Cuties demand of her. 

So much of the tension between the girls’ youth and their precociousness is played out through internet culture. The inspiration for their sexualized images streams to them on smartphones. They try seductive video chatting with an older boy, which backfires when their camera accidentally turns on, revealing that they are children. They post racy dances and poses for the likes and follows online. The internet is unambiguously part of the problem in the film’s take on the girls’ sexualization.

Then, there is the dance scene that is drawing such ire. Amy gets to perform with the group at the last minute and the erotic dance moves that they perform were her idea in the first place—a way of upping the ante on the dances they were already doing in order to gain their approval. As the girls perform, the audience’s reaction in the film ranges from shocked to disgusted. Then, toward the dance’s conclusion, Amy freezes, starts to cry, and runs off stage. It is unclear to me if this response was caused by the audience’s reaction or if she begins to feel uncomfortable in the performance she is putting on for other reasons. Either way, Amy abandons the Cuties and the precociousness they represent. 

Back to that image of the two outfits and the two modes of femininity they represent: from that shot, the film cuts to Amy, not attending her father’s wedding, wearing jeans and a raglan t-shirt. She is dressed neither provocatively nor traditionally, and walks past the wedding festivities to a back courtyard where she joins a group of girls (dressed traditionally) in jumping rope. For the first time, Amy really looks happy. Her jumps get higher and higher as the camera pans upward, representing freedom. Via this scene, the film ends on a version of girlhood that is comfortably in the middle. Dressed modernly but modestly, Amy resists what is expected of her by the traditional Auntie character, but she still joins in on a traditionally girlish activity by jumping rope. This is hardly a revolutionary image. 

Olive in Little Miss Sunshine

That is what I find so befuddling about the controversy around Cuties. Admittedly, the Netflix marketing department did the film no favors with its racy imagery promoting the film. Cuties, however, pretty clearly critiques the sexualization of girls that people are boycotting the film for allegedly promoting. Is the film uncomfortable to watch at times? Absolutely. But none of this is uncharted territory. In watching this film I was reminded of Thirteen (2003) and the comparatively wholesome Eighth Grade (2018), both of which critique the social pressures adolescent girls face. You know what the dance scene in Cuties reminded me of? The climactic scene of Little Miss Sunshine (2005), in which young Olive performs a comically raunchy dance to “Super Freak” at her beauty pageant in a film that, among other things, lampooned the pressures on young girls in beauty pageant culture. Although Little Miss Sunshine goes for slapstick whereas Cuties plays the scene straight, the scenes serve similar thematic functions. 

I understand why this movie makes people uncomfortable. It is doing so on purpose and I would invite those people to take a look at things in our culture like Toddlers & Tiaras, for example, or the routines being done at their daughters’ dance recitals. Although the Cuties take things to an extreme, the version of femininity that they are trying to emulate is pretty common in popular media. They are basically Bratz dolls if you took a makeup wipe to their faces. I think it is more than fair to question if depicting the sexualization of children in this way is justified by the critique of sexualizing children. It is not fair to call this film child pornography. 

What makes me really suspicious, however, is how the backlash against the film has become politicized. Much of the call for a boycott or even a federal investigation is coming from right-wing figures who have created a straw man adversary, claiming that Netflix is promoting a film that pedophiles will love. (Got news for you, pedophiles don’t need Cuties, they have free access to so many people’s children’s photos online, and they don’t have to be overtly sexual to be attractive to them.) To my eye, the backlash not only misses the point of the film entirely, it also uses children as political footballs, claiming to protect children without really doing any such thing. 

This move may seem cynical, but it is very common in our political landscape and I encourage you to look out for it. Ask yourself who are the children who are being protected here? Do they really exist? Are they really in danger? How is the child being defined? And does defending childhood serve another political purpose?

Given the culture war currently being waged in the U.S., it is not exactly surprising that protecting imaginary children would become a political point. Look at what is happening with QAnon and Save the Children.The far right conspiracy theory that claims President Trump is taking down an international ring of child traffickers (as if, on so many levels) has taken over #SaveTheChildren, promoting misinformation and holding rallies that have seemingly no point or connection to real efforts to end trafficking. Yikes. Ask yourselves, though, where is these people’s outrage when our government puts children in cages on our border? Similarly, people on the left tend to get caught up in virtue signaling moments such as #BringBackOurGirls in which they demonstrate their wokeness by taking part in social media campaigns that generate “awareness” but seem to have no tangible impact or point. 

Is Cuties an exceptionally good film? Not really. Is it child pornography? Hardly. But the tasteless “artwork” for the film done by the marketing department created an opportunity for people to lash out at a huge, successful media platform that they have long criticized for being left-leaning and focused on social justice issues. And lashing out at them over the virtue of girlhood provides fodder for a lot of knee-jerk reactions. Who are the detractors of this film really trying to protect? The film is TV-MA and not meant for children. It is also critical of models of femininity that treat girls as just future brides on one side and sexualized on the other. So what is this outrage really seeking to accomplish? I’m not sure.

Do I want eleven-year-olds to twerk and simulate sex in their dance routines? No. Do I want people using children in political dogfights that do not stand to benefit real children? No.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s