Don’t Believe the Hype: Cuties Has Important Things to Say
DIRECTED BY MAÏMOUNA DOUCOURÉ/FRENCH/2020
Timing is everything. Cuties has either the worst possible timing or, if all publicity is good publicity, the best. A French film from a Senegalese-French female director, starring an 11-year-old Black girl, is hardly the recipe for a blockbuster. But for the past couple of days social media has been chock full of discussion of this movie – although to be clear, many of the people discussing it haven’t seen Cuties. That doesn’t dim their outrage, though.
Cuties has sparked so much controversy that the director has received death threats, a #CancelNetflix campaign is trending, GOP lawmakers are calling on the DOJ to charge Netflix execs with distribution of child porn, and reviewers who give the film positive reviews are subject to charges that they are pedophile-sympathizers, or worse.
Having now watched Cuties, I find myself with a doozy of a task. Most critics appreciate nuance and moral complexity in film. I try to give a movie the benefit of the doubt when I watch it, and view it on the director’s terms. There’s not much nuance in conversations around Cuties, and trying to provide it may earn me hate mail. I’m going to give more spoilers in this review than I would normally, because I need to make it clear that the uproar around this film is misguided at best, and deliberately misleading and malicious at worst (more on that later).
Amy (Faithia Youssouf) is an 11 year old French girl, the daughter of Senegalese Muslim immigrants. Her family has just moved to a poor neighborhood in Paris and Amy’s daily life is one of quiet duty as she does housework, shops, and provides childcare for her two younger brothers in order to help her mother, Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye). Her father is in Senegal, engaged to a second woman, and heading back to Paris soon for the wedding.
At her new school Amy is captivated by a group of popular girls – the Cuties – who dress in sexy clothes, defy their teachers, bully other students (including Amy) and, oh, yes, they also dance. They have their own competitive dance team and once Amy has furtively seen them in action she is determined to become a Cutie herself. She first squeezes into the group by volunteering to record their dances on a cell phone she’s stolen from a family friend. She then teaches herself all of the dances by watching the videos over and over, and even goes one better: Amy learns explicitly sexual dance moves from Reaggaeton videos and teaches them to the other girls. This is the source of all the clips of grinding and twerking, butt slaps and fingers in mouths that have been burning down the internet in the last week or so.
Over time, Amy feels heightened pressure to prove that she is not a little girl, and in doing so earns disapproval from both her family and her friends. Even though she’s kicked out of the Cuties, she manages to make it into their big competitive performance for what, in a traditional dance or cheer movie, would be her moment of triumph. But not here, not in Cuties. Because the writer-director of the film, Maïmouna Doucouré, is not celebrating the hyper-sexualization of Amy and her friends. Doucouré is lamenting it.
By now you’ve probably heard this defense: that Cuties is a critique of how young girls in Western culture are sexualized, rather than a promotion of it. Many, many people have heard the defense and scoffed at it, considering it a cover for the film’s true intentions. But I am here to tell you that at heart, Cuties is a wistful story of how confusing it is to be a young girl pinned between sex-saturated popular culture and the fear of female sexualilty that permeates conservative religious communities (like Amy’s, and like many others outside of Islam, as well). In the Muslim women’s service she learns that “evil dwells in the bodies of uncovered women” but at school she sees the power the Cuties wield striding across the school yard in their mini skirts and high heels. Amy sees what traditional womanhood has brought her mother – the humiliation of being moved aside for a second wife – and wants something more. She wants friends, she wants to play, she wants to be admired, she wants to be free. If being aggressively sexual is the path to that freedom, she’ll take it.
Cuties shares DNA with films like the Saudi film Wadjda and the Turkish film Mustangs, both from female directors not at all coincidentally, about young girls straining for freedom in oppressive contexts. But the movie that matches its narrative arc most closely may be Mean Girls. Remember sweet, simple, former-homeschooled Cady who embraced a more sexualized image in order to be accepted by Regina George and friends? Remember how unbothered we all were by that, and by Regina’s little sister, Kylie, dancing provocatively to Kelis’s hit “Milkshake”? That small joke in Mean Girls was making a comment on the messaging little girls receive from our media, and Cuties is a longer, deeper, and darker reflection on the same topic.
Oh, and as in Mean Girls, the “new girl”, once initiated, doesn’t know when to quit. Cady turns into a monster of a Mean Girl herself. Amy goes so far in trying to prove her sexual maturity that the other Cuties cast her aside as a slut who is going to ruin all their reputations. This is after she posts an explicit picture of herself online. But why did she post the picture? Because when some older students pants her at school everyone sees the little girl underwear that she still wears, and this, too, is a humiliation to the Cuties. She embarrasses them when she seems too much like a child. She embarrasses them when she tries to prove that she’s a woman. How is an 11 year old supposed to navigate the mixed messages we send to our daughters?
Part of the problem with the way we’re talking about Cuties online is that people are posting screen grabs and clips out of context (unironically distributing images they say no one should see), and offering lists of narrative elements that sound graphic when described. Yes, the girls watch and discuss porn together, chat explicitly with an older boy online, pressure Amy to try to photograph a boy’s penis while he’s at a urinal. This is all in the movie, but handled with much more discretion than you may have been led to believe. Doucouré also shows us, over and over, that the Cuties remain children. They may watch porn, but they don’t understand sex yet. When one of girls, Jess, finds a condom and, not knowing what it is, blows it up like a balloon, the other girls are horrified by the possibility of “cooties” in a way that only children know (they remedy the situation by scrubbing Jess’s mouth with soap and a scouring pad). In between their dance practices they confide in each other, sneak into laser tag without paying, and have gummy bear eating contests.
I am not suggesting that Doucouré handles everything in the film perfectly. Scenes of the girls dancing sometimes are filmed in ways that further eroticize them. While the intention may be to heighten the viewer’s discomfort (it certainly heightened mine), I’m not sure it was necessary. It also gave ammunition to the movie’s enemies, but perhaps Doucouré didn’t anticipate that. The film didn’t draw the same ire in France, and not only was it well received at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, but Doucouré won the festival’s directing award.
Cuties is beautifully shot with some interludes of magical realism, particularly involving a dress Mariam buys for Amy to wear to her father’s second wedding. The dress becomes a symbol for Mariam’s burgeoning womanhood, but also of her family’s expectations that she will embrace the traditions that are causing her mother such pain. Amy is not just acting out because of her maturing sexuality. She’s furious at her father, and expressing it in a number of ways including stealing and fighting. Faithia Youssouf gives a fantastic performance, shifting seamlessly between the extreme’s in Amy’s behavior. The other child actors are all very good, but especially Médina El Aidi-Azouni, as Angelica, the charismatic queen bee of the Cuties. Gueye gives a subtle performance as Amy’s mother: frightened by the changes she sees in her child while grieving her husband’s impending marriage. There’s a powerful scene early in the film in which Amy hides under the bed her mother is sitting on as Mariam makes phone calls to tell friends about her husband’s second marriage. She weeps between the calls, then puts a brave face on and tells everyone that she wishes the couple only happiness. Under the bed, Amy silently weeps with her mother
I’m going to spoil the ending of Cuties because I think it tells us much about Doucouré’s perspective and intentions. If you don’t want to know what happens, skip to the next paragraph. Amy doesn’t finish the dance competition. Halfway through, she hears her mother’s voice singing to her, calling her home. It is her father’s wedding day and she runs home, crying, and straight into the arms of her mother. Her mother, beautifully dressed in her own wedding attire, tells Amy’s that she doesn’t have to attend the wedding. Cuties ends with Amy, in jeans and a t-shirt, jumping rope in front of her apartment building; soaring higher and higher with each jump, her face shining with joy. Freed, at least temporarily, from the expectations of both Senegalese and Western culture, she’s a child, still.
Cuties is a beautiful film, so much better than the treatment it’s receiving right now. I am tempted to dig into QAnon’s exploitation of “Pedo-wood” conspiracy theories and wildly inflated child trafficking numbers that have been used against this movie. Had Cuties come out a year ago, I imagine it would have flown mostly under the radar, but we are in a new satanic panic about child sexual abuse. As I said, timing is everything. That doesn’t mean we don’t have real reasons to reflect on the way children are sexualized in Western culture.
Many have pointed out the irony of people who loved Toddlers and Tiaras and Dance Moms losing their minds over Cuties. There is an episode of Dance Moms that is too close to Cuties for comfort, right down to the style and colors of the costumes the girls wear to compete. Is the difference only in the zeitgeist? Or does the race of the protagonist matter? Researchers at Georgetown’s Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that young Black girls are perceived as “more adult-like and less innocent” than white girls. What we white folks pass off as cute or precocious in our own dance daughters and cheer squads we see as aggressively sexual coming from Black girls of the same age.
We might also do well to remember that we’ve dealt with these topics on film before, in movies as varied as Taxi Driver and Pretty Baby; Thirteen and Kids and Eighth Grade. And perhaps some self reflection is due on why we storm the internet over little girls looking at porn and talking about sex, but it’s only a joke when it happens with young boys in Stand By Me or Good Boys.
But I digress, and I need to wrap this up. If you don’t want to watch Cuties, don’t watch it. I won’t suggest it’s for everyone. But if you choose not to watch it, please keep your pitchfork put away. Cuties is not what you’ve heard. It’s a masterfully made, sensitively acted film addressing something that will matter long after the #CancelNetflix campaign has died down: the confusing, often damaging messages about sex and sexuality that our culture offers girls as they approach adulthood.