“Cuties” wants to make you uncomfortable.
Maïmouna Doucouré’s Sundance Film Festival award-winning film forces viewers to confront the potentially harmful messages young children receive about sexuality from two extreme viewpoints.
Released on Netflix’s streaming platform Sept. 9, the French film tells the story of Amy, an 11-year-old Senegalese-French Muslim girl, who sneaks out of her family’s apartment to join the ‘Cuties’ – a group of friends who love dancing – to temporarily escape from her conservative culture and find her own identity.
The confidence, clothing and dance moves of the Cuties clique at her school fascinates Amy, despite their initial hostility toward her.
She begins learning to dance on her own, teaching herself using popular dance and twerking videos found on a stolen smart phone, and eventually worms her way into the Cuties’ group – hiding the relationship from her family.
Seeing how popular such dancing is with her peers and how many likes it gets her online, she teaches it to the other girls and helps them prepare to compete against larger, older and potentially studio-taught dance groups.
The content of the Cuties’ routines has the been the source of major controversy.
Although praised at Sundance Film Festival for its nuanced analysis of the sexualization of young girls and accepted in its home country, according to Simon Gallagher of Screen Rant, the film was accused of supporting pedophilia after a controversial publicity image was posted on Netflix’s social media before its release in the United States.
The accusations came largely from social media users posting under the #CancelNetlfix hashtag and from conservative media watchdogs such as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, according to Newsweek.
Conspiracy theory group QAnon’s #SavetheChildren efforts were also linked with online campaigns against the film.
Ironically, most of those initially protesting the French-language film had yet to see it, since #CancelNetflix began prior to the movie’s U.S. release, in response to its poster and trailer.
Netflix tweeted an apology for the PR mistake and according to Deadline, Doucouré said she received a direct apology also.
The publicity image stirring this controversy featured the girls in their dance costumes doing a pose from their competition routine.
While clearly objectifying, both the pose and the costumes are representative of common practice among online dance videos and dance studios teaching young dancers in Western cultures.
The “Cuties” final competition routine would hardly be out of place on “Dance Moms,” “World of Dance,” or any other pop dance competition in the United States.
More importantly, the dances are shot from the girls’ perspectives.
Amy chooses to learn these routines and teach them to her friends and both here and in their performance, close-up shots are incorporated.
Since the film’s release, it is these close-ups that have been the center of continued controversy, since many of these shots isolate clothed but intimate body parts, which was part of what gave rise to Netflix being indicted for “promotion of lewd visual material depicting a child” by a Texas grand jury, according to USA Today.
The results of this remain to be seen, according to USA Today, since the case hasn’t yet gone to trial and it is not a clear-cut case.
“They are going to have to show the main purpose for this film was to appeal to a prurient interest in sex and that it has no literary or artistic value. And they are going to have to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt,” former prosecutor and current attorney Rusty Hardin told USA Today. “I just don’t see how you get there, quite frankly.”
Many of the scenes depicting the girl’s attempts to learn the dance moves aren’t erotic, they’re awkward – clueless even.
They’re far more likely to induce cringing, that turn viewers on.
And this decision seems intentional, in order to confront audiences with reality that the girls’ formal sex education hasn’t been adequate or thorough even in a health sense.
Much more concerning, the characters don’t have any real concept of why sharing non-consensual explicit images is wrong.
Certainly, such storylines are uncomfortable to watch, but they demonstrate how many children are currently learning more about sex from the internet than from their own teachers or parents.
Additionally, while the moves, some camera angles and the costumes are flirtatious, at least some effort seems to have been made to protect the young actresses playing these characters.
Mental health support was provided to the cast during and after production, Doucouré told Zora in an interview.
No sexual body parts are bared on camera.
In one scene, an 11-year-old posts an explicit image of herself on social media. The scene is shot in such a way that viewers only see her still-clothed upper torso, arms, knees and feet as she takes the photo. The image she takes is then only referred to; never shown.
The young actress, Fathia Youssouf, would almost certainly have been clothed throughout.
Youssouf made her professional film acting debut in the film and she brings Amy’s identity struggles to life with subtle and committed realism which enhances the planned unease that such subject matter produces.
Doucouré’s movie is not condoning sexualizing young girls. She is taking ways in which sexualizing girls has been made commonplace and challenging them.
“I had the idea of ‘Cuties,’ when one day, during a neighborhood gathering in Paris, a group of very young dancers came on the stage and they were dancing like we were used to seeing in a video clip,” Deoucouré said in a Netflix YouTube channel video, posted after the poster controversy.
In the YouTube clip, she said she based the story on a year and a half of research interviews with young girls.
The film vacillates between two approaches to female sexuality: the sexual objectification the girls experience (voluntarily) through their dance and social media, and a heavily conservative branch of Islamic ideology represented by Amy’s mother.
Early in the film, viewers hear the voice of an Islamic teacher telling a group of women including Amy and her mother Miriam (Maïmouna Gueye) that they must strive to stay pure because there will be more women in hell than men.
Then, as Amy hides under Miriam’s bed, she hears a female friend insist that Miriam must call their friends to tell them that her husband has chosen to take a second wife. She must say she hopes the marriage will be blessed with many children to prove that she is a good Islamic woman.
By the time the phone calls are over, Miriam and Amy, too – still hiding under the bed – are in tears.
These scenes depict an extremely conservative Islamic branch, not necessarily the mainstream practice.
The film fails to point this out, only allowing an aunt to briefly remind Miriam that she has the right to leave the marriage, almost as a side note against a clichéd narrative of a woman forced to welcome her husband’s new wife.
This has led some Islamic publications such as The Muslim Vibe to accuse it of Islamophobia.
It seems that Deoucouré wrote this as an internal analysis of the culture that raised her. However, to American audiences, the religious practice flaws she points out may be mistakenly viewed as typical Islamic practice.
At first, it is this conservatism that fuels Amy’s desire to dance, seeking control of her own female identity.
On the day of her father’s wedding to his second wife, Amy leaves both her sexy competition outfit and her traditional wedding party dress lying on her bed.
Instead, she goes out and joins a group of pre-teens. For the first time in either her conservative home, or with the dance group, she truly acts her age.
She chooses to define herself by wearing comfortable clothes as she plays jump rope in the street.
It is this middle ground – wearing a tight shirt but not a crop top, playing like a child her age, but not attending her father’s second wedding – that Deoucouré advocates for.
She clearly wants the disconcerting aspects of the story to push audiences to free young girls from both hyper sexualization and perfect female submission.
“Cuties” is a call to save the children.