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Netflix’s ‘Cuties’: Backlash and Culture Clash

There is a lesson to be learned from the Cuties Scandal. The old adage, “never judge a book by its cover” comes to mind.

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The Cuties dance group

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the film Cuties. If you intend to watch the film, ignore the section marked “Spoilers”

It’s official: Netflix was indicted by a Grand Jury in Texas for child pornography. Promoting the highly controversial film, Cuties, has not only led to a maelstrom of Netflix subscription cancellations, but as of 7 October 2020, also legal action.

There are few Netflix scandals in recent memory that can come close to the backlash they received when Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties‘ (Mignonnes in the film’s native French language) was released. The outcry was largely due to the (somewhat) sexually explicit poster that Netflix chose for the film, coupled with the (extremely) explicit clips of the 11-year-old girls’ dance routines making their rounds across social media. The disgusted public who boycotted the film is now hell-bent on destroying the streaming service for its “Promotion of Lewd Visual Material Depicting A Child”. But they were given only part of the narrative. The media spun the worst aspects of the film out of proportion. Here’s the kicker: this Grand Jury could not possibly have actually watched the film, as their ruling determined Cuties “appeals to the prurient interest in sex, and has no serious, literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

I actually have seen Cuties, both in it’s native French, with subtitles, and watched it again dubbed over. The assertion that there is no serious value is absurd. The film was made as a social commentary, denouncing our Western mindset that sexuality in the media somehow has no effect on the youth.

Wrong. While Miley Cyrus was swinging naked on wrecking balls and twerking into Robin Thicke’s crotch, there were underaged girls watching. When Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion humped the floor in their WAP video, you better believe that millions of those viewers were underage girls.

How do the actions of these grown popstars affect the youth? Why don’t you log into TikTok for a few hours? You’ll find your answer.

The Premise

If you have ever seen Mark Waters’s Mean Girls, then the premise of Cuties will be somewhat familiar to you. The difference is that Mean Girls was made with a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek tone. Cuties, on the other hand, is serious, disquieting, and yes, causes discomfort in the viewer.

Cuties Netflix
While the obvious difference is that the Mean Girls cast was older, the concept remains the same

A Clash of Cultures

The protagonist, Amy (poignantly portrayed by Fathia Youssouf), has just moved from Senegal to Paris at the start of the film. She lives with her mother and two younger brothers. Their customs dictate that Amy, the eldest, must take care of her two siblings. Her mother, Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye), is depicted sympathetically, despite her obvious neglect. This neglect stems from the fact that her husband is in Senegal, bringing home his second wife, as is his right as a follower of Islam.

Amy clearly shows no passion for her culture or religion, as she looks around, bored, during prayer. Ironically, the sermon is about the evil nature of women, and how they will be abundant in hell due to their seductive nature. The prayer leader warms the women to be modest, and follow the lead of their husbands.

In a heartbreaking scene, Amy hides under her mother’s bed, while “Aunty” forces a distraught Mariam to call all of her friends to spread the “good news”. Her husband has taken a second wife. After one call, Amy can hear Mariam crying and hitting herself in anguish over the fact that it is her duty to support this marriage, despite how degrading it must feel.

This is a defining moment in the film: it is when Amy realizes that her culture uses women as objects. As the film progresses, her resentment – even hatred – of her parents becomes more and more apparent. It is what draws Amy to Angelica (Medina El Aidi), a precocious girl who lives in the same apartment building. After praying with the other women, Amy witnesses Angelica dancing sensually while unpacking laundry. She then watches as Angelica straightens her hair with an iron. Amy immediately rushes home to don one of her little brother’s shirts, which barely fits and exposes her belly. Later, she tries to iron her own African hair, only to find that the iron has burned it.

For the first time in her life, Amy sees a girl acting the way she wants by dancing, singing, and ironing her hair

Assimilation or Indoctrination?

Angelica’s ‘posse’ bullies and terrorizes Amy at first. Thus, she begins finding videos of sexually explicit dances that get a lot of “likes”. She uses these videos to practice the moves while her brothers sleep. Her goal: to prove to the ‘mean girls’ that she is worthy of being in their dance troupe, “Mignonnes” (French for “Cuties”), who are practicing a routine to be pre-selected for a dance competition.

The majority of the film deals with Amy’s responsibilities to her culture while trying to assimilate to Western culture. Unfortunately, instead of assimilation, she is slowly absorbed into a world where sex and sexuality are rewarded. She gets sucked into the social-sphere using a phone she stole from her uncle: another behavior she mimicked from Angelica.

Sexualization of Children who Are Clueless about Sex

This is the most important message of the film: these girls, who have very little parental guidance (as Angelica tearfully confesses to Amy in one scene), only have social media to guide them through the addictive world of the internet. To drive this point home, there is a (slightly harrowing) scene in the girls’ toilets, where the Cuties are (presumably) looking at pictures of penises. They begin discussing sex and come up with ideas like, if a man ejaculates into your mouth, it will go into your stomach and get you pregnant. These girls literally have no idea how sex works. This is why the dances are not necessarily sexual, because these kids know literally nothing about sex. They are mimicking the sex act without realizing it.

Cuties Netflix
Angelica and Amy discuss the absence of both their parents in their lives. Angelica’s parents work full-time at a restautrant and constantly berate her. Her goal is to compete in the competition in order to get their attention

Later, when the girls are in the park, practicing their routine for the pre-selection, Coumba (Esther Gohourou), finds a used condom discarded on the ground and blows it up like a balloon to create a”boob”. The other girls completely freak out, stating that Coumba now has cancer and AIDS. Their solution? To wash Coumba’s face and mouth with soap and water, and scrub her tongue. So ignorant are they of sex, and all of its implications.

‘Cuties’: The Trappings of Social Media

One of the most talked-about scenes online is when Amy takes a picture of her vagina and posts it. Once again, the rage stemmed from a lack of context. She didn’t do it on a whim. Amy is completely absorbed by her online presence and fitting in with the Cuties by this time in the film. In her mind, this is the only solution to a perceived “problem”. In a physical altercation at school, earlier that day, an older girl pulled down her trendy pants to show her torn and tattered panties.

While talking to Angelica on a FaceTime-like app, Angelica states that the image of the Cuties has been ruined because of the tattered underwear. She tells her to find a way to rectify the situation. When Amy’s uncle sees her talking on his phone, the call is cut short. In an attempt to keep it, Amy starts to undress in front of her uncle, clearly offering him sex. It is a very uncomfortable scene to watch. However, her uncle tells her off and she runs into the bathroom in order to “rectify the situation”. Somewhere in her mind, she has equated nudity and sex with value. Therefore, uploading an explicit photo of her genitals, somehow made her feel valuable, in the same way her old underwear made her feel worthless.

The Paradox: Intention versus Execution

Maïmouna Doucouré, the director, was walking in a park one day, and the script came to her while watching young girls dance.

“I was at a neighborhood gathering in Paris. A group of very young girls came […] to dance, and they were dancing in a very sexually revealing way. I decided to do research to see if they were aware and conscious of what they were doing. [I] met over a hundred preteens who told me their stories. [I] asked them how they felt about their femininity in today’s society. [I] wanted to know how they dealt with their self-image at a time when social media is so important, and they have access to so much information and so many images.”

Interview with Maïmouna Doucouré by Zora Medium

The real problem is the ideological line between the intention of the film, and the director’s execution thereof. No one can deny that those four actresses, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, and especially Fathia Youssouf, were exploited in an attempt to denounce exploitation. Doucouré and the film’s choreographers taught the girls the moves to these dances. The filming is also incredibly uncomfortable, in that the camera often rests on the girls’ bottoms and groins.

The dangers of Prejudice

However, refusing to watch the film on these assessments is ignorant. The dances were not put into the film for the amusement of pedophiles. Cuties deals with the “why” and the “what” – why are these girls dancing like this? What made them believe this would be a good idea? The answers to both questions are the same: the over-sexualization of society – specifically, access to such behavior on the internet. Throughout the film, we watch the girls watching YouTube-like videos of dances, and they are simply mimicking them.

Indicting Cuties is a clear sign that society would rather remove anything that reminds them of the reality of our world. These people are hypocrites. These people have daughters who do similar – or worse – dances for TikTok challenges. These are the same people whose daughters lift their shirts or walk into a room naked to see their boyfriend’s reaction. Their children can watch sexually explicit music videos on either Facebook or YouTube. The truly salacious content is never-ending, and yet it is Cuties that is in trouble? If the Grand Jury wants to indict Netflix because of Cuties, then they should indict YouTube and TikTik on similar charges.

Maïmouna Doucouré was doing nothing more than portraying what our youth strives towards in our modern and “progressive” age. And she won The Sundance Global Filmmaking Award for being brave enough to do so.

Cuties Netflix
Maïmouna Doucouré won the The Sundance Global Filmmaking Award for Cuties

Reclaiming Innocence

The following section contains SPOILERS

The film culminates in the dance that seemed to break the internet with ire. As Amy is getting ready for the performance, for just a moment, she glimpses the new bride, covered from head to toe in white, and faceless. It seems to remind Amy of the ghost stories she told her brother earlier in the film.

Finally, Amy and the Cuties are ready to dance, having been taught an explicitly sexual dance by none other than Amy herself. As they dance, Amy looks into the crowd, and suddenly she stops. She sees disgusted faces and a mother attempting to cover her young daughter’s eyes. It is a “Come to Allah’ moment for Amy, who stands still while the others dance around her. Unable to hold back her tears, she seems to realize that women are on some kind of continuum, from exceedingly modest and without identity, like her father’s bride, to overtly sexual and craving attention.

Cuties Netflix
Amy realizes what she is doing, and she cannot bear that she is ‘selling’ herself in exactly the same way that her new step-mother was ‘sold’ in marriage to her father

She finally realizes what it is she is doing and runs off-stage. She runs home, where her father has arrived with his new bride.

Daddy’s getting married

She runs into her mother’s arms, who assures her that she does not have to attend the wedding if she does not wish to. Mariam says this while resignedly donning her traditional headwear, knowing that she does not have that luxury.

Mother and daughter reuinte. Mariam knows she cannot escape this duty, but tells Amy that she needn’t go to the wedding if she chooses not to

Amy decides to change her clothes, but she does not change into the dress picked out for her father’s wedding. Instead, she wears conservative jeans and a long-sleeved shirt.

Freedom

As Amy leaves the house, the camera pans for a moment to the two costumes lying on her bed – the dance costume, and the wedding dress. It is a poignant shot, filled with significance. It indicates that Amy has decided to deny both worlds, and find her own way.

Cuties Netflix
The motif of costumes plays an important part in the film. This shot is very significant, as it illustrates Amy’s decision to deny both cultures, in order to find herself

The final scene shows Amy reclaiming her youth and innocence by joining some girls outside playing jump-rope. As the camera pans up, Amy seems to jump higher and higher, indicating her freedom from the cultures that seek to destroy her individuality.

Cuties Netflix
Amy plays jump-rope with some kids outside and seems to jump higher and higher as the camera pans higher. It represents Amy’s maturity – she has risen above the clash of her cultures and wishes to start a new life, on her own terms.

SPOILERS end here

A message twisted by ignorance

I openly cried at the end of the film. Not just because Amy had found her own way, but because millions of girls would never come to Amy’s realization. Girls will continue using sex and sexuality as currency for “likes” and “Followers” on social media. They will continue mimicking their favorite pop stars, and they will continue following TikTok trends until they go too far.

There is a lesson to be learned from the Cuties scandal. The old adage, “never judge a book by its cover” comes to mind. Many have demonized Maïmouna Doucouré and condemned the film as child porn. Is it uncomfortable to watch? Yes! That is what makes it a great representation of our society. The problem is that people are focusing on the sexual aspect, without trying to understand the meaning of the film. They do not want this film to help society see itself for what it is.

Final Thoughts

The film is very difficult to watch, but not because of the dance scenes. It highlights that society has become so overly-sexualized, and no one has taken the time to think about how this affects young children. This film won an award at Sundance for a reason, and attacking it in this way proves the ignorance and hypocrisy in our society.

As a woman who was 11-years-old not that long ago, I can see the truth in this film. I understand the pressure to be liked and loved. Social media has taken that natural need and made it a toxic addiction. I cannot defend all of Doucouré’s directorial decisions, but I respect her, because she told a story that was real. Far more real than anything else on Netflix these days.

I like writing. I like gaming. I'm a girl. Those are three sentences rarely said together, but should be. What else defines me as a person? Oreo McFlurrys. And RPGs. Put them together and you have yourself the perfect Saturday night.

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