I finished watching ‘Cuties’ on Netflix. I watched the whole film.
Before doing that, my mind was made up that Maïmouna Doucouré’s film Cuties (Mignonnes in French), which aired on Netflix in September, promotes paedophilia, child-sexualisation and child pornography.
Like most of my Facebook friends, I was disgusted at the sexualising of young, pre-teen girls. Imagine my surprise upon reaching the closing credits at the end of the film, only to find out that Cuties isn’t about sexualising young, pre-teen girls at all. I hadn’t seen the film before supporting the rhetoric that it was offensive enough to #CancelNetflix.
So great was the majority opinion of disgust and anger in response to this film that I was already against it without having the slightest idea of what it was truly about.
Thank goodness my rational brain woke up and I realised that I am, in fact, a free-thinking, educated young woman who should probably watch the move in context, instead of taking the word of videos titled ‘the worst scenes from Cuties’ and ‘CUTIES – A Disturbing Netflix Movie That Exploits Children’.
For those who have avoided social media or spent the week under a rock, I will briefly outline the controversial film’s plot. Cuties is about an 11-year-old Muslim Senegalese immigrant named Amy. Upon the film’s introduction, Amy has just moved into a housing project in Paris with her mother and two younger siblings. After some bullying and a series of disturbing rites of passage (including trying to film a boy as he uses the toilet to see his ‘size’), Amy becomes a member of the Cuties group: a group of five girls entering a dance competition. As the film progresses, so too does the girls’ access to inappropriate internet content. Because of this, the outfits, promiscuous attitude and make-up do result in the sexualising of the Cuties girls. They mimic the seductive dance moves that they see online without knowing what these moves actually represent. In an effort to prove her maturity, Amy even uploads a naked photo of herself to an Instagram-like app.
In the first three minutes of Cuties, the viewer is orientated in Amy’s conservative, traditional religious Muslim world as she sits in a prayer group ‘just for girls’. The question asked within the film’s opening five minutes by an elderly woman leading the prayer group got my attention, and goes as follows:
“How do we feed [our souls] that are dying? …Women must be pious because, in hell, there will be many more women than men. That is why we must heed the words of Allah, our God.”
Okay…I was not expecting an immediate religious confrontation in a film (supposedly) about child porn.
“Where does evil dwell?” the same elderly woman asks the assembled group. “In the bodies of uncovered women. That is why we must strive to preserve our decency. We must obey our husbands and fear God when we educate our children’.
With that statement, I knew that this film was going to be incredibly poignant and controversial, and not because of child sexualisation. This twisted coming-of-age-story is disturbing, aggressive and, yes, realistic. Perhaps that is why there is such a call for the cancellation of its platform. It is uncomfortable and the realities it represents for young girls growing up in a social media culture is very confrontational.
Where initially I thought Cuties was a promotion of paedophilia by Netflix (as had been the title of many scathing Facebook posts), I now understood that the ensuing 1 hour and 32 minutes of ‘Cuties’ were to centre around themes of religious dogma, conflicting ideals of radical femininity, cultural displacement and the policing of girl’s sexuality.
What further attracted me to the story came from researching its context: the plot wasn’t thought up or written by some arbitrary white man in Hollywood attempting to comment on the difficulties of young girls growing up in the 21st century (queue 2018’s Eighth Grade Directed by Bo Burnham).
In fact, the scenarios in the film are rooted in the director’s own life experiences. In an interview on her breakout film, Doucouré’s explains that “as a child, that question of how to become a woman was my obsession.”
She elaborates by saying that “I saw so many injustices around me that women were experiencing, and I kept all of that anger inside me. I was powerless when I was a child. Today, I can use my voice – my art – to share my vision of femininity. My fight for women’s freedom in society, and in our minds as well.”
How incredible brave and what an inspiring female artist and director. Kudos to you, Doucouré’s, and don’t stop.
Art should be able to express taboo and confront realities that are uncomfortable. Perhaps there is a call to ban the film because it is disturbing to watch AND it is also true: this is not fiction or fantasy.
Unlike Amy, I consider myself privileged because my parents have always been incredibly accepting, comfortable and open about femininity. I realise that in a social-media age and technologically dominant culture, many people my age and younger are exposed to adulthood too early and with incredibly warped depictions of sexuality and womanhood.
What’s worse is that (having talked to friends and peers throughout my life), many parents do not talk to their children about sexuality at all.
Here is where the dangers of social media taking on the role of ‘educator’ come in: Amy’s experience in Cuties embodies this. Her introduction to her sexuality (outside of the perception of women within her religious community) is through pornography and online twerking videos.
Neither views of femininity are progressive. In fact, the religious submissiveness promoted by her conservative family, as well as the western depiction of women’s sexualised bodies, are both are toxic and destructive views of femininity.
As a result of the film’s comment on this warped practices of femininity, the ‘moms of Facebook’ supporting the Netflix Cancellation trend should rather be inspired by this movie, and view it as a reminder that their children are growing up in a world where the internet is their greatest teacher. That fact won’t change, no matter how many subscribers Netflix loses.
One scene in this film, which was the most emotional for me to watch, is when Cuties Group member Coumba blows up a used condom which she found on the ground. Coumba has no idea that this new toy is a condom, and pretends that it is a blown-up ‘boob’. When another of the Cuties girls – Jess – yells out that the balloon boob is a condom, Coumba’s reaction is to mock Jess by saying “get out of here, it’s pink, you idiots!’”.
Coumba does not realise that condoms can be in any colour. After seeing her friends’ reactions and being told that “AIDS people have sex with that…you’re going to get AIDS or cancer!”, Coumba asks over and over “how was I supposed to know that?”. The Cuties Group don’t want to touch Coumba and keep running away from her while she cries, and reiterates that “It’s not my fault: I didn’t know”.
None of the girls in this scene can be blamed or ridiculed for their reactions to the used condom. The friends are 11 years old girls and 11 years old girls should not know what a condom is, anyway.
Although Jess knows what a condom is (or thinks she does), she is uneducated about who uses them and, in her ignorance, influences her group to believe that only people with AIDS use condoms.
These girls, who in the scene before were giggling while doing makeup and strutting as if on a catwalk, are dressed as actors in Cardi B’s WAP video would be. They use their pre-teen bodies in the same way as grown women do in strip clubs. They have learned this depiction of what it is to be a woman from their great teacher: the internet.
There are many uncompromising scenarios and uncomfortable scenes in this film, like, for example, the one in which the Cuties Group illegally sneak into a laser room and, upon being caught, accuse the security guard of sexually assaulting them when he tries to call their parents.
There is also the scene showing bulimia and one where a young boy slaps Amy’s bum as she walks to the front of a class to answer a question.
Although these are important talking-points, I am going to focus on the theme that stood out to me the most: the dangers of ‘feminism’.
I view Cuties as a critique of radical third-wave feminism: an ideology that dominates expectations of young women.
If you are a young woman who dares to say that you are not a feminist, you have ‘internalised the patriarchy’ and are a victim of a male-centric mentality that has oppressed you in every aspect of your life. If you are a feminist today, you believe that masculinity is inherently toxic and that Men Are Trash.
Instead of modern-day feminism condemning men for indecency and overt expressions of sexuality, the feminists of today condone women acting as badly as men have acted. This is evident in, for example, the ‘free the nipple’ movement in which men are targeted by bare-breasted women who, apparently in response to men sexualising them, sexualise themselves and their bodies as a rejection of men’s objectification of women. Seems contradictory, I know.
I applaud Doucouré for her critique of precisely this. Instead of the film’s protagonists mimicking expressions of womanhood by the first-wave feminists – feminists who largely focused on the legal equality of women in the 19th and 20th centuries– the Cuties girls try to copy expressions of third-wave feminists who focus on sexual promiscuity as the primary means of women’s liberation.
That is incredibly problematic for the very reasons unpacked in this film.
If, after actually watching Cuties, you still don’t believe that the plot is an imitation of life, just look at what is happening on TikTok and Instagram in response to Cardi B’s WAP (Wet A** Pu**y) song. There is a hashtag #WAPChallenge trending on TikTok right now, in which girls film themselves copying Cardi B’s erotic and provocative dance moves.
Girls then post their videos on an international social media platform…exactly like the Cuties Group does.
I could talk about this film forever. I believe that Cuties is a wonderfully brave and uncompromising film that should be shown to children during Life Orientation and Sex Education classes. I think this film would actually start conversations about what it means to grow up in a postmodern world increasingly influenced by the cult of radical third-wave feminism.
In my initial and uneducated scorn of the movie, I had fallen into the exact trap of social media and majority opinion that the movie’s plot targets.
As I said, I just watched the entire film and, having done so; I implore all the ‘moms on Facebook’ and all the social justice warriors chanting ‘stop child pornography’ to do the same. Watch the movie, then form an opinion on it.
Kathryn van den Berg
When trying to come up with an alias for my blog, I turned to words people have used to describe me for inspiration. The term 'control freak' popped up in my mind, but I'm not that confrontational and opinionated (anymore...). And so came into existence a happy compromise between my A-type personality and sense of humour.
Kathryn is The Control Enthusiast.