The sexualisation of children has to be one of the most difficult topics to explore in cinema given the importance to neither downplay the issue nor sensationalise it, in order to treat the subject matter with the sensitivity it requires. Given these inherent difficulties, Maïmouna Doucour’s coming-of-age debut feature film Cuties is all the more impressive for how well it navigates the experiences of 11-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf) who is drawn to a clique of girls at her new school who aspire to dance competitively. Torn between her the ultra-conservative values of her family’s religion and the hyper-sexualised popular culture she and her peers consume online, Amy’s sense of identity is increasingly assaulted as the result of trying to navigate the mixed and often contradictory messages she absorbs about how to behave and her value as a young woman.
Having recently moved into a small apartment in the suburbs of Paris with her mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) and younger brothers, Amy is becoming aware that there is something rotten about the difference in status between men and women. This manifests both in small ways – she has to wear a head scarf and attend religious instruction while her younger brother is allowed to play – and in larger ways, as she witnesses the grief and turmoil her mother endures at having to accept Amy’s father will soon return from Senegal with a second wife. To make matters worse, the community elder La tante (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), informs Amy that part of her becoming a woman is learning to cook in preparation for the wedding. The oppressive patriarchy of her family’s adherence to a repressive religion is one of subservience for women who are reduced to commodities and expected to gladly accept their lower status. There is little wonder Amy yearns to rebel. However, at this young and impressionable age, she is also being taught that her happiness will be dependent on male approval, and this toxic belief hijacks her rebellion.
Enter the Cuties, the dance group of similarly aged girls from school who are led by Amy’s defiant neighbour Angelica (Medina El Aidi). Drawn to the hyper sexualised dance routines and costumes in music video clips, the Cuties aspire to channel a similar energy into their own sense of selves and adopt the provocative moves into their own routines with the goal of entering an upcoming competition. Amy is soon accepted into the group and she too begins to embody the highly uncomfortable blurring of boundaries between childhood and adulthood in terms of the age-inappropriate performance of sexual desire.
So much of Cuties is uncomfortable as despite all the bravado on display, there is never any doubt that the girls are just kids. Cuties continually creates jarring clashes between the sexualised nature of their performed adult behaviour and just how childish they are the moment they let their guard down. As their routines get increasingly sexual, the film draws attention to how ridiculous and contrived their moves are, showing the girls awkwardly trying to replicate the moves and expressions they’ve seen in video clips despite having little understanding of the loaded nature of such moves. Their attempts to lie about their age are ridiculously bad and fool nobody, and they are completely clueless about sex and sexual health, displaying a bewildering lack of awareness that would be comical if it weren’t so alarming.
The constant reinforcement of the girls’ childishness is what makes their dance routines so disturbing to watch; frequently filmed in a series of a short shots, often on a close-up of a body part. This technique mimics the style of the music videos the girls have consumed and further reinforces that they are only children. It is confronting to watch and it is designed to be that way. Any attempts to make the routines more palatable would have compromised the social critique that something has gone wrong where pre-teen girls such as Amy, Angelica and her friends feel they should present themselves to the world in a way that is not so different from how Amy’s conservative religious upbringing similarly presents women as commodities.
A major part of what makes Maïmouna Doucour’s film so compelling is that it asks difficult questions rather than provide a simplistic answer. It would have been easy for Cuties to simply declare that sexy music videos are evil and corrupting and they should therefore be banned. Fortunately, the film doesn’t go down such a moralistic and narrow-minded path as it instead raises more challenging questions such as why the girls have been led to believe that they need to adopt moves and behaviour that they clearly don’t fully comprehend. Why are these girls so ignorant about sex? Why are they not aware of the differences between real life and the constructed fantasy of a music video? Why do they feel the need to project a femininity that conforms so aggressively to the male gaze? The tragedy of Cuties is not that expressions of sexuality are increasingly widespread in popular culture, but how badly family, education, religion and society have let these girls down so that they have misinterpreted and absorbed these expressions at such an inappropriate age.
Sadly, Cuties is facing an aggressively misinformed backlash, mostly from people who haven’t seen it. The shockingly misguided decisions made by the streaming platform Netflix on how to initially market the film triggered this backlash, resulting in on-going accusations that Cuties is either deliberately promoting objectification of young girls rather than critiquing it, or that its attempts at making such a critique have failed as the film has inadvertently become what it is supposed to be against. Such claims are baseless as there is no doubt about the intentions of the film to seriously examine the highly inappropriate sexualisation of its protagonist.
Most alarming is the way this backlash distracts from the complexities of the film, and it could well be the case that such a distraction is part of the intent behind the campaign to discredit Cuties. Labelling a single film as dangerous and such a threat to children that it must not be streamed into people’s homes out of concerns for the safety and wellbeing of the community, is a lot easier than grappling with the confronting questions a film like Cuties raises about the culpability of numerous aspects of culture and society that have contributed to the premature loss of innocence among children. Over time Maïmouna Doucour and her film will be vindicated. Despite the terrible initial mishandling of the film’s promotion, Netflix should also be acknowledged for holding its ground against the hateful ignorance being thrown towards it. It would be a very sad day when moral panic founded on baseless accusations leads to censorship.
All this also distracts from the fact that among so many other things Cuties is a sophisticated coming-of-age story about a young girl torn between two cultures. It’s a film about the immigrant experience, family, friendship and the relationship between a mother and a daughter. It’s a film that ends on an incredibly beautiful final shot that confirms that at its heart is a brilliant young girl who we are allowed to hope will ultimately rise above everything thrown at her. While at times very difficult viewing, there is no doubting the sincerity and integrity behind Cuties.