Jen Gerson: How bad is Cuties?
I watched the Netflix film that stands accused of sexualizing young girls. I'm afraid to say, not all of the outrage is misdirected.
Let's start off with this: as someone who grew up in the '90s and 2000s, it's comforting to return to the version of "cancel culture" that I am more familiar with — that of conservative puritanism. When backlash began to foment online over the promotional material of Cuties, which featured several pre-pubescent girls in skimpy dance costumes striking sexually provocative poses, I felt a moment of relief.
For a moment, the natural order of the universe had been restored.
Attempting to wade through controversial issues with my peer groups has become so exhausting. I thought it might be refreshing to rekindle the simpler days of laughing off conservatives for being prudish. No one in my circles is losing friends over that one.
So I searched out Cuties on Netflix expecting to find a wildly misrepresented film that subtly criticizes the hypersexualization of young girls and — alas — I'm sorry to report that I think the puritans have at least a bit of a point. Some bad artistic decisions were made here — and those mistakes aren't limited to the promotional material. Cuties has some problems.
Let me caveat that assessment with this: I don't think Cuties is some kind of wink-nod to pedophilia. Titillating audiences is not the intent of this film.
The film is a coming-of-age journey for an 11-year-old Muslim Senegalese girl named Amy who lives in an apartment in France with her mother and two siblings. During the film, it's revealed that her father will be returning from Senegal with a second wife; a choice that has quietly devastated Amy's mother.
The young girl responds as young girls often do to disturbing shifts in family life. She lashes out. Amy breaks into her future sister-mother's bedroom, steals and lies, dresses in skin-tight clothes, wears cosmetics and, hilariously, watches sexy music videos under her head covering while her mother is at prayer.
She also begins to spend time with classmates who are competing in a provocative dance competition. Her bid to win acceptance with this sexually precocious crowd becomes one of the central tensions of the film.
As Amy's homelife grows more disturbed and emotionally intense, so too does her sexualized behaviour. The troupe's dances are posted to social media, where they initially generate a wave of likes and approval — the approval Amy is so desperately lacking in her traditional household.
Then things start to spiral. Amy tries to seductively dance for a security guard to get out of trouble. She strips before a family friend when he finds that she stole her phone. This culminates in a moment where she takes a picture of her genitals (not depicted) and posts them online.
In the wake of the controversy, the film's director Maimouna Doucouré said that part of her intent was to criticize sexual exploitation of young girls. And, indeed, as Amy trades sexual titillation for acceptance and favour, the scenes gave me a squicky feeling — as they were intended to do. The movie depicts these girls as naïve, innocent of the sexualized games that mimic the culture around them. Indeed, one of the most touching moments in the film comes when Amy's classmate blows up a used condom — to the screeching horror of her friends who worry she has now caught AIDS. The young girl cries, noting, rightly, that it wasn't her fault that she didn't know what the condom was.
And yet. There is something off about this film as a critique. Doucouré's explanation feels like a post hoc rationalization. It doesn't quite jive with specific artistic decisions the filmmakers made with regard to editing, tone, music choices, and, especially, camera angles.
If the film were intended as a critique of childhood sexual exploitation, we would generally expect to see a villain of some kind benefitting from the children’s performances. Yet, there is none. The girls exploit themselves for their own benefit.
There are several scenes in the film in which the girls' dancing butts are shown at a close angle, limbs and faces cropped out. The camera engages in soft-focus close ups of the girls giving doe-eyes and sucking their fingers. While most of the audience members in a climactic dance scene boo and shake their heads disapprovingly during the girls' performance — one young man does not. He nods approvingly.
The music the girls play during their increasingly sexy routine is upbeat — liberating.
These were conscious artistic choices, and they don't speak to a film that was trying to portray a provocative dance troupe as inherently damaging or pathological. There is a thread of the film that revels in its own sexual transgression. Cuties brings the audience into the power and freedom these children must feel by flouting the taboo of hebephilia.
(I find it interesting that so many of Cuties' defenders are liberal men who seem to gloss over some of these editing choices. It's almost as if they're not quite as clued into the implications of a close-cropped booty shot that edits out an 11-year-old girl's limbs and face because these clips are shown in a movie with a plot.)
I don't think the intent of the film was to arouse its audience at the sight of young girls; but these choices ensure that it's not immediately obvious that the film's only purpose was to make the audience feel discomfort, either. I'm also not convinced that the original marketing material — a poster of the dance troupe on stage at its moment of bittersweet triumph — totally missed the spirit of the thing.
Due to the sensitive nature of the backstory in the film, director Doucouré made a point of showing a nuanced and careful portrait of Islam.
“I grew up in a Muslim home,” Doucouré said, in an explanation of why she made the film.
"My parents are devout Muslims. In this film, I have created many nuances that show my respect for the Muslim culture. This film depicts the exact way I grew up [and] the Muslim culture that I grew up in ... it is very important for me to show an Islam that is far from stereotypical and far from what we normally see on the screen about Islam.”
There are elements of this film that are powerful and fascinating, particularly the parts that navigate the challenges of a young girl entering her teenage years caught between two societies — one traditional, and the other permissive. But I wish the director had attended with as much care to her depiction of Western female sexuality as she did with Islam. The coming-of-age of these girls in a Western country comes across as a caricature; it feels like a devout Muslim's worst fear of what it's like to grow up as a young woman in a secular Western society.
I think that is why the tone of the film feels off. I don't see a successful critique of a hypersexualized childhood here, because there isn't one. It's not normal for 11-year-old girls in even the most liberal Western nations to teach each other how to dance provocatively in tiny outfits on stage. Of course, adult women choose to do this, and fair play to them. One can also certainly find some examples of Cuties-like behaviour among children — extreme beauty pageants, elite dance competitions, even gymnastics — but they're outliers, and usually confined to specific cultural or competitive contexts. (Also, these activities require not only parental consent, but often high and even excessive levels of parental encouragement.)
Cuties doesn't explore this dance troupe as a subculture; it treats the extreme case as representative. There's little in the film that resonates with a general audience that grew up with liberal sexual standards because the film doesn't depict those standards realistically. Instead, this hyperreal critique of childhood sexual exploitation blurs the line into something that does, indeed, begin to feel like plain-old exploitation.
Cuties could have avoided much of this blurring if it had made relatively minor changes to about three scenes. But it didn't.
Cancelling Netflix over Cuties is, of course, juvenile and silly. But neither is all of the outrage and criticism directed toward the film misdirected. The movie is redeemed by its ending. When torn between two competing cultural "norms" — her traditional Muslim upbringing, and a much-too permissive sexualized one, Amy chooses instead to don jeans and a t-shirt to go outside and play.
Ironically, I suspect this is much closer to the childhoods that most Western women would actually recognize.
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