We need to talk about ‘Cuties’

The depiction of one social issue the world was not ready to see.

This review contains spoilers.

New release films these days are little to write home about. With series taking the lead in interesting, previously unexplored storylines, all the films I’ve seen of late have left little to be desired. Then, amid protests about child exploitation that have occurred globally as of late, the controversy surrounding Franco-Senegalese film ‘Cuties’ appeared, and just like that, things suddenly got interesting.

‘Cuties’ was directed by Franco-Senegalese director, Maïmouna Doucouré and was released recently on Netflix. Before I saw the film, I had been aware of the outcry on social media, screaming about how grotesque and vile this film, what I believed to be about little girls dance troop, was.

Cuties director Maïmouna Doucouré. Image credit: Deadline.

The trailer showed nothing particularly horrifying, except for the explicit choice of wardrobe, inundated with crop tops and booty shorts, that most would say was inappropriate dress wear for an eleven-year-old. The film is being indicted in Texas, and I read that Netflix is at risk of losing a few deals because it produced Cuties. It’s safe to say this was enough to make me carve out time in my day for the 90-minute run time and see what all the fuss was about.

‘Cuties’ tells the story of Amy, a Senegalese Muslim girl, living in a slum in France with her mother and two little brothers. Amy has way more responsibility than she should. I am not referring to the chores you see her continually executing throughout the film, but having a foot in two cultures, and pretending not to be aware of her mother’s emotional issues surrounding the fact that her father has abandoned them to take a new bride. His impending return is filling her with anger, resentment and confusion.

Islam preaches women to be modest, respectful and supportive of their men; these, however, are three aspects of her religion that Amy is struggling with, given her current situation. Amy finds the Cuties and embarks in what I can only describe as a toxic relationship with four over-sexualised child dancers who she admires, envies and is intimidated by. Through a series of events Amy changes everything about herself; she lies, steals, begs and barters, has outbursts of graphic violence and then tries to solicit her older male cousin to keep the iPhone she stole from him.

Still from the movie Cuties. Left Amy (Fathia Youssouf), right Amy’s Mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) Image credit: the guardian.

‘Cuties’ is hard to watch, period. Having the camera linger over the twerking, overexposed bodies of children, performing an obscene adult routine in a crowd of half horrified, half supportive faces, is not something you see every day – and more importantly is something I never want to see again. There was also a brief supernatural element that, although I appreciated, was already implied, therefore unnecessary.

As uncomfortable as ‘Cuties’ is to watch, I have to commend Doucouré for the question she has posed to the audience and for the brave, bold way she has chosen to restart the conversation of whether liberation can really be achieved through an over-sexualised display of so-called femininity. This is a big topic, and it’s one that we as a society have been debating for years. I think the setting in which Doucouré placed her characters is clever and forced haters and supporters alike to realise that we are actually on the same side and fighting for the same cause.

The problem is, the noise of social media is so loud that the ones who are shouting about it, clearly haven’t seen it. If they did, they would realise Doucouré is not promoting the over-sexualisation of children but challenging it, and getting people to realise how damaging it is. ‘Cuties’ is an exaggerated caricature in some ways, of the dangers of hyper-sexualisation towards women and the damage it can do to a young girls mind. 

The over-sexualisation of the girls in this film if anything was a wake-up call. It was made to make you feel uncomfortable, to make you think twice about the values we as a society are imposing on our children – intentionally or not. Amy used her iPhone as an escape, a portal to a world that gave her the answers of how not to end up like her mother (or so she thought). She saw the Muslim community as one that allowed her mother to be humiliated by the ‘wrongdoings’ of her father. This was a fate Amy did not want to accept, and to her, at that age and with that level of maturity, she believed the only way she could truly be free was through sexual liberation because that is what she saw online. This narrative surrounding sexual liberation is one a lot of adults still struggle with, imagine being an eleven-year-old and trying to take on such a loaded topic, with no more guidance than that you see on YouTube.

The ‘Cuties’ Image credit, NBC news.

Women are, regardless of feminism, still seen as objects to be sexualised. Girls see this, and they think this is what they must emulate to be desired, wanted, noticed, free even, and it is this that the film challenges. Until we begin to acknowledge the dangers of this– instead of putting on a smile and pretending these issues aren’t real until a film like ‘Cuties’ comes out and wakes us all up again– the exaggerated caricature that is ‘Cuties’, will become every parents worst fear realised. We need to have continual open and honest conversations that actually work towards some form of resolution about the over-sexualisation and pornification of young girls if we want to get out ahead of the issue.

In ‘Cuties’, class too plays a big part in the way these girls behave. Living in the slums is one thing, but with that comes single-parent homes, and homes with absent parents doing what they can to make ends meet. Children in lower class societies are often exposed to more of the world at a young age – not vacationing in Disneyland Orlando, but the ugly parts other classes can afford to shelter their children from. When you leave a child to their own devices, you would be surprised what they find on those devices. I’m not surprised the film has been indicted in the red state of Texas. The state who preaches conservatism, and outdated family values, that only apply to a specific class of people, and they are not the kind of people you would find in Amy’s neighbourhood.

‘Cuties’ challenges a lot of issues that can be applied to societies globally. It explores what it’s like being caught between two cultures, and it champions the message that liberation obtained through a sexualised display is a false sense of liberation that will not bring you the freedom you thought it would. It is hard to watch, and some parts are not wholly executed brilliantly, but the overall message and the execution, for the most part, deserves your attention. Once you look past the overt flaws, you’re left with an important cause to champion.

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