Cuties, the latest culture war bombshell to arrive on our overworked home screens, turns out to be anything but cute. Written and directed by the Senegalese-French first-timer Maïmouna Doucouré, Cuties—Mignonnes in French—won an award for direction in the World Cinema section at the Sundance Festival and was quickly picked up by Netflix. The public has not been as enthusiastic. Politicians took to Twitter to condemn the film, the hashtag #CancelNetflix trended on social media, and a Change.org petition called for taking the movie off the air. As I write, the petition has attracted almost a half-million signatures.
That’s quite an uproar for an indie foreign film by an auteur almost no one had heard of the week before last. No doubt some of the outrage is grandstanding and some of it pure political posturing, but that doesn’t mean that Cuties is an innocent bystander. The story of 11-year-old Amy Diop, a Senegalese immigrant girl living in a Paris project who takes up with a group of precocious classmates practicing routines for a local dance contest, is an eyeful. The girls skip around in skin-tight short shorts and faux leather jeans or bandage skirts no bigger than a scrunchie. Their midriffs are exposed and exercised so much that they are at risk of callouses. Aficionados of the Kardashians, rap music videos, and porn, the cuties hump the floor, spank their buttocks while looking coyly over their shoulders, rub their crotches, and suck suggestively on their fingers. These young Lolitas have enough moves for generous tips at Tony Soprano’s Bada Bing.
The director and her advocates insist that all this is to illustrate the exploitative, hypersexualized culture girls swim in today. Netflix called Cuties a “social commentary against the sexualization of young children,” while Doucouré describes it as a “deeply feminist film with an activist message.” I could almost believe them, except that the camera zooms in on pre-pubescent arching and lingers on twerking buttocks with all the subtlety of a Pornhub video. Quick shots of the disapproving frowns of a few adults are meant to show the filmmakers’ critical stance, but compared with the dance routines themselves, they are perfunctory. “Today, the sexier and the more objectified a woman is, the more value she has in the eyes of social media,” Doucouré told the French publication Cineuropa. She appears to have learned that lesson all too well. Marketers for Netflix, of course, were already well versed in the maxim. The network released an ad for American audiences far more exploitative than the French one. Netflix apologized for the “inappropriate artwork” and took the ad out of circulation, but it’s not unreasonable to guess that the suits are banking on the controversy becoming the greatest PR coup in their company’s history.
Too bad, because Doucouré’s dubious aesthetic decisions befoul a movie that aspires to explore an important and serious theme. Amy is an immigrant child caught between the traditional world of her parents and the freedom of the West. It’s a troubling and sometimes tragic tension known to millions in the United States and increasingly in Europe, too. The film is unsparing about the distance between the two worlds in this case, and not just because of the women’s native costumes and cooking. As the movie begins, the family is awaiting the arrival of the father who will be bringing home a second wife from Senegal. His first wife is expected to accept the newcomer as if she were a sister. Amy watches as her mother weeps between phone calls to friends announcing “my husband is taking a second wife” with faux cheerfulness and as she endures the humiliation of her rival’s lavish marital bedroom being renovated down the hallway from her own. Being a sensitive girl, one on the cusp of puberty in a new world that casts everything she sees in her family into question, Amy feels her mother’s lonely despair.
What kind of alternative life does the West present her? Despite her misjudgments, director Doucouré does show how in its present degraded state, Western culture has little of substance to offer the immigrant young and their hopeful parents. As Western, particularly American, identity centers ever more insistently on racial and sexual preferences, and as these are discussed everywhere in the public square and on social media, a coming-of-age film can mean only one thing: a child becoming racially and sexually knowing. Cuties bypasses the former, to its credit, but wallows in the latter. Instead of trying on their mother’s high heels and lipstick, young girls ape the gross, most formulaic gestures of the sexual desire they have yet to experience.
Some viewers might remember Teen Vogue’s contribution to this genre. In 2019, the online magazine published an article for its target audience of girls between ages 11 and 17 on the pleasures of anal sex. “It is often described as a feeling of fullness, which can be delightful . . . It’s NOT a big deal,” explains the adult to the barely pubescent. Calling such sexualization of immature girls “exploring your femininity”—the language Netflix uses to describe Cuties’ heroine in its synopsis of the film—is pure heartlessness behind the mask of ideology.
Doucouré uses similarly muddled feminist language to explain her movie. “I wanted the actresses to know the real activism that this movie was coming from, and the feminist ideology it represented,” she told an interviewer. It seems a lot of viewers are not convinced that ideology can justify the film’s undeniable cinematographic attraction to preteen bodies. “Imagine if all that energy that was devoted to blindly criticizing my film could be used towards protecting those who need it, and offering new role models.”
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