The backlash is bipartisan: both Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard have called “Cuties” child porn. Following the release of the film’s trailer and (an ill-conceived) poster, daily Netflix cancellations surged 5x, and a Change.org petition has over 750,000 signatures calling for “the investigation of the parents, staff, director and especially Netflix.” Oh, and the #CancelNetflix hashtag was born.
What’s strange is that the film community’s reaction was overwhelmingly positive when “Cuties” debuted at Sundance in January. So, what went wrong?
Richard Brody of the New Yorker states, “I doubt that the scandal-mongers have actually seen ‘Cuties,’ but some elements of the film that weren’t presented in the advertising would surely prove irritating to them: it’s the story of a girl’s outrage at, and defiance of, a patriarchal order.” For starters, this film, as a social critique, is impossible to summarize in 94 seconds (the length of the trailer, which is consequently the 44th most disliked video on YouTube), which means it is even more futile to attempt to convey the thesis in a single image. Even so, there were less offensive possibilities for the movie poster. Just as you don’t understand Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Lobster” from a poster or trailer, to presume to understand “Cuties” from its trailer is unfair. Even a review you read in The Michigan Daily can’t tell the whole story. But I will try to cut through the noise and elucidate the social implications of this important film.
“Cuties” is a story about modern girlhood in the age of Instagram, TikTok and “WAP.” The film also navigates the challenges faced by immigrants to adapt to a new culture without losing their roots. It follows 11-year-old Ami (Faitha Youssouf) as she desperately tries to find independence from her religious family through friendship and community. Ami’s first friends are four classmates who are practicing to compete in a dance competition. Before Ami ingratiates herself, these four girls bully her for her understated outfits. Herself unable to dance, Ami is unable to curry favor as a troupe-mate, and finds that she must dress like her new friends to be accepted. This means baring skin, which makes Ami uncomfortable: She hides her midriff with a hoodie when older boys leer at the girls. Ultimately, she chooses to sacrifice her own comfort for the sake of popularity.
Ami’s family is beyond uncomfortable with midriffs and tight skirts. Devoutly religious, Ami’s mother and aunt make it very clear that they think Ami is dressing (in their words) like a “whore.” The disapproval of her family only fuels Ami’s drive for independence and her desire to learn how to dance like her friends. Previously only the troupe’s filmographer, when the friend group ousts one of their dancers only days before the competition try-outs, Ami volunteers to step in. She’s been practicing and “studying,” and even adds to the routine by teaching her new friends how to twerk.
Wait – isn’t Ami 11? And her friends too? This is why Ted Cruz is mad. There is a lot of twerking in this film. There are very tight outfits. And the camera doesn’t hide any of it. This fact makes “Cuties” very challenging to watch at times. Director Maïmouna Doucouré (“Maman(s)”) acknowledges the discomforting nature of certain scenes, but retorts by saying, “if one really listens to 11-year-old girls, their lives are uncomfortable.”
Ted Cruz’s anger and my discomfort come from two places. First, there is the very sound belief that young girls should not be sexualized in this way. And Doucouré herself agrees. Her film does not romanticize, but rather documents, lived reality. Having interviewed over a hundred Parisian preteens, Doucouré reports that “they saw that the sexier a woman is on Instagram or TikTok, the more likes she gets. They tried to imitate that sexuality in the belief that it would make them more popular.” But neither this film, nor my review of it, is a condemnation of social media. Ted Cruz wouldn’t say it is, either.
I believe, and this is the second source of discomfort, that this film critically illuminates the fetishization, objectification and sexualization of women’s bodies at any age. If Doucouré argues that Ami twerks for popularity because she saw it online — well, the problem is not that Ami saw it, or that Ami wants to be popular. The problem is how our patriarchal society evaluates women based on sexual desirability.
The discomfort I felt while watching this film was due to the inappropriateness of young girls behaving sexually. That dissonance is legitimate, but when I tried to investigate further what I was feeling, I had to ask myself: Why should wearing a tight skirt equate to “behaving sexually?” Our society has firmly linked a woman’s body with her sexuality, and subsequently with her worth as a person. That is the problem. If a woman of any age wishes to wear certain clothing, it is not for society to conflate her outfit with her sexual availability, just as two shirtless men playing catch in the street are no more sexual objects than they would be if they were fully clothed.
But I can’t close without clearly identifying and addressing the cause of mass outrage: the very real, not suggested or euphemized, sexualization of 11-year-old characters (played by 14-year-old girls). There are plenty of examples of when the on-screen depiction of something socially grotesque conveys a powerful message about its depravity. Some directors like to push the envelope (Gaspar Noe’s “Irréverisble” comes to mind). But this film walks a very fine line, and seems not to know that sometimes it is best to describe, rather than depict, certain depravities. Doucouré defends her directorial choices by assuring viewers that “a trained counselor was present on set” and that “the project was even approved by the French government’s child protection authorities.” But, that’s akin to saying a veterinarian was present on the set of “Ben Hur.” Harm done is harm done, even if the “actors in the film had already seen these types of dances and more.” Many scenes are quite exploitative, and there is really no excuse for that. Monica Hesse of the Washington Post wrote, “Healthy adults won’t see the characters as sex objects; they’ll see them as children and they’ll see the dancing as disturbing.” I would reflect on this statement by saying the reason “healthy” adults will be disturbed is because the children are portrayed as sex objects. And that is not okay.
In short, Ted Cruz missed Doucouré’s message. But when it comes to the images on screen, Cruz’s criticism has merit. “Cuties” illuminates real issues in our society. Foremost, that young girls have internalized an association between self-worth and sexuality. Moreover, this association is founded on the patriarchy’s devaluation of women and fetishization of women’s bodies. These issues must be addressed and resolved. But the way to criticize the sexual objectification of young girls is not to take part in that exploitation. I fear that this film may pave the way for other directors to test what is acceptable in the realm of criticism-through-exhibition.
For those who want to read more about this film, I highly recommend the Washington Post op-ed written by Doucouré, from which I pulled some of the above quotes.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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