By Cassandra Yany
One of Netflix’s newest films, Cuties, has garnered much attention and backlash since its Sep. 9 release on the streaming platform. The coming-of-age film depicts a young girl as she tries to navigate her life as a pre-teen growing up in a Muslim family living in Paris.
Many critics have spoken out against the film, which currently holds the no. 7 spot in Netflix’s ‘Top 10,’ for its depiction of 11-year-old girls dancing and behaving in an indecent manner. According to the New York Times, the movie was first deemed controversial in the U.S. in August when Netflix released the promotional artwork. The original marketing for the film displayed an image of four young girls in skimpy dance costumes posing provocatively.
This, along with the trailer, prompted opposers to start petitions online and call for the removal of the film from Netflix’s catalog. Netflix apologized and changed the artwork for the film to a more innocent photo of the same four characters walking down the street with shopping bags, donning bras and underwear over their clothes.
Last week’s release of the film has sparked conversation once again amongst parents, politicians and others, causing #CancelNetflix to trend on Twitter. Lina Nealon, the Director of Corporate and Strategic Initiatives at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation has spoken out against the film saying “While we commend Director Maïmouna Doucouré for exposing the very real threats to young girls having unfettered access to social media and the internet, we cannot condone the hypersexualization and exploitation of the young actresses themselves in order to make her point.” She called for Netflix to cut the “sexually-exploitive” scenes from the film, or remove the film from the platform altogether.
On Friday, Hawaii Rep. Tulse Gabbard tweeted, “@Netflix child porn ‘Cuties’ will certainly whet the appetite of pedophiles & help fuel the child sex trafficking trade. 1 in 4 victims of trafficking are children… Netflix you are now complicit.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz penned a letter to Attorney General William P. Barr Friday calling for the Department of Justice to start an investigation into the production and distribution of the film to “determine whether Netflix, any of its executives, or anyone involved in the making of ‘Cuties’ violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography.”
Cruz wrote that “the film routinely fetishizes and sexualizes these pre-adolescent girls as they perform dances simulating sexual conduct in revealing clothing, including at least one scene with partial nudity” falsely claiming that there’s a scene exposing a “minor’s bare breast.” The Associated Press reported that one of Cruz’s representatives, Lauren Aronson, said that the senator has not seen the film.
According to the Washington Times, some critics are even calling on the Obama’s— who have a production deal with Netflix— to take action against the film. Deadline stated that “The reality appears to have been lost in the storm, and the truth is very few of the people reacting so strongly will have actually seen the film.”
Netflix told USA TODAY “‘Cuties’ is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children. It’s an award winning film and a powerful story about the pressure young girls face on social media and from society more generally growing up— and we’d encourage anyone who cares about these important issues to watch the movie.”
Director Maïmouna Doucouré defends the film, saying that it works to shed light on these issues so they can be fixed. Cuties first premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 23, where it won the Directing Jury Award for the dramatic film category. According to the New York Times, the movie did not stir up much conversation in France after its theatrical release (as Mignnonnes in French) in August.
Deadline reports that Doucouré did not see the promotional material prior to when it was circulated on the internet. She said that she received death threats as the outrage grew over these images. She told the news site that the film is not apologetic about the hypersexualization of children, but instead is her “…personal story as well as the story of many children who have to navigate between a liberal western culture and a conservative culture at home.”
Cuties was Doucouré’s feature directorial debut. Similar to the film’s main character, Amy, Doucouré is of Senegalese descent and grew up in a Muslim culture in Paris. In an interview at Sundance, she said she first had the idea for the movie after attending a neighborhood gathering in Paris where she saw a group of 11-year-old girls doing a stage performance of a “sensual” dance. She was shocked to see girls that age dance like that in short clothing. “We can’t continue to close our eyes about that,” she told the interviewer.
Doucouré researched for a year and a half, meeting with hundreds of pre-teens who told her their stories. She learned about their ideas of femininity, and how their self image is affected by the emphasis of social media in today’s society. According to IndieWire, the young actresses’ parents were on board with the project to spread awareness of the issue, and there was a psychologist working with the girls throughout filming who is still helping them throughout the release process.
The film is centered around Amy, an 11-year-old girl who has recently moved to a housing development in a poor suburb of Paris with her Senegalese, observant Muslim family. She looks out for her brothers, takes care of responsibilities around the house, and is in the process of being taught how to ‘be a woman’ by her aunt.
One day after prayer, Amy walks by the laundry room and sees a girl her age dancing to music playing from her phone. In a subsequent scene, Amy is seen trying to straighten her hair with a clothing iron, burning part of it off as a result.
Amy learns that her father, who is still in Senegal, has taken a second wife and will be coming to Paris soon to have the wedding. Her mother, Mariam, tries to hide her reaction to the news, but Amy sees her grow upset and take her frustrations out on herself. This is where Amy’s behavior begins to shift; she starts to reject her culture and identity, and instead tries to conform to fit in with the other girls at school.
At school, Amy is teased for her clothes and lack of fashion sense, so she begins to wear her younger brother’s t-shirt to match the crop tops that her classmates wear. After seeing a group of girls her age dancing after school, Amy steals her cousin’s iPhone to learn how to dance, herself. She comes across their social media accounts and begins taking selfies, imitating what she sees on their profiles.
Amy finds herself a spot in the girls’ friend group and dance troupe, and as a result, begins to neglect her responsibilities at home. Amy starts to show more self expression, wearing her hair natural rather than pulling it back. She also begins to explore the internet more, finding videos of almost-naked women dancing rather suggestively and moving their bodies in ways that an 11-year-old probably shouldn’t be watching.
Taking what she found online, Amy practices dancing with her friends and teaches them how to twerk. This is where the movie begins to make viewers slightly uneasy. It was jarring to see these young, innocent girls tainted by this inappropriate content and doing dance moves that they didn’t understand the implications of. It appears that this was the intention of director Doucouré, as she stated in an interview with Netflix that the film is “…a mirror of today’s society; a mirror sometimes difficult to look into and accept but still so true.”
Some of the scenes, frankly, are very disturbing to watch. These include the girls dancing provocatively for two older male workers at a laser tag facility so that they wouldn’t get in trouble for sneaking in, as well as Amy beginning to undress for her cousin once he found she had stolen his iPhone in an attempt to smooth over the situation. Perhaps the most disturbing scene is when Amy takes a picture of her genitals to post on her social media profile so that people at school would think she’s mature. While there was no nudity shown in this scene, the implied action was horrifying to watch.
At the end of the film, Amy performs with her dance troupe at a local competition. Dressed in revealing outfits, they dance immodestly in front of a crowd of people who quickly seem unsettled. (This is the scene from which the original promotional photos were taken.) Toward the end of the song, Amy freezes as she begins to think about her mom, then runs off the stage crying. She goes home where she asks her mom not to attend her father’s wedding. Her mom continues to get ready for the event, but tells Amy that she doesn’t have to go.
Instead of going to the wedding, Amy steps outside and begins jumping rope. This scene depicts a mixture of her two identities: she is wearing jeans and a crop top with her hair down, but is surrounded by people of her culture dressed in traditional garments. After suppressing her family’s background for a majority of the movie, Amy is finally able to find the balance where her multiple cultures intersect in order to be her honest self.
After watching Cuties, it is evident that it is not meant to promote this behavior among young girls, but instead provide commentary on what is happening today and warn the adults who see the movie. The harsh reality is that more pre-adolescents are exposed to this type of content than we think. Any child who has access to a smart device and social platforms have the potential to see a video not meant for them. Take TikTok for example: racy dances to Cardi B and Meg Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” as well as a recent trend where women make “thirst traps” to Beyoncé’s “Rocket” are some of the most popular videos on the app right now. Young TikTok users can easily see creators on their For You Page enjoying themselves while engaging in these trends, causing the young viewer to want to do the same.
When speaking to Deadline, Doucouré said, “What happens is young girls see images of women being objectified, and the more the woman becomes an object, the more followers and like she has— they see that as a role model and try to imitate these women, but they’re not old enough to know what they’re doing.” In a separate interview, she posed the question, “Isn’t the objectification of a woman’s body that we often see in our Western culture not another kind of oppression?”
Overall, Cuties shows the dangers of uncensored media for young children and displays how impressionable they can be. It also shows the journey of Amy’s self-discovery and learning how to blend her multiple cultures in order to shape her identity. Unfortunately, the risqué nature of the film overshadows the storyline and the message is lost for a number of audience members.
In various articles, Doucouré is quoted discussing the meaning of the film in the broad context of femininity and what it means for young girls to enter womanhood in this digital age. During her aforementioned interview with Netflix, she stated “The real question of Cuties is can we, as women, truly choose who we want to be, beyond the role models that are imposed upon us by society?”