The “Cuties” Backlash and Our Unwillingness to Be Uncomfortable

by Yana Aleks about a month ago in review

No, neither Netflix nor this movie should be cancelled.

The “Cuties” Backlash and Our Unwillingness to Be Uncomfortable
Image: Netflix

I am a bit late weighing in on this controversy but I finally watched “Cuties” and now I am incredibly frustrated with the social media storm surrounding it.

I am of the opinion that anyone who condemns Netflix for showing this film or the creators for making it does not understand a single thing about it. And since the negative voices around the web seem more numerous, I felt I had to say my bit.

What is “Cuties” about?

“Cuties” (original title “Mignonnes”) is the story of a young Senegalese girl named Amy who lives with her family in a low-income neighbourhood in France. Amy’s father is taking another wife and this disruption to her world has a powerful impact on the eleven-year-old, especially after she accidentally witnesses a private moment in which her mother secretly sobs in between making cheerful phone calls to friends to announce the event. She is already feeling torn between the strict norms of her culture and the completely different views on women that she encounters outside of her home. The perceived betrayal by her father and the fear of how it will change her life pushes her to seek some form of outlet and freedom. She becomes fascinated by a group of girls her age who call themselves “The Cuties”. They are rude, inappropriate and dressed in revealing clothes - the very antithesis of what her religion says girls should be. They are preparing to audition for a dance competition where they are hoping to impress the judges with alarmingly adult choreography. After some initial friction and even significant bullying, Amy is accepted into the group and begins doing everything she can to fit in, including coming up with moves which are increasingly suggestive and inappropriate. Curiosity and naivety, combined with a desperate desire to belong and escape an oppressive environment, lead Amy (and the rest of the group) down a dangerous path as they try to emulate behaviours they are too young to understand.

Image: Netflix

Director Maïmouna Doucouré (who won the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival for her work on this feature) aims to shine a light on the oversexualisation of young girls and the difficult challenges faced by children such as Amy. However, not everyone thinks the effort is successful. “Cuties” has received an extraordinary amount of backlash online for the uncomfortable nature of certain scenes. The film has been dubbed “obscene” and “pedo-bait” and has been accused of aggravating the very problem it is trying to highlight by dressing its young actresses in skimpy outfits and directing them to perform adult dance moves. Critical response, however, has been positive and that, dear reader, is because every once in a while critics do actually know better than the internet hivemind.

Image: Netflix

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t always agree with critics. For example, I would happily burn copies of Disney’s live-action “Cinderella” for its horrible main character, yet that load of nonsense has great reviews. But in the case of “Cuties” the critics clearly watched the movie and paid attention while some of the audience got their opinions from people on Twitter or were too busy being self-righteous to comprehend what they were witnessing. Saying that the movie is aimed at paedophiles is like saying that the primary audience for “First They Killed My Father” is bloodthirsty psychos who train kids as child soldiers. And how exactly do you convey to your audience the negatives of something without showing the thing? Perhaps we should also have movies about the atrocities of war without war, films about the plight of rape victims with zero depictions of rape and films about racism with no racism in them. I’m sure that will be very effective.

The marketing campaign

(I think that this article should include the poster being discussed but, to be perfectly honest, I am now scared I’ll be unfairly accused of distributing child pornography if I include it here. So if you haven’t seen it, look it up yourselves.)

I agree with the criticism that the film suffered from bad marketing but not so much because the promo materials showed kids with bare midriffs - more because it was done out of context. Where the poster fails is representing what kind of movie this is. Not having researched too much, I was honestly expecting some stupid dance flick that had maybe gone a little too far in terms of choreography. I started playing it out of sheer curiosity to see what people were getting so worked up about. I didn’t realise I was going to be watching a serious movie.

By contrast, most people’s issue with the marketing was that the girls were shown on the poster in their competition outfits, in the middle of their performance, caught in poses that, yeah, I would not put in a dance for eleven-year-olds. But, honestly? The outfits are not as terrible as all that, you will often see similar things in dance shows. Whether that should be the case or not is debatable but the point is that they’re not that out there. As for the poses in the photo - yeah, they’re not great, but, obviously, that’s exactly the point. Just because someone told these child actresses to do this during filming in the context of the story does not immediately make it pornography or exploitation.

If you ask me, the whole competition dance number, including the clothes, may have easily been inspired by this “Dance Moms” episode:

If you watch the video and compare with the poster you will notice that the “Dance Moms” outfits are actually worse. In the reality series this number was very obviously staged for shock value and to get more viewers. It’s sort of presented as not the greatest idea, mainly through the comments of the moms themselves, but nobody is bothered enough to stop it, let alone sue anybody for it. The general reaction was more “this is very poor taste” than “this is a crime”. Meanwhile “Cuties” does the same thing, accompanying it with the message that it’s wrong and… bam! Lawsuit against Netflix, death threats sent to the director and general trial by media! For what? For telling it like it is while trying to deliver a good moral.

(Also, I really didn’t want to use this argument because I hope the whole showdown has nothing to do with race and nationality but - when a white American woman straight-up tells little girls to spread their legs in a dance that’s okay but when a French-Senegalese director does it in a movie to illustrate it’s bad then it’s outrageous?)

The young actresses and how children are portrayed in “Cuties”

Regarding the child stars of “Cuties”, I certainly hope things were handled with the appropriate care and professionalism on set but I haven’t seen any evidence to the contrary. Children have been involved in heavy movies plenty of times before and it’s a ridiculous thing to expect them not to be, especially when the movie is about an issue that concerns them. The hoards of people accusing their parents of bad parenting for letting them take part must live in an alternate universe. This movie is very unlikely to be most eleven-year-olds’ first exposure to sexy dancing or the many stupid things their peers do. Whether a child participated in the flick or watched it, they’ve almost certainly seen this stuff before, I assure you. Involving children in the conversation is not only permissible but entirely necessary. The kids depicted in “Cuties” are your kids, all of our kids, they are not some special case. They are perfectly normal curious little girls who, step by little step, get led by circumstances towards some bad decisions. The performances are wonderful and the writing shows a surprising amount of understanding and affection for children in tough situations. There are several touching scenes where the attitudes are dropped and we are reminded how incredibly young and inexperienced these characters are.

Image: Netflix

Why this movie feels real to me

From what I can remember, at age eleven I was a generally happy, healthy, confident young girl. My parents were the very opposite of oppressive so I never felt the need to rebel. Even so, I still occasionally found myself in the company of girls who were exactly like the heroines of this movie and did similar things, whether I participated in that or not. Over the years I’ve also worked with children in various capacities and I have met a lot of different families, some of which shared similarities with Amy’s family and culture. While I was watching, I felt like I had been in her apartment before, like I had met her mother and little brother. I am not commenting on Senegalese culture specifically or how accurately that is represented - I can’t know that. But I’m assuming that Doucouré, herself the daughter of Senegalese parents, has some idea. In a more general sense, the clash of cultures, the discrepancy between Amy’s home life and the outside world, her difficulty in navigating this social minefield where it seems like everything you do is wrong one way or another - these are all things I have witnessed before, albeit mostly from the side lines. In her I saw little bits of children that I have met, even if I have never personally witnessed any of them going as far as she does.

Image: Netflix

As far as I can tell, there is nothing in “Cuties” that is artificial or unrealistic. It shows children who are desperately trying to emulate adults in order to feel more in control and it also shows the ignorance and helplessness of some of the adults themselves. In my experience, children are only ever this desperate to be seen as older when they are feeling unsafe, when their tender age means to them that they are completely helpless against powerful forces. This is what “Cuties” illustrates and it does it well.

In addition, the aggression, the fights and the mood swings that are inevitable in a girl gang such as the one depicted are so authentic that I sometimes felt like I was watching a documentary. The characters and situations ring so true that they are painful to watch - but that’s exactly the point! The film forces you to pay attention to something you see around you all the time but perhaps usually turn away from. It’s understandable if you find it a little bit difficult to get through - you should, it’s not a movie that is meant to be fun and entertaining. But I cannot understand anyone who claims that it shouldn’t be watched.

Is it bum-shakes and crop-tops that are the devil?

I pose it to you, people who have slammed this movie, that you just don’t want to get your hands dirty. You want to stay in your sanitised bubble, you don’t want to touch something that you find gross in order to clean it up, you’d rather keep it locked in a different room instead. And you have it all wrong. There is nothing automatically attached to any type of clothing or body movement. Watching little girls performing these moves is only disgusting if you are thinking something disgusting while doing it. I'm not saying it should be encouraged but I was too busy sympathising with Amy’s inner turmoil and the reasons why she was even on stage to be scandalised by her belly button.

Image: Netflix

The movie’s entire point is that it’s not the act of twerking that’s bad for these girls. It’s the people who would look at them in an inappropriate way when they do it. It’s the influences in their lives that make them want to appear sexual before they really even know the meaning of the word. Not every pair of tight shorts or cheeky dance move from an eleven-year-old are a gateway to hell. It is, in fact, one of the movie’s best qualities that it remains non-judgmental towards the kids, recognising the fact that most of their actions, in and of themselves, are innocent when not exploited by other people and social media.

I found “Cuties” very measured and positive in its messages. It condemns peer pressure and the dangers of online visibility but it does not condemn the desire for liberty or acceptance. Its heroine ultimately chooses a healthy middle ground, embracing her childhood but casting away some of the stifling demands of her family. The film leaves us with the hope that in the future she will find her way as a woman with both freedom and integrity.

In conclusion

If how much we are willing to listen to and understand this movie is any indication of how much we would be willing to listen to and understand the real-world equivalents of its protagonist then I really do pity our children. Thankfully, Netflix are standing their ground and others have also stood behind “Cuties” and its valuable lessons. I would like to leave you with this excellent article about the film written by an abuse survivor. It makes some of the points I’m trying to make better than I can:

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Yana Aleks
Yana Aleks
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Yana Aleks

Fiction writer and an incurable chatterbox.

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