Yes, gentle readers, we’re really doing this. Buckle up.
The French film Cuties came out to immediate controversy, due in large part to a tin-eared and outrageously misguided ad campaign from Netflix. The film was made, critically acclaimed, and sold to Netflix for its examination of how society sexualizes pre-pubescent girls, and Netflix proceeded to hype the film by sexualizing pre-pubescent girls. To their credit, Netflix did eventually apologize and scale things back, but of course the damage was done and the controversy didn’t stop there.
A whole lot of ink has already been spilled about how the filmmakers should be ashamed of themselves and we should all cancel our Netflix accounts over this. Naturally, I’m sure all the outrage has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that this is a movie about a black Muslim girl, written and directed by a black woman (namely Maïmouna Doucouré, here making her feature debut). And of course I wouldn’t know how many of these same protesters are going to vote for the alleged sexual miscreant who used to own freaking Miss Teen USA and numerous other beauty pageants. Incidentally, that would be the same alleged sexual miscreant who put girls and women of color into cages on American soil, subjecting them to sexual abuse and forced sterilization. But I digress.
Getting back to the point, the simple and ugly truth is that sexualization of young girls and exploitation of their beauty have been a disturbing and prevalent trend for a long time now. For the past twenty years at least, every teenage girl who’s ever been remotely famous has had to start their career under a haze of Photoshopped fake nudes and an online countdown timer to their eighteenth birthday.
It’s a problem at least as old as pop culture itself, from Shirley Temple to Tiffany to Miley Cyrus and all her fellow latter-day Disney alumi. The list goes on and on, and quite a number have ended in tragedy. Just look at how Judy Garland ended up. Or Lindsay Lohan. Or Britney Spears. Or freaking JonBenet Ramsey.
Shit, Natalie Portman started out with The Professional when she was just a girl. And the first piece of fan mail she ever got came from some pervert psychopath who wanted to tell her about his fantasy of raping her at the age of thirteen. How fucked up is that?
This is definitely a conversation that we need to have, and it’s not a conversation that the male-dominated film industry is equipped for. The closest we’ve come in recent memory is probably Little Miss Sunshine, and it didn’t become a huge point until the climax. You could probably make an argument for Judy, though it was hardly a central focus. For fuck’s sake, freaking Johnny Knoxville might have said more about the subject in Bad Grandpa than both of those movies put together!
(WARNING: If you haven’t seen Bad Grandpa, you want to be very, very careful about clicking on that link. Trust me on this.)
And on the subject of teenage sexuality, we need to figure out how teens can explore their sexual natures and identities in a way that’s safe, appropriate, and empowering. This is another highly important conversation that we very badly need, but it’s not comfortable and so we don’t discuss it. Yes, the topic of sex has come up in a few recent coming-of-age movies — Good Boys; Love, Simon; The Spectacular Now; and The Fault in Our Stars all come to mind — but those were all from a male point of view. Coming from the perspective of a teenage girl who’s dealing with constant pressure to look and act a certain way sexually, Eighth Grade is probably the best we’ve got so far.
Then along came Cuties, which literally opens with a black girl crying into a camera. She’s surrounded by bright lights and flashing cameras, her makeup is shot to hell from all the tears, and she’s looking directly at the camera in extreme close-up. Let it be known that literally from the very first frame, the filmmakers tell you exactly what the point is, and they are definitely not fucking around.
From there, what we’ve got here is a pretty standard coming-of-age narrative. Amy (Fathia Youssouf) is a young Senagalese girl who just moved into a new housing project. She comes from a devout Muslim family, which means that her absentee father gets to take a second wife with everybody’s blessing while Amy and her mother have to cover themselves, be quiet, and abstain from anything remotely sexual. As Amy’s mother (Mariam, played by Maïmouna Gueye) so eloquently tells her daughter, “Quit taking up so much space.”
Even better, Amy’s lesson in “How to be a woman” is in cooking the food for her father’s second wedding. That is so many different kinds of fucked, I don’t even know where to begin.
Amy arrives at her first day of school and meets the eponymous Cuties (Angelica, Coumba, Jess, and Yasmine; respectively played by Medina El Aidi, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, and Myriam Hamma), a band of young girls who dress provocatively and partake in various social media stunts with the goal of dancing competitively. I might add that they got this idea from watching adult women dancing provocatively in skimpy outfits on social media, racking up hundreds of likes in the process.
So while it’s perfectly okay for consenting adults to film themselves twerking, and the audience is free to support them, there’s the possibility that teenage girls might see that and try to copycat so they can get some of that same attention and approval. Then again, the filmmakers heavily imply that none of these particular kids have any teachers or parents who are the least bit attentive or responsible, so there’s that.
Moreover, these girls are remaking themselves in the image of music video dancers, runway models, Kim Kardashian, and so on. Thus the film raises the notion that girls and young women need more positive role models, and that means more mainstream media attention given to empowering women.
Though from an American perspective, I might counter that with the ongoing lionization of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with many young girls dressing up as her for Halloween and the like. (In fact, both Dora and the Lost City of Gold and the recent Scoob! featured young female supporting characters dressing up as the SCOTUS justice, even before her passing.) And of course that’s not even getting started on recent superhero media, with a successful Supergirl show on the CW and movies for Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and the upcoming Black Widow. Progress is slow, and we can always use more feminist role models, but progress is definitely happening nonetheless.
Anyway, there’s a problem with the Cuties: they’re a bunch of stuck-up brats who bully our main character. In their initial meeting, the Cuties even go so far as to throw actual, literal rocks at Amy. Seriously, they got her on the forehead and they laugh at the giant gaping wound.
We learn very quickly that the Cuties — like most kids their age — are posturing assholes who are 100 percent full of shit. This is most especially obvious on the subject of sex, as shown when the Cuties parrot all sorts of playground nonsense about penis size and what happens during sex. This stands in direct comparison to Amy, who doesn’t even bother pretending that she knows anything about sex. This is a French movie, and this could just as easily have taken place in America — maybe woefully insufficient sex ed is a universal thing.
Perhaps more importantly, Amy has been shaped by a culture and family that oppress her and suffocate her with any number of stringent rules about how she talks, acts, and dresses. By contrast, the Cuties show a callous, self-centered disrespect for rules and authority. In fact, they have no regard for common sense, honesty, integrity, or even personal safety. Literally nothing matters to them except their own pleasure and self-image. Yes, Amy needs to find the courage and strength to break out of the conformist mold she’s been set into, but going to these extremes is something else entirely.
And sweet mercy, does Amy go to some messed-up, boneheaded, appalling extremes in the back half.
Which brings us to the sexualization issue. If a woman dresses and dances in a provocative manner, is she degrading herself or empowering herself? It’s a conundrum as old as feminism itself, and the answer depends on any number of context-sensitive factors. Though in this particular context, the pre-pubescent ages of the young women in question is a huge goddamn factor.
Even so, there are two factors that are absolutely vital, regardless of age. The first is obviously informed consent. Secondly, if anyone of any age is made to feel ashamed for dressing and dancing however they want in the privacy of their own homes, that’s fucked up.
And then of course we have the generational gap. Amy’s family comes from Senegal, her elders brought up with archaic practices of a faraway place. Amy herself, by contrast, is very much a product of modern-day France. It’s perfectly obvious that the old ways won’t work for her, though the adults raising her don’t want to see that or understand it. This is bog-standard material for any coming-of-age story, though it’s worth mentioning nonetheless.
But even with all this talk about the greater sociopolitical and gender-related factors at play, it’s important to remember that THESE ARE KIDS. They play around, they act like idiots, they make mistakes. That’s how they learn, it’s how they grow, it’s the whole point of childhood. There’s a prominent dance break at the half-hour mark, and it’s hard to even see anything sexual about the scene when these girls are just dancing around to impress each other and have fun.
Still, it’s one thing when these girls are merely having fun by themselves in an abandoned lot somewhere. When they’re dancing like this on social media, for a paying audience, or in front of judges for a competition, that’s something else entirely. And when they’re actively rewarded for it… well, the opening frames of the movie have already let us know how that’s going to work out.
Which brings us to the nitpicks. Though most of the film is pretty firmly grounded in realism, the filmmakers briefly dabble in more fantastic and dreamlike moments. It doesn’t connect. The moments aren’t outlandish enough to completely register as hallucinations or dream sequences, but they’re not realistic enough to square with the rest of the proceedings. While these moments make an abstract kind of emotional and thematic sense, it’s still tonally jarring and confusing from a narrative standpoint.
Speaking of which, there are quite a few moments when the filmmakers go to absurd lengths in getting the plot where it needs to be. My personal favorite example concerns Amy’s cell phone — of course the plot and themes demand that she have a smartphone, but there’s no way her family would let her have one. So she steals a smartphone.
For one thing, this costs our protagonist no small amount of sympathy. For another, this means that our character set up her entire social media presence on someone else’s smartphone, racking up charges on someone else’s account the whole time, and it takes over half the movie before anyone notices. Fuck outta here.
Another great example comes when Amy gets into trouble and she needs a way out. And this just happens to be the exact moment when she gets her first period. Deus ex menses, if you will.
But maybe the crowning example comes when Amy needs to find a way back into the huge competition for the climax. I won’t spoil exactly how she does it, but she completely and totally lost all sympathy from me after that move.
Still, the cast does well enough. In fact, considering how young these actors are and what material they had to work with, I’d say they deserve tremendous praise. But the real star here is Maïmouna Doucouré, for taking on such a bold subject matter with nuance and heart. I may gripe about how our protagonist wasn’t always 100 percent sympathetic, but I respect a filmmaker who doesn’t shy away from the fact that kids can be ignorant, harmful, malicious little shitheads. (Again, see Eighth Grade. And also Skate Kitchen, which this movie resembles in many ways.)
But most importantly — I cannot possibly stress this enough — no way in Hell, Heaven, or all points in between could this movie have been made by a male filmmaker. This absolutely needed a female filmmaker who could handle this topic with unflinching honesty, a clear and comprehensive eye, and absolutely zero trace of any male gaze. These are uncomfortable topics, but we need to talk about them, and this is how they need to be portrayed.
On its own merit, Cuties is a stock coming-of-age story, with a boilerplate plot held together by a few flimsy contrivances. Even so, the film sets itself apart from the cavalcade of recent coming-of-age films by way of its subject matter and context in the pop culture zeitgeist. It’s a film about young women growing up and discovering themselves in a world with fucked-up and contradictory attitudes toward women and sex, discussing the subject with intelligence and heart. It’s also a movie made of and about women of color, and we could definitely use more of that too.
You may not like what this movie has to say or how it says it. Even so, you should definitely hear what the movie has to say. Brace yourselves, keep an open mind, and give it a try.