The ‘Cuties’ Row, Examined

Amid accusations of child exploitation, Cuties has picked up a slew of both 1- and 5-star reviews.

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Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties will likely be the most talked-about French film of 2020 for some, if not all, of the wrong reasons. We’ve come to understand ‘French film’ as a shorthand for oftentimes controversial works that are artfully ‘obscure’ and/or ‘sexy’ — Cuties is neither. But it’s certainly controversial; even, and perhaps especially, in the minds of those who refuse to watch the film.

The basics of the plot may be familiar by now, but in short: 11-year-old Amy is a young Senegalese immigrant to France, struggling with a lack of connection with her conservative Muslim elders and trying to make friends. She is fascinated by, then inducted into a classmate’s dance troupe — the ‘Cuties’ — whose rebellious excitability beneath the glare of disapproving adults intrigues Amy. Especially when she sees how much approval they garner on social media.

On one hand, reviewers (and Tweeters) claim the film as a critique of the sexualisation of children; a tender coming-of-age film made by a Black, female, first-time director who is being unfairly (and predictably) excoriated. On the other, many are claiming that this film not only ‘amounts to’, but is literally child pornography. Rotten Tomatoes shows an 89% positive review score across 36 critics. Of 1,047 audience ratings, it’s 3%.

So — who’s right? (Because someone has to be right, right?)

The Netflix Marketing Issue

There is, of course, an issue with judging a film before you have seen it. And yet, one doesn’t need to watch A Serbian Film, for example, to have an opinion on whether or not it is a little bit of an abomination that should have never been greenlit. More to the point, one doesn’t have to watch child pornography — if that’s what you believe this is — to denounce it.

Much of the response is a result of Netflix’s marketing material. The original poster from January’s Sundance release was a far cry from the one created for September’s Netflix release: a depressing attention-grab by the company for which they have since apologised. (In terms of safety, decency and general feel-good wholesomeness, the difference between the two posters pretty much reflects the general trajectory of the year.)

Less has been said about the trailer. In shorthand, it appears to pit Amy’s ‘choices’ as a simplistic binary: a ‘bad’ conservative domestic upbringing (and, by all liberal accounts, it is bad — obey your husband etc.) vs the ‘liberation’ of her new fun, exciting, crotch-flashing, twerking hobby; the end.

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The film premiered at Sundance to fairly positive reviews, with most of the critique aimed primarily at poor pacing. David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter stated Doucouré has “all the elements” but doesn’t “thread those strands into a satisfying conclusion.” Jordan Ruimy of World of Reel called the film “irresponsible”, but his review rests on the idea that the film is “also dull beyond belief”.

All that said, the trailer of course leaves out the majority of the explicit, tender, and deeply nuanced scenes. I have watched the film and, ultimately, everyone is right. Netflix marketed the film shallowly; the film is far more emotionally complex and socially astute than the marketing allows; it is incredibly, uncomfortably — and possibly irresponsibly — explicit; and the filmmaker knows that it is this explicit, and is trying to reflect a reality in which the hypersexualisation of children has crept further and further into our everyday communications.

The Child Pornography Question

This isn’t simply a case of saying that the concept of ‘young girls twerking’ is child pornography, although this is one of the arguments being put forward by the outraged. There are many layers to this question in Cuties.

[NB: Regarding actual images and videos of abuse, a humanitarian move to change the language around journalistic and policy discussion of sexual imagery involving children is underway. The argument being that in the phrase ‘child pornography’ is a legitimisation of this material as ‘pornography’. I’m using the term here as its the term being used by most people in the current debate, but I agree that the term ‘child abuse material’, so as not to in any way suggest that it has value or legitimacy as material for others’ sexual gratification, is more suitable.]

There is a scene in which Amy and Angelica watch a video of a rival group of local girls dancing — teenagers but of unknown age, looking around 15; one of them lifts up her top and exposes her breast to the camera.

Amy looks shocked, and responds: “…They have a lot of likes.” This clear critique of social media and its role in instant gratification, social acceptance, and the sexualisation of women (and by extension young girls emulating women) continues throughout the film, and extends to examine other practices of female diminution also. Another throughline of the film is the preparation for Amy’s absent father’s wedding; he has ‘taken another wife’. Amy’s mother must not only accommodate and participate in the event but is coerced by a local elder to make humiliating phone calls, telling friends cheerfully of the news. All the women in this film are coerced into participation in demeaning rituals.

So amid the social critique, we were still shown a teenager's breast [though crucially, I couldn’t find out the actual age of the actor.] As the film continues, there are numerous lengthy scenes — not clips, full scenes — of 12 to 14-year-olds, meant to be 11, sucking fingers, furiously twerking, stroking crotches, slapping backsides. The gratuitous, explicit scenes are meant to invoke disgust.

But the accusation of gratuity is not a misrepresentation of the film. Pornography is often defined as being material of ‘no artistic merit’ that exists purely for sexual gratification. This is clearly not the case here— but this is purposely gratuitous. That’s the point.

It is saying — look, look at how pornographic this is. This is what children are doing on camera, now that they have access to devices, a bombardment of sexual images of women, social media, and a lack of parental communication. Many people may well be titillated by these scenes, and many may be traumatised depending on their experiences, and/or mental state. But the filmmaker has made clear her intentions: “This film is sounding an alarm.”

The most complex, and consequential, question remains: of harm to the actors. The five primary child actors, who were between 12 and 14 years old at the time of filming, did not have stand-ins and were performing these moves. Doucouré said she ‘played games’ on set with the children, and “encouraged them to visualize themselves as different animals” when performing. The lengths the filmmakers went to to protect these children while they repeatedly performed sexually explicit routines in wide and in close up, isn’t entirely addressed by this explanation.

One imagines that if these young actors have access to social media, they are aware of images like these anyway (… the point the film is making.) But I would have liked to have been able to find more information about how the actors were protected. Ultimately, this is the element of Cuties I‘m most discomforted by: I don’t believe children should have been asked to do this.

Richard Brody at The New Yorker called the backlash a “right-wing campaign”:

“The subject of ‘Cuties’ isn’t twerking; it’s children, especially poor and nonwhite children, who are deprived of the resources — the education, the emotional support, the open family discussion — to put sexualized media and pop culture into perspective.”

This idea that only right-wingers are engaging in a backlash is laughable. Plenty of the liberal-left are doing just as much hand-wringing if not pearl-clutching, worrying that this is representative of a cash-over-welfare, woman-oppressing, moral-free industry.

Aside my feelings about the explicit sequences, I hold the filmmaker in high esteem for her intentions, and for the film as a whole. This is a beautiful, truthful and timely film that took the gratuity it is representing way, way too far and has, within a critique of this material, reproduced it. It represents the hypersexualisation of children all too effectively, in too straightforward a fashion than I am prepared to watch again.

But even without the many, many statements Doucouré has made about her intentions, I can feel them and they are honourable. They are especially felt in the beautiful final scene in which Amy stops mid-performance, refocuses her attention on her grieving mother (who welcomes her back, and finally defends her from ‘auntie’), and returns to playing with other children in the street. On her return to childhood she transcends the pain of the rest of the film, lifted, literally jumping for joy.

How will gatekeepers remember this thoughtful, Black, female filmmaker?

Doucouré has explicitly said: “I just hope that these people will watch the film, because then they will realise we are actually on the same side of this battle against the hypersexualization of children”. Whatever your opinion, Doucouré is not flippant on this issue.

She undertook a year and a half of research with tween girls, to understand their takes on the issues of social media and sexualisation. She discusses it with gentleness, intelligence and nuance in every interview she’s given, noting the vicious requirement that women ‘perform’ sexual availability as femininity’s only valuable expression. She denounced Netflix’s marketing as “not representative of the film” and received both a personal and a public apology from co-CEO Ted Sarandos.

When the dust settles will Maïmouna Doucouré be revered in the way, for example, Harmony Korine is?

It’s 25 years since Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s Kids was released; the director has said that “it could not be made today.” Kids opens with a 12-year-old child (played by 17-year-old Sarah Henderson, whose nude body is visible) being pressured by the main character, 16-year-old Telly, into losing her virginity; as the title sequence begins and we see him violently thrusting into her, she says “Wait…that hurts…” The line is almost completely lost under heavy rock music, and the film moves on. In the credits, she is listed as ‘Girl #1’.

Perhaps Cuties is a 2020 version of Kids, by a Black female filmmaker who — despite some arguably irresponsible choices — has treated the subject of young girls being preyed upon with far more grace. The female experience is centralised, and while not necessarily less gratuitous, it is certainly different from Kids; less sensational, crass, and nihilistic. About Kids, bell hooks said:

…it’s possible to embrace the knowledge that there’s a direct link between representations and choices we make in our lives that does not make that link absolute, that does not say, “oh, if I look at a movie in which a woman is fucked to death,” than I will go out and think I should let myself be fucked to death by any man who wants to fuck me. I think that’s an absurd sense of a direct link, but that is not to say, that if I watched enough of those images I might not come away thinking that certain forms of unacceptable male violence in coercion in relationship to my female body are acceptable. It’s frightening to me now when people want to behave as though certain images don’t mean anything.

Of course, this applies to Cuties, but the difference is that Maïmouna Doucouré knows it. She is currently talking about it. It’s why she made the film.

Written by

Politics and culture writer. Editor of Chompsky. Media reform advocate. UK/US.