If you thought the hubbub over Cuties was over, think again. News has just dropped that Netflix now faces a grand jury indictment in Texas for promoting lewd visual material. Is Cuties irredeemably lurid? Does it criticize precisely what its critics find offensive about it?
Cuties (French: Mignonnes) is not an easy movie to talk about. A heated discourse developed around it since Netflix announced the film’s release on its platform with a marketing campaign that sparked outrage due to the sexually suggestive behavior of the pre-adolescent characters in promotional material. The controversy has continued to grow since the movie’s release on September 9th with rumors being spread about grooming and child pornography. What is fascinating about this phenomenon is that the film’s content clearly sides with its detractors. That being said it is not immune to criticism on how it presents its critique of the sexualization of young girls.
Cuties is a French film directed by Maïmouna Doucouré, which follows Amy (Fathia Youssouf) as she attempts to adjust moving with her family from Senegal to a poor neighborhood in Paris, while grappling with the news that her Father is taking a second wife and getting bored from prayer and the religious values that her aunt (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) seeks to instill in her. In this vulnerable time of transition, Amy becomes fascinated with a clique of rebellious young girls from her school called “Cuties” who participate in adult-style dancing which contrasts greatly with Amy’s religious background. Amy eventually joins the group and begins to become aware of her own sexuality which further disrupts her relationships with her family.
The film is most successful in its commentary when it shows how Amy is affected by her consumption of sexualized women on the internet and the peer pressure she receives from her friends which lead to her making objectively poor decisions that the movie frames as such. One scene where this works well is when Amy faces social rejection after posting a sexually explicit image on social media during an emotional outburst.
The movie’s shortcomings come from when it tries to be the most provocative, which is where much of the controversy comes in. There are a number of scenes where the young group of girls, while wearing revealing clothes, mimic the sexually charged dancing that they have seen older women perform, which can be uncomfortable. That’s the point of the scene. The problem lies that in displaying how creepy sexualization of young girls is, the movie must deal with the double-edged sword of also sexualizing the young actresses in the process. To be clear, the movie goes through great lengths to ensure the audience knows that it condemns this sexualization by explicitly contextualizing the dance scenes with reaction shots that further accentuate that these actions are not being promoted and the message of the movie is strengthened for it. Nonetheless, the sexualization is still present, and it’s understandably upsetting.
Where the criticisms of the movie stray are when the detractors say that the film doesn’t condemn enough the actions of the young girls because they don’t face any real consequences for their actions. This is a poor argument for two reasons. First, as previously stated, Amy faces social rejection in the movie and great strain is brought between her and her family that in one scene turns into corporal punishment. Second, an immoral action going unpunished in a movie does not equate to the movie promoting that action. A man getting away with murder in a film does not mean that the film is ok with murder. The main issue that many have with this movie is that while a movie can simulate violence without having actual violence take place, you can’t really simulate the sexualization of a person.
Cuties is an ambitious and inflammatory debut film carefully crafted by Doucouré which raises questions about how the internet influences young children and criticizes the hyper sexualization of pre-adolescent girls. Because of its unflinching look at this hyper sexualization, it has been accused of contributing to the problem, but in a way, Cuties has succeeded in its goal of getting people to discuss this problem through the controversy that surrounds it.
Lucas Ortega is a perpetually confused English student who loves indie comedy-dramas but usually lets the streaming algorithm curate his film diet.