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The Student Newspaper of MAST Academy, since 1991.
The Student News Site of MAST Academy

The Beacon

The Beacon

Where “Cuties” went wrong (hint: everywhere)

By Isabella Zimmermann

From the surface, the Netflix French film Cuties seems like an innocent coming-of-age film about a group of girls who want to enter a dance competition together. Within only a month of its international release on the platform, however, the film has managed to spark mass outrage, with thousands of viewers calling for its cancellation and admonishing Netflix for supposed pandering to pedophiles. With the company now facing potential criminal charges over the movie’s alleged lewd material, this raises the question of whether Netflix truly sexualized children or whether all the controversy surrounding the film is just a product of misunderstanding.

Cuties, or Mignonnes, follows 11-year old Amy, a Senegalese-Muslim girl that moves with her mother and two younger brothers to Paris. When Amy discovers that her father is planning to get married to a second wife, she struggles to handle her mother’s devastation as well as her own changing body. She begins to spiral out of control when she meets a local hip-hop dance team of other 11-year olds, using her brother’s shirts as crop tops, stealing money from her mother, taking her cousin’s phone, fighting older girls, and publishing nude pictures of herself online. Her efforts to defy the patriarchal culture that she feels has trapped her and her mother while simultaneously discovering herself drives her to enter a new world of social media and question what it means to be a woman.

The controversy behind Cuties began prior to its release in the states, lowering expectations of watchers with only a single poster. Instead of marketing the film as a coming-of-age story—what it was intended to be—the original poster on the U.S. Netflix site displays the four girls on the dance team scantily clad in tight-fitting blue crop tops and shorts and striking provocative poses. To add fuel to the fire, the initial description, which has since been changed, stated “Amy, 11, becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew,” offering little to no further context. The damage had already been done by the time Netflix apologized and changed the poster art, a petition circulating around the web calling for the cancellation of the movie’s release on the platform gaining over 400,000 signatures.

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Several films in the past have failed in the box office or garnered negative press with just its advertising. Take Jennifer’s Body, for example, whose marketing team used sexualized images of the lead actress, Megan Fox, to attract men to showings when their real target demographic was young women and teens. The film received negative reviews from people who expected the posters to reflect the film’s subject matter. While Cuties mirrors this same plight, advertising is not the only thing to blame for the negative attention it has received.

Many found the content of the movie itself to be problematic. Amy and her friends twerk, try to take pictures of a boy’s genitals, watch inappropriate music videos to replicate the dance moves, flirt with guys much older than them online, and have physical fights. The shots in the film are an issue of its own, with many of them showing the children’s crotches and behinds as they dance seductively. 

In one scene, Amy sits on the bathroom floor to post a nude picture of herself; her punishment, doled out by her mother, is to stand in her underwear, arms extended, as she gets splashed with water. Even this was sexualized, with the scene shifting to Amy gyrating and dancing erotically, the camera zooming in as she twerks. The final dance scene takes the cake, though, showing the girls performing in front of a crowd with the original blue outfits that landed Cuties on the radar. Viewers are subjected to several minutes of close shots of the girls’ body parts as they dance in a sexually-suggestive manner, which only results in churning stomachs.

Maïmouna Doucouré, the director of Cuties, defends her movie by arguing that her goal was to shine a spotlight on the sexualization of young girls happening daily. In her  Washington Post op-ed titled “I directed ‘Cuties.’ This is what you need to know about modern girlhood,” Doucouré says that she was inspired by a community event she witnessed several years prior. There, she watched young girls emulate the same risqué, sensual dancing present in her own film. Doucouré admits that puberty is a confusing time for young children who are struggling to deal with their changing bodies, implying that many young girls try to imitate the behaviors of grown women they see on social media because they see that it as typical.

In response to those who find certain scenes uncomfortable, Doucouré replies that “if one really listens to 11-year-old girls, their lives are uncomfortable,” and that “[she made Cuties] to start a debate about the sexualization of children in society today so that maybe – just maybe – politicians, artists, parents, and educators could work together to make a change that will benefit children for generations to come.” However, this message failed to come across to American audiences miserably, despite the country’s own issues regarding that same sexualization.

While I can admire Cuties’ brave strides to combat a widely-ignored subject, I still feel as if the movie approached it haphazardly. If Doucouré truly meant to inform audiences of how society treats young girls, she could have broached this subject matter with more care. You can talk about things that are graphic in nature without necessarily having to depict them so inappropriately. Putting certain scenes in for shock value erode the story’s core message, resulting in viewers only remembering the bad aspects of the film. It took me several weeks to get past my initial anger and attempt to look at the film from an alternate perspective. Even now, I am still disgusted by certain scenes, unable to look past or ignore them.            

Cuties could have provided meaningful social commentary about the struggles of being a young, developing girl feeling pressured to act older than she is and losing her innocence in the process. Instead, it is overshadowed by the children’s dancing and the controversy that emerged as a result. Sexualizing the children involved in the film to protest against the sexualization of children seems counter-productive. Doucouré could have achieved her original goal without the overexaggerated manifestation of our sexualized culture. The film should have focused less on twerking, and more on the restrictive aspects of social media which trap many young girls.

In the past couple of weeks, we have seen a surge of Netflix subscriber cancellations and even Republican politician Ted Cruz calling for the Justice Department to investigate the film to see whether it breaks any laws. It is not difficult to understand the outrage, considering the many inappropriate situations the child actors of Cuties were put into; disgust is the only expected reaction to the many questionable scenes. It is a shame this movie could not have figured out a proper way to deliver its message in a less crude manner, because like it or not, Amy’s experiences are the realities many girls face daily. Society has only chosen to ignore it.

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Where “Cuties” went wrong (hint: everywhere)