Trigger Warning: scenes in film of child sexual exploitation discussed.
Spoiler Alert! Pivotal scenes mentioned.
Cuties (2020) was written and directed by Maimouna Doucoure, a French-Senegalese filmmaker. The film is described as a coming-of-age drama starring Fathia Youssouf as the main character, Amy, an eleven-year-old Senegalese immigrant. Unsatisfied with the prayer, piety and religious customs of her Muslim culture, Amy becomes obsessed with her neighbor Angelica (Medina El Aidi-Azouni). At school, Amy finds that Angelica is a member of a twerking dance troupe called ‘Cuties,’ which glares in bright contrast to Amy’s religious upbringing. The girls on the team are adamant about finding success through social media, learning that the more they expose themselves, the more attention they get. In the film, this escalates to a dangerous level of sexual exploitation.
Growing up as a preteen in Western culture is difficult, add social media on top of that and it’s a nightmare, so I came into this film with empathy. I also came into this film with a feminist mindset after seeing tweets from actress Tessa Thompson and Karen Attiah. Each supported the film calling it “beautiful.”
#CUTIES is a beautiful film. It gutted me at @sundancefest. It introduces a fresh voice at the helm. She’s a French Senegalese Black woman mining her experiences. The film comments on the hyper-sexualization of preadolescent girls. Disappointed to see the current discourse. 😞— Tessa Thompson (@TessaThompson_x) August 20, 2020
Finally saw "Cuties"...— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) September 15, 2020
I find it deeply beautiful, nuanced, and about so, so, much more than what the outrage is all about.
Puberty is confusing, but being a first-generation African girl growing up in a Western country makes it tougher.
"Cuties" captures that tension well
As a woman viewing the film, I saw children trying to imitate the adults they see on television and social media. Was it uncomfortable? Yes, but it was supposed to be. If I was Amy, growing up with music videos filled with twerking and songs like “WAP,” “Savage,” “Like That,” and “7 Rings” I would definitely try twerking in a mirror alone if not with my friends. I certainly tried reenacting some of Britney Spears more risqué music videos when I was eleven-years-old. Thank the goddesses I didn’t have social media!
Another concern with the film was whether it qualified as child pornography or not. I would say no, the film itself is not child pornography but there is a scene that depicts it happening. Toward the end of the film, Amy takes a picture of her vulva (not shown), posting it on social media and alienating all her classmates. Unbeknownst to Amy, she has just shared and created child pornography. However, the director addresses the content of the film in a Youtube video on the Netflix Film Club account, saying, while researching for the film she “met hundreds of pre-teens who told me their stories. I needed to know how they felt about their own femininity in today’s society and how they dealt with their self-image at a time when social media is so important. Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she’s successful. And the children just imitate what they see.” In the interview, Doucoure also questions, “Isn’t the objectification of a woman’s body that we often see in our Western culture not another kind of oppression?”
After watching the film and listening to Doucoure's interview, I’m convinced that the outrage is a problem of men viewing women as sexual objects rather than the girls being depicted as sexual objects. I’m more settled in the fact that, in general, men are so obsessed with the control of the feminine body that any signs of it being used to provoke their interest, even in the body of a child, arouses their anger. Either these men are ashamed for their sexual desire for children, and angered from that shame, or it is an instance where they are simply angry and threatened because they are not in control of feminine expression. The power of movies comes from what is shown and what is not shown. If bloody scenes of war are shown with glorification in film, then why not depict the way the online world affects a child’s mind and actions through film as well?
As I unfold the feminist foundations of the film, I am unshockingly finding that most of the comments that were concerned about the movies’ exploitation of children were from United States Republican Senators.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex tweeted that “Cuties sexualizes 11-year-old girls, which is disgusting and wrong. That’s why I’ve asked [Attorney General] Bar to investigate whether Netflix, its executives or the filmmaker violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography,”
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., questioned Netflix CEO Reed Hastings via letter on why the platform is airing a film “depicting children being coached to engage in simulated sexual acts.” He captioned the tweet: “Netflix should explain why it is distributing a film, Cuties, that appears to sexually exploit children and endanger child welfare.”
Even more dramatically, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted “Last year, Netflix lectured conservative states for passing pro-life laws to protect unborn children. Now Netflix peddles child pornography. At least Netflix is consistent.”
The only notable comment against the film that I’ve taken into consideration was from the National Center of Sexual Exploitation stating that “While we commend Director Maimouna Doucoure for exposing the very real threats to young girls having unfettered access to social media and the internet, we cannot condone the hyper-sexualization and exploitation of the young actresses themselves in order to make her point.” The nonprofit drives home, “The audience does not need to see the very long scenes with close-up shots of the girls’ bodies; this does nothing to educate the audience on the harms of sexualization.”
A necessary comment though is that The National Center of Sexual Exploitation is mostly led by white men and the CEO and president Patrick A. Trueman has ties to the Republican Party. Therefore, again, I’m confronted with white men’s opinions on the fictional narrative of a preteen girl and I’m not thrilled by it.
If anything, Cuties shows how refusing to talk to young girls about sex, the dangers of social media, and rather attempting to shelter them from the world is partly to blame for harmful behavior and exploitation. This is exactly what Doucoure intended the film to do.
This concern rings loudly in a scene where the girls are hanging out in a public park. Coumba (Esther Gohourou) picks up a condom and calls it a ‘boob’ while proceeding to blow on it. The girls are horrified running away from Coumba, one yelling, “you’re going to get cancer or AIDS!” Coumba, tears in her eyes, responds to her friend's fear, “How was I supposed to know that? It isn’t my fault that I didn’t know what it was.” The girls proceed to scrub her tongue with a scrub brush, hand soap, and water.
If young girls are exposed to sexualized content, whether parents like it or not, then they need to be exposed to real and honest conversations about sex and sexual exploitation.
Being a preteen and teenager is so difficult and confusing. I’m certainly glad I’m a grown woman now, but I can neither berate fictional girls or real girls for trying to imitate the women they see because I did it too. This film certainly isn’t for children, but it makes you consider how the sexualization of the feminine body has affected you at those pivotal ages, and that is absolutely an important topic to discuss and evaluate. If this is the evolution of pop-culture and social media, then talking to young girls about it is essential to their safety and well-being.
Header image courtesy of IMDB
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Veronica Ashworth (she/they) is a writer, avid napper, and a Pisces. She attends Pratt Institute as a creative writing student. Their work often focuses on politics, identity, and art. You can follow her on Instagram @veronicxrenee