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Don’t Listen to the Outrage. ‘Cuties’ Is a Great Film

If you’d asked me a month ago what could possibly break through a news cycle dominated by the biggest global pandemic in a century, the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the worst civil unrest in the United States since the Civil Rights Era, a diverse, French arthouse film about four 11-year-old girls trying to win a dance competition wouldn’t have crossed my mind. Yet since its recent release on Netflix, Cuties has broken through the noise, and how.

I wish it were for the right reasons: For instance, because Senegalese-French director Maïmouna Doucouré has written and directed a brilliant, award-winning first feature drawn from her experience growing up as an immigrant kid caught between cultures. Or because it’s alive with tenderness and heartache: a grittier, cross-cultural Eighth Grade about friendship, the love of a parent and child, and our longing to fit in, no matter our age, no matter the price. Or because it’s alive to injustice without preaching or judgement.

But no. Cuties has broken through because of grotesquely false charges of child pornography.

The conservative Parents Television Council has demanded that Netflix drop the film on grounds of child exploitation. So have the 600,000-plus signatories of a Change.org petition. QAnon conspiracists have linked it to a fictional Deep State pedophile ring. GOP senator Ted Cruz has demanded that the Justice Department investigate whether Netflix and the filmmakers have violated federal laws “against the production and distribution of child pornography.” And his fellow Republican Tom Cotton has tweeted, “Like any parent, I find Netflix[‘s] decision to peddle child pornography disgusting. And it’s criminal. Justice Department should take swift action.”

A cynic might think that Republicans, facing hostile voters in November, think a culture war pitting their defence of family values against the depredations of godless porn-friendly Democrats might offer a lifeline. In which case, they didn’t count on Nancy Pelosi’s daughter Christine, who has stated that Cuties “hypersexualizes girls my daughter’s age no doubt to the delight of pedophiles like the ones I prosecuted.” (She previously served as Assistant District Attorney in the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Unit for the city of San Francisco.) Likewise, Democrat Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a longshot presidential contender earlier this year, charged that Cuties will “whet the appetite of pedophiles and help fuel the child sex trafficking trade.” Well then.

It would surprise me if any of them have seen the movie. In fact, Cruz’s spokesperson explicitly reported that “of course [the Senator] has not watched a movie that sexualizes and fetishes young girls. The content has been widely reported and is not in dispute. There should be absolutely no place for the filming and distribution of these scenes—regardless of the purported objective of the filmmaker.”

Actually, the only things “not in dispute,” and which seem to be at the root of the controversy, are the first Netflix poster and a three-minute excerpt that shows the girls twerking at the competition. Both are intentionally provocative and disturbing. The poster shows the girls posed in crop tops and short shorts. The twerking is, well, twerking.

But step outside the moral-outrage machine and you realize that the crop tops and short shorts in the poster are the same tops and shorts you see young girls wearing at the mall; the delinquents-in-training who leave you wondering, “How did they get out of the house dressed like this? Where are their parents?” (Answer: Maybe out working two or three jobs to keep a roof over their family’s head. Or maybe the girls stashed the clothes at a friend’s house or in a backpack or school locker. Or maybe their parents have simply knuckled under.)

As for the twerking excerpt, it features the same bum-shaking gyrations that young girls watch all the time in music videos and TikTok dances on their phones. And which they imitate because that’s what you do when you’re a tween and want to act older, or be cool with your friends, or shock adults, or have fun pretending you’re a star. If you’re in any doubt that sexualized dance moves have been normalized for tweens, you haven’t been around an upper middle school lately. Ask teachers why dances are so hard to chaperone, not to mention talent nights. Better yet, ask your kids.

Cuties shares the wide consensus that the normalization of sexualized kids is wrong; that they’re being tossed into dangerous waters for which they’re intellectually and emotionally unprepared; and that the wider culture is turning into a grooming factory for big business. But this sexualization is a social issue. Attacking Cuties for addressing real life is a classic case of shooting the messenger.

Nor have the girls involved been exploited. They’re doing no more onscreen than girls their age do offscreen. They were accompanied on set by their parents and a child psychologist. And they were rehearsed by a female director who got the idea for the film after seeing—and being disturbed by—a dance competition like the one in the film.

Further, considering the hardcore nightmares that are reportedly available online, the idea that pedophiles are going to sit through a foreign film to see a few minutes of fully clothed kids doing music video routines is beyond absurd. As for encouraging the child sex trade, the charge is pure Trumpian delusion.

There’s a long and understandable fear and concern about the sexualization and exploitation of children in film, for the very good reason that children’s roles are played by actual kids. In 1962, Sue Lyon starred in Stanley Kubrick’s X-rated Lolita opposite James Mason. He was 52: She was 15, too young to see her own performance. Dominique Swain also was 15 when she was cast in the 1997 remake. (It raised so much controversy that it nearly didn’t get a US distributor, even though it co-starred Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffiths, and Frank Langella.)

Even more controversial were the career-making roles of Brooke Shields and Jodie Foster. Shields was 11 and Foster 12 when they played child sex workers: Foster in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), and Shields in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978). In the latter, Shields is raised in a brothel, has her virginity auctioned to the highest bidder, and has a “consensual” relationship with 44-year-old Ernest J. Bellocq. She appears to be nude in several scenes, although she was in a body stocking. (As an adult, Shields has raved about her experience, and said the hardest thing was saying goodbye to her on-set family. Still.)

Other examples abound, many considered benign. Leslie Caron may have been 25 when she starred as Gigi (1958), but she’s playing the part of a tween being groomed as a courtesan/child-mistress by her aunt. It’s more than creepy to hear “old roué” Maurice Chevalier sing, “Thank Heaven for little girls.”

The thing that makes these older examples much more shocking than Cuties is the role these children played: actual sex objects for adults. This is not only a material, thematic difference, but one that includes their physical integrity. We say acting is pretend, but kisses and caresses are real.

That’s why the true parallels to Cuties and today’s tween twerking are child beauty pageants which, for generations, have sexualized children in catwalk parades and swimsuit competitions. Within the past decade, the public appetite for this fare was big enough to maintain two hit reality shows: Toddlers and Tiaras and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. For diversity, let’s not forget CBC’s Drag Kids, “a daring and touching portrait of four kids chasing freedom and friendship through the art of drag.” Cuties itself is basically an updated Little Miss Sunshine, highlighting the difference between kids dressing up for play’s sake and turning play into inappropriate public performance in a bid for adult attention and acceptance.

This brings me to Cuties’ storyline and the questions it raises, which go far beyond a dance competition. Spoilers follow, but since this is a film driven by characters and relationships rather than plot, they shouldn’t much affect your viewing.

Amy, 11, is from a conservative Muslim family. She and her mother, Mariam, along with two younger brothers, have recently emigrated from Senegal and moved into a housing project in one of Paris’s poorest neighbourhoods, where they wait for her father to join them. One day, while hiding under a bed, Amy overhears her aunt and mother talking. Her father is bringing a second wife back from Senegal and her mother is crushed. But the aunt scolds her: To be a good wife, Mariam must phone her friends and relatives to share her happiness about the “good news,” and must also help prepare the homecoming and wedding celebration. Amy’s eyes fill with tears as her mother, voice breaking, does as she’s told.

Increasingly alienated from traditions reinforced within the local ex-pat Senegalese community, Amy falls in with a group of rebellious latchkey girls, becoming best friends with Angelica, who lives in her building. The kids have formed a dance group called Cuties, in hopes of winning a twerking competition. They rehearse in an abandoned lot under a bridge, giggling as they copy music-video moves from a phone. When they aren’t practicing, they do stupid kid things like squeal in horror at sex-ed misinformation, dare Amy to run into a boys washroom with her phone-camera on (she’s quickly chased out), and try unsuccessfully to anonymously engage a teenage boy they like in a chat session.

Amy’s mother and aunt become increasingly upset with her behaviour, especially when they find her stash of secret clothes. They bring in the imam to see if she’s possessed, (he says no), and later sprinkle her with water in a purification trial. But the closer Amy gets to her father’s return and wedding, the more she acts out. She gets into a fight at school. And, on a terrible impulse, she posts a photo of her privates, with consequences at school and in her friend group. (She’s clothed: We see nothing.)

Amid complications, the competition takes place the same day as her father’s wedding, and Amy sneaks away to perform. The girls’ routine to a family-friendly audience draws frowns and scattered boos. Amy hears her mother’s voice in her head and freezes, then runs offstage and home to her mother’s arms. Auntie says she looks like a whore. But Mariam understands the rebellion, and tells the aunt to leave Amy be. When the two are alone, Mariam holds her and says that while she’s decided to be a good wife and accept the marriage and celebration, Amy is free not to go.

The film ends with Amy exiting past the arriving guests, wearing neither her costume nor traditional dress, but an everyday top and jeans. She joins some new kids, skipping. We have the impression that Amy is on the road to finding herself, freed of the restrictions of both religious and secular expectations.

That’s it. That’s what all the fuss is about.

One final aside: Ted Cruz has fanned a false Twitter claim that Amy exposes a breast. Never. The girls are completely dressed at all times. Nor are they ever lured or touched. Cruz may be referring to an 18-year-old in a rival dance group who flashes a breast at the girls to mock them as babies. The circulation of misinformation about this film is infuriating.

Maïmouna Doucouré’s script is both delicate and tough as nails. Her characters are so, so vulnerable. When one of the girls sees a condom in the park and mistakes it for a balloon, her friends laugh at her and she bursts into tears. Later, as Amy lounges with ringleader Angelica, Amy braiding their hair together, Angelica says how her parents are never home, how they say she’s no good. “But I can dance. I have a dream that one day they’ll see me on stage and be proud of me. People say if you dream of something three times, it will happen on the third time. So far I’ve dreamed it twice.”

Then there’s the scene in which Amy and her mother are in the kitchen when her father calls from Senegal. Mariam puts on a show of happiness, then passes Amy the phone. “Amy?… Hello, Amy?…” her father says. Amy stays silent. Mariam urges her to say something. Amy looks her in the eye and drops the phone out the window. “I hope he never comes home.”

Doucouré’s writing is remarkably honest and free of judgment, not only in dealing with the girls, but in the no-nonsense way she addresses the minefield of cultural difference. She doesn’t sugarcoat Mariam’s pain and anguish, but neither are her community members portrayed as monsters. Auntie unquestionably loves her sister and niece; the importance she places on tradition and honour is heartfelt, not punitive; and she’s clearly happy in her role. The imam is sensitive to Mariam’s feelings: “God never gives women more than they can bear,” he says, a would-be pastoral consolation familiar to Christians, too. Later, he lets Mariam know that she’ll be permitted to leave the marriage if she finds that the situation remains unbearable. Both male and female wedding guests are shown in a high celebratory mood, laughing, dancing, and singing, at one in their community.

Doucouré’s direction is assured, especially in two areas central to the film’s success: The performances she draws from her child actors and her bold camera choices during the twerking sequences. First-time actors Fathia Youssouf as Amy, and Médina El Aidi-Azouni offer stunning performances. Utterly natural and unforced, they are by turns funny, defiant, sweet, and ferocious. It’s impossible to fake the bond they clearly have for each other and their director. (Doucouré gets equally top-rate, turn-on-a-dime performances from Maïmouna Gueye as Mariam and Senegalese star Mbissine Thérèse Diop as Auntie, and solid ensemble work from the rest of her cast.)

As for the twerking: The worst thing Doucouré could have done would have been to minimize the discomfort we feel watching the girls during rehearsals and performance. It would have been so easy to play the scenes for laughs, kids making fools of themselves as they pretend to be older than they are. Instead, Doucouré has the camera pan over the girls in closeup, turning viewers into voyeurs to disturbing, repellent effect. Doucouré refuses to let us off the hook.

Of course, provoking that reaction is why the Cuties outrage has been ramped up to include death threats for its director. It’s also a clear example of the always-necessary need for context, even for film. Absent context, what we think we’ve seen with our own eyes and what is actually there to be seen are two different things.

Beyond the excellence of Doucouré’s direction, cast, and screenplay, Cuties is a must-see for its exploration of culture; specifically, social constructs as both refuge and prison. Just as Amy rejects her traditional role, she has a need to fit in with her secular friends, even when it goes against her own interests. Mariam also struggles with her role as wife within a traditional, soon-to-be polygamous marriage. On the one hand, she feels pain and loss. On the other, she draws comfort from her community. What do we do to belong? Where do we find our peace and fulfillment? Both Amy and Mariam struggle, but in the end, they control their choices.

One joy about watching a fine film is the opportunity to see life through another lens—especially, as in this case, a film about cultural differences in a diverse society. Where does one stand on cultural relativism? Are there analogous elements in one’s own culture that appear offside to others? Rigidly enforced sex roles are another apparent area of cultural contention in the film. But then we remember that, as recently as the 1970s, married women weren’t allowed to have bank accounts in some jurisdictions. And it was seen as socially unacceptable for a wife to drive the family car. (Culturally, Cuties also helps remind us that, outside certain academic and activist subcultures in the West, biology is definitely considered very real. Try telling women from cultures like Amy and Mariam’s that being a woman isn’t tied to physical sex rather than a self-defined gender. But I digress.)

Do we see stories as a means for moral instruction, or as a means to ask questions about life? Do we think they should show things as they should be—or as they are? The Puritans wanted to close the theatres because they believed that people who saw plots and murder onstage would be led to sedition and anarchy. Shakespeare, on the other hand, called on theatre to “hold the mirror up to nature.” Both sides of this centuries-long culture war are alive and kicking today.

 

Canadian writer Allan Stratton is the internationally acclaimed author of Chanda’s Secrets and many other books. His literary awards and citations include the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Honor Book, the Children’s Africana Book Award, and Booklist’s Editor’s Choice. He lives in Toronto with his husband and two cats.

Featured Image: A scene from the 2020 Netflix film “Cuties.”