Cuties has been trending on nearly every social media platform for days now, due in large part to outrage over its depiction of elementary-age “dancers.” To spare giving this monstrosity anymore views, paint a mental picture of children gyrating to Cardi B’s WAP, in skin-tight cheerleader outfits while touching themselves. The outrage around the film’s publicity could hardly be surprising, then.
I’m not typically a “cancel” anything. I believe that while some don’t agree with me, have the right to. However the line crosses when innocent children are sexualized. #cancelNetflix #cancelledt pic.twitter.com/4j5S5ZLInA
— Heidi M. Hensley (@heidimhensley) September 13, 2020
.@Netflix's decision to air “Cuties” is abhorrent. I applaud those who made #CancelNetflix trend & the 623,000+ who signed @Change's petition to cancel subscriptions. That could mean millions of dollars lost to Netflix—I’m just not sure they're listening. https://t.co/0RhD9067c8
— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) September 12, 2020
— Molly McCann (@molmccann) September 12, 2020
As a mother—scratch that, as a sane human being—my instinctual reaction after I came across a short excerpt from the film was complete and utter disgust. And, with no apparent means to do anything about the existence of this film, I did what people do best when we’re angry, but useless. I went on a tweetstorm, making it known how revolted I was at the paedophilic content and obvious exploitation of children.
“You’re taking the most controversial part of the film and making it everything the film is. How do you know anything without seeing it?”
Of course, I genuinely assumed my take was bipartisan. Disgust for pedophilia generally uniting even the most partisan voices. Yet, to my shock, I immediately got pushback.
One commenter suggested that I was just joining the pile-on after “Netflix admitted they misrepresented the movie in a way that harmed the creator: a black woman commenting on how white society treats black girls who are trying to be accepted.” Others repeatedly claimed I just didn’t understand “WHY it was made,” and that this film was somehow “bringing awareness” to a serious issue.
Further responses read, “You’re taking the most controversial part of the film and making it everything the film is. How do you know anything without seeing it?” Now, I’m fairly certain there isn’t any context that could excuse the creation of softcore child porn, but I’ll admit, I’ve fallen prey to hysteria before delving into a subject before. After all, this movie did win a Sundance award, the most prestigious film festival in the world. Moreover, it had a Netflix deal. Perhaps those criticizing me had a point. Another commenter added, “like you (apparently), I have not yet seen the entire film. The way I understood the original author, the movie is supposed to highlight the problem of children being sexualized very early (cf. Little Miss Pageants, Dance Moms…) That as such sounds like a solid premise to me?”
Like you (apparently), I have not yet seen the entire film. The way I understood the original author, the movie is supposed to highlight the problem of children being sexualized very early (cf. Little Miss Pageants, Dance Moms…). That as such sounds like a solid premise to me?
— Maja von Westphal (@majavonwestphal) September 11, 2020
The more I researched the film, the more I wanted to understand, rather than simply lash out. The idea that this film portrayed a significant coming of age story, one that challenged oppressive practices among Senegalese Muslims and the dangers of child sexualization in secular French culture, certainly feels like a crucial conversation to have. And I assumed I’d already observed the most disturbing part of the film in the preview. Knowing I could skip that part, I decided to get a more full and honest understanding—I watched the film.
There’s no way a film based solely around the sexualization of children could make it through full production, film festivals, and Netflix deals. There had to be some context to this, right? There had to be some redeeming qualities to Cuties, right? Wrong. Oh boy, was I ever wrong, I can’t even begin to describe how wrong I was. The context somehow manages to make the whole thing worse.
Even if you completely removed the scene of the girls’ dance competition, the whole movie is one of the most useless, degenerate attempts at creating an audience through shock value. There are no deeper themes or meaningful character development, nothing of value whatsoever. I genuinely wanted to be wrong here—but after having watched it (so you don’t have to), I’d go as far as to say that the online hysteria actually does not go far enough.
A CRITICAL CULTURAL COMMENTARY LOST IN PURSUIT OF SHOCK
When you watch the film, the first thing that becomes abundantly clear is that there is absolutely no reason for these girls to have been cast as 11-years-old. The entire film could have easily taken place in high school, with a cast of adult actors that, for some reason, still look like children well into their forties. (I’m looking at you, Jason Earles.) There are plenty of films in this genre of young girls coming of age that can function as complex commentaries on young adult sexuality—without crossing the line into child pornography.
When you watch the film, the first thing that becomes abundantly clear is that there is absolutely no reason for these girls to have been cast as 11-years-old.
Take Mean Girls for example, a classic coming of age movie about a young girl trying to find herself in a high school culture that idealizes sexualization and superficial image over loyalty and decency. (Mean Girls even has its own “sexy dance” scene in which all four girls do a borderline strip tease shaking their hips and slapping their thighs.) None of the people who are outraged over Cuties would make a peep about Mean Girls. In fact, I reckon most of us found that director Mark Waters (and Tina Fey, the screenwriter) left us with a long-lasting, deeper moral lesson. Most importantly, however, was that the actresses dancing were adults, even if their characters weren’t.
This is what is so tragic about the film Cuties. There could be a genuine story in there, and an important one at that. The writer of Cuties, Maïmouna Doucouré, is a Senegalese Muslim woman who grew up in Paris. Amy (Fathia Youssouf), the main character, is based loosely on Doucouré’s biography. While the twerking contest was clearly a bit of creative writing, Amy’s home life (growing up in a strictly religious and bigamous household in Paris with her siblings) matches Doucouré’s. I can’t imagine that was an easy upbringing. It would be confusing and complicated to come of age while contrasting her own traditional values with that of a more secular and risqué French culture. One culture emphasizes modesty and chastity, objectifying her as her husband’s property, while the other prizes self-objectification and hyper-sexualization.
This deeply important conversation could have been had in a mature and impactful manner, and, admittedly, we see glimpses of this potential towards the beginning of the film. Amy struggles with a home environment where her mother, Mariam, is devastated over the fact that her father intends to take a second wife. In an early scene, Amy hides under her bed and eavesdrops on a series of phone calls her mother makes announcing the forthcoming bigamous union in their impoverished apartment complex. “All I wish for them is that they marry for love,” Mariam says on the phone, clearly shaking as she forces the words out. At one point, Mariam begs her Aunt, a strict leader in the community, to be allowed to stop feigning excitement and telling others. The Aunt makes her pickup the phone again, snapping, “Be a real woman, it’s your duty.” Mariam is left sobbing on the bed making calls as Amy listens.
The next day, Amy goes to school, where she encounters peers who are, for some reason, permitted to dress in leather miniskirts and bralets despite being in elementary school. The entire vibe of the movie shifts from Schindler’s List levels of emotion to High School Musical in an instant as we are introduced to Angelica, the leader of a “mean girl” clique. She struts onto the schoolyard scene and demands all her peers freeze in cool dance positions. (Because that happens in real schools.) Angelica and her clique (the “Cuties” as they refer to themselves) proceed to bully Amy. Despite this, Amy seeks their approval—essentially the plot of every high school coming of age movie. There’s even a slow motion scene where they go shopping and throw all their purchased lingerie in the air.
I initially assumed the drama between Amy and the “Cuties” was a side plot, as the young girl trying to fit in with the cool crowd is an incredibly bland and unoriginal concept. Which is why I was absolutely baffled by the fact that the producers decided to focus the entire film on this cartoonish narrative about the 11-year-old dance crew—instead of on the potentially powerful deep dive into traditional Islamic communities and their contrast with more secular and sexually liberalized Western culture.
It takes an unbelievable level of toxic narcissism to make a film where the main character’s father is smuggling a second wife into France, and doing so while subjecting his family to abject poverty, and instead, focus on Amy’s unquenchable desire to twerk.
In fact, the film insults the very real problems it initially surfaces within France’s immigrant Muslim community. It takes an unbelievable level of toxic narcissism to make a film where the main character’s father is smuggling a second wife into France, and doing so while subjecting his family to abject poverty, and instead, focus on Amy’s unquenchable desire to twerk. This girl doesn’t need Katy Perry routines; she needs social services.
Does she get them? No. In fact, there isn’t a single redeeming character in this entire movie. There’s no overall lesson, there’s no deeper character development, there’s no attempt to resolve the implicit tension between the two cultures. Instead, the film just depicts this utterly stupid (and apparently intractable) false dichotomy where being a woman means having absolutely no autonomy outside of your husband’s will, or only being able to expend female autonomy by debasing yourself.
This false dichotomy plays itself out in Cuties in the most troubling ways, such as children stripping and uploading photos of their genitals on the internet. Oh, I didn’t mention that? Yeah, the main character also uploads a photo of her genitals, literal child porn, to the internet. This should be a huge deal, one would think it was a significant plot device of sorts. Perhaps she was attempting to call the attention of law enforcement, get her family arrested for abuse, and to escape her situation? Or, perhaps, there would be some great lesson to be learned about the consequences of online pornography? No. There was no point to this scene at all. All that happens is that Amy gets called a slut at school by a boy, proceeds to stab the kid in the hand, and loses her friends over this completely pointless act of self-degradation.
Incidentally, this scene completely undermines the director’s claim that the film is a commentary on how social media grooms young girls to act sexually before they’re ready: Amy comes up with this idea all on her own. In fact, her more westernized, more openly “slutty” friends complain that now the other students expect them to do what she did. Social media didn’t make her do it; deep psychological trauma did.
But somehow, the film never even notices that the main character is clearly suffering from psychological problems. Instead, we’re just left with the story of a deeply troubled girl who distributes child porn and stabs her peers. This utter lack of acknowledgement prevents the audience from sympathizing with Amy in any way—or understanding her “serious” story.
THE GREAT DANGER OF TALENTLESS HACKS
As a previously referenced tweet pointed out, perhaps the dance scene in Cuties was just the most “shocking” part, a single plot device used to tell a broader and significant story. I wish this were true; it’s not. From start to finish, Cuties is based around sexualizing these children at every turn. There are dozens of scenes featuring this cohort of young girls gyrating to explicit music as if they work at a strip club—often for seemingly no reason at all. Nor was there any reason to deliberately zoom in on these girls touching themselves, or on their butts and breasts, in sequences that add absolutely nothing to the plot of the film. When these “dance” scenes come on, the filmography becomes indistinguishable from child porn. If the film really was about the premature sexualization of children, the more relevant thing to show during these sequences would be the faces of those children, so we could see the emotional effect of being so inappropriately sexualized, no? Yet, the only time this happens is at the film’s end, by which point it comes out of nowhere with seemingly no explanation, leaving us wondering why, after sexualizing herself more than her peers for literally the entire movie, she suddenly cares now.
If the film really was about the premature sexualization of children, the more relevant thing to show during these sequences would be the faces of those children, so we could see the emotional effect of being so inappropriately sexualized, no?
Cuties director Maïmouna Doucouré claims Cuties is a “film sounding an alarm” which “tries to show that our children should have the time to be children, and we as adults should protect their innocence and keep them innocent as long as possible.” Yet as the film comes to a close, we are shown only minutes of Amy seemingly not wanting to dance anymore, playing jump rope till the screen goes black and credits roll. For all we know the next day Amy returns to school crop top and all ready to start a new erotic dance routine. Without explanation, all this film achieves is exactly what Doucouré alleges she is trying to fight, the destruction of children’s innocence.
Look, I tried. I really, really tried to put aside my visceral reaction to this clear exploitation of children, and to see the potential for “art” in it. But there is no deeper lesson, or story, or theme to be found, and as such, there is no defending this film. In fact, if you take out all the sexualized content, it’s just dull. If you age up the characters, it’s just clichéd.
We’re left with only one disturbing conclusion: the Cuties team decided their way to be avant garde and bring a new original dynamic to film would be to create softcore child porn. They lacked creativity, they lacked depth, and they lacked morals. And, most tragically of all, it paid off. They won a Sundance award. They won a Netflix deal. They knew how to shock people, how to get attention, and how to call it art—what is decent be damned.
There is a great danger, when talentless hacks get bored, scrappy and desperate to “make it” in a creative industry. Because their minds can conceive nothing new or original, they create ever-more profane remixes of stories that have already been told, blended with elements of shock and controversy. We continue to push the limits until there are no limits. Which I suppose, in a strange way, is the moral of this disgusting story.
They lacked creativity, they lacked depth, and they lacked morals. And, most tragically of all, it paid off.
The creators of Cuties could not conceive of a story outside the box of traditional tropes and two-dimensional characters. Like Amy, who was not allowed to deviate from her “traditional” Islamic upbringing. So instead of learning, finding new and different influences, or developing herself, she just becomes a child stripper who stabs her classmates. It’s best described by Angelica, the “mean girl,” who explains that she dances in order to try and get her absent parents’ attention; to make them see that she has “talent.” But, of course, they don’t, and she doesn’t—nor do the people who concocted this. Like the child pornography (i.e. “dancing”), the film itself is nothing but an arid cry for help.
American existentialist Rollo May once said, “if you wish to understand the psychological and spiritual temper of any historical period, you can do no better than to look long and searchingly at its art. For in the art the underlying spiritual meaning of the period is expressed directly in symbols.” On the evidence of Cuties, art today is not only in decline, but dying. This film has no “underlying spiritual meaning,” even of the most degraded kind. The trashiness is the point. The vileness is the point. The sadism is the point. Only in a culture that confuses vomiting up one’s lived experience, rather than reflecting on the knowledge gained from that experience, could this film be made.
Of course, Cuties notwithstanding, cinema and art are not dead. Great movies and writers still exist. Yet they are at war for our minds and cultural prominence, while a growing portion of content continues to be produced completely and utterly devoid of morals. Art should be used to heal us, to make us think, and advance our souls. Instead we have moral vacuums dressed up as cultural exemplars, sucking out our decency, time, and capacity for contemplation.
I would not class Cuties as cinema. It is utterly without redeeming social value. 0/10, would not recommend.