Film & Television

‘Cuties’: Don’t Judge A Film By Its Poster

The sexualization of underage girls in entertainment is nothing new. Before she was a household name and America’s sweetheart, Shirley Temple, then just three years old, played diapered nightclub singers and prostitutes in a series of shorts called “Baby Burlesk.” Even as a star in subsequent years, her onscreen physicality with adult male costars (not to mention her absurdly short dresses) raised eyebrows. More recently, in the 1970s, a ten-year-old Brooke Shields was photographed nude for Sugar and Spice, a Playboy publication. Permitting the photoshoot was a questionable decision by her mother, Teri, but a smart move by her manager, also Teri. It earned Brooke the leading role, as child prostitute Violet, in 1978’s Pretty Baby.

The French film Cuties, released this month on Netflix, first came to my attention because of a controversy surrounding the promotional poster the subscription service created for it. The artwork shows four pubescent girls in skimpy bare-midriff dance outfits with kneepads, posing (and pouting) provocatively. It’s in sharp contrast to the film’s original poster, which depicts the same four girls celebrating a shopping trip with bright pink bags and confetti. Although they’re wearing lingerie over their more age-appropriate clothes (apparently, they’ve been to Paris’s equivalent of Victoria’s Secret), there’s a sense of goofy joy. These are junior high students playing grownup, not offering a lap dance.

When Netflix began advertising Cuties, they were met with immediate, and what many (including me) believed was well-earned, criticism. Tweeted accusations focused on the girls’ ages — “When you call a movie Cuties and promote it like this, that’s sexualizing 11yr old kids” — and races: “Black girls suffering from Adultification bias is very f - - -ing real. No child should ever be put into any disgusting situation like this.” Multiple petitions were created on Change.org and collected over a million signatures, and conservatives like Laura Ingraham and Ted Cruz dubbed it “child pornography” and called for the film’s removal from Netflix. 

The network removed the offending poster, but not the film, and issued an apology:

“We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for ‘Cuties.’ It was not OK, nor was it representative of this French film, which premiered at Sundance. We’ve now updated the pictures and description.”

I sat down to watch Cuties expecting one of three things: that it would, as the banished poster had implied, be sexually exploitive; that it would follow in the tradition of Footloose (repressed young adults find freedom in dance); or that there would be too many dance routines and it would feel like American reality series Dance Moms. I expected to find fault with it. 

I didn’t expect to find it fascinating — beautiful and frightening in equal measure.

Cuties is the feature debut of writer/director Maïmouna Doucouré, who won the Sundance Film Festival Directing Award for it earlier this year. She was inspired by a talent show she witnessed in Paris. As she explained in an interview with Screen Daily, “There were these girls onstage dressed in a really sexy fashion in short, transparent clothes. They danced in a very sexually suggestive manner. There also happened to be a number of African mothers in the audience. I was transfixed, watching with a mixture of shock and admiration. I asked myself if these young girls understood what they were doing.” Doucouré, who is French Senegalese, spent a year speaking to neighborhood girls about their behavior, dress, and feelings before writing her screenplay.

Cutie tells the story of Amy (Fathia Youssouf, intense and compelling), the eleven-year-old daughter of a Muslim family living in a Parisian housing project. Amy helps her mother care for her younger siblings, runs errands, cooks, and cleans. Her father is back in Senegal and she’s eager for his return, until she overhears her mother, Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) calling friends and family with “good news” that he’s bringing home a second wife. Amy sees the real grief her mother is feeling even as their Auntie (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) advises Mariam to be a good wife and welcome the newlyweds into her home. In an all-female prayer group, Amy hears that it’s a duty to obey her someday husband, that angels are always watching, and that heaven is populated mainly with women — except those who show their bodies immodestly.

Angry and confused, Amy begins to act out, stealing first some prayer beads left in the community room and then her cousin’s cell phone, which introduces her to social media and the irresistible affirmation of posting a sultry photo that generates likes. She meets the free-spirited Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni) and after initially being bullied, insinuates herself into her dance team, “Cuties.” Amy’s need for acceptance is insatiable.

The girls in Cuties can be carefree and childish one moment (Amy and Angelica cram gummy bears into their mouths and bounce on the bed), incredibly cruel the next (the group viciously turns on their chubbiest member, Yasmine). Their awareness of sex and sexuality, fueled as it is by social media and clumsy video hookups, is matched by their utter ignorance of it. Certainly, they are learning very little about sex at home or in school. Led by Amy, who goes from outsider to leader to outcast back to leader in rapid politically charged succession, they add suggestive exotic dance moves like twerking to their routine, hoping to outshine a group of older girls.

A constant theme in Cuties is the line between the acceptable and unacceptable — and how difficult that line is to see when you’re just eleven and society is pulling you in both directions. A beautiful, but traditional and modest, gown sent for her father’s wedding, hangs in Amy’s closet reproachfully. She pities her mother but also resents her for accepting her polygamous fate. When caught with her cousin’s cell phone, she starts to undress, thinking that her nudity is a way to appease him. And when she goes shockingly too far, Amy is punished by Mariam and Auntie, exposed at school, and shunned by her clique. From there, her actions become more desperate and veer into even more dangerous territory, which is difficult for us to watch and nearly impossible for her to understand. 

Doucouré does afford Amy a happy ending of sorts. In a very public moment of truth, she finds enough inner strength to reject the alluring but mysterious adult world she’s pursued. She makes peace with her mother and we get the sense she’ll be all right. But the threats she’s escaped are still very much out there, luring other restless and unsuspecting girls impatient to grow up.

Cuties is complicated and at times disturbing, but not for the reasons cited by its critics (the vast majority of whom, it should be noted, were reacting to seeing an image rather than watching the film itself). It’s certainly thought-provoking and it’s ultimately rewarding. It’s an effective argument against exploitation, not exploitive in itself. If anything, it’s an ironic testament to the film’s premise that some art director at Netflix chose to sex up the promotion of it. 

After all, sex sells perfume, fashion, cars, and entertainment. Why not eleven-year-old girls?

In her very impressive feature debut, Doucouré has created a coming-of-age story that serves as a persuasive feminist cautionary tale. Amy turns away from the repressive patriarchy that has made her mother so bereft. But in claiming her own agency, she’s force- fitting herself into an image of sexuality that has also been designed specifically to satisfy and service the male gaze. They are two ends of the same spectrum. Whether women are covered in a hijab or flashing a breast on social media, their bodies are being objectified.

If we don’t want girls on the brink of womanhood to behave the way Amy and her cohorts do, we need to give them more and better examples.

And we need to stop using the sexualization of underage girls to sell movies. Hopefully, Netflix learned its lesson.

 

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  • Sheila Simmons September 17, 2020 at 12:09 am

    Finally, an honest review by someone who actually watched the film. The movie us propelled along by Amy’s desperation to be liked, loved and admired. The ending was wonderful and I really did like the film although as stated here, there were indeed some very disturbing moments, but not to the point of repulsion as some folks are claiming. I look forward to seeing what other works Mme. Doucoure’ has on her slate.

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