Wading into Controversy: “Cuties” (2020)

I am always intrigued when I see people stridently advocating censorship, particularly even before they have watched or read the work in question. You may have seen the online controversy over Cuties, the new film distributed by BAC Films in France and by Netflix in the rest of the world. To give an oversimplified description, Cuties is an exploration of what it means to be a preteen immigrant girl, struggling to find her place in the world. The writer/director, Maïmouna Doucouré, who won a Sundance award for her directing of the film, told Zora that she “recreated the little girl I was at that age and what it was like for me to grow up with the Senegalese culture at home and the Western culture outside.” The idea came when she saw “a group of very young girls” on stage at a community gathering “and they were dancing in a very sexually revealing way.” Her research for the film included interviewing over a hundred preteen girls to find out how they felt about femininity, self-image, and social media. (I’ve included a video of Doucouré explaining her intention with the film at the end of this post.)

INTERNET CRITICS

What the internet critics are focusing on is the sexualized dance moves and actions of the 11-year-old characters and actresses, taken out of context. They express concern for the actresses themselves, although their parents were involved and the producers did engage a child psychologist to work with the girls. Just to be clear, there is no nudity seen on camera from these girls (although one instance is suggested) and no sexual acts performed. The girls wear dance costumes that could equally be seen on TV on Dance Moms or even Toddlers & Tiaras (not that those shows are necessarily a model of wholesomeness). In the scenes at school and outside of school, the girls wear tight-fitting, skimpy clothes, as do many preteens nowadays (again, not saying that is necessarily the right thing). During dance rehearsals and performances, there are shots of the girls twerking and simulating sex, as part of a routine that is obviously too old for them — and that is the point and what we are supposed to understand from the film. Could they and should they have focused the camera a little differently? Yes, probably, and certainly so, in hindsight (no pun intended). But the inappropriateness of the actions of the characters is part of what the viewer is supposed to understand. It is supposed to make us uncomfortable and to stimulate conversation.

When I started writing this a week or so ago, there was a Change.org petition which had more than 750,000 signatures, to remove the film from Netflix and to charge everyone responsible for the production and broadcasting of Cuties with “distribution of inappropriate content involving a minor(s)”. In the petition organizer’s originally stated opinion, “This is spiritual warfare and we have to fight this evil in Jesus’ name! I declare we will get this show canceled in Jesus name!! Satan wants our children so badly but we can make a difference!”

I’m not sure what happened to that petition, as it seems to have disappeared, but the organizer has started a new one, and there are numerous other petitions there with a similar goal. (The new petition states that, “during one of the… dance scenes, …one of the female child dancers lifts up her cropped top to fully display her bared breast.” Missed it the first time, but going back to check, there is in fact a brief flash, where an obviously older female lifts her top in a clip she has posted to social media.)

While Common Sense Media has given Cuties a 4/5 star rating and suggests a 15+ age-appropriateness, many fictitious reviews and other reviews by people who obviously haven’t seen the movie have been posted on the various internet review sites, by people trying to ensure a low rating. And of course, expressing a dissenting opinion online causes a trolling backlash, where people are told that they then are obviously pedophiles, evil, disgusting, not concerned about our children, etc., etc.

There is a fear that this movie could attract pedophiles, which of course could be true of any movie or show featuring kids. The controversy has probably raised the probability of a pedophile finding their way to Cuties, but I think they would find it a long wait, watching through the dramatic exploration of preteens struggling to find their place in the modern world, before they find the overly sexualized dance moves. I guess the question to be asked is, whether we should censor a film which seeks to tell a story about our world and is not pornographic, just because some sick individual might find it salacious. I don’t believe that we should.

NETFLIX – CANCEL CULTURE; CURIOSITY

In response to the idea of Cuties, many people have cancelled their Netflix subscriptions, which is of course their right, but I do wonder how many of them actually watched the movie. According to Variety, “On Saturday, Sept. 12, Netflix’s cancellation rate in the U.S. jumped to nearly eight times higher than the average daily levels recorded in August 2020.”

On the other hand, the controversy has meant that a Sundance-award-winning independent film that might otherwise not have been seen has been in the top 10 movies on Netflix in the US according to Collider.com. It hasn’t made the Netflix top 10 in Canada, but definitely the controversy was the reason I watched it. I prefer to make my own judgments, rather than to jump on a bandwagon without having the facts.

SPARKING CONTROVERSY

So, how did the controversy start? Well, Netflix, whether through a misguided marketing decision or possibly deliberately to stir up controversy and viewership, used a potentially salacious promotional image for its poster, in contrast to the image used in France.

The inappropriately provocative Netflix image does of course exist in the movie, but only as part of a dance routine onstage right near the end. In contrast, the French poster shows a group of kids having a laugh. In a statement issued to Deadline, Netflix said, “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.”

Current picture in Netflix listing

The original Netflix description read, “Amy, 11, becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew. Hoping to join them, she starts to explore her femininity, defying her family’s traditions.” This has now been updated to, “Eleven-year-old Amy starts to rebel against her conservative family’s traditions when she becomes fascinated with a free-spirited dance crew.” Frankly, I don’t think either of those descriptions are correct. My attempt at it would be, “Arriving in a new neighbourhood in France, eleven-year-old Amy struggles to be seen and valued as she navigates between her changing, traditional Senegalese home life and a world heavily influenced by social media.” Maybe I should offer my services to Netflix.

THE STORY AND THE MOVIE

Amy – IMDb

The premise of the movie is actually this — and I apologize for a few spoilers, but they are necessary to explain the reality versus the controversy: Amy (Fathia Youssouf) has moved into a new apartment with her mother and siblings. Her loving attempts to be noticed by her mother in fact go unnoticed, while she is expected to take charge of her two younger brothers and help in the preparations for a big event. Their traditional Muslim Senegalese family life is about to undergo a significant and unwelcome change, with the father soon to bring home a second (additional) wife.

Angelica and Amy – IMDb

Feeling unseen at home, Amy watches a group of popular girls (including a girl from her own building) dancing in the school yard and desperately wants to be accepted by them and join their informal dance group. Are they “free-spirited” as in the Netflix description? Hardly. I would describe them as troubled girls from an impoverished background, with parents who are largely too preoccupied with their own adult problems to notice them. One of my complaints about this movie is that, other than Amy and her neighbour, Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), we really don’t see the stories of the other girls. In a movie only 96 minutes long, time could have been added to explore their home life and why they act the way they do. On the other hand, I admire the writer/director’s ability to tell this story primarily from Amy’s point of view. It adds a palpable sense of desperation to Amy’s actions that just wouldn’t be felt in the same way if the story were told from the adults’ point of view.

The Cuties, striking a pose – IMDb

The girls call their dance group The Cuties, and are rehearsing routines that they hope will allow them to beat an older girls’ group, the Sweety Swaggs. The Cuties initially bully Amy, the new girl who doesn’t dress right or fit in, although she and Angelica become friends. Amy manages (by dishonest means) to get her hands on a smart phone, posting selfies on social media in emulation of the girls she admires. She also begins to watch and imitate not only the clips posted by the Sweety Swaggs, but also music videos, where adult dancers perform sexualized moves. Amy brings the choreography to her classmates in the hopes of joining them and helping them to win the competition.

As the movie goes on, Amy’s choices become more and more over-the-top, as she shows increasing desperation to be liked and be part of what seems to be the ultimate in popularity. The movie is consistent in showing that the adults and even the other kids are shocked and disapproving of what is going on. It is also very effective in making the viewer truly feel Amy’s desperation and wishing we could get in there and stop her — or that her parents or the parents of the other girls would do so. It’s also really evident that the girls do not really understanding the implications of their actions because they are really too young to do so.

Amy’s Mother – IMDb

Through all of this, Amy’s family’s traditional culture is pulling at her, at the same time as she tries to push it away. The movie uses unusual mystical events to demonstrate this, or it may just be the outer manifestation of Amy’s growing mental distress. At no time is there any judgment against her Muslim, Senegalese culture, even though that is one of the complaints critics have leveled against the film. The exception might be that, through conversation between Amy’s grandmother and herself, we see that her family’s culture also traditionally sexualizes young girls, as the grandmother expresses her wish for Amy to have what she herself had at Amy’s age — an engagement, with a promise to be married within a couple of years.

Amy – IMDb

Bearing in mind that the version I saw on Netflix was dubbed into English, perhaps not giving me the full experience as it was intended, I thought that Cuties does very well in portraying the dilemma felt by a preteen girl, wrestling between traditional immigrant values and a modern world influenced by social media. The young actresses, chosen for their ability to play the emotions, do a good job. Could older actresses have been chosen to pretend to be 11-year-olds, as one of the suggestions goes? I actually don’t think so, as it was important to show how childlike the girls were, in both their actions and their bodies. (One of the online controversies makes much of the fact that 700 girls were seen for the role of Amy, claiming that this means that the filmmakers were pedophiles who would be posting video of young girls twerking onto the dark web. I think not. I would expect that what the director says is the truth – that they were looking for someone “who could tell this profoundly personal and touching story”.)

I don’t think the film is perfect, by any means. I think it got the message across about the dilemma faced by preteens trying to fit in, especially if guided by social media instead of their parents. The girls’ actions were presented as objectionable, but innocent because of their youth and lack of understanding. However, shots aimed at the crotches of the preteens twerking were not necessary and the moves could have been suggested, rather than shown, in the same way that certain other actions were suggested but not shown. There could have been more pointed messages, perhaps through discussions with the adults in the movie, rather than letting the audience draw their own conclusions about the oversexualization of preteen girls. I liked the ending a lot, especially the closing scene, but from comments I read online, I think it left some people confused (in the way that the endings of a lot of independent films do.) The story is a bit unbelievable, in the extremes that Amy goes to, but at the same time, it is a moving story and I’m glad I watched it.

20 thoughts on “Wading into Controversy: “Cuties” (2020)

  1. this is such a good and informative post 😎 while I’ve not seen the film, I’ve heard plenty of complaints about it, both on my Facebook page and in news segments. the film’s subject matter seems to touch upon a disturbing issue, the sexualization of young girls, but it is not promoting that issue. while I think that issue is an important one, banning the film is detrimental in two ways: first, that we’re putting the whole weight of the fight against pedophilia in media on this Independent film’s shoulders, which isn’t fair, and second, that banning something that makes us uncomfortable is akin to closing our eyes and sticking our fingers in our ears, which will do nothing to stop the issues brought forth by the film. ‘canceling’ Netflix will not cancel the problem. the problem will still be there, living and breathing out in the real world. canceling media and conversations, erasing them from existence, will only give the issues we’re trying to forget, room and time to grow.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kelly. Yes, I agree with you. There is so much sexualization of girls and women in music videos, social media, etc and that is being seen by many as the way to get “positive” attention. It is worthwhile having a conversation about that and about the impact that those kinds of images have on young girls and even on the way that young boys see girls and women. Even if that makes us uncomfortable.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for posting this (and sorry I didn’t comment earlier; yesterday was YK). I will have to watch it now (lol — I was planning to anyway).

    Observing the reaction (which made it into my RL FB feed rather heftily) I found myself thinking that there’s a real problem in the US of not being able to understanding anything anymore except on the literal level. A (mostly clothed) tween twerking is always only ever a sexual image for an increasing number of people. It makes me wonder how we will understand culture in a generation or two, if this situation persists.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It took me forever to write this for some reason… maybe just because every time I went in, it was after a full day of work. Thanks for commenting, though. I hope that you were able to take the time you needed for reflection yesterday.

      The reaction is really wild. Even the comments on YouTube under the director’s video about why she made the movie are really derogatory, going so far as to call her a pedophile too. She’s even had death threats. I almost didn’t publish this post, actually, but it was important to me to present another viewpoint.

      I’d be interested to see what you think, once you’ve watched it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think a lot of people are really struggling at the moment with fatigue and what Michelle Obama would call a low grade depression. I’m doing better than I was at posting, but there are still so many forces interfering and it’s still so much easier just to watch whatever dad’s watching on TV and play Candy Crush Soda Saga.

    I will watch it, sooner or later, esp as I got into a tussle on FB with a colleague from my academic advising days about it, a few days ago. She’s someone who started an “anti” petition and was bothered that I wouldn’t sign when she asked me directly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ain’t that the truth! Watching TV and not thinking is really just so much easier. I’m just so tired all the time… but you may be right about the low grade depression.

      I actually posted 5 times in September, which may not seem like a lot… but it’s the most I’ve posted in a year! Let’s hope we can both find a more consistent pattern.

      People do seem to have strong opinions about the film. My younger son feels pretty strongly that, at the very least, the producers should have used older kids, rather than sexualizing children. I think that it’s important to have healthy debate, (rather than an expectation of complete agreement) and he and my husband and I have had interesting conversations about it. (Not that either of them have seen it. My husband said he heard enough while I was watching it and said it didn’t seem the kind of movie he would watch. Because it really is directed more at females, I believe.)

      Like

      • Congrats on 5x! I did really well in September, too — second best month of the year. I’m worried that the election will consume all my spare emotional and contemplative energy for the next four weeks, though. Thinking back to 2016, the last presidential election also knocked me for a major loop (in part because Armitage was so insensitive at the time).

        Well (and this isn’t a jab at your husband), who is actually worried about the sexualization of children? I’m guessing it’s mostly women.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Congrats to you too, that you had a good posting month! There certainly is tons of stuff going on with this election and lots of things to be really outraged about IMO, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it took lots of energy. We have a provincial election here just announced for the end of October, but it doesn’t draw attention like,, for example, that debate! What a crazy show! Poor Wallace — I can’t imagine trying to do that job.

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          • Yeah — Wallace is a really respected journalist and to watch that: well, it was like the 1930s. A fascist shouts over reasonable people and win because reasonable people have no idea of how to respond.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this! Reading your summary made it sound way more interesting than Netflix’s summaries. Caught between cultures like that makes for a very interesting topic and the over sexualization of girls is something that has already annoyed me so often, it’s good it’s tackled head on for a change. I even see that in American pageants with very young girls, why is there no outcry about that? Anyway, this does sound interesting and I think I will watch it as well sometime when I can bear it (right now is not the time for me, though, but I will!).

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is an interesting topic and one that we don’t usually see from the child’s point of view. Definitely, there is sexualization in the movie, and perhaps it could have been left more to suggestion, but the point was to make us uncomfortable and think about the issue.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You know, when people complain about something artsy, I have to check it out before I say anything. When the 3rd Harry Potter book came out, there was a mother in NW Atlanta who was horrified her daughter’s 5th grade teacher was reading it to the class. She contacted said teacher to complain that she was teaching the children about witchcraft and the teacher told her – uhm no.

    Mom then called the principal. he spent the weekend reading it and called her Monday – nothing wrong with the book.

    She then called the School Board. Nope.

    Sued and took them to court. Court said nope.

    She went higher. Every level said no and by the time her attorney said give it up, your money doesn’t mean this much to me, she was pretty much the laughing of the nation. I think she made the Stupid People list that year. National News. What an idiot.

    The main reason why she was stupid was – she had never read it. Someone at church said it was evil and demonic. I had friend like that. She and her son lived with my family for far too long and she asked me to put Spawn’s set in the attic where her son wouldn’t be ‘touched’ by it. She hadn’t read it either and I refused. Kid ended up checking them out of the school library and sat in the back of class reading them instead of paying attention in class.

    EITHER WAY! I wanted to know what the brohaha was about so I went to the Books Warehouse and bought the first 3. I loved them and handed them to Spawn. As you know, Spawn has Aspergers and fantasy is difficult because to him, the world is black and white. It is or it isn’t. I had him read it and told him to ask me if he didn’t understand anything. It took him a month to get through the first book (questions, questions, questions) and then he inhaled the rest. His reading comprehension sky-rocketed from a year behind to several years ahead.

    All that long story for this – After the brohaha – I watched the movie. Didn’t like, wasn’t impressed. I’m a prude. Twerking isn’t new. My first school, the last year I was there (2000) I was chaperoning a school dance and one of the 4th graders was doing the ugliest nasties bouncing of her butt. I told her twice it was inappropriate. Both times, she stared at me and disappeared into the crowd and started again. Our AP went after her, hauled her into the back serving area of the cafeteria. I don’t know what she said, but the child came out very upset and didn’t do that again.

    If a 4th grader can twerk like that, yeah, preteen girls will and do. My movie was dubbed as well. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

    BTW – a court in East Texas has filed a lawsuit against Netflix for showing obscene child pornography. this should be good…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely agree people should actually read/watch something before making a judgment. We all enjoyed Harry Potter. It’s a story… not trying to encourage witchcraft. But then I know a woman who won’t let her kids do anything related to Hallowe’en. “Because I’m a Christian.” Can’t even dress as superheroes.

      Cuties definitely made me uncomfortable and I think they could have left some things to the imagination, but I do think it’s fine that the film be out there. Agreed that it will not be to everyone’s taste, but I do not believe that it is pornography.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. VERY uncomfortable!

        I’m also in the camp of ‘extremely suggestive’ rather than ‘child porn’.

        The info that came out that bothered me the most was one of the directors reportedly claimed to have watched HUNDREDS (450 or 650) of pre-teen girls twerk for their audition. I’m in the party of ‘did you need so many?’

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well but that’s not what the director and producer said. They said they had 700 girls audition. It wasn’t until the very last one that they found the girl they thought could play Amy. I.e. the emotional aspects. The “watched hundreds of preteen girls twerking” comment was said by the people wanting the movie banned, not by the director and producer. I really doubt that was what they were watching for.

          Liked by 1 person

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