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.)
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.
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.”
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.