Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties, available on Netflix from September 9, has been met with the ire of the religious right, as well as a wider online public that believes that the film sexualizes children. To be fair, the poster Netflix initially chose to promote the French film, which won the World Cinema Directing Award at Sundance in 2019, was a grossly inappropriate choice—one that decontextualized a scene from the film in order to promote a movie about the complexities of growing up in both modest and modern cultures at once. Netflix has taken the image down but, despite outcry, is continuing with the release of the film.
People across the political spectrum have expressed rightful concern about the streaming giant’s choice of a photo of twerking pre-teen girls in revealing outfits as a way to garner interest in the film, and Netflix has accepted responsibility for the misstep. But calls for the film’s release to be canceled altogether are deeply misguided and reactionary. Cuties is precisely about the too-easy ways we choose to condemn and isolate children as they take risks and make mistakes growing up, no matter their cultural backgrounds. And the film has a major lesson for religious conservatives and moral panickers about what fear, condemnation, and emotional neglect can do to the young people who turn to us for guidance in the midst of turbulent personal awakenings.
In Cuties, Aminata, or Amy, is a 14-year-old French-Senegalese girl of Muslim faith. Her family has just moved to Paris, but her father, still in Senegal, has decided to take on a new wife. Amy sees her mother visibly shaken by the development, and secretly witnesses her hit herself in response to her pain about the marriage and her obligation to pretend she welcomes it. As the family prepares for the wedding, Amy begins to cross over from a period of childhood innocence within her Muslim community to the demands of becoming a woman, both in the religious context, in which teens marry, as well as in modern Paris, where teens post flirtatiously on social media and wear crop tops and short-shorts.
At her new school, Amy sees a group of audacious girls stage a flash mob during which all the kids in the schoolyard suddenly freeze into various poses. The principal is visibly shaken by the benign action, as well as the girls’ coquettish outfits including form-fitting dresses and flashy purses. As she drags them to class they scream at her, “What about freedom of expression?!” Indeed.
Amy, for her part, boldly seeks acceptance into the group after she sees them practicing a dance routine at an abandoned railway track. The Cuties, as they call their dance group, reject and bully Amy before embracing her dance skills. They’re not the kindest or most tolerant bunch, but they offer Amy a dose of an imaginative, risk-taking life; one that does not shirk from curiosity and connection, but runs after it, no matter the price. The most emotionally caring of the girls, Angelica, lives in Amy’s building, and they bond over the isolation they feel in their families, as well as their growing estrangement from their parents, who seem too busy and too disapproving to engage their interests. Instead, these girls must navigate their love of expression alone; of course, in a world marked by the exploitation of women of all ages and within all cultures, they stumble.
Doucouré’s film rigorously examines the ways teen girls mimic the images they see on social media, the ones that tell them their bodies are all wrong, their presentation too childish, their lives unremarkable. But instead of preaching to children on the basis of fear, Doucouré is willing to look frankly at what is so appealing about lascivious dancing to girls too young to understand sex even on a very fundamental level. The Cuties find a kind of power in their movement and have very little insight into the wider context of their self-sexualization. Yet, instead of listening and speaking to these young girls, asking them about their interests and figuring out how to support them in ways that don’t threaten their ability to be children, the adults around them mostly respond with shame and rejection.
“Yet, instead of listening and speaking to these young girls, asking them about their interests and figuring out how to support them in ways that don’t threaten their ability to be children, the adults around them mostly respond with shame and rejection.”
Only one elder within Amy’s community is able to see through her transgressions initially—not only the sexualized dancing and dressing, but also a violent act she commits at school against a student who harasses her—and addresses the root of the rebellion. This elder connects Amy’s pain to her mother’s pain, her lashing out to her mother’s inability to continue to shoulder the burden of what seems to be a deeply one-sided marriage. He looks at Amy, spends time with her, and concludes that “there is no evil or devil” within the child, but perhaps a need for Amy’s mother to know that she can liberate herself from a marriage that does not offer her love or freedom.
In his illuminating criticism of conservative Catholic writer Matt Walsh’s book Church of Cowards, Daniel Walden, a Catholic himself, and a leftist, writes:
“This desire for social purity, to protect oneself from the corruption of the outside, is not confined to the right or to the religious. Anyone who has been on the left long enough can tell stories of joining or encountering a highly insular group that refused to work with anyone who did not subscribe to all of their tenets. It is all too easy to convince ourselves that if only our group can be kept pure and committed, we can become strong enough to go out and change the world. This is where I think the Christian doctrine of original sin has something to teach the left. We can never externalize evil; we can’t simply gather the ‘right’ group of people, because we ourselves are not right.”
The fear-based response to Doucouré’s film, based in Netflix’s major marketing gaffe, speaks to a culture-crossing desire for absolute goodness—one that we often transpose onto our children. As a girl (or any child for that matter), you don’t have to grow up in a modest or deeply religious community to be on the receiving end of shaming or even violence for trying to express your femininity or independence and perhaps going too far in the process. There’s always someone to call you out rather than bring you in; even strangers seem more concerned with how you look or dress than in what’s going on with you internally. Many girls grow up into women who find creative ways to rebel against these standards, using their own forms of expression to devise the terms of their liberation; other women, still, spend their lives turning their own experiences of oppression back on others. Walden explains, “To love other people fully and truly is to say that there is no need for the strong to impose their will on the weak; it is to show by example that the whole apparatus of domination has no reason for being except sin and evil.”
Doucouré’s Cuties takes this doctrine to heart, criticizing the multiple layers of societal exploitation and coercion that impose surveillance on girls rather than meet them with the compassion and openness that could actually extinguish such exploitation. To refuse the opportunity to hear this message is only to perpetuate the problems all the outrage around the film claims to reject.