I watched the controversial movie Cuties so that you wouldn’t have to.
If you’re wondering what all the hub-bub about canceling and boycotting Netflix is about, you’re not alone. There are 182 million subscribers, and with a global pandemic forcing many to shelter in place, this streaming behemoth has been a source of much-needed distraction.
But Netflix misstepped last month when it released a poster for an upcoming movie called Cuties. The poster featured female actors, ages 11-13, wearing skimpy clothing and posing in a manner suggestive of much older women. The poster was overtly sexual, and people were understandably outraged at the exploitation of the girls.
Netflix was quick to issue an apology on Twitter: “We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Mignonnes/Cuties. It was not OK, nor was it representative of this French film which won an award at Sundance. We’ve now updated the pictures and description.”
I first became aware of this controversy on Reddit, where someone uploaded a comparison of the original poster for the movie and the Netflix poster for the movie. Here is the original poster (right), and the poster Netflix used and later retracted (left):
It wasn’t long before the hashtag “#CancelNetflix” was trending #1 on Twitter. Two Republican representatives (Jim Banks, Indiana, and Tom Cotton, Arkansas) called for the Department of Justice to bring charges against Netflix for “distribution of child pornography,” with Banks calling the film “sickening.”
But what is Cuties actually about?
Written and directed by a Black French-Senegalese refugee who drew on her own experience, Maïmouna Doucouré wrote the script for Cuties (Mignonnes, in French) in 2017. That year, the script won the Global Filmmaking Award at Sundance. The film premiered in 2020 as part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance, where it won the Directing Award.
The story follows Amy, a Senegalese refugee who lives in a housing project with her mother and two brothers. She becomes friends with a clique of girls who call themselves the “Cuties” and dream of winning a local dance competition. Amy’s home life is troubled; her father has taken a second wife and she finds her conservative upbringing stifling. She finds solace in her friends and on social media. Ultimately, Amy’s coming-of-age story highlights the problems faced by many young girls who grow up too fast and without the benefit of supportive role models to help guide them.
With a score in the mid-80s on Rotten Tomatoes, this film is certified “fresh,” and many who have seen it at Sundance have jumped to defend its artistic value. Tessa Thompson (the Marvel actress who plays Valkyrie) stated on Twitter: “#Cuties is a beautiful film. It gutted me at #SundanceFest. It introduces a fresh voice at the helm. She’s a French Senegalese Black woman mining her experiences. The film comments on the hyper-sexualization of preadolescent girls. Disappointed to see the current discourse.” Later, she added: “Disappointed to see how it was positioned in terms of marketing. I understand the response of everybody. But it doesn’t speak to the film I saw.”
As controversy continues to swirl around this film, with various content creators calling for the film to be taken down or for a total boycott of Netflix, one question remains: does the film have any redeeming value? Is it social commentary, or softcore porn? Does it go too far?
In a statement issued last week to USA TODAY, Netflix said: “Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children. It’s an award winning film and a powerful story about the pressure young girls face on social media and from society more generally growing up – and we’d encourage anyone who cares about these important issues to watch the movie.”
Having been issued this challenge, I decided to see for myself.
A few notes on the movie, before I deliver the review and the pages I wrote while actively watching it:
- My partner refused to watch it with me, as did my brother-in-law, because neither wanted to see prepubescent kids dancing sexually.
- We didn’t know the plot aside from what we had gleaned from Twitter and from a single outraged review video on YouTube. Our understanding is that it’s about a bunch of girls who want to win a dance competition.
- I stocked up on beer, as I was prepared for the worst and didn’t really want to go in sober.
- All of the research I did for this article I did BEFORE watching it, so what you just read was my attempt to be neutral and give the facts without any bias.
I accepted Netflix’s challenge to watch the movie and I’m glad I did. I concur entirely with Tessa Thompson’s opinion: it gutted me. It’s a beautifully done movie about a sensitive topic. It’s as tasteful as it can be, considering that the POINT is to make you, the viewer, squirm a little. The discomfort of the movie speaks to a very real issue not often talked about: how girls grow into women, and how various influences (pop culture, traditional cultural expectations, and peer pressure) guide them. My takeaway from the movie was that the single biggest problem with Amy’s coming-of-age was the utter lack of guidance. It was the blind leading the blind; she took her cues from her friends, from online videos, from her own misinterpretation of the world around her. At no point did her mother (or any other woman) in the movie sit her down and have a frank conversation with her. She was unable to ask for questions or for advice. She was isolated, and alone.
The beautiful tragedy of the controversy surrounding this movie is that, by boycotting it, by demanding that it be silenced, the cultural conversation it begs to have is being shut down. Amy experienced what too many young girls do: a nosedive into an empty swimming pool, from childhood to womanhood, with the nuances of sexuality and maturity being closely guarded, shameful secrets that she is expected to figure out on her own. The attempts to cancel the movie is, essentially, mirroring the very problem that the movie highlights: that by ignoring a problem or refusing to confront it, we allow it to grow worse. Yet another case of life imitating art.
In the interest of transparency, here are the notes I took, written in real time, while watching the film:
Five minutes: I am impressed. It’s a great portrayal of socioeconomically disadvantaged, POC Islamic women in a housing project. Very intriguing. A tiny bit heavy (one of the girl’s aunties tells her women should cover their bodies and be ashamed, which feels a little ham-fisted) but overall, I’m liking it. I like the way gender differences are highlighted (i.e., the little boy putting on a scarf and the mother admonishing him by saying “that’s for girls.”)
Ten minutes: Miriam (the child’s mom) is a killer actor. Her closeted emotions, her husband taking a second wife, the too-small sandals on her cracked feet, the way her daughter discovers her mother’s sorrow while hiding under the bed and listening to her on the phone. All amazing.
Maybe fifteen minutes in: The dubbing is kind of crappy. I am regretting that I chose to watch this film in English. The acting is superb, but the English voice-overs are really phoning it in. I think I should have seen it in the original French but it’s too late now.
Seeing the protagonist, Amy, take on the role of a parent (tending to her brothers, doing grocery shopping) while watching her peers playing is tragic. The “mean girl clique” that calls themselves the Cuties dress like college kids, but their actions are clearly childish; it’s an interesting contrast with Amy, who seems forced to act like an adult.
Twenty minutes in: I love this so far. It’s more of a story of socioeconomic poverty than anything. It feels very real and raw and I’m impressed as hell. The videography is artful and the actors are phenomenal.
Around this point the girls talk about penises. It’s a bit gross. But it also sounds ENTIRELY accurate to how young 11-to-13-yr-olds would talk about sex. They are curious about sex and they clearly lack understanding of the mechanics. The curiosity they have about male penises honestly feels like a lot of conversations you would overhear in a junior high bathroom. I cringed at this part, but I also didn’t feel it was sexual in nature; if anything, it was highlighting just how truly childish the girls are.
Later, Amy and Angelica play in the second wife’s bedroom and they eat candy and giggle and bounce and mumble with mouths full of candy, and it’s GREAT contrast. The way these scenes are placed back-to-back really drives home that the kids are kids and they are growing up too fast.
INTERMISSION: I took a break here. I’m one-third of the way through the movie. So far, I haven’t seen anything disturbing. The “Cuties” dress a bit provocatively (i.e., excessive make-up, miniskirts, crop-tops) and there was one scene where they talk about penises, but I don’t see anything here I didn’t see in junior high, to be honest. The acting is great and the contrast between the girls trying to be “adults” and “kids” is giving me whiplash. So far, I love it.
First dance scene: not actually that sexual. Sorta cute. I have no problem with it. Also, the girls are legit talented dancers! Their movements are smooth and not overtly sexual. The mean girl cliquishness is so accurate and real to what young girls deal with.
Seeing Amy try to replicate the dance in the bathroom of her housing project with a baby crying in the background is heartbreaking. Smash cut to her in a religious service. Smash cut to her watching risque dance videos in the service. Again, there’s a fantastic contrast here. You get the sense Amy is being radicalized because of how conservative her family is. She’s taking things too far and she’s doing it to get the approval of her peers and to rebel against her family.
Now she’s checking out people’s butts. I get the impression her fascination with the forbidden is DRIVEN by her religious censorship. The messaging here is so clear.
About forty minutes in: Here is a scene I heard complained about. The condom scene! One of the girls finds a condom and blows it up like a balloon, then puts it in her shirt to pretend to have breasts. This is childish playing and it isn’t sexy. Seeing a girl put balloons in her shirt to imitate “breasts” is like seeing a little kid putting on his father’s too-big shoes and saying he’s “going to work.” It’s a crude imitation of adulthood. When the kids realize it’s a condom and get scared, this yanks us back to the reality of their innocence. Being scared of “catching AIDS” and trying to “disinfect” the girl who touched the condom by scrubbing her mouth with soap is so infantile, so real, so heart-breaking. Again, a lot of emotional whiplash in this scene: first they’re playing and it’s dumb and they’re giggling, and then suddenly they’re fearful and confused. I actually liked this scene.
Later: The kids are on Chatroulette! AWWW FUCK SO REAL!!! The kids flirting with an adult to feel empowered and lying about their age…. This is actually a common problem on anonymous chat sites, and it’s great to see the movie addressing it. The theme of how social media pushes the girls into territory they aren’t yet mature enough to experience is very prominent in this movie.
Halfway through: Okay, there’s a VERY uncomfortable dance scene. VERY. Amy learned the moves from rap videos and is now teaching the other girls. This is her “in” to the mean girl clique. It’s uncomfortable to watch. Watching her move the other girl’s faces and teaching them to bite their fingers provocatively is awful. But powerful. In context, it’s not that bad. The smash-cut to the project and seeing Angelica’s brother hitting her drives home WHY these kids are the way they are. Later Angelica starts crying about how her parents don’t approve and her desperation for likes and you understand, ENTIRELY, why social media matters to these kids. The “sexual” dance scene is contrasted perfectly with the grim reality of their life and it drives home WHY they have turned to their sexual “idols.”
Smash-cut to a scene where Amy is tasked with cutting onions for her father’s wedding to his second wife and she’s crying.
INTERMISSION: I took another break here. The onion scene shook me.
I thought I was ready to come back after a beer but I was not. Here’s the best scene in the whole movie: Amy is carrying groceries on her head with her auntie. Her phone pings, so she moves the groceries to her hip to answer it. Her aunt demands that she carries it on her head, and she replies, “We aren’t in Senegal.” As they walk, they pass some graffiti: “OU SONT LES FEMMES?” This means, “Where are the women?” and it’s a reference to a Patrick Juvert song about women breaking gender convention. In my notes, I wrote: POSSIBLY THE MOST POWERFUL AND BEST SCENE. THIS SAYS EVERYTHING.
About an hour in: Auntie talks to Amy about her period. I AM HEARTBROKEN. The discussion of child brides and the casual way she normalizes having her own body revealed when she was a child in Senegal, while Amy stares at her with dumbfounded horror… this is SO STARKLY RAW. Auntie is a terrible character but in this moment she reveals her own trauma and it shows how abuse comes in cycles and can be culturally normalized. Auntie’s final word on the matter (“I want the same destiny for you”) KILLED me. Then her mother tells her she’s a “woman.” She’s clearly not; she’s still a little girl. Here, the movie does a powerful job of pointing out that periods and puberty don’t equate “adulthood.”
After the kids get out of a sticky situation (breaking into a laser tag arena) and get out, there’s a dance sequence of several minutes that’s VERY uncomfortable. It focuses on their butts and gyrations.
A note on the laser tag scene: one of the workers grabs one of the girls as she tries to run away, demanding that she give him her parents’ phone number. She responds by saying “You grabbed me! You’re a child molester!” This scene showed that the girls do clearly understand how to “weaponize” their sexuality. They get away from the laser tag employees by dancing and being shooed away, presumably because of how damn uncomfortable their dancing is. This is another instance of their dancing being rewarded by society, but for the wrong reasons. You see why they keep taking it to the next level; it gets them what they want and so far, there have been no dire consequences.
Smash-cut to the Cuties online dance video getting lots of likes on social media. You see WHY they did it. You see how suddenly and rapidly the influence of social media changes Amy. She starts ignoring her brother, she dresses differently coming to school, she gets male attention. Her friends praise her. It’s UNDERSTOOD why she did it. 100%. In context it’s no problem. Amy has been told she is a “woman” by her family, she is being celebrated by her friends for dressing provocatively, and at no point does anyone in the movie pump the brakes on her “maturity.” From Amy’s perspective, “sexuality” and “maturity” are one and the same.
Later, Amy’s cousin Samba discovers she has stolen his phone. Amy’s desperation to keep Samba’s phone scared the shit out of me. She takes a nude photo of herself and posts it online, perhaps to implicate Samba or perhaps just as a desperate last attempt to get attention. To me, this demonstrates that she KNOWS what she’s doing is wrong but perhaps doesn’t know the true implications of her actions. It’s a means to an end.
Two more notes on this: we do not see the nude photo, at all, not even a glimpse, so there’s no child pornography there. Also, her aunt discusses being exposed and then Amy poses a nude online? Parallelism!
The fallout from the nude photo creates tension for Amy in school and culminates with her stabbing her classmate in the hand with a pencil. This gave me a full “WHOA” moment. Her mother yelling and hitting her afterwards was insane. Her mother and auntie’s “cleansing” ritual was so humiliating and awkward. Once again, she’s playing for a others (not herself). She’s doing it for “likes.” Note that her shaking/convulsing during the “cleansing” ritual is the same as some of her attempted “twerking” dance movies. Everything about her is performative and designed to please others. She is starving for attention and her acting out is a means to get it.
At this point in the movie Amy is in pretty deep and I’m very worried about her.
An hour and fifteen minutes in: Amy has a MELTDOWN and begs to dance with her friends. She has no normal emotional outlet. Her rage is undirected but clearly influenced by her home life. My heart aches for her.
Later in the film: Amy shoves Yasmine into the river. Right before this it shows her mother tending to the baby. I get the impression Yasmine is pregnant, maybe (it shows her retching earlier) and Amy is trying to “save” her from a life of indentured servitude as an adult woman in a very childish way. (Alternatively, Amy is just trying to sabotage Yasmine so she can dance with the Cuties in the dance competition and there’s no deeper meaning. But I think there’s more to it than that, considering the scene with Yasmine puking in the bathroom.)
Final dance scene: REALLY uncomfortable. By design. The audience booing was a little much, but the images of the audience frowning and shaking their heads was on point. The scene was a little long but it let the discomfort land. When Amy starts crying and runs offstage it is FELT. The movie practically pinpoints the moment that Amy realizes she has lost her innocence and can’t regain it, and that all of her actions leading up to this point were shallow and harmful.
Final moments: Amy’s mother sorta-kinda standing up for her (telling her that she doesn’t have to attend her father’s wedding) is powerful and painful. It broke my heart. There’s a small glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, Amy will be able to break out of her family’s ultra-conservative, gendered prison.
In the finale, Amy goes into the street, and this part is great. Amy going into the street in the finale is great. She’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt. She’s not dressed provocatively OR conservatively. We see girls playing in the street, on bikes, on scooters, with jump-ropes. Some are in “traditional” clothes, some in modern clothes. They’re all just playing. It’s entirely innocent. Here, we see children being children. We see the happy medium that was missing for the WHOLE movie. And Amy’s smiling face as she jumps rope BROKE. MY. HEART.
My final thoughts after seeing this movie is that the Netflix marketing team did it a terrible, unforgivable injustice. It’s a lovely movie and it does not deserve the backlash it is receiving. The moral panic surrounding this movie is unwarranted, and I hope others give it the chance it deserves, because it is a rich, emotional film full of remarkable insights.