Yes, Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties (Mignonnes) has created a great deal of controversy. I wouldn’t categorize that controversy as a tempest in a teapot, because the film does revolve around the sexualization of young women, but in a reflective and critical manner, not in an exploitive or abusive manner. In fact, the film suggests an outrage about this just as strong as the Twitterverse’s demands of boycott. The film, however, addresses the issue by asking us to empathize with the young characters, rather than turning away and ignoring what is happening.
Amy (Fathia Youssouf) is a Somalian immigrant living with her mother and two brothers in a poor section of Paris. They are observant Muslims, going to the women’s service at the mosque, hearing how evil it is for women to bare their bodies. Her father has returned to Somalia with plans to bring home a second wife. The planning for the wedding falls to Amy’s mother and the family matriarch. Amy is expected to participate, even though she feels abandoned and rejected.
New in her middle school, she is attracted to a group of girls (Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, and Myriam Hamma) who want to win a hip-hop dance contest. Amy begins to work her way into the group, and eventually begins dancing with them. Yes, the dances are mildly suggestive, but as Amy and the others begin to see other more risqué dancing videos online, Amy instigates making their dances even more so. When they begin posting their videos on social media, the affirmations are intoxicating. Here, Amy finds the kind of attention she misses at home.
Cuties is a painful coming-of-age story. At home, Amy has learned that in her world women are disposable. Even though she and her mother will still be in the home with her father and new wife, it is obvious that they are not enough. They are being relegated to second-class status. The worlds of the mosque, home, and society are acutely at odds.
A large part of that conflict involves the meaning of being a woman. At home Amy gets two lessons on womanhood. The first is when she has her first period, she is told she’s now a woman. The other lesson is when the matriarch tells her that the way to become a woman is to prepare the food for her father’s upcoming wedding. But society has many ways of teaching that women are sexualized, and the way to get approval and love is through that route. It is a lesson that young girls see often.
There are parts of this film that are hard to watch. The increasingly sexualized dancing is the film’s way of rubbing our noses in a culture that may not officially promote that behavior in children, but certainly is willing to tolerate it, possible even think it’s cute that they want to be so grown up. When Amy gets approval and affirmation along the way, she wants more. Eventually she will push too far.
It is also hard to watch the way Amy must deal with a life at home that will never be fulfilling. The place of women in her ethnic world is belittling. We don’t want that world for her any more than we do the sexualized world she is entering.
The film is about a world in which children (especially girls) are encouraged in many ways to grow up to fast. What “to grow up” means varies within cultures and societies. But adolescence is always a challenge for these children who face challenges of identity and belonging. Can we really expect eleven year olds to make the proper choices when faced with so many voices and images? The film serves as a strong reminder that left to their own choices, calamity is near at hand.
Finally, I want to address the widespread denunciation of the film by those who haven’t seen it. It’s my understanding that what created the controversy was an ill-advised publicity poster used by Netflix (which Netflix later apologized for and admitted was inappropriate). Certainly that poster gave an impression of the film that would suggest it would be offensive. But often posters (or even trailers) do not capture the reality of a film. The way the condemnation of the film went viral suggests that we live in a world in which people don’t want to make their own decision, but will just pass on what people who yell the loudest have to say. Cuties is actually a very clear indictment of a society that sexualizes children. That is the voice that needs to be heard.
Photo courtesy of Netflix.