By Caz Armstrong
When thinking about closely observed films about childhood a few spring to mind. “Water Lilies” and “Tomboy” by Céline Sciamma show children learning about their bodies and sexuality. The Florida Project by Sean Baker shows a child unaware of the poverty and struggles around her.
“Cuties” (Mignonnes), the directorial debut of writer/director Maïmouna Doucouré, explores rebellion, obligation, and sexualisation. It has been caught in a storm about Netflix’s marketing which threatens to overshadow the other aspects of the film.
The promotional pictures by Netflix (for which they have since apologised) show a very sexualised group of pre-teen girls twerking, and has caused outrage. Many people have seen the poster and have assumed the film is pedophillic. This marketing focused on the most controversial part of the film and expanded it to offensive proportions in order to get attention. But is the content of the film really that controversial?
Cuties follows 11-year Aminata “Amy” played by Fathia Youssouf. Her family is Senegalese and they struggle to fit in with the community in France. They have strong traditions and expectations which her peers don’t experience. She wants to wear the same clothes that they do. She wants to dance and be free of her obligations.
She integrates with the popular girls at school, carefully negotiating their bullying tactics to join their dance group. Her family is increasingly distraught by the path that she’s going down, and with a family wedding on the horizon it all comes to a head.
There are a number of difficult scenes that focus on coming of age experiences; the realisation that your parents are struggling emotionally, getting your first period, being confronted by shocking facts around sex and bodies.
Ultimately the film is about a girl navigating these realisations while being under pressure from both her family and her peers to act a certain way. She just wants to express herself and be who she is. Yes that involves doing things she doesn’t want to in order to fit in but childhood is like that for everybody.
The most controversial element is the examination of the sexualisation of young girls. The film explores how pre-teen girls understand (or don’t) society’s sexualisation of them. The film is from their perspective and is steeped in their naïveté. They want to emulate older women who are popular, famous and rich. But there’s so much they don’t understand about their behaviours and why they’re dangerous and inappropriate.
The way this copy-cat behaviour is shown in the film does admittedly get very uncomfortable to watch at times, arguably overstepping the mark particularly in the dance scenes. The audience is confronted by sexualised dance moves from 11-year old characters and we are forced to consider a world which encourages women and girls to act in that way.
The film does not celebrate or promote this. We are rightly appalled, as are the other characters on screen witnessing it.
The sexualisation of girls is a key theme but is far from the only important part of this complex film. So when Netflix’s marketing puts out a sexually provocative poster they are deliberately leveraging the most controversial aspect of the film in an inappropriate way. They’re doing exactly what the film itself puts under the microscope, sexually exploiting girls without the mature discussion required. It’s clickbait.
The risk is that this messaging will detract from the nuances of a carefully considered examination of girlhood and create a discourse about sexuality alone.
In fact the film contains rich themes of immigration, peer pressure, obligations, tradition, bullying, menstruation, identity, culture and self expression.
“Cuties” treads a careful line and doesn’t always land on the right side of it. But it at least has an incredibly noble aim which it approaches with careful observation and nuance. It seems that Netflix are leveraging the sexualisation of children aspect to sell the film. And it has worked insofar as it has created a lot of conversation. But it does the film and its creators a complete disservice, creating the impression that it is entirely paedophillic in nature.
Netflix have thrown Maïmouna Doucouré under the bus for clicks and have sabotaged what should have been a discourse around girls’ childhood.
Please do not boycott an important film, especially one by a Black female filmmaker, based on inaccurate and inflammatory marketing over which she had no control.