A French film by director Maïmouna Doucouré, “Cuties” was the subject of controversy even before it landed on Netflix last week. The streaming platform previewed it with a poster of tweenage girls in scant costumes, accompanied with the synopsis, “Amy, 11, becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew.”
Things went south. Cruz, who either didn’t see the movie or didn’t understand it, claimed the film “routinely fetishizes and sexualizes these pre-adolescent girls,” and called on the Department of Justice to “investigate whether Netflix, its executives, or the filmmakers violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography.”
Preemptively hating the movie was a bipartisan affair: Christine Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy, joined in the hashtag #CancelNetflix, asking the platform to apologize. And this weekend, Netflix’s cancellation rates were eight times higher than they’d been the month before, according to analysis in Variety magazine — a multiyear cancellation peak.
Which is all a shame, because “Cuties” is the kind of story that isn’t told well very often, and deserves to be told more.
It focuses on an 11-year-old girl named Amy as she figures out what it means, to her, to be a woman in an era of TikTok celebrities and viral fame. Like Doucouré, Amy is the daughter of Senegalese immigrants. Amy’s parents are now raising their family in a working-class Parisian neighborhood. Their culture permits polygamy, and when the movie opens, Amy’s father has recently traveled back to Senegal to bring home a second wife. “All I wish for them is that they marry for love,” Amy’s mother says in a phone call to a relative. Then she hangs up and, not realizing her daughter is in the same room, bursts into tears.
The apartment building’s laundry room is where Amy first meets her neighbor and classmate Angelica, who dances as she folds her clothes. Amy becomes entranced by Angelica and her midriff-baring, hip-swiveling friends, who call themselves “Cuties” and dream of winning a local dance competition. Soon Amy’s part of the crew, too, choreographing twerks and pouts, and tying her own T-shirts so they ride above her navel.
You can see where this could get uncomfortable for viewers. The dance routines become progressively more explicit and the camera filming them is unflinching. One minute-long sequence, set to upbeat music as the girls finalize their routine, includes a series of closeups on the girls’ gyrating thighs, butts and stomachs. (The movie was filmed with a counselor on set, and the project was approved by the French government’s child-protection authorities).
Healthy adults won’t see the characters as sex objects; they’ll see them as children and they’ll see the dancing as disturbing. But they might also wonder about how unhealthy adults could perceive what’s happening on the screen. Whose gaze does the camera represent? How is this scene supposed to make us feel?
These are the kind of nuanced discussions that art is meant to encourage — and that fast-twitch social media has squashed. Instead of wrestling with the content, we have QAnon Facebook groups speculating that maybe the film was secretly funded by the Obamas.
What uncareful viewers will miss, though, is that the Cuties are not portrayed as aspirational. The group is portrayed as an escape tunnel that only leads to another sinkhole. When Amy posts an intimate photo of herself on social media, desperately looking for approval, a male classmate takes it as an invitation to slap her butt, and her new friends find the picture appalling. They're sassy, not slutty, they explain, can't Amy tell the difference?
But no, she can’t, because the divisions are baffling. At home, she’s presented with a version of womanhood that means marriage and acquiescence. Out in the world, she sees another version that means sexiness and Instagram likes. Amy fumbles and falters her way through the film, learning that she’s meant to be appealing but chaste, naughty but good, a girl but a woman.
In the end, she’s just tired and confused.
Part of why I think people are struggling with this movie is that, while it doesn’t sexualize tweenage girls, it is a frank look at their exploration of sexuality: the influences they respond to or rebel against, the power they think they have, the things they think they understand.
“Spend an hour on social media and you’ll see preteens — often in makeup — pouting their lips and strutting their stuff as if they were grown women,” wrote Doucouré, the film’s director, in a recent essay for The Washington Post. “The problem, of course, is that they are not women, and they don’t realize what they are doing.”
In one scene the girls, full of bravado and giggles, flirt with a boy at the bus stop. In the next scene, one of them discovers a condom and, not knowing what it is, picks it up. “You’re gonna get AIDS,” her friends shriek, terrified, dragging her to a bathroom where they pour liquid soap in her mouth, convinced this is suitable protection.
They’re kids. And their desire to grow up only underscores how young they are.
Often when Hollywood gives us stories on this topic, they’re filmed like “Lolita,” in which a middle-aged pedophile preys on his stepdaughter. The story is told from his perspective. He tries to convince us that she’s the seductress, but she’s never given an inner monologue of her own.
That film is explicitly about pedophilia, but it’s a more comfortable viewing, in some ways, than “Cuties.” It allows the viewer to falsely believe that girls are complicit in their own sexualization, that they’re inviting the leering and harassment.
“Cuties,” on the other hand, is an excellent look at betweenness, at the moment where children are old enough to mimic, but not old enough to understand.
It exists in a world in which adults are tangential, and adult men are mostly nonexistent. It cares only about what it means to be a young, Black, immigrant girl. It allows that experience to be complicated, silly, scary and moving. It centers an experience that has long been underrepresented. The fact that its critics (not film critics, who love it) find “Cuties” so terrifying is, perhaps, the biggest clue that they need to watch it and then demand more movies like it.
Netflix assumed the risk the filmmakers took for the purpose of bringing us this uncomfortable, challenging but ultimately worthwhile work. Can we handle it? Or should it be watched with training wheels — with film studies and women’s history professors on speed dial, to prevent us from misinterpreting a critique of society as an endorsement?
In the end — well, I won’t spoil the end of the movie. Except to say that after watching it, viewers are likely to spend a lot of time thinking about girlhood. The girls they know, the girls they were. The girls they want to raise, the forces that make that difficult. The bubbles we try to keep girls in, when the only people we’re actually protecting are ourselves.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.