How “Cuties” Devastates With Sincerity About Being a Girl
Fighting social norms of over-exposure and traditions
The Netflix offering Cuties, a revealing portrait of an evolving 11-year-old Senegalese girl, who lives in a low-income section of Paris with her mother, and younger brothers, has gained traction from the blessing or curse of being the subject of fiery debates, centering around its controversial angle on the classic coming-of-age treatment.
The unfounded backlash stems from the ire of conservative and far-right personalities, who most certainly wouldn’t have anything negative to share about Cuties if the film featured a white pre-teen, navigating the same tight-rope of emotions that are typically assigned to that specific stage in life, that all girls accommodate, regardless of race and creed.
I was aware of French-Senegalese director, Maïmouna Doucouré and her Sundance hit earlier in the year, way before a global pandemic became the sobering reality, and the growing interest to finally see it kept the critically-acclaimed film on my radar.
After the recent debut on Netflix, the reviews have been split between viewers who’ve actually treated themselves to Cuties with pure motives and genuine approach to an unbiased experience, and the troublemakers, who are raising hell, despite never having seen the entry.
Among the noisemakers are usual suspects like Republican politicians, Ted Cruz, who joins any bandwagon that aims to publicly shame anything or anyone that celebrates the spirit of creative expression, and refusal to be restrained by “holier than thou” demands.
Cruz drafted a letter to of all people, William Barr, the notorious U.S. Attorney General, who is undoubtedly too busy with ensuring that his mob boss, Donald Trump isn’t saddled with the consequences of his botched job as “Commander-in-Chief” during a national health crisis that resulted in the loss of 200,000 lives and counting.
“I urge the Department of Justice to investigate the production and distribution of this film to determine whether Netflix, its executives, or the individuals involved in the filming and production of ‘Cuties’ violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography.”
Cruz has obviously not seen Cuties in its entirety, and is relying mostly on viral clips showcasing the more risqué scenes. But what’s even worse is the recklessness behind the determination to demonize a meaningful project, that shouldn’t be associated with a serious crime against minors, that can’t afford to be weaponized for personal vindication.
Fox News staple Laura Ingraham was also quick to add her two cents by urging her followers to avoid seeing a movie that she falsely describes as “sexual exploitation of girls.”
And believe it or not, #CancelNetflix did trend, due to the outcry over the movie poster for Cuties, which was deemed inappropriate after it was released by Netflix for promotional purposes, causing the streaming giant to make revisions.
Netflix also released a statement that partly read:
“‘Cuties’ is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children. We’d encourage anyone who cares about these important issues to watch the movie.”
And the filmmaker at the center of the storm, a remarkably talented young Black woman activist, who is being unfairly attacked by those who see her mission statement as a threat, also had something to say in defense of her most impactful piece of work to date:
“I thought the film would be accepted. It played to Sundance and was watched by American people there; I met the public there and they really saw that the film is about a universal issue. “It’s not about French society — the hyper-sexualization of children happens through social media and social media is everywhere. People [at Sundance] agreed with that.”
Maïmouna Doucouré is absolutely justified in her confusion and resentment against the establishment of conservatives and outright bigots, who only recite biblical verses when it suits nefarious agendas, that do very little to actively address societal ills threatening the health and stability of today’s youth.
Mignonnes, also known as Cuties is a stunning examination of the updated version of girlhood through the trials and tribulations of Amy, an immigrant girl from Senegal, who relocates to unfamiliar territory and struggles to find her place amidst familial strife stemming from her father’s abandonment to marry a second wife.
As Amy tries to make adjustments to her new environment under the tutelage of strict relatives, who enforce participation in religious rituals that hamper the individuality she seeks, she discovers an uninhibited neighbor, Angelica in the laundry room of their apartment complex, twerking her way through mundane responsibilities.
That fateful introduction sets Amy on the path of self-discovery and social experimentation as her awestruck status leads her to finally become a member of Angelica’s crew known as Cuties, “an adult-style dance troupe” that requires the ability to contort into provocative poses with rhythmic appeal.
This new world that counters Amy’s traditional values and religious upbringing is an exciting detour from those stringent norms. And as her popularity sours, her addiction to social relevance via the dance group earnestly preparing for an upcoming competition, propels the desire to step out of character.
Amy’s power play is reinforced by the gadget she readily hijacks. The device grants access to platforms that provide ammunition to plot her dominance. The library of clips showcase the suggestive moves that she excitedly teaches the other girls, who are charmed by the unexpected badass quality of their latest addition.
And judging from the scenes of Amy hiding under the covers and clutching her favorite toy in the dark, while tracking the growing number of likes attached to her uploads, surrounded by her mother and aunts, dutifully chanting prayers, it’s clear that shit is about to hit the fan.
It doesn’t take long for the ramifications from obsessive dependency on loyal followers, and the subsequent tainting of the fragile traits of a young girl to ensue, as Amy succumbs to the uncontrollable urges to maintain the facade of the protective bubble that inevitably pops when the stakes are higher than she can manage.
On a personal note, Cuties was a jarring ride that presented triggers, mainly because of the turbulence of my girlhood after abruptly relocating from the States to Nigeria, at the age of eight, at the behest of my parents, who were college graduates, and eager to return to their homeland with their foreign diplomas in tow.
My younger brother, who was four-year-old when we left Kansas City for the metropolis of Lagos, might have had an easier adjustment period compared to my acute self-awareness of how my Americanness would garner the wrong kind of attention.
It was even more daunting when I arrived at boarding school at the age of eleven, and was forced to survive in a setting that included spacious dormitories filled with bunk beds, and the daily regimen that was modeled after the itinerary of army barracks, including the 5 am wake up call for the mandated morning jog.
British colonizers not only defaced our cultural landscape to ruins by destabilizing the prowess we needed to recover from the violent invasion in the name of the Lord, but we were also saddled with the lifestyle of separating children from their homes in the name of a proper education.
There are definitely parallels between the character of Amy and I, starting with the fact that we were both uprooted from our comfort zones, and deposited in places that activated the urgency to fit in, and be accepted by strangers who didn’t initially make that task a seamless win.
I’m sure I subconsciously thank God everyday that Instagram wasn’t a reality when I was young enough to be devoured by the negative effects of secretive engagements, that result in the mental anguish that may not be reversible in this compromised climate where even grown adults can’t save themselves.
My rebellion around the age of twelve was focused on the standard script of heightening what appeared to be my best assets, through school uniforms that were tight enough for self-confidence, and the black eyeliner that was endorsed by approvers who showered compliments that inflated self-esteem.
Despite my best efforts, it was almost impossible to form lasting bonds with the girls I essentially grew up with in an environment that echoed the relevance of “survival of the fittest.” And my luck didn’t get a whole lot better when I returned to the States for college at eighteen.
Aside from the awkwardness of my whimsical spirit and attachment to being the jokester for the laughs that felt like temporary inclusion, the aftershock of my childhood trauma at the age of nine put me in sleepwalking mode, which is why my memory of those times are crippled.
I was robbed of the gloriousness of girlhood.
And so watching the character of Amy get lost in the haze of becoming someone that she thinks she needs to be in order to fit the requirements of social media, by escaping the suffocating mood of traditions and customs, before recalibrating in the middle of her aggressions is an inspirational outlet to make amends for what I can’t alter.
There’s also the immense gratitude for having avoided this current hysteria over accessible tools of our discontent, that are wired to “mind-fuck” users who are young and naive enough to get trapped in the vortex of public opinion, and the numbers game that will never be high enough to satisfy insatiable appetites.
Doucouré did extensive research for the insightful film that’s garnering scathing reviews from the bitter few, who prefer to glaze over the damaging consequences from social interactions, that leave kids susceptible to the grasp of online predators, and the persuasive content that can be exploitative enough to lure the interest of vulnerable age groups.
“I came to understand that an existence on social networks was extremely important for these youngsters and that often they were trying to imitate the images they saw around them, in adverts or on the social networks.”
“The most important thing for them was to achieve as many ‘likes’ as possible.”
Developing into a teenager and young adult is already a cumbersome process of battling inner demons and outside forces for the pledge of ending up with the person you think you should be.
In this era of over-exposure and the immense pressure to compete in an arena that resembles an engrossing game show that nobody really dominates, but the attempts to try are never-ending, it must be a nightmarish rite of passage for girls who rush to womanhood and then back again with disillusionment.
Cuties is devastatingly sincere about the unfiltered view of what that looks like — and for the critics who scream the loudest, I dare you to take more than just peek.