Cuties on Netflix: Maimouna Doucoure's debut captures the difficult transition from tween to teen
Cuties, Maïmouna Doucouré's debut feature, became a subject of intense social media ire when Netflix released a poster showing four scantily clad young girls striking suggestive dance poses. It was accused of promoting paedophilia, and consequently, petitions to ban the film's release and Netflix itself were signed.
Maïmouna Doucouré's debut feature Cuties (Mignonnes in French) has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Last month, Netflix released a poster for the film showing four scantily clad young girls striking suggestive dance poses. Social media users instantly dialled the anger up to 11. Accusations of paedophilia promotion were made. Petitions to ban the film's release and Netflix itself were signed. Death threats were issued against the French-Senegalese filmmaker. You know: the usual stages of social media's cycle of rage.
Watch a two-minute clip or a single representative image, and the chronically angry feel obliged to participate in every debate, and throw in a casual death threat like it were a legitimate form of criticism. Of course, these people have not seen the movie. Perhaps, they never will. If they did, they would realise the fact that Netflix chose that particular poster as a representative image of the film only seems to be proving Doucouré's point: the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood and innocence. Sadly, her intentions were misunderstood in decontextualisation.
In contrast to the US poster, the French version shows the young girls gleefully swinging their shopping bags as they saunter down a street. They are fully clothed, although they are wearing bras and underwear over their own clothes. It is far more representative of the film because it exposes their prepubescent naivety. Their clothes betray their understanding of what it means to be an adult. Moreover, it doesn't take the film out of its coming-of-age context and reduce it to the sexualisation of young girls.
Eleven-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf) lives with her mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) and two little brothers in a poor Parisian neighbourhood. When she finds out her father intends to bring home a second wife from Senegal, she kickstarts a pre-teen rebellion by joining a twerking troupe who call themselves "Cuties". Amy is instantly attracted to their exuberance, and quickly befriends the group's leader, Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni). Being forced into the boys' bathroom to film their genitals launches her initiation. Winning a dance contest the end goal.
For Amy, dancing becomes a liberating outlet to escape her anxieties and detach herself from the domestic crisis. It becomes a kind of refuge as she transitions from tween to teen. Most of all, it helps her fit in. So, the veil soon makes way for crop-tops and booty shorts, as they symbolise liberation in Amy's eyes. In a scene where the women gather for a prayer session, Amy hides in her hijab, pulls out her stolen phone and secretly watches videos of strippers twerking, hoping for pointers to freshen their choreography. The following morning, she teaches the "Cuties" what she learnt in an montage filled with butt shots. Surveying this minefield will definitely test viewers with low discomfort threshold, but it compels us to question our own gaze.
The “Cuties” are not oblivious to the male gaze. After breaking into a game of laser tag, Amy twerks to keep the manager's gaze transfixed on her to get them out of trouble. He forgets to call the police and lets them all go. It is a deeply disconcerting scene which exposes the voyeuristic gaze which has transformed a 11-year-old girl into an adult woman. Doucouré is clearly denouncing, not promoting, a culture which foists adult sexuality on pre-teen girls.
These "Cuties", who call Kim Kardashian their mom, rely on social media for validation. Doped up on Instagram likes, Amy and her "Cuties" yield to the pressure to conform to pop culture's sexualised narratives. The number of Instagram likes become the sum of their self-worth, their life a popularity contest, and the accelerated maturation is their maladaptive response to it. These are girls who have barely completed the last rites for their childhood, but they are eager to skip the teenage phase and dive into adulthood. They dress the part, but it's an imitation which reveals their ignorance. They are appropriating the sexual codes of adults without adequate literacy to take stock of what they imply. This is best exemplified in a scene, where one of them picks up a used condom, blows it up like a balloon, and then they all freak out believing she has been infected with AIDS. They then proceed to cure her by washing her tongue with hand wash. In another scene, when Amy surveys the derrières of the women in her community, it's an education in the simple confluence of anatomy and dance, without any awareness of the "big booty" fetishisation in pop culture. Youssouf's twerks, her gestures, and her pouts become a radical expression of this unsure prepubescence.
Amy's family believe these provocative dance routines to be a sign of demonic possession. She grapples with the demonisation of the female body, which is literally exorcised later in the film. Doucouré often opts for dream logic to formalise Amy's internal anxieties about her femininity. The embroidered flowers on her blue dress begin to bleed, anticipating the beginning of her puberty.
Once Amy joins the group, their friendship becomes as liberating as alienating. Because the “Cuties” are like any clique: there is a tender friendship that unites them but also a petty cruelty that can divide them. So, Amy finds herself torn between what her religious family want her to be, and what her pre-teen peers want her to be. In her efforts to shrink the gap between her family's expectations and her friends', a new identity awkwardly asserts itself.
Doucouré's own dual cultural identity is at the heart of the film, which illustrates the contradictions faced by Muslim families who migrate westwards. Her denunciation of sexualising young girls feels all the more stronger as it is anchored against a backdrop of the culture clash between the traditions of a conservative Senegalese-Muslim family and the faux-liberation of Western society.
Though Cuties is tethered to Amy's coming-of-age, it also gives us a parallel portrait of the mother chained to the weight of traditions. Hiding under the bed, Amy hears Mariam cry and then slap herself for not being happy about her husband finding himself a second wife. Her father's presence is manifested only through phone calls in a film without considerable male presence, but the burdens of patriarchy still weigh on its women. Because its enablers can often be women, like the auntie who is always there to remind them on the ways of modesty. Mariam, however, gives her daughter a choice she can't allow for herself. In the concluding shot, there is a smile on Amy's face as the camera frees her from the gaze of sexualisation, the weight of tradition, and the pressure to fit in. It's a young girl experiencing joy, freedom and innocence in its purest forms.
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