Fathia Youssouf as Amy in Cuties (2020)TWITTER/PRYMEFOCUS

Content Note: This article contains mention of the sexualisation of children.

Maïmouna Doucouré’s film Cuties (Mignonnes), released earlier this month on Netflix, found itself at the centre of political outrage. Its arrival to the platform was preceded by a tasteless promotional poster, featuring the eleven-year-olds of its titular “Mignonnes" dance troupe dressed provocatively, and Cuties has yet to escape the fallout from this marketing mishap. The French-Senegalese director’s debut film, however, proves itself to be a sensitive and profound work, challenging rather than championing those issues of hyper-sexuality for which it has come under fire, engaging with powerful ideas of culture and race and the ‘coming-of-age’ genre.

Cuties (2020)TWITTER/PUNODRAWS

Drawing on Doucouré’s own childhood experiences, Cuties tells the story of eleven-year-old Amy, a Senegalese girl living in Paris. Feeling stifled by her conservative Muslim mother and great-aunt, Amy becomes fascinated with the free-spirited Angelica and the dance group that she runs – the “Mignonnes". The group dreams of winning a local dance contest and, as the film develops, the girls, influenced by a rival dance group and by pop culture, learn to sexualise themselves to boost their popularity online.

“Thought-provoking in the discomfort it creates, the film is unambiguously critical of the societal pressures which warp young girls’ sense of self-value and lead them to sexualise themselves.”

It is this sexualisation of the girls which has been so polemical – the poster made by Netflix, from the final dance scene, has been spread widely, along with isolated clips of the scene. At a glance, it is easy to understand the public outrage to the film – these scenes are massively uncomfortable to watch. However, the vast majority of those outraged are engaging only at this level, reacting specifically to these images and clips, and not to the complete film. Upon actually watching Cuties, it becomes obvious that these scenes, disturbing bastardisations of dances found frequently in modern media, are deliberately so; thought-provoking in the discomfort it creates, the film is unambiguously critical of the societal pressures which warp young girls’ sense of self-value and lead them to sexualise themselves.

Advertisement for Cuties (2020)TWITTER/SANNYMASK

Foregrounding the intersection of two wildly contrasting cultures, it is these harmful pressures – coming from both sides – that Cuties explores and denounces. On the one hand, there is the hyper-sexualisation, worsened by social media, that teaches Amy that, to have value, she must be sexual – leading her to post nude photos online for popularity, and in one heart-breaking scene to submit herself to sexual assault in the hopes of retaining access to her phone, and thus to these very influences. The other side of the conflict, although it has been less talked about, is equally dangerous. Amy’s desire for agency is what drives her towards self-sexualisation, as the faceless figure of her father’s second wife torments her psychologically. Doucouré deals with these conflicting issues well, and it is the dynamic interplay between them which gives the film such a powerful premise.

As a coming-of-age film, Cuties incorporates elements of the genre, but moves beyond them powerfully – as suggested by the film’s UK age rating of fifteen, Doucouré does not limit herself to a teenage audience. Rather, she uses these genre conventions to give perspective to the social themes that the film tackles. Moments such as Amy’s first period simultaneously normalize her character, as an experience lived by half of the film’s audience, and abnormalize her situation, minimizing its narrative role among more worrying and less relatable issues. Structurally, too, the film subverts expectations – and at no point more uncomfortably or powerfully than at its finale.

Cuties (2020)TWITTER/PUNODRAWS

The dance scene, expected to be a thrilling and satisfying climax, instead sees Amy’s attempted self-emancipation culminate in a painfully long two minutes of disturbing, sexualised dancing: the distressing result of the societal pressures to which Amy has been exposed. Seeing this scene in isolation and assuming it to be the straightforward climax to the film, critics are mistaken to mark this scene as exploiting the sexualisation of children. In fact, Cuties’ last powerful statement is the abandonment of the dance contest by both protagonist and director, affirming that the supposed spectacle of this scene exists only to enhance the film’s commentary. Developments like these see Cuties abandoning the marketable relatability so essential to teen cinema in favour of making a genuine social commentary – and this is what lends its voice such strength.

“It would be a waste to limit such a sensitive and profound film to the misinformed reaction that brought it here.”

Unfortunately, the rest of the film’s ending is narratively weak. Prompted suddenly by a symbolic flurry of wedding confetti, eleven-year-old Amy undergoes a profound psychological realisation, coming to the understanding that her hitherto deviant actions have been rooted in her fear of the future, of marriage, and of being silenced. Rushing home to her mother, who has, it seems, had the same epiphany, the two reunite and Amy falls swiftly back into her childhood innocence. The groundwork for such a conclusion had been laid well, and most likely had already been reached by the audience, but the projection of this conclusion onto the story itself feels forced and unrealistic, undermining what is otherwise a natural union of narrative with meaning. Ultimately, it is an ending which prioritises the reaffirmation of its message over narrative realism; it is ironic, then, that it is a message which has been so broadly misunderstood.

Cuties (2020)TWITTER/DABINGECLUB

It is easy to imagine that, had it not been at the centre of political scandal, Doucouré’s first feature might have passed by without much impact on the mainstream. Now that it is here, though, it would be a waste to limit such a sensitive and profound film to the misinformed reaction that brought it here. Well-thought and well-executed, Cuties has a lot more going for it than social media will have you believe.

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