This article was originally published in the Women’s Republic.
Earlier this year, Cuties (French: Mignonnes), directed by Maïmouna Doucouré, was one of the best films premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The film won the ‘Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic’ at the festival and received international and critical acclaim. What went downhill from there was when Netflix marketed the film on its streaming platform. It was accused of hypersexualization and became a target of right-wing conspiracy theorists.
After that, Doucouré was criticized for how the movie portrayed young girls in the film. Social media and right-wing conspiracy theorists demanded Netflix to remove the film from the platform. Doucouré received death threats and eventually deleted her account. Most of the users who were condemning the movie and harassing Doucouré had no intention of watching the movie.
Cuties is a coming-of-age movie about a young girl named Amy, who is navigating through femininity. She is a young girl trying to find her place in the world while representing her mother’s traditional roots and befriending a group of young dancers. Cuties is a very complex film that discusses a lot of real-life problems. It explores girlhood, femininity, balancing her traditional roots, Western culture, and religion. Essentially, the movie is a critique of the hypersexualization of young girls, but it is more complex.
What was the intent of Cuties?
When Doucouré began researching for the film, she interviewed young girls and asked them how they navigated life in society, especially in the age of social media. Also, how young girls were trying to understand femininity and girlhood, this film intended to critique the hypersexualization of young girls in the age of social media. Young girls are oblivious to the dangers of social media, and that is one of the themes that Doucouré explores in the film.
The main protagonist’s story was a collection of stories that Doucouré had collected from the group of young girls that she interviewed, and also of her own experiences. She explained that when pre-teens see other women being sexualized, their image is distorted. Young girls do not understand the power of social media, especially in the digital age. For pre-teens, having access to visual media and information can be dangerous and confusing for them.
Cuties explore the stage of girls becoming women. In the film, Amy is forced into adulthood to take care of her two brothers while her mother goes to work. Sometimes young girls, especially pre-teens, become a woman a little earlier than they should. The film intended to criticize how girls are forced into adulthood because of the society they live in and the media that they consume.
As Amy did, I grew up in two cultures, and I wanted to show my personal story. I recreated the little girl I was at that age and what it was like for me to grow up with the Senegalese culture at home and the Western culture outside.
Interview by Aramide Tinubi on ZORA, Medium.
Furthermore, Amy’s internal conflict of struggling with two worlds, her conservative Muslim upbringing, is parallel to Doucouré’s own life as a Senegalese-French Muslim woman in France. Doucouré understood this and wanted to share her personal story. Like Amy, Doucouré struggled to adjust and understand her mother’s culture and Western culture. Amy is a recreation of Doucouré as a little girl. In some ways, this is an autobiographical film with social commentary.
Becoming a target of right-wing conspiracy theorists
After Netflix distributed the film, the company and Doucouré sparked a controversy on social media. It was unexpected and shocking to Doucouré considering the reception that it received at the festival. Netflix became a target of a right-wing campaign due to the promotional materials that were released in August.
Conspiracy theorists banded together to bring down Netflix and Doucouré, accusing them of child sexual exploitation. They believed that those two parties were promoting child sex in Hollywood and demanded Netflix to take down the movie. #CancelNetflix started to trend on Twitter, and social media users were calling to blacklist Doucouré. After the movie was released in September, it became a target of another conspiracy theory, #SaveTheChildren.
According to Buzzfeed, the #SaveTheChildren conspiracy theory originates from QAnon, which believes that child sex abusers control the world. This continued on Instagram, where they targeted Gen Z and millennials by using the hashtags and spreading false information about child sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Theorists started to post clips of the movie on their social media accounts to spread fear and misinformation. They believed that Netflix and Cuties were promoting pedophilia. This was followed by conspiracy theorists telling their followers for an immediate boycott and to cancel their subscriptions.
All of this misinformation regarding Netflix promoting pedophilia and stories about child sex and human trafficking are baseless accusations. Social media users refused to watch this movie based on the misinformation. They were quick to ‘cancel’ Doucouré and sent her death threats, which led to her deleting her social media account. When asked about the controversy, Netflix defended the movie and told film critics to watch the movie before making any judgments.
Netflix’s marketing gone wrong
When the film premiered in France, Cuties had a very different poster. Once Netflix had distributed the film, the poster and the synopsis was quite misleading and completely different from when it was promoted in France. In the American poster, the young girls were portrayed in provocative clothing and poses. This led to a frenzy on social media.
Doucouré, who was completely unaware of the American promotional materials, was attacked for having absolutely nothing to do with Netflix’s poster. She understood why people would have reacted that way if they had only seen Netflix’s promotional materials. She explained that their materials “did not represent the film properly.” But the damage was done. Social media discourse was hopeless. Cancel campaigns and death threats were targeted towards Doucouré because of how Netflix has advertised this film.
Netflix has since apologized and changed the synopsis on the streaming platform, but that did not change anyone’s judgments about the film. Doucouré hopes that people would watch the film before making any judgments. She insists that we are all on the same side, fighting against the hypersexualization of pre-teen girls.
What Cuties got wrong
The film is a social commentary on the hypersexualization of young girls and juxtaposes this problem with how society views young girls and women. It is about exploring femininity and girlhood, especially at a young age, while also figuring out their place in the world.
Also, having access to social media can obscure a young girl’s image of themselves. Amy is oblivious and naive and does not understand the power of social media.
In Cuties, she watches a video of women dancing and does not think differently. She does not quite understand what it is and learns the dance moves so that she can make new friends. Once she is accepted into the group, she teaches her friends too. This is followed by scenes where the young girls are dancing provocatively, and it is quite uncomfortable to watch.
The director used close-up shots of the young girls to show their bodies to the audience. While the film wants to show a realistic portrayal of these girls, that was completely unnecessary. A rule in filmmaking is that a scene does not literally have to show you every single detail. Those scenes could have edited differently to depict what they are doing on the screen.
While one of the themes of the movie is Amy navigating from girlhood to womanhood, it would have been more appropriate if Amy was older. In this case, Amy is only a child. It would make more sense to have an older character explore these themes. What she does is not sexual to her, but society deems it as sexual. But hypersexualization of girls does not only happen in this film.
Beyond Cuties and Hollywood
In Hollywood, there are several movies and television shows that depict the hypersexualization of young girls and teenagers. In these worlds, storylines about young teenagers dating their teachers and statutory rape are considered normal. Pretty Little Liars had normalized these kinds of scenes that were targeted towards young teenagers.
I believe that if Doucouré had altered some of the scenes, it would have been much better. She didn’t need to depict the girls in this manner. While I completely understand the director’s intention of the film and the hard criticism that followed, I have to disagree with how Doucouré had shot some of the scenes.
The real message behind the film is very relevant to what young girls are through in a society where they are being hypersexualized. But the critique falls short when the young girls are being depicted in that manner. While I understand the director’s intention and criticisms, I have mixed feelings about this film. On one end, the hypersexualization of girls is a matter that everyone must be fighting against, while on the other, Cuties exploits children to gain that message across to the audience.
A solution, at least for me, would have been turning this film’s message into a documentary. Doucouré had interviewed a hundred pre-teens about what it is like to explore femininity and girlhood at a young age. This film is about her personal story of navigating two cultures and a story constructed after many interviews to form the film’s second issue. A documentary could have been a better option to initiate a conversation about the themes of the film. This would have the space to question the main issue of the themes within the film while also tackling the problem itself.
While the criticisms that followed after the release of the film are valid, Maïmouna Doucouré should not be treated this way. However, she should take responsibility for the decisions that were made in the film. There is no doubt that the young actors cast in the film were exploited regardless of having their parents’ consent, and having a child psychologist onset does not minimize the problem at all.
We can still discuss the film’s complex themes while keeping in mind the director’s intention and the critique behind it. It is a complex and flawed film that discusses important themes of the current generation. Film criticism is valid when the audience watches the film.
The death threats that Doucouré received and blacklisting her were absurd, considering that there are filmmakers such as Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, who have sexually assaulted young girls in the past. They have been given multiple chances by the public and the industry to release their films.
The lack of representation of Black, Muslim women, especially in an industry that is dominated by white-centered stories, is the reason why Maïmouna Doucouré decided to pursue a film career. She is a new director that has yet to grow and improve her craft, and she deserves a chance at redemption. One mistake does not mean she should be immediately blacklisted.