There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the film "Cuties," but it’s not the hill to die on when deciding whether to #CancelNetflix.
A week ago, my social media started blowing up with articles and posts either decrying Cuties or promoting it. Many condemned it without watching it, claiming that it’s a horrible movie that features child pornography. Critics claimed it was a “wonderful, poignant, challenging and nuanced coming-of-age film, smartly crafted by a wonderful director.” There seemed to be no middle ground. So I decided that I needed to watch it for myself.
Director Maïmouna Doucouré's War on Child Exploitation
While I was researching and deciding whether or not to actually watch Cuties, I came across a video by the director stating why she made the movie.
"I had the idea of Cuties when, one day, during a neighborhood gathering in Paris, a group of very young dancers came on the stage, and they were dancing like we are used to seeing in a video clip," Doucouré said.
She goes on to describe how this both shocked her and inspired her to research and interview 10 and 11-year-old girls for the next year and a half. And from there, to make a film to fight against the hypersexualization of young girls in Western culture. This was enough for me to realize that there was more nuance to the film than my social media feeds were letting on.
So I sat down to watch Cuties, not sure what to expect, but knowing what I was expected to look for. And, overall, what I saw was much, much different.
What Cuties Isn't
Contrary to popular outraged rumors, and viral clips flying around the internet at super-speed, Cuties, as a whole, is fairly discreet when it comes to the child actors. A lot is very uncomfortably hinted at. But the children remain clothed, and their actions are never intended to arouse. (Unlike the adult actresses in the music videos that the girls watch.)
The children remain clothed, and their actions are never intended to arouse.
There is, of course, the controversial sexualized dancing. There are two or three dance scenes that definitely feel too erotic for 11-year-olds to perform. But the context surrounding these dance scenes focuses on how unusual and unnatural it is for pre-teens to seek to emulate the erotic performances of adults. Completely opposite to what I had expected from the clips I had seen, these dance scenes are portrayed as uncomfortable and grotesque. The adults and older kids in the film are disgusted by the girls' attempts to act in overtly sexual ways. The random one or two men who are not are portrayed as perverts. Whatever else Cuties may be, it’s not child porn.
Other Dance Productions Featuring Children
I came away feeling that the main problem with Cuties was the exploitation of its child actresses. To me, it felt similarly inappropriate and uncomfortable to the episode or two I watched of Dancing with the Stars Jr (2018). But to me, DWTS Jr seemed even more exploitative than Cuties, because the producers didn't cringe or hesitate at the emotional exploitation of the young "celebrities" it featured. However, in many ways, it gives the same vibe: kids being taught sexualized dance, in order to win a competition. (Dance Moms, anyone?)
“Cuties” focuses on how the girls' actions are not healthy, not normal, not right.
The one outstanding difference was that, while DWTS Jr took itself very seriously and viewed itself as a good thing, Cuties focuses on how the girls' actions are not healthy, not normal, not right. In all honesty, I think there’s a very real conversation to be had here concerning the exploitation of child actors in general. Which, unfortunately, is going to be lost because of the outraged focus on things that aren't actually there.
The Harsh Realities Cuties Portrays
I do believe that the themes portrayed in Cuties are a reality in the life of many, if not most, pre-teen girls today. In the words of the director, "Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she's successful. And the children just imitate what they see, trying to achieve the same result, without understanding the meaning." All you need to do is scroll through TikTok or watch an Ariana Grande music video or tune in to the Superbowl Halftime Show to see the truth of how our culture glorifies and promotes sexualized dancing.
In an interview, Doucouré described her research before creating the film: "There were actually many stories which were so far beyond what you see in the film, and I just did not have the artistic courage to tell those stories on the screen. Stories of young girls who are 12 years old and prostituting themselves. All of these stories just made my blood run cold, and it made me even more determined to make this film, and to speak out about this issue that is so prevalent in today’s society.”
"Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she's successful.”
It may be more comfortable to imagine that most 11-year-olds are sheltered from adult content and sexualized images on social media. But the truth, as Mlle Doucouré found out in her year and a half of interviews, is that many of them are not.
Cuties is a very French film. It’s direct. Parts are very ugly and very raw. It doesn’t pull any punches, and there’s much that’s difficult to watch. Yet my own personal experiences, both growing up and working with young girls as a teacher, made me feel very strongly what I would later read in Mlle Doucouré’s own words: "Cuties is a mirror of today's society. A mirror sometimes difficult to look into and accept, but still so true."
As a teacher, my experiences working with junior high students really lent force to the power of the film's message. In particular, I was reminded of my experience as a homeroom teacher for 7th and 8th grade girls at a very conservative school. I literally saw the changes the movie portrays happen over the course of the school year, as most of the 12 and 13-year-olds got phones, and one girl led all the others through their own "sexual revolution." All of these girls had parents who sent them to this school as a means to protect them from the dangers of our culture. But they still found a way to access adult content on social media, share it with their friends, and imitate it.
Does a Good Message Justify Child Exploitation?
So the message of Cuties may be relevant and good, but what about its portrayal? Does a good message justify the exploitation of its child actresses? If someone were to make a video about the evils of killing puppies, but actually killed puppies in the process, wouldn't the video betray the very point it’s trying to make? Is it ever justified to direct young girls to dance in an overtly sexualized manner? Especially for a film that will be watched by millions?
Personally, I think the answer to these questions is no. I think that a large part of the conversation around this movie should come down to taking a long, hard look at what actually constitutes exploitation in the case of child actors. I don't know that I have a clear answer to where the line is that should never be crossed. After all, the girls are 11, and they can't legally consent, even if things were explained to them along the way and they agreed.
How Do We Fight Child Exploitation in the Film Industry?
Later, I discovered that Mlle Doucouré also had strong feelings regarding the exploitation of child actors. As she mentions in another interview, she took many precautions while making the film, including not exposing the children to anything they had not already seen on social media or in real life, bringing both them and their parents into the conversation the film was meant to spark, filming the controversial dance scenes individually and small parts at a time, and having a child psychologist on hand who worked with the children throughout the entire film, and continues to work with them to this day, as they "navigate their new-found stardom." To my knowledge, this is more than almost any director in modern film does while working with children.
I don't think Doucouré fully avoided crossing into the realm of child exploitation that she’s trying so hard to fight.
Even so, I don't think that Doucouré fully avoided crossing into the realm of child exploitation that she’s trying so hard to fight. Watching the movie in context, it may be hard to objectify the girls. But as we have already seen in the last couple weeks, it’s not hard to take two-minute clips out of Cuties, which can both (justly) horrify protective adults and, at the same time, provide more material to the already abundant supply of hypersexualized dance performed by young girls on the internet. The actresses may not have been exposed to anything new, but they were still taken advantage of, put on display, and used as a means to an end, in a decision that they may grow to regret later in life.
It may have been necessary for them to dance to tell the story; it wasn’t necessary for the cameras to take the same compromising shots as they would for the very kinds of music videos the movie is claiming to protest. Worse, the viewer often feels more like a voyeur than a horrified onlooker. If we truly wish to fight the exploitation of young girls, we must do so by example, not by imitation. Sometimes that which isn’t shown is more powerful than that which is.
Worse still, the scenes are now out there. We already know that the scenes can be taken out of context and used to portray children acting sexually. What's to stop actual predators from viewing and enjoying these scenes, without any desire to see them "in context"? What about the effect that it may have on young men (or women), who don't have the age or wisdom to understand what's being portrayed? The pursuit of art or truth doesn't justify creating material that could be used by predators for their own means.
Still, I think credit should be given to Doucouré that she did try to do everything she could think of to minimize the exposure of the young actresses. I hope that the precautions she took become an expected norm for all productions that feature child actors. Because, in my opinion, they’re an important step on the path towards actually avoiding child exploitation in film, even if Doucouré didn't 100% achieve that goal herself.
What Cuties Is
Contrary to popular opinion, Cuties is not at all in favor of hypersexualized dance performed by pre-teens. Amy, watching her mother's struggles as her father takes a second wife, rebels and believes that she can find her freedom through a group of dancers. "But is that really true freedom? Especially when you are a kid? Of course not," says the director. Amy, relied on to perform many duties of a grown woman, struggling with her changing body, obsessed with what it means to become a woman, "is navigating her way in three cultures: her [Senegalese] family, French Western culture, and this hyper-real fiction of social media."
“Can we, as women, truly choose who we want to be, beyond the role models that are imposed upon us by society?" - Maïmouna Doucouré
Yet, throughout the movie, despite eroticism, despite indecency, despite indiscretions, we never lose sight of Amy and who she is as a person, even if she loses sight of it herself. By the end of Cuties, she finds this respect for both herself and others, which she had lost along the way. This itself is a message that women and girls in our society need to hear loud and clear. I only wish that Doucouré had understood her own message well enough to adhere to it in her art.
In my opinion, the proper use for Cuties is as education for parents and teachers, not as entertainment. Even though the French government has approved Cuties "for all audiences," I wouldn't recommend letting tweens watch it. I highly doubt that most young girls could pick up on the nuance of the film, and they would probably come away with a very different impression than a well-formed adult. Personally, I don't like that it’s on Netflix and readily available to many girls who may be inspired to emulate instead of critique.
"We are able to see oppression of women in other cultures. But my question is: isn't the objectification of a woman's body, that we often see in our Western culture, not another kind of oppression?" - Maïmouna Doucouré