There’s been a lot of controversy over the Netflix film Cuties, with it being categorized by some as encouraging pedophilia and others as a Black feminist critique of the sexualization of girls, without much in between.
If I’m being honest, my personal response to the film upon initially seeing the trailer was disgust. However, many people I respect, admire, and consider intelligent people with an investment in protecting Black girls by working to destroy cultures that harm them defended the film, leading me to believe there had to be something in it that I was missing and prompting me to watch it against my better judgement. What I quickly learned was that this was not a movie for Black girls.
The screenwriter and director herself has said the film was not for children.
“I wanted to open people’s eyes to what’s truly happening in schools and on social media, forcing them to confront images of young girls made up, dressed up and dancing suggestively to imitate their favorite pop icon. I wanted adults to spend 96 minutes seeing the world through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl, as she lives 24 hours a day.” – Maïmouna Doucouré
That intention is very evident in the film.
At the start of the film, I was introduced to Amy – a young Sengalese Muslim girl living in France whose homelife is poverty and drudgery. Her dad is not around and has also taken a second wife, her mom is distant as she copes with her husband bringing another woman into her home and Amy is being crushed under the weight of her responsibilities at home and the oppression of her religious upbringing, while watching western non-traditional/religious – mostly non-Black – girls live their best, liberated lives wearing tight clothes, posting selfies trying to emulate the sexuality of adult icons, twerking, stealing, fighting, bullying and being carefree. Amy envies those girls and seeks to become accepted by them through copying their behaviors, learning how to twerk and parrot sexuality from the media she’s consuming, to lie, sneak, and steal in order to prove her merit to them. She eventually becomes so good at these things that she is even teaching the other girls to be better at them.
Time to be honest again, I did not finish the film. I made it 61 of 96 minutes before it became completely unwatchable for me. At the time I stopped watching, Amy and the other young girls who are central to the film were dancing on a staircase, biting their fingers, bent over, shot from behind with a camera zooming in for close ups of their butts and crotches as they twerked. I can only assume these are the moments that Maïmouna Doucouré and other defenders of the film are referencing when they call parts of the film “uncomfortable to watch” as a cute (pun intended) way to describe sexual exploitation and lewd imagery of actual minor children.
Cuties does not depict childhood, particularly girlhood, particularly Black girlhood in a real, authentic, humanizing and graceful way. And what I mean by graceful is not that it has to be cute and serene and that it cannot be rough and raw, but that there is grace in the ways that we talk about, among, with, and for Black people even at our roughest and rawest that is evident in depictions of our experiences by folks who see the humanity in each of us. Cuties does not reserve that grace for Black girlhood, for Black family, for Black community, for Black existence.
In its effort to show the effects of outside influence – of bullying, of peer pressure, social media – it misses the significance of what happens at home and what home and community signifies for Black girls beyond a cliche, hollow, depiction of Black poverty and an oppressive religious culture. What is her relationship with her mother? How do they communicate with one another? I don’t know a Black girl who, if given a pen to write a story about her life, wouldn’t write about the dynamic between her and her mother or other parental figure. Failing to flesh out the relationships and community that make Amy who she is is failing to explore Black girlhood in a comprehensive way, in a humanizing way, in a way that makes us really understand and relate to this girl.
Which makes sense when you understand the movie is not about the girl. The girl is a plot device. The girl is a means to an end. She’s a political tool to tell an adult narrative, of and for an adult woman. Amy is a proxy to express the frustrations of adult Black women who didn’t feel seen, or heard, or protected or liberated in their recollections of childhood, and Cuties is being defended and celebrated by these same women who want their traumas seen and validated and are fully comfortable exploiting, abusing, and walking over actual Black girls to accomplish this. Any conversation in defense of Cuties is not about children, not about Black girls, not about protecting Black girls as they exist today. It is not about standing up for Black girls but about adults trying to reconcile their childhood, trying to get the vindication they feel they deserve for their childhoods without considering the ways that as now-adults, they are actively violent toward and harmful to Black girls.
“This film is my own story. All my life, I have juggled two cultures: Senegalese and French… 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.” – Maïmouna Doucouré
When we talk about liberating and protecting Black childhood, healing the traumas from our childhoods is important. But protecting Black childhood as it exists today, for Black children as they exist today, is the ultimate goal in that liberation. This movie was actively harmful to Black girls and girlhood, reducing it to stereotypes and cliches of the most obscene behaviors without ever giving girls an actual voice. Cuties spectates Black girlhood in the most disconnected, disjointed, unreal ways, through the lens of someone trying to reassemble fragments of their long gone childhood, with no sense of the children in the story as actual beings. If we’re telling stories of children, why are children not empowered to tell them? What is gained by engaging Black girls not as authorities on their own experiences – as having their own voices and capacity to speak for themselves – but as needing adults disconnected from their reality to tell the world what their experience is through an adult lens, using them however we please in the process?
You cannot want to protect Black girls, and love Black girls, and want to liberate Black girls as they exist today and subject them to all that is this movie and the conversation around it. Dressing actual Black girls in tight clothing and short shorts (clothing specifically chosen for the purpose of the film to make them as sexualized as possible for an adult agenda) day after day, instructing them to bend over, get lower, gyrate differently for adult strangers as a film crew (also of adult strangers) zooms in closer and closer to their behinds and crotches for multiple takes to produce a film that literally any adult stranger can watch in their homes is an indefensible violence. These girls are objectified, exposed and displayed in ways that adult strangers all around the world should not have access to them. Especially when we know how traumatizing these types of roles and acts in filming can be even for adult actors.
This film is not love or advocacy or care.
The insidiousness of how we view Black children is that we don’t see them as real, valid humans experiencing things, living things, learning things, feeling things in real time. We see our own pains that we experienced in childhood, we see the ways that we deserve to be healed from the pains that we experienced in childhood, we see what we feel we would have wanted or were owed when we were children. We see receptacles for our trauma and blank canvases to project anything we want onto. What we don’t see is what we owe to them, how our own behaviors are actively harmful to and exploitive of them, and the responsibility we have to put their needs above our own.
It’s not okay or valid to harm Black girls in the effort to liberate our own childhoods. And this film and the conversations around it do exactly that.
First, I really like your prose and explanations, because this was really well thought out. However, I think this may be asking too much of a 90 min movie, and there’s a massive blindspot as to the realities of being both Black and the child of immigrants. For many Black children in predominantly White places, there’s often a battle internally for assimilation between the two cultures. For Black children of immigrants, it’s three cultures, and that’s a pretty significant lift. I did not feel my teenage years were graceful, and the creator admits to wanting to paint and authentic picture of teenagerhood from that lens. It’s called teen angst after all. I wouldn’t expect it to be graceful.
The movie is a lot of discomfort and sexualization, and I almost think trying to tell that story gracefully would lessen the discomfort of how f*ed up it all is. At least the main character has nuance and is clearly trying to balance the three worlds as she figures out her identity. This is admittedly more prominent later in the film, as are her familial relationships.
We do see in the end of the movie evidence of the previously invisible support from her mother, and I quite liked that juxtaposition of a pre-teen feeling alone (as many do) and then having a clear line of defense from the world by her mother. The final scenes make sense of the insanity and discomfort in the earlier parts, and are (imo) vital to accurate judgment of the movie. I really did enjoy reading this, thank you for your time!
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Thank you for reading and I appreciate the thoughtful response. I think where we disagree is that you are still trying to apply an adult analysis to Black childhood, which is the anti-Black childism that embodies this movie and that I speak to in this piece. I’m well aware of all of the things you outlined and described. The issue is that this movie doesn’t explore who Amy (who the young Black girl main) is but instead who adults think she is, not how she feels and what matters to her but what adults think she is and motivates her behaviors (even adults who used to be girls) and what they think motivate her behavior. I can look at my 5 year old and say, “she’s probably doing these things for these reasons because that’s what I remember being 5 to be like” but when I ask her directly, her 5 year old explanation of her feelings and experience will be wholly different.
As far as the question of grace, I specified that you can show things that are rough, raw, real and uncomfortable in a way that still shows and preserves grace and humanization of Black people. This piece does not humanize Amy but instead treats her as a thing. That is what I mean by a lack of grace. And because an actual 13 year old girl Black girl played her, an actual very young, preteen Black girl was objectified and treated like a disposable thing, sexualized and objectified for an adult to find her voice. That is anti-Black childism, something that we could all stand to confront, unpack and be mindful of. How are we harming Black children in the process of getting our stories told?
Even if we don’t agree, I really do appreciate you taking the time to read and share your thoughts!
If the director is pulling from her childhood experience then the character in the film is a reflection of that. You say lack of grace but keep in mind that if this was an American film you’d probably get that but this is a foreign film and you’re not gonna get grace in portrayals. You’re gonna get raw, uncomfortable scenes that drive the point the movie is making. To be honest, American films tend to chicken out on these subjects because people don’t wanna see the truth in how messed up society is in how we present little girls.
Its weird to me that folks hated this film but have zero problems with shows like Dance Moms and Toddlers & Tiaras. Shame cause this movie could’ve sparked a nuance conversation but Netflix’s marketing screwed it up.
An adult is no more qualified to depict childhood than a rich person is to depict poverty. Period. We live in a society that runs on childism in which the experiences of childhood are only considered valid as extensions of our adult experiences and not standalone experiences. You not understanding childism is not my issue.
It’s cute how folks keep responding to me while having failed to read comprehensively or lacked the comprehension to understand what I wrote. You respond about my critique of the lack of grace to tell me how it was raw neglecting to acknowledge where I clearly state “And what I mean by graceful is not that it has to be cute and serene and that it cannot be rough and raw, but that there is grace in the ways that we talk about, among, with, and for Black people even at our roughest and rawest that is evident in depictions of our experiences by folks who see the humanity in each of us.” barely a few paragraphs in.
You can make a critique of sexualizing children without subjecting actual children to degradation and sexualization to make that critique and calling it raw doesn’t change the fact that it is childism. And idk who you’re used to talking to that has no issues with Dance Moms and Toddlers & Tiaras, but we condemn all commodification and sexualization of children round these parts. It being foreign doesn’t make it more valid. Project your desire to sexualize children and defense of it elsewhere.