I've seen a lot of people get upset over this film recently, and say the filmmakers exploited children and made child pornography. It all started when Netflix released a piece of promo for the film that showed the young stars of the film in provocative dance positions. At first, knowing nothing of the film, I thought it was a bad poster for a tasteless cheerleading movie. So, I mostly ignored the whole thing, because I thought, I'm not watching a movie that exploits children. Isn't that what "Dance Moms" is? (I don't know, I've never seen it) Then someone shared an article that was titled "We Watched Netflix's 'Cuties' So You Don't Have To" and they were asking their friends and followers to sign a petition to have it removed from Netflix. That's when I decided I needed to watch it, because I'm not letting anyone make judgments for me.
After reading about the director's inspiration and then watching the film, I understand people's concerns, but they have grossly misunderstood the film; or rather, have not even bothered to understand it. If they did, they'd realize that they and the director are on the same side. So, I'm going to break down for you why I think this film is actually really important for thoughtful, intelligent, and engaged adults to watch, converse about, and maybe even take some action for positive change. Then I'm going to share my thoughts on whether the filmmakers took it too far and "exploited children." Could this story have been told without seeing 11-year-olds twerk and do other questionable things? (Side note: I'm feeling very deja vu about this post. Didn't I just write something somewhat similar regarding Shakira and J.Lo's Super Bowl Halftime performance?)
First though...whoever at Netflix conceptualized and signed off on the key art that started this whole debacle should be fired. It was not only poor work, but grossly unrepresentative of the film. And trust me, I understand the business of key art that "sells" and key art that is "art," this was definitely not the latter, but it wasn't the former either. If I were the director, Maïmouna Doucouré, or anyone else involved with the film, I'd be pissed. And maybe they are. Not that anyone ever asks the director what they think of key art or other marketing choices. What this key art did, was take a part of the film out of context, and arranged it in such a way that should piss everyone off, because whoever decided these are the images from the film to stick on the key art with the English translation of the title "Cuties" are the real pervs around here. They are the ones exploiting children. I could be wrong, but I'm assuming it was sick men behind this poor decision.
Second, I hate to generalize, but I'm going to do it here and possibly ruffle a few feathers. This is a French film. So, most of the people upset about this film, not only haven't seen it, but probably don't even normally watch non-English language films. With this being a French film, there is a critical cultural difference to be considered. I believe it is generally known that one of the major differences between European and American film/television is that while Americans tolerate far more violence and shun sex, sex is far less of a taboo in Europe. One of my favorite comedies is a Danish series called "Klown," which also resulted in a feature length film. In the film, there was one scene that involves a young child and what Americans would find grossly inappropriate (I'm sure some would even call it child pornography), but most Europeans wouldn't bat an eye and just find it funny. Maybe they'd find it uncomfortably funny, or even just uncomfortable as I did because I'm sometimes still a prude American. But I don't think they would watch that scene and think child exploitation. Mignonnes is not a comedy though, and you're supposed to be uncomfortable, because it's an examination of the effects of a hypersexualized culture on today's youth. This isn't just a film, it's a conversation, and it's a blatant and necessary mirror being held up to question what we're doing to our youth. I see and hear it all the time--children are growing up far faster than they ever have and sometimes it's really terrifying. So how can we help them grow up through the confusion and through the pressures of a hypersexualized world that surrouds them through social media and pop culture?
If you're not yet familiar with what the story is about, Mignonnes follows Amy (pronounced Ah-mee), an 11-year-old girl from a conservative Senegalese family living in Paris, who wants to join a dance group called Mignonnes (Cuties) made up of a group of (probably) who she views as the "cool" girls at school. The girls want to enter a dance contest and imitate the dance moves they see on YouTube and social media. What I took away from this film was that Amy was curious and drawn into a world so different to her own traditional Muslim and African culture. What she faces is actually very relatable for many girls, especially tweens and teens trying to find their identity and place in the world. Amy throws herself into this different world, and even goes too far when she appears to take a photo of her girl parts and shares it on social media. Even her new friends, who are weirdly dressed like cheap 90's prostitutes throughout the film (and yes it's uncomfortable but I'll get into that later), call her out on it and [SPOILER ALERT] kick Amy off the dance team. Throughout the film we watch Amy go through quite a turbulent identity crisis and it should shake you, it should make you uncomfortable, and it should make you want to reach out to her, hug her, be there for her, and change the world for her.
What triggers Amy's rebellion is the discovery of her father bringing home a second wife. How could her dad do this to her mom? If the conservative traditional family is supposed to be "good," then why is this happening? Her mother has no control over her own life, and must simply accept that her husband has decided to take a second wife. How is that good? When Amy runs into a girl (Angelica) in the laundry room of their building who is provocatively dancing and ironing her hair on the ironing board, she sees a totally free spirit. When you finally see the girl's face and see that the girl is the same age as Amy, it's not only uncomfortable, but it's sad. Why is this little girl dancing so provocatively? What Amy goes through is very relatable, especially for someone living between cultures. As a daughter of immigrants, I completely understand this. As if puberty wasn't confusing enough, add in multicultural confusion and you can very easily lose yourself at times. Moreover, any child who grows up in a strict environment can relate to the deep desire for a sense of freedom. Just think of the stereotypical Catholic school girl. Aren't they known to be some of the most rebellious teens and tweens out there? I'm not saying provocative and over-sexualized behavior is okay and acceptable. In fact, in many ways I'm quite the prude and traditionalist. But we need to look hard in the mirror, swallow and digest what we see. Why are our kids growing up so quickly these days? How have we as a society allowed this? Haven't any of you looked back on your youth and wished you didn't "grow up" so fast? So how can we help today's and tomorrow's youth?
What we learn about these girls in this film, is that Angelica and her band of ill-dressed friends just want to dance and enter a dance competition. What we learn is that they're immature, and that the hypersexualized world around them is telling them that this is how to behave. There's a scene when they get Amy to try to film a boy in the loo while he's taking a piss, and what this reminded me of was kids pantsing each other in middle school. It's so childish, and no it's not okay behavior, but kids do this sh*t and think it's funny. There's another scene when the girls are outside somewhere and one of them finds a used condom, but doesn't know it and blows it up. The other girls freak out and tell her she's going to get AIDS. Yeah it's gross and they show a level of immaturity regarding sex. We would be turning a blind eye and doing our kids a disservice if we thought they didn't know anything about sex at 11-years-old, even if what they know is inaccurate or superficial. This scene actually shows the innocence they still have, and that they are living in a transitional and transformative age when they are starting to learn about adult things. Probably one of the most significant scenes is one between Amy and Angelica, showing them in Amy's apartment sitting on the bed shoving gummy bears in their mouths. It's reminding us that these are just kids, and they do kid things, and would probably much rather just be able to be kids. In this scene we get to understand Angelica's situation and why she is the way she is. It's sad and heartbreaking.
From a story perspective, I don't feel like the ending is clear. During their big performance, which is where the Netflix poster images come from, Amy finally has a come to Jesus moment, but it's not clear what triggers this. But she clearly has a moment because she freaks out, runs home and into her mother's arms, and comes out dressed like a kid again with the film ending on her jumping rope with other kids.
I think this film will resonate with many women if we're truly honest with ourselves. We all go through puberty and when we look back on those years I think most of us would probably say we were naive and confused, and probably did stupid things and followed stupid trends. We didn't know what we were doing. Maybe we didn't all go to some of the extremes Amy did, but our pubescent years can be confusing as our bodies change. So, could this story have been told without showing little girls gyrating and humping the floor? I'm not sure, but here are a few of my thoughts on particular aspects of the film.
One big complaint I noticed was close-ups of the girls' crotches. Were those necessary? Probably not. I don't know Maïmouna Doucouré, but I'm willing to bet she didn't shoot close-ups to please sickos. If you know anything about the French, it's all about beautiful aesthetics. Last week, while watching a Formula 1 race, my husband and I literally had this conversation about how the French are all about beauty, about "panache." A Frenchman won that race, and everyone celebrated in a way I didn't see when France won the World Cup a couple years ago. My husband explained to me that this driver was not expected to win and had the odds stacked against him, but then finished the race "beautifully." During the World Cup, France didn't win because they were the best or that they played well. In fact, in a number of their games they seemed to just get lucky. French people want a beautiful finish and a beautiful story. My point is that I think Maïmouna Doucouré, as the director, was considering the aesthetics of the film. Furthermore, after initially writing this post, I read her Op-Ed in The Washington Post, which is a MUST READ, and she said that after speaking with over a hundred 11 and 12-year-old girls, if the film feels uncomfortable, it's also because being an 11-year-old girl is uncomfortable. From a prude American's standpoint, I personally may not have shot close-ups of the girls' crotches, and I don't feel it was necessary to the story. On the other hand, maybe it drives the discomfort home. It should be noted that the filmmakers were very mindful of the kids' ages. There was a trained counselor on set, and the film was approved by the French government's child protection authorities. The sad and gross thing, is that unfortunately, there are sickos out there who may see this film. And perhaps in today's day and age where everything is at our finger tips, we need to consider not just who we want to see the film, but who we don't want to see the film. That being said, would the sickos have known about this movie if it weren't for all this hooplah and Netflix's horrible promo? .
Let's talk about the girls, their looks, and their dance moves. I think one of my biggest issues with this film is the wardrobe decision for the main girls in this film, but not necessarily because of how uncomfortably skimpy their outfits were. They're all in tight crop tops and skin tight skirts. Even if they were trying to emulate older girls or women, my thought was who dresses like this today? They look like cheap prostitutes from the 90's. They just looked outdated to me. Maybe there are people who dress like that today, but I feel like that was poor wardrobe choice. I even tried to reason some of it in my head, like, crop tops are in. I love a good crop top. But did they need to make it all hoochie mama looking? However, perhaps this was another element that drove the intentional discomfort home. When you think about it, it's kind of like a Pinterest vs. Reality situation. You think you're making a bunny cake, but you wind up with a dick cake. That being said, when I was in middle school in the early 2000's, there was a HORRIBLE fashion trend that I remember one mom equated to being bra-less in the 70's. That trend was playing peeky-boo with your thong. It was like the girl version of sagging your pants. 11 to 13-year-olds shouldn't be wearing thongs in the first place! (or is that just the prude in me coming out?). If you look at the other dance groups in the film though, they weren't dressed the same. The stark contrast between these 11-year-old wannabes and the other dance groups also shows their child-like misconception of what it means to be an adult. I think many of us can relate to wanting to be older when we're kids and playing "dress-up." The other thing this reminded me of is Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton made herself to look the way she does because she saw the town "trash" as people referred to her, with big boobs, big hair, red lips, and thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world and wanted to look just like her. We're influenced by what we see and what we know. These girls in the movie are merely reflecting the world around them.
As for their dance moves, if they were dressed different and they didn’t make sexy, pouty faces, I think the reaction would be different. Although I’m sure some ultra conservatives would take issue with the dance moves no matter what. But I went to middle school and high school in the early 2000’s and if anyone remembers school dances then, then I don’t even need to say a word about it.
Something I've thought a lot about, probably since I was a teenager, is what does it mean to own your sexuality? And I don't mean sexuality in terms of whether you're gay, straight, bi, or other. I mean, so often we hear sexuality equated with liberation, especially for women. But for a young person, this can be confusing, because the emphasis on this can make it feel like you're not free if you aren't "sexually free," and I just don't think that's true. What does "sexually free" even mean? Being in control of your own body is freedom, and that looks different to different people. But I think where we go wrong, and where we fail our youth is putting an emphasis on freedom being tied to our bodies, to our sexuality, to how we look. Knowledge is also freedom. Financial security is also freedom. Being comfortable with who we are is freedom. Having a safe home we can turn to is freedom.
So, could this film have been shot more "PG" and still achieve what it has? Perhaps certain things could have been tweaked, but really all Doucouré has done is hold up a mirror for us to take a hard look in, encourage a conversation, and (hopefully) push us to figure out how we give our kids the tools they need to thrive without feeling like sexualizing their bodies is the way to adulthood and popularity. How do we help them process and separate what they see on social media and pop culture from their own lives so they can gain a healthy understanding and relationship with themselves? As an adult, even I struggle with the pressures of social media from time to time. Despite knowing that not everything we see on social is the whole picture, it can still make you feel inadequate. So, I can only imagine the pressures kids these days feel.
I'm actually sad that people have not taken the time to understand this film, and instead turned it into a controversial issue. This film doesn't sexualize children, it challenges the culture and social pressures we are bombarded with every day that are sexualizing our children. I personally, want to thank Maïmouna Doucouré for making this film. Last summer, when I found out I was pregnant, I didn't want to have a girl. I know you're not supposed to say that. You're supposed to say, "it doesn't matter boy or girl, as long as it's healthy." but for the reasons Doucouré told this story, I was afraid to have a girl. Sure, we've come a long way and more than ever we're fighting for gender equality, but the world is still a brutal place for a girl. Now, after having my son, I feel more prepared to have a girl, though I can't totally explain why. However, this film reminded me even more so of how important it is to have open and honest conversations with our kids and to really take the time to understand what they're going through and what their world is like. Yes, 11-year-olds, and 17-year-olds for that matter, are children, but they're not blind and they're not stupid. I have had the opportunity to speak with many young students and as fast as they're growing up, they're even smarter. They're still kids in many ways, but they're smart. If we can be there for them, provide them with the right tools to navigate things they're too young to fully understand even if they think they know what's up, maybe we wouldn't have a bunch tweens twerking around.
By the way, I saw some people say that if the filmmakers wanted to cover the topic then they should've made a documentary. This argument fails for two reasons. 1) You reach different audiences and connect with them differently when you shoot a doc as opposed to a narrative film. 2) You'd still be filming girls twerking.
One other thing I'd like to add is that the extreme reaction to this film is actually more harmful to girls, because you're indirectly shaming them for exploring and trying to make sense of themselves and how they fit in in this world. At varying degrees, many girls can relate to what Amy and the other girls are going through, so when we shame them for this behavior--whether indirectly or directly--we're closing the door to communication with our kids when we really need to keep it open so we can help them navigate their lives. It's like knowing someone in an abusive relationship and shutting the doors of communication on them, making them feel even more trapped and uncertain, and putting them in even more danger.
Please at least read Doucouré's Op-Ed. Then, if you feel like being part of the conversation, if you want to understand a little bit of what an 11-year-old's life may look like so that we might do something about the increasingly hypersexualized world we live in, then I encourage you to watch the film.