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'More girls in hell': The ethics of Maïmouna Doucouré’s film, ‘Cuties’

‘More girls in hell’: The ethics of Maïmouna Doucouré’s film, ‘Cuties’

Cuties forces us to see the reality faced by young girls today.

When I first noticed my social media feeds exploding over Netflix’s advertisement for the French film MignonnesCuties, in the English version — followed by #CancelNetflix trending on Twitter after the film’s release on September 9th, I assumed it would be a one and a half hour long pre-pubescent twerking frenzy. Or, “Tweens Gone Wild Twerking for Freedom,” as Radical Girlsss put it.

The film was condemned as “sick and demonic;” the director was characterized as “another Hollywood pedo” (even though Cuties is not a Hollywood film); and Texas Senator Ted Cruz called for a judicial investigation.

Understandably, I assumed the worst. Then I watched it.

I was unexpectedly moved. More nuanced than I anticipated, the film was one more cultural artifact in a long line of “Exhibit As,” demonstrating that girls are under siege. Beyond outrage, I just felt sad, overwhelmed by what girls are up against as they are rushed down a steel-jaw trapped path on their way to “womanhood.”

Cuties is essentially a warning about what happens when we throw girls to the Big Tech/Big Porn/Big Pop Culture wolves: abandoning them to porn-inspired prescriptions about how they should act and be in the world. It is a social critique of what follows when we dismantle the guardrails and allow a misogynistic, violent, exhibitionist, internet culture to ravage girls — a culture that trains them to wield their immature bodies as currency; a culture that encourages girls on the outskirts of sexual maturity to present themselves as sexually mature and knowing; a culture that urges them to weaponize the limited tools at their disposal.

The experiences of African immigrant girls transplanted into French society is the basis for the film made in 2017 and screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where Senegalese-French director Maïmouna Doucouré (now on the receiving end of death threats) won the World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award.

Starring 14-year-old Fathia Youssouf as Amy, Cuties explores the lives of young girls growing up in the middle of two cultures — one demonizing female sexuality, the other exploiting it and calling it freedom — and the oppression inherent in both. Rolling Stone’s characterization of the film as “closer at times to a nature documentary than a handwringing melodrama” is right.

The film juxtaposes the teachings of Amy’s strict Senegalese-Muslim community (“Do you know where the devil is? In those naked women”) with the praise of the girl gang whose validation she yearns for (“They loved you! See how many likes we have?”) Having newly moved into a Parisian banlieue housing estate, with its poverty, overcrowding, and deprivation, it is not difficult to understand how our young protagonist might be tempted by the apparent freedom of her peers. In a jarring physical, mental, spiritual thunderclap at film’s end, she discovers the emancipation on offer is a delusion.

Those engaging with the film’s multiple layers were labelled child abusers and pedophiles; those expressing reservations were, at the other extreme, “terrified of child sexuality.” Wherever one lands, it is important to consider Maïmouna Doucouré’s motivations.

In her film, she determined to capture the experiences of girls from immigrant families living in Paris after witnessing a group of adolescents twerking publicly. She felt they were being robbed of their youth. Doucouré explained that she “recreated the little girl who I was at that age. Growing up in two cultures is what gave me the strength and the values I have today.” Adding, “As a child, that question of how to become a woman was my obsession.” She told a panel of film makers in Toronto that the idea for the film came to her after attending a neighbourhood gathering in Paris where she saw a group of 11-year-olds performing a “very sexual, very sensual” dance. She then spent a year and a half doing research and meeting with hundreds of preteens to prepare for the film. “I needed to know how they felt about their own femininity in today’s society and how they dealt with their self-image at a time when social media is so important…” In a video for Netflix, she explains:

“Our girls see that the more a woman is sexualized on social media, the more she’s successful… Children just imitate what they see to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning … And yeah, it’s dangerous.”

In an interview with Cineuropa, Doucouré spoke more specifically about social media’s power:

“I saw that some very young girls were followed by 400,000 people on social media and I tried to understand why. There were no particular reasons, besides the fact that they had posted sexy or at least revealing pictures: that is what had brought them this “fame.” Today, the sexier and the more objectified a woman is, the more value she has in the eyes of social media. And when you’re 11, you don’t really understand all these mechanisms, but you tend to mimic, to do the same thing as others in order to get a similar result. I think it is urgent that we talk about it, that a debate be had on the subject.”

How to become a woman… in Senegal and Europe

In their country of origin, 31 per cent of Senegalese girls are married before their 18th birthday, and nine per cent before they are 15. The prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) in women aged 15–49 is 22.7 per cent (as high as 77.8 per cent in the south). Some Senegalese women believe that FGM enhances marriage prospects. This often takes place during puberty, when many girls are considered ready to marry.

A 2015 report from the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) identifies the increase in the rate of sexual violence against women — including rape, the persistence of domestic violence, legal illiteracy, stigmatization of victims and of women fighting for their rights, fear of reprisals, difficulties in accessing justice infrastructures, and lack of female police and women’s shelters — as among the problems facing women and girls in Senegal. From this victim-blaming and cultural-silencing of women, Senegalese immigrant women find that not only do harmful cultural ideas and practices follow them, but now they are also confronted by new ones. Imagine the confusion, the disorientation.

In this new world, girls hate their bodies. They suffer anxiety and depression, eating disorders and self-harm, taking their own barely-lived lives at increasing rates. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescent girls between the ages of 10 and 19. A common factor given for such a dire situation is the negative effects of social media — especially in relation to body image. Add to this the experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, domestic violence, and poverty faced by girls, which have significant effects on mental health.

Research conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has also found an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder in this demographic. Refugees and migrants find themselves at particular risk.

It is between these worlds that Amy is learning how to become a woman. The film demonstrates Amy’s limited “choices”: conform to the rigid requirements of her family’s beliefs, accept that her father has taken a second wife, be silent in the face of the obvious torment of her mother, abide by the teachings of her religious elders to cover herself, and accept that she will go to hell if she doesn’t (“In hell, there will be many more women than men”); or conform to the culture around her, in which she longs to be accepted by her peers, to be liked by boys, to be physically attractive, and to use her budding body to secure a tiny bit of “power” — which none of the girls really have.

Amy watches pornified music videos under a black veil during a prayer meeting. That is her choice: wear a veil or be publicly sexual. From repression to hypersexualized. Two sides, same coin; the same lack of choice. Similarly, I have had stories of Muslim girls relayed to me of boys trying to pull off their veils at school: “We are objectified at home by our fathers and brothers. We come to school where we are objectified in other ways by the boys.”

Cuties lays bare the pressure to perform a copycat “sexuality” presented to them, especially online. Rather than exploring their own emerging sexuality, the girls (depicted as 11, the actual ages of the actresses are 13-14) are imitating or role-playing a normative, stereotyped pop-culture version of sexuality. When the girls practice their dance routine, they are merely simulating their wealthy and popular female hip hop idols.

These girls don’t even know what sex is. They don’t know how you get pregnant. One picks up a discarded condom and blows it up like a balloon — she really does not know what it is. Amy has not been prepared for her period. It seems there are no attentive parents to help them. Amy is the victim of a crisis — her father is more interested in his new wife, and her mother is paralyzed by distress and the need to survive.

In years of doing this work, I have met hundreds of girls who have felt the same pressures, who have taken inappropriate pics and shared them, who have sexualized themselves because that’s what they believe they are supposed to do. It’s “empowering” and “liberating” to self-objectify — the younger girls see an older girl in an opposing troupe flash a breast. A couple of weeks ago, Collective Shout’s post about WAP, which dared to critique this false version of empowerment, attracted a 5,000-strong troll attack on our social media pages.

Scenes designed to make us uncomfortable

The roughly five minutes of dance routines (less, in actuality, given the use of compositing for these scenes — an editing technique to limit how much the girls actually danced) in which the girls are shown twerking and grinding, fingers in mouths, the camera zooming into the crotch region, hands in fake stimulation are troubling. They should be. We have a visceral response. These scenes are designed to make us very uncomfortable. We are outraged, as we should be. As my friend, actor Anna McGahan, said to me, “[Amy is] using the same medium all the video clips use to make us compare the naïve children we’re journeying with to the suddenly adult/dressed up/sexualized ‘teens’ we watch every day without thinking. It’s supposed to make us uncomfortable.” Contrary to the massive stockpile of depersonalized representations of women, perhaps these scenes are all the more shocking for the opposite reason: because the girls have become personal to us before these jarring scenes.

Still, there is an ethical principle at stake: do we treat human beings as means or ends? And the complexity here is that in trying to make a serious ethical point about girls and sexuality, the girls may have been used unwittingly — but still inappropriately — to a noble end. The scene could have been filmed differently, from a greater distance, certainly not panning to their small arching backsides and crotches. While we appreciate the intention of the director in confronting us with the reality of life for an 11-year-old, these are real children.

Yes, the young actors matter.

Poor filming choices and the ensuing backlash has, in a whirlwind of accusations, collapsed what was intended as a work of protest into classification as a “porn” production. But do these questionable filming choices make Cuties a film that “promotes pedophilia”? I am not persuaded.

There are other scenes which have been given less attention, which I experienced as similarly disconcerting. Amy and her friends sneak into a laser tag venue without paying. A male security guard threatens to call their parents. The manager approaches. They have just qualified for the dance contest final and are desperate to get there. To secure their freedom, Amy dances provocatively for the men. The manager’s leering gaze leads to the result of letting the girls go free.

At another point, after her older male cousin discovers she has stolen his mobile phone, Amy starts removing her clothes in an effort to try to keep it (with great relief, he expresses shock and turns away). The scene where she photographs her genitals is also an extreme attempt at acceptance and to appear as woman not child (her genitals are not shown). None of this is uncommon, which is the point. No one is standing over her or bullying or blackmailing her into it with threats — the culture has done the grooming. Without the guidance and protection of caring, wise, responsible adults, girls like this become easy pickings because of their emotional immaturity.

The ritual “exorcism” scene, in which Amy’s mother and aunt attempt to purify her by dousing her with water, is profoundly distressing. The drenched child, in singlet and underwear, trembles violently — I read this as a trauma response. Her convulsing body was, perhaps deliberately, reminiscent of the bodily contortions of her dance routine.

Social media hellscape

My interpretation of Cuties is that the film asks us to consider: Where do the real “demons” manifest in the life of this child? Does the reference to there being “more women in hell than men” suggest that the world Amy and her friends are trying to survive is, in fact, a hellscape, whose online demons are intent on consuming them alive? From selfies, perfect-bodied (read: surgically altered) “Instagram influencers,” OnlyFans, Twitter, and Snapchat Premium, where young women (including those who are underage) monetize their youth, selling explicit content of themselves for money and gifts; to predators trawling the Instagram pages of pre-pubescent girls, seeking to chat with them, describing their fantasies, capturing their images for dedicated pedophile forums, masturbating to their live chats.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, more underage girls have remarked to me on the numbers of men offering to be their “sugar daddies.” In a world where COVID-19 has pulled the employment rug out from under them and made them even more vulnerable, such offers can begin to look attractive.

Girls share their black and blue bodies as part of TikTok’s #365days challenge, thereby imitating the sexual injury seen on a trending film on Netflix — what has been described as the “memeification of violent sex.” The #WAPChallenge on TikTok — to re-create Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s moves — has attracted 2.6 billion views. Cancel Netflix if you like, but, in the interests of consistency, you might want to add these platforms to the delete list while you’re at it.

Cuties has been condemned as eroding boundaries. In fact, the boundaries were dismantled a long time ago. The normalization of a pedophilic aesthetic in products and advertising has not received a fraction of the outrage that has been directed at this film.

So, for examples, Toddlers & Tiaras-style child beauty pageants arguably constitute a form child abuse, with three-year-olds dressed as Dolly Parton (complete with fake breasts) and Julia Robert’s “Pretty Woman” in grotesque pantomimes, strutting and preening before the judges.

As I was writing this article, I came across Dance Moms, and was confronted with what I consider to be a prosti-tot horror show. These girls — far younger than the Cuties actors — dance provocatively and slap their backsides while wearing costumes almost identical to those in the film, though often with the addition of fishnet stockings. (Some have multiple Instagram “fan” pages populated by thousands of older men.) Coach Abby Lee barks at them:

“You have to be hot and sexy — make it like you’re 17 years old … more butt, it’s all about the butt!”

Not only have I not seen any mass movement mobilized against this abomination (#CancelDanceMoms or even #Boycottchannel9), but there is even a petition to get the show onto Netflix. All 212 episodes.

A moment of grace

The end of Cuties is deeply affecting, arriving as a brief moment of grace. On stage, in the midst of her sexualized routine, Amy has an awakening. In tears, she rushes from the stage before the end of the performance and into the arms of her mother. Her aunt and purity enforcer calls her niece a “whore.” For the first time, her mother defends and protects her.

In an act of radical defiance, Amy’s mother tells her daughter she doesn’t have to attend her father’s wedding. Amy, now smiling, puts on jeans and a shirt, leaving her “Cuties” outfit and traditional gown on her bed, and walks into the sunshine where she jumps rope — a symbolic return to normal childhood. It is an evocative glimpse, in the film’s final seconds, of what freedom to be a child looks like.

Unfortunately, a few minutes of inappropriate, ethically problematic filming has buried the broader, urgent message at a time when we need it most. But maybe these parting moments could be taken as a redeeming element and firm us in our resolve to defend our girls and stop betraying them, given this is the world we have created for them.

Melinda Tankard Reist is author/editor of six books, including Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls and Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry. She is also Movement Director of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation.

This article was originally published at ABC and is repulished with permission.

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