The Netflix film, Cuties, generated much controversy even before it was released on the platform. My take: Cuties would work in a perfect world, but our world is anything but.
Here’s what I mean: Cuties would work if it could be released exclusively to an audience of only adult women. It creeps me out to think of a guy, any guy, watching this film. In this imperfect world of ours where fathers rape daughters and uncles touch little girls inappropriately, I am disgusted with the thought of those kind of men watching these pre-pubescent girls twerk.
Yet, that is the philosophical dilemma of societal commentary: in an attempt to comment on the hyper sexualized world that we live in, Cuties, itself, ends up hyper sexualized. And when I say hyper sexualized, I really, really mean it.
Aminatu and the other girls in the Cuties dance group break out some moves I have not even seen grown women do.
A Short Synopsis for those who haven’t seen it:
Cuties follows the story of an eleven-year-old girl, Amy Diop, who has just moved into a new housing project in Paris along with her mother and two little brothers. We learn that her father is back in Senegal, taking a new, younger wife and would be joining them soon after. Amy seeks solace in a girl dance group called “Cuties.” The Cuties are desperate to prove they are not little girls. They bare their midriffs, dance suggestively, and use curse words. Throughout the film, we see Amy struggle to balance her home life and her Muslim-Senegalese upbringing with the dramatic “freedom” that the Cuties’ lifestyle seems to offer.
A Critical Look At Cuties
- Westernization (West is Better) Narrative
- Portrayal and Treatment of Women/Girls
Westernization (West is Better) Narrative
1. The protagonist’s name is Aminatu. If it is to be shortened, the spelling should be “Ami,” not the Western-friendly “Amy.” Yet, even the Netflix subtitles have it as “Amy.” Aminatu and her family are newcomers. It’s unclear whether they are new to that particular area (housing project) of Paris or if they just arrived from Senegal, the latter being more likely. Either way, Aminatu is new to the area, new to the school, and she does not even get the dignity of having her name spelled right. In Aminatu’s first direct interaction with the Cuties, they accost her: throwing her books to the ground and calling her names, among which, is “Senegal.”
Of course, Aminatu internalizes this “West is Better” narrative and adopts her Western identity. On her social media page, Aminatu spells her name “Amy.” Every immigrant with a non-Western name can relate to Aminatu’s experience. As someone with a non-Western name, it is interesting to see the director, Maïmouna Doucouré, commit the same blunder she seems to be critiquing.
2. In pop culture, there is an existing narrative that Western culture equals “free” and “uninhibited” while non-Western culture/families are negatively portrayed as “conservative” and “restrictive.” And of course, in this narrative, Western is better, sending a clear message to non-Western people that “if you can just be Western, you will be happy.”
Doucouré initially plays into this dichotomy: Amy is laughing and care-free when she is wearing crop tops and rehearsing with the Cuties; but is stone-faced as she sits through another prayer lesson Then, Doucouré dismantles the narrative:
When we first meet Aminatu, she takes the time to torture her little brother with ghost stories so he can sleep; she playfully portions out cereal for him. She even takes the time to tuck her baby brother to sleep. This is “restrictive” non-Western Aminatu.
When Amy becomes “free,” her mother falls to the ground in a faint and Amy cannot even be bothered to get up from the dinner table. She locks her little brother in a bathroom for (probably) hours so he doesn’t bother her and her new friend. She steals from her mother, pushes one of her “friends” into the river so she could take her place in the dance team, and posts nude pictures. This is Western Amy.
Doucouré cleverly draws a comparison between Amy and Aminatu and asks the viewer to judge: who is really “happy”?
I don’t know, but I think I’d take Aminatu.
Portrayal and Treatment of Women/Girls
1. But life’s not perfect for Aminatu either. And this is arguably what pushes her to be a Cutie. After all, if her mother – who was doing everything right – could still lose her husband to a second wife, what was the point of being a “good” woman?
Although only eleven, Aminatu is already being groomed to be a “woman” and in so many African (pardon my generalization), that usually comes with a ton of responsibility. Less than five minutes into the film, Amy has to sit with much older women as they listen to an off-camera speaker expound on the importance of piety and virtue while Ismaeli, her little brother, sits only a few feet away engaging in carefree play.
Right after this, Aminatu walks in on a girl her age dancing with care free abandon. Aminatu is fascinated by the very idea of being so unencumbered, so “apparently” childish.
Of course, we’d come to see that the dancing is anything but childish.
2. Mariam’s – Aminatu’s mother – situation is the plight of so many women in West Africa. Although hurt and embarrassed by her husband’s decision to take another wife, she is forced to bury her emotions, her thoughts, herself because (in our society) that’s what it means to “be a real woman.” After all, a “real” woman is one that is perfectly fine with her husband sleeping with another woman just down the hall from her children’s room.
2. On Hyper sexualization
I don’t think I can ever watch another music video without wondering if the video vixen is gyrating to the music because she wants to or because she thinks she has to. I think the saddest part of this whole film is the hypocrisy that it reveals in our society. We live in a society where “sex sells,” and not much is done to protect little children from that. So, to be completely affronted and shocked when little girls mimic what they see on their television screens or on the trending section of YouTube is not just hypocritical, it is a little sad. Banning Cuties will not solve the societal problem of hyper sexuality but in true hegemonic fashion, anything that shines a light on the dark underbelly of society must go.
Cuties is an educational film. Doucouré does a fantastic job commenting on so many aspects of society: the oppression of women, hyper sexualization, immigrant struggles, even bulimia. At one point, she shows Yasmine forcing herself to throw up in the bathroom before she rejoins the Cuties, commenting on the horrific societal standard that a girl (in this case, Yasmine) can only be a part of the group if she is skinny.
Yet, the ending of the film leaves a little much to be desired. Aminatu’ story is resolved too quickly and there are no consequences for her behavior. She posts a nude picture of herself online and almost drowns a friend, but because the last scene shows her wearing age-appropriate clothes and playing jump rope, all is forgiven and forgotten?
Cuties both works and doesn’t. The director falls into the same traps she is criticizing but at least she shines a light on this broken part of our society. We can do better. Our black girls deserve better.