To write any sort of commentary on “Cuties,” the controversial French film written and directed by Maïmouna Doucouré, I knew I had to watch it. Based on the heated reception and questionable promotional poster, I assumed the sexual content of the film would detract from any message it tried to make.
Instead, I find this film to be bold, heart-wrenching and relatable. But a troubling question remains: Is the hypersexualization present in “Cuties” a moral way to advocate against the societal hypersexualization of children?
One thing’s for certain: it was disturbingly effective.
The film revolves around Amy, an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant with a desire to detach herself from the stringent nature of her Muslim upbringing. In doing so, she befriends a group of girls hoping to compete in a dance competition. They expose her to lifestyles far removed from what she’s been exposed to in her household, igniting a streak of rebellion.
The particular clash that the film hinges on is the modesty of her family contrasted with the promiscuous pop-culture endorsed by Amy’s newfound friends. At first, the Internet-entrenched girls who reluctantly adopt Amy into their circle are exactly what she wants, but slowly their behavior has an objectifying effect.
After they tease her for having a flat backside, she can’t help but ogle at the curves of the women in her family, as if she’s never noticed before. Amy then begins to practice dancing in her bathroom, and even studies provocative music videos during a religious gathering. She teaches the other “cuties” dance moves that strongly resemble the dance to the viral Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion single “WAP.”
To put it succinctly, Amy is having womanhood and sex imposed on her as an 11-year-old from both sides of the spectrum. Her great aunt retells the story of getting married at Amy’s age and states her wish that Amy will find a similar destiny. Meanwhile, her mother has to wait idly by as Amy’s father prepares to marry a second wife, a fact that exacerbates the main conflict of the film. At school and with her friends, Amy is dressing more scantily, starting altercations with others and is routinely gyrating with the “cuties” to score Internet points and impress others.
The message here is complex, but can be understood as tracing the blurred lines between childhood and womanhood. What forces cause young girls to accelerate their maturation? This film argues that familial circumstances can be blamed as much as children turning to pop-culture for role models.
“Cuties” prompted deep thinking. But still, I can’t help but think about this movie as exploitative. Sadly it’s not any more exploitative than the culture that it’s derived from and instead tries to make an example of it. The suggestive and coercive nature of reality TV shows like “Dance Moms” or “Toddlers and Tiaras” has gone largely ignored, which is something Doucouré wanted to bring into the popular discourse by creating this film.
The double-edged sword of “Cuties” is that through advocating against the hypersexualization of children, the film chose to display it. While it was exceedingly difficult to watch, and deeply troubling for the general public, it certainly brought the issue into the cultural forefront.