‘Cuties’: Clearing Up The Controversial Discourse

Before I truly begin, allow me to answer that question simply: no, Cuties is not a paedophilic film (as it has been dubbed online), nor is it a good reason to cancel your Netflix subscription. Instead, what Maïmouna Doucouré’s film is, is a sweet and earnest coming of age story that grapples with the realities of being a young girl online in the hyper-social world of the 21st century. Is it entirely successful in its aims? Admittedly not, but it absolutely does not deserve the hatred it’s been subject to on social media.

But let’s backtrack a little. If you’re somehow unaware of the controversy around the film, allow me to fill you in. In January of this year, a little French film called Mignonnes premiered at Sundance Film Festival. It tells the story of 11-year old Amy, a Senegalese Muslim growing up in Paris, who becomes torn between her traditional family values and a young dance group who take on typically adult dance movies (such as twerking) and struggles to find a way to reconcile the two. The film received good reviews, its director went onto win one of the festival’s Directing Awards, and it was picked up by Netflix for international distribution later in the year – and the streaming giant is where the problems began.

First, Netflix totally mis-sold the film to audiences. The poster they used to announce the film featured its main characters in provocative poses, showing a lot of skin. This actively went against the film’s original poster, and completely buys into the ideas the film is trying to fight against. With the poster came a tirade of online vitriol condemning both the film and Netflix. A handful of people who’d seen the film (including actor Tessa Thompson) took to social media to defend it, but their sensible responses were lost in a sea of hate (from people who hadn’t even seen the movie, no less), denouncing the film as sexualising young girls for the pleasure of paedophiles.

Predictably, this didn’t change once Cuties became available to stream. Not only did #CancelNetflix trend on Twitter the day after the film’s release, but the film itself was the subject of massive review bombings by the public. Despite its 85% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it currently holds an audience score of 13%, while its IMDb rating sits at 2.6/10. Now, review bombings are nothing new: similar things happened with Captain Marvel last year, and more recently the second season of superhero-satire The Boys and dystopic videogame The Last Of Us Part II – but in these instances, the vocal minority was shouted down by sensible people who took the media in question on its own terms. With Cuties, this hasn’t happened. Few have come to the film’s aid, meaning that the only ones talking about it on sites such as Twitter are the ones who have solely negative things to say about – and I’m willing to bet that most of those people still haven’t bothered to sit down and watch it.

There are two main threads of discussion to be had here: the first is about Cuties itself, its aims, and how successful it is in achieving those aims; the second is much broader, as it pertains to the idea of cancel culture and the resulting online discourse. Let’s start with the movie – spoilers to follow.

Cuties is a deliberately provocative film that is partly based on Doucouré’s own experiences. It’s well-written, well-acted, generally well-made, and ultimately feels honest and hopeful – the ending sees protagonist Amy leave her dance group once she sees the reaction their performance has on parents in the crowd. When she realises that she and the other girls are in way over their heads with their overly-sexual performances, she breaks down in tears at the thought of her own mother and flees home to find a happy medium between her traditional family values and upbringing. Then, coming to terms with her own upcoming womanhood.

It’s an ending that makes sense for the film, as the culture of social media in which Amy is growing up is one where women are taking control of their own sexual agency. It goes without saying that there is nothing at all wrong with this, but due to the ever-looming presence of sites such as Instagram and TikTok, girls of Amy’s age are being exposed to it far too soon in their lives. As Doucouré goes to great lengths to show her audience, social media is exposing young girls to their own sexuality when they are not mature enough to understand it properly – this is what drives the central conflict of the film’s narrative. Cuties is ultimately a condemnation of the attitudes it is being accused of – its dance scenes (which seem to be bearing the brunt of the criticism) are supposed to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. Depiction does not equal endorsement, and that is what many of the film’s detractors seem to be missing: that although Cuties depicts young girls dancing in a heavily sexualised manner, it is actively condemning them in doing so.

The discourse surrounding the film is not quite as easy to deal with. Far from the sensitive, measured discussions that Cuties itself partakes in, reactions on social media have been hateful, vitriolic, and antagonistic. Doucouré was sent death threats over her film and chased off Twitter by the angry mob who, at the time, (and I can’t stress this enough) had not yet seen the movie. What should have been a blazing debut from a fascinating new voice in cinema (Cuties is Doucouré’s first feature film) has been morphed into unwarranted outrage that says much more about the people who are outraged and our modern culture than it does about either the director herself or her film.

And it’s this outrage culture that’s the problem. The online discourse around Cuties has gotten out of control, to the point where it seems that anyone who says anything about the film that isn’t negative can be subject to abuse. I myself was sent this charming graphic by a total stranger on Twitter, who subsequently added me to a list entitled ‘Self Proclaimed Pedos.’

This seems like a completely disproportionate reaction to my comments on the site, which were simply that we would probably benefit from not judging a film before we’ve seen it.

Don’t misunderstand: in a democracy that prides itself on freedom of speech, we have every right to be outraged at things – but let’s make sure we’re getting annoyed at the right stuff, shall we? Instead of sounding off ridiculous comments about Cuties, or Diversity’s excellent Britain’s Got Talent performance the other week, we need to get angry about things that matter. Aim your anger at the government, who’ve failed us at every stage of the ongoing pandemic; or at white supremacy and systemic racism; even at JK Rowling, who’s decided to use her millions to perpetrate horrific and harmful myths about the trans community; or frankly aim it at the billionaires, who couldn’t care less about the working class who they exploit daily to make their fortunes.

But stay away from Cuties. And leave Maïmouna Doucouré alone. Her film is not what you’ve been led to believe it is, and I promise that if you give it a chance for yourself, you’ll walk away pleasantly surprised.

Cuties is now streaming on Netflix.

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