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Hypocritical commentary in ‘Cuties’ proves two wrongs don’t make a right

Several days prior to the release of French-Senegalese director Maimouna Doucouré’s debut, “Cuties,” the film went viral on social media. Per usual, Netflix had already added its poster and description to the site, giving subscribers a brief look at the upcoming project. Although I often check the streaming service for new arrivals, the first time I saw the cover of Doucouré’s “Cuties” (French translation: “Mignonnes”), I was scrolling through Twitter.

“Boycott ‘Cuties’” was the tweet, followed by a statement advocating for removal of the film from Netflix. Attached was the poster: four suggestively posed 11-year-old girls wearing tight, cropped dance uniforms. Beyond initial feelings of discomfort, I believed this had to be a deeply inappropriate marketing ploy for the purposes of causing controversy and attracting an audience. Surely it was not indicative of the film’s actual content or message—no moral person could ever condone the sexualization of children, and they certainly could not produce an entire 90-minute film profiting off of it on one of the most well-known media platforms in 2020. Right?

I wrote it off as a disturbing choice that did not define the work as a whole. Since “Cuties had not yet been released, every tweet, Facebook post and Instagram story about the film centered solely around that Netflix poster. There is no denying that this commentary was a valid appraisal, but I did not want to discredit Maimouna Doucouré based on a decision that may have been out of her control. It may have had nothing to do with her film, and everything to do with a culture that thrives on shock factor and dissension for financial gain. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” after all. 

But then I watched the movie. The story follows pre-teen Amy (Fathia Youssouf) as she rebels against family values, joins a new group of friends and discovers her femininity and sexuality. Doucouré had been clear in pre-release interviews that her intention was to shed light on the hypersexualization of young women, and her writing was based on personal experience. It was supposed to be an eye-opening, thoughtful film meant to critique a society that normalizes the objectification and pornification of girls. Instead, it became part of the problem. 

During the movie, I found myself checking the runtime frequently, more often than I could count, thinking, “this isn’t something anyone should be watching.” Unarguably, that was the point. Many of the scenes were intended to disgust viewers, to harshly reveal the reality of the world we live in: a world where kids play unsupervised, access and emulate adult content easily, wear inappropriate clothing and engage in equally inappropriate actions. The true problem lies with the camera’s seductive gaze. 

As the 11-year-old girls dance together, their overtly sexual moves are filmed erotically, using rhythmic close-up shots that create the atmosphere of a sensual music video rather than encouraging disgust and repulsion. It felt as though Doucouré was pandering to a sinister audience, giving them exactly what they wanted to see, and quickly becoming complicit in everything she stood against. Any important or impactful meaning was swept away by the camerawork, and, beyond that, was negatively affected by a weak and underdeveloped screenplay. As the credits rolled, I had two main takeaways: “Cuties” is inherently exploitative regardless of its objective, and it simply does not need to exist.

After its release on Sept. 9, Texas senator Ted Cruz tweeted a hysteric letter to Attorney General William Barr, demanding that the Department of Justice hold Netflix accountable for violating “any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography.” This extremely blatant dog whistle to right-wing conspiracy theorists was promoted by many American politicians, as they claimed “Cuties” single-handedly normalizes pedophilia and fuels sex trafficking across the world. That is—in my opinion—a completely ridiculous and self-serving proposition that negates genuine criticism. Ted Cruz manipulated a real issue into a sensationalized culture war to benefit his own agenda. While “Cuties” is overly provocative and often downright disgusting, it’s not child porn. 

Fortunately, there is a diverse coming-of-age film about pre-teen girls looking for acceptance, dancing and exploring their femininity that didn’t cause well-known political figures to publicly ask the DOJ to investigate Netflix. The movie? Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits,” in which an 11-year-old girl named Toni joins an after-school competitive dance team, and quickly learns there’s more than what meets the eye when it comes to growth and adolescence, as well as friendship and individuality. 
“The Fits” is a beautiful and powerful film. “Cuties” is unjustifiable. What could have been a sensitive portrait of youth and innocence devolves into an appallingly misguided, poorly written mess where satire is nearly indiscernible. There are not one or two easily fixable mistakes: there are a thousand choices, big and small, that should never have been made. In Doucouré’s attempt at social commentary, she produced a hypocritical nightmare. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

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