In Cuties (Mignonnes), the lead character Amy (Fathia Youssouf) is on a journey to find herself while navigating both her traditional family and the rebellious girl group she joins. In the process, the 11-year-old girl begins to clarify what femininity, childhood and the exploration of her own transforming body mean to her. Amy eventually finds some sense of autonomy and agency, meeting somewhere in the middle of her various identities—and that’s OK.
Amidst the pomp and circumstance of a huge Sundance Film Festival award win (Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic) and subsequent Netflix acquisition, this very same autonomy and agency were snatched from the film’s writer and director, Maïmouna Doucouré.
Doucouré’s desire for the audience’s experience is simple: She wants you to think of and empathize with an 11-year-old girl in modern society. She wants you to grapple with not only the universal and timeless complexities of growing into adolescence but the heightened pressures that accompany the social media age. Unlike their predecessors, contemporary preadolescent girls not only have tangible peer pressure right in front of them but a larger, more overarching pressure consisting of billions of strangers in the cyber-world. It’s a world that has created what is essentially our current primary source of communication; thus it is also a little girl’s primary source of acceptance. It may seem abstract in theory, but its effects are very real and felt. In the case of Cuties, they have also proven easily misunderstood.
In late August, Netflix’s marketing rollout of Cuties ignited the controversy, with its ill-conceived decision to release a provocative promotional poster that did not reflect the premise of the film. Doucouré began to receive “numerous death threats,” resulting in a public apology from Netflix and a personal apology from the streamer’s co-CEO, Ted Sarandos. As Doucouré acknowledges, there was an initial “error of communication” but Netflix ultimately “gave a noble response.” Unfortunately, this initial harmful misstep was just the start of the myriad ways the writer-director would essentially be erased from her own story.
On Sept 9, Cuties was released on Netflix, naturally bringing even more promotion—and with it, more controversy that further misrepresented the themes of her film (#boycottnetflix and #cancelnetflix immediately began to trend on Twitter). What followed was a strategic attack by terroristic trolls from all walks of life—from the denizens of Twitter to the highest political seats. The preemptive outrage then spilled over to other groups, including concerned parents, and became politicized by many on the right: Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley penned a letter to Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings; Texas Rep. Matt Schaefer requested that his state’s Attorney General investigate the film; and Texas U.S. Senator Ted Cruz sent a letter to the Department of Justice calling for an investigation, as well. Alt-right trolls endlessly harassed and terrorized Black critics who had actually seen the film. All of the above claimed to be concerned about “child welfare.”
However, was it genuine concern for the welfare of young girls so much as the intentional creative strangulation and career destruction of a Black female filmmaker? This concern isn’t unilateral; not when other predatory filmmakers—one of whom released a new film trailer that very week—are allowed to thrive in tenured careers within the very industry riddled with this toxic culture. Not when there is an outright glorification of the adultification of young girls currently prospering in entertainment culture, as seen in Dance Moms and Toddlers & Tiaras. The disingenuousness of the indignation is transparent, as Doucouré isn’t aligned with these examples at all—in fact, she actively critiques them throughout this film. The outrage is misplaced at best, and dangerous at worst.
Cut the bullshit.
“Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children,” a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement, via Variety. “It’s an award-winning film and a powerful story about the pressure young girls face on social media and from society more generally growing up—and we’d encourage anyone who cares about these important issues to watch the movie.”
One of the most contested topics is the fact that the dance outfits worn by the characters in Cuties are provocative—which, I can’t stress enough, is a clear representation of today’s hypersexualized culture. There is a legitimate and dangerous societal issue of youth hypersexualization—but the exploitation of children has never truly been about what they’re wearing. To flip the primary onus on the children’s choice of clothing is to further criminalize the victim. “She shouldn’t have been wearing that”? To victim-blame in this way further strips control of their own bodies. Let’s be real—a child predator needs find no other reason outside of themselves to exploit children. Ask the many brave women who came forward with their stories during the “What Were You Wearing?” social media movement. Ask me.
“In many ways, Amy is navigating her way in three cultures—her family, French-Western culture and this hyper-real fiction of social media,” Doucouré explains in a promotional video titled “Why I Made Cuties,” which also explains her inspiration and the subsequent research involved in making this film.
In this same vein, Doucouré has been pushed and pulled at all sides—as a Sengelese female filmmaker, as a promoter of her film representing a large streaming company and simply as someone who wants to be seen and heard. Throughout the cacophony of callouts and the still-simmering noise, it is vital that Doucouré’s voice remains at the forefront of this conversation. After all, in addition to the young girls she was inspired by, it is herself that she sees in Amy.
“I made a film and I made it to be activist and feminist, but I also made it with my heart,” Doucouré told The Root in an interview, via a French translator. “I feel that from the moment you make a film with your heart and you want to have an impact on the world, you can be proud of what you’ve done.”
For a global society that explicitly capitalizes off of the hypersexualization of women and girls, Cuties is a sobering mirror. It is one I honestly would recommend be ingested with caution as it can be as triggering as it is relatable. It was absolutely jarring to watch, up-close, just how social media serves as a vessel of victimization. It didn’t shy away from the grittiness of how historically gender-specific exploitation has evolved in a dangerous way—nor should it, especially when its real repercussions are much, much worse. Critical analysis in art is anything but comfortable.
“I just can’t wait for all of these people to see it, because I hope they’re going to realize that we’re actually on the same side and we’re fighting the same fight against hypersexualization of children,” Doucouré said, also noting that she took care and concern in ensuring her set was a “climate of trust” for the child actors involved.
Speaking personally, while the theme of childhood metamorphosis can be universal and I related to many aspects of Amy, I cannot speak to the life of a Black Muslim girl. This is why it is always important for them to lead their own stories—and while marginalized creators are thrust in an ongoing fight for the opportunity to tell all kinds of stories on a large scale, clearly, they have a variety of rich stories, too. Of course, Cuties is not intended to be the ultimate telling or representative of Black Muslim life; Doucouré’s story is very specific and hers (which ironically tends to translate universally, in some ways).
“I grew up in a Muslim home,” Doucouré said, refuting the additional criticism that her film is Islamophobic. “My parents are devout Muslims. In this film, I have created many nuances that show my respect for the Muslim culture. This film depicts the exact way I grew up [and] the Muslim culture that I grew up in. Amy evolves in the film in this exact culture in which I evolved in. In the reality that I grew up in, women often impose upon themselves traits which they believe are in their Muslim religion. So in the film, I actually have an Imam who comes in and talks to Amy’s mother and tells her that ‘No, in Islam, women do, in fact, have rights.’ So, it is very important for me to show an Islam that is far from stereotypical and far from what we normally see on the screen about Islam.”
As I told Doucouré (who has acknowledged that she learned lessons about marketing from this experience), I’m hoping this ordeal serves as a starting point to an ongoing conversation about the importance of filmmakers’ involvement during the marketing process of their own films. Sure, they have technically sold their property to the distributor, but it is still their name on those credits. It is still their story.
“It is true that I’m a director. I’m a woman. I’m Black. And this is very rare, worldwide in filmmaking. So, all of this controversy actually has built up strength for me,” Doucouré concluded.
I wish for Doucouré to have the freedom to tell her authentic stories. I wish for Black girls to have the freedom to maintain a healthy relationship with their ever-changing bodies without shame. I wish for Black girls and women to have the freedom to find their own sense of identity. I wish for Black girls and women to be free.