Culture

The Only Thing Controversial About 'Cuties' Is How Badly Netflix Marketed It

The French coming-of-age film is a thoughtful and entertaining study of contemporary urban femininity through characters we rarely get the opportunity to empathise with.
14 September 2020, 12:40pm
Cuties Mignonnes 2020 trailer
Screenshot: Cuties Trailer

The last few days saw the hashtag #CancelNetflix sweep across Twitter. Sparked by mass outrage over the imagery Netflix used to promote the French coming-of-age film Cuties (the original French title is Mignonnes, which translates to “cute and petite” in English), hundreds of thousands of conservative provocateurs jumped on the hashtag to accuse both the film and the US streaming company of distributing “child pornography”.

Even a cursory look at the film’s trailer makes it clear that the story is about much more than young girls displaying problematic behaviour. Having watched it, it’s obvious why it was an award winner at Sundance earlier this year – it takes a nuanced look at themes such as outsiderhood, friendship, religion, femininity and objectification. To understand the backlash, then, we have to rewind a few weeks.

On the 20th of August, Netflix released promotional materials for the film, which had a completely different tone and aesthetic to the original French theatrical poster (see below). On the 21 of August, The Guardian reported that more than 150,000 people had signed a Change.org petition to “Remove Cuties From Netflix & Charge Them with Distribution & Exploiting Minors”. Since the film had only been on the festival circuit, most of those signatures were from people who had preemptively judged its content based on one poor promotional image choice. At the time of writing, the petition has over 593,000 signatures.

After Netflix released its poster, the Franco-Senegalese director of the film, Maïmouna Doucouré, was hounded off Twitter amid intense criticism and even death threats from people claiming that her film sexualises children. Again, this was despite not having seen the film, as its worldwide release wasn’t until the 9th of September.

Netflix later apologised and updated the promotional image, but a trajectory for disaster had already been set.

Mignonnes and Cuties posters

The original French poster, versus the Netflix poster

Cuties tells the story of Amy – an 11-year-old Franco-Senegalese girl growing up in a highly observant Muslim household – whose family have recently move to a deprived area of Paris. Amy is responsible for lots of the cooking, cleaning and caring for her little brother, but when she starts at a new school she’s immediately captivated by a group of mouthy female classmates, who spend their break times rehearsing dance routines in readiness for a local competition they have their sights set on winning.

The pre-teens girls emulate all the raunchy adult routines seen in contemporary urban music videos, and Amy becomes fascinated by the way her classmates – and the women in the clips she secretly watches online – move their bodies.

Viewers are shown dance practice montages from the girls’ perspective to illustrate the broad and complex issue of the hyper-sexualisation of women in the media. Young girls – especially non-white, poor, urban girls – often seek validation by emulating the images and tropes they are fed by the advertising and entertainment industries. The dance style and accompanying culture around it force Amy and her crew to sexualise themselves before they’re really able to comprehend what that means. None of them are serious about engaging with adult sexuality.

Like her protagonist, Doucouré was born and raised in Paris. While Cuties is not explicitly about her own experience growing up, the film is written from a place of authentic understanding. Doucouré has publicly spoken about her creative practice regarding the film’s production: “I wrote this film after I spent a year-and-a-half interviewing pre-adolescent girls, trying to understand their notion of what femininity was, and how social media was affecting this idea,” she explained to TIME. “We’re used to saying that women in other cultures are oppressed, but the question that I had when making the film was: isn’t the objectification of a woman’s body that we often see in Western culture another kind of oppression?”

_Cuties_’ sub-plot focuses on Amy’s mother trying to hold things together after her father abandons the family for a second wife. Amy feels confused about how she should react to the news that she will soon be sharing her home with a stranger who has staked a claim on her father’s affections. Viewers also empathise with Amy at her paradoxical situation of being told that “she is woman now”, the day her period starts, while simultaneously being chastised for her attempts at dressing more like an adult.

The chaotic energy that all the young characters in the film exude is highly entertaining. We see Amy and troupe leader Angelica become inseparable best friends – binging on sweets, getting into neighbourhood scrapes and cheerleading for each other as they upload clips of themselves onto social networking sites. We are also shown the girls learning to weaponise their burgeoning sexuality, when the four of them falsely accuse a laser challenge security officer of molesting them in order to get out of trouble.

There are some scenes that are intentionally provocative, however, and one in particular that feels unnecessarily eroticised. The girls have established themselves as an urban dance troupe and spend an afternoon filming footage of themselves dancing to a song called “Bum Bum” by well-known Nigerian artist Yemi Alade. The montage features close-ups of their young bodies, skin-tight clothing and highly sexualised dance moves. This scene is designed to make viewers uneasy, but knowing that the actors themselves are very young is somewhat concerning.

The original Netflix poster for Cuties made it look as though the girls are dancing for the entertainment of the viewer, rather than as part of a performance within a narrative. In actual fact, the image was taken from a scene in which many members of the dance competition’s audience are shocked by the girls’ skimpy outfits and sexually suggestive moves. Mid-performance, Amy realises that her recent rebellions have been misguided and she runs off stage in tears.

In a second statement, released on the 10th of September, Netflix said: “Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children. 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.”

Unfortunately, Netflix’s marketing of the film has made it impossible for the team behind it to gauge the true reaction to their work. The #CancelNetflix campaign has tainted the majority of the global engagement with the project, which is a huge shame. Cuties is both a thought-provoking and entertaining study of characters we rarely get the opportunity to empathise with, and it’s a travesty that the film is now likely to be mired in controversy.

Cuties is available to stream globally via Netflix.

@AlmazOhene