Girls on the verge of something more powerful than they know how to control

I watched Cuties (Original title in French “Mignonnes”), the debut film by French-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré, which has been causing controversy for its depiction of very young girls in France who form a dance team and perform an overtly sexualized routine at a contest. There have been calls for Netflix to ban the movie, US lawmakers have taken notice of the film, and in a horrible social media led-backlash, Doucouré herself has received death threats for having made this movie.

Let me say at the outset that nobody should die for the art they make. It is reprehensible that anyone should threaten anyone else with violence for making a film, writing a book, drawing a picture, composing a poem. It is an unacceptable response; the appropriate one is to simply not consume the art in question. And if you watch Cuties merely so that you can perform shock and horror at how exploitative it is, rather than actually trying to understand the message of the movie, then this film is not for you.

The director explains her motivation for making the movie eloquently and convincingly in this clip. She portrays the 11 year old protagonist, Amy, a French girl of Senegalese origin, as caught between two models of femininity, the femininity of her Senegalese background and the femininity of the French girls at her school, the “Cuties” of the title; and three cultures: the culture of her parents’ homeland, conservative and traditional; the culture of France, Western and European; and the dangerous culture of social media, which objectifies women and teaches them that the more sexy they are, the more validation and monetary reward they receive.

Does the movie accomplish what Doucouré sets out to do? The answer is yes, but it’s a very difficult thing to watch. This is because Doucouré’s style as a familiar is to portray Amy and the rest of the cast with such intimacy and intensity that you become totally immersed in Amy’s world. And Amy’s world is one where the girl is pulled in so many different directions, between childhood and adulthood, between innocence and worldliness, between purity and sensuality, that you can literally see her torn in two by all the pressure.

Amy lives in a small flat with her mother and two younger brothers. She goes with her mother to women’s religious gatherings, where they are lectured about how women must comport themselves in orthodox Islam. Mariam, Amy’s mother, is navigating a personal tragedy: her husband has gone back to Senegal and married another woman. Soon they’ll be returning to France and living in the same apartment as his first family. As his first wife, Mariam is expected to welcome the new bride and even prepare the bridal chamber and the wedding feast. Amy is silent witness to her mother’s pain, and Doucouré’s camera focuses on Amy’s beautiful face, streaked with tears, perplexed and hurt, as she realizes the immensity of this rejection of her mother by her father.

Enter the Cuties: four girls at Amy’s middle school who are fierce, aggressive, and beginning to realize the power they have as girls on the cusp of adolescence. They swear, fight, shout, and dance: Amy wants to be like them. Escaping the confines of the traditional culture she comes from, she needs a place that’s less suffocating, and these girls, with their audacity and their inappropriate clothes and their ambitions to be the best dancers in the city competition, attract Amy like nothing else can. Soon she’s enduring their abuse as an initiation rite into their group, and when she proves that she’s willing to cast aside her shyness and inhibition to be one of them, they accept her.

Doucouré shifts between scenes of complete girlish innocence, as when Amy and Angelique, the Cutie in Amy’s building, lie on Amy’s father’s decorated bridal bed and have a gummi bear eating contest; and alarming sexual precocity, as in a scene where the girls crowd over a laptop and pretend to be older, chatting with a teenage boy. They watch porn clips in the bathroom at school, curious about all things sexual, they swear and smack each other around, they disobey and hide secrets from their mothers (fathers are completely invisible in this movie, which I suspect is a purposeful choice on the director’s part). These are girls in all their rawness and energy, a female Lord of the Flies set in Paris.

The girls know full well that they are in possession of something powerful — their bodies, their sensuality, their burgeoning sexuality — but they don’t know how to control it. They are learning how to drive a car with massive horsepower, and there’s nobody to teach them how. Social media is their only teacher; their mothers haven’t got a clue what they’re exposed to. This is reality; do you know what your tweens and teens are looking at and experimenting with? Probably not. But in today’s world, where sexualized imagery of women is ubiquitous and the line between a minor girl and an adult woman becomes very thin at a certain age, these girls are walking that line like a tightrope. It’s no wonder Amy falls off it in the end.

One of the most disturbing scenes in the movie is after Amy’s mother realizes that her daughter has already cracked under the pressure; Mariam has traditional Islamic prayers performed on Amy in a sort of Islamic exorcism. Amy’s made to strip down to her underwear, has cold water thrown on her, and shivers in a way that is part epileptic fit, part dance.

This scene is perhaps more upsetting to watch than the later, more talked-about dance contest, as Amy is flesh-and-bone exposed to the viewer’s eye. But what’s fascinating is a scene that follows, where an Imam comes to meet Amy, prays over her, then tells Mariam that the child is not possessed by spirits or by Satan. Instead, he points to the family situation with the second wife as the root cause of Amy’s troubles. “If you find this too much to bear, you have every right to end your marriage,” he tells Mariam. “In Islam, women have these rights.” Doucouré was very purposeful about inserting this into the narrative, showing the difference between the belief that Islam oppresses women and the truth that women’s rights are enshrined in the Quran.

This and other important messages are embedded in the film, but get overshadowed by the impending dance contest, which takes place on the same day as Amy’s father’s wedding feast. As Amy is forced to chop mounds of vegetables for the feast, and then carry them on her head like a village woman, it becomes apparent that neither culture — not her Senegalese one, not her French one — wants Amy to enjoy her childhood. Both are in a hurry to rush her into adulthood before she’s ready for it. Where does Amy have the freedom and permission to simply be what she is: a young girl?

The dance contest scene is overly-long; the girls perform a routine that is deemed inappropriate for their age but would be considered completely fine if it were performed by 18 year olds. This is one of the blatant hypocrisies that Doucouré intends to point out with the camera work that lingers too long over their bodies, closes in on their stripper-like moves and their skimpy costumes. The merits of the scene, whether it could have been done differently, focused on their faces or of the faces of the audience, can be discussed, but it isn’t really the point.

But this is a product of what we’ve encouraged in society, she seems to be saying, and if we don’t like the results, it’s neither the fault of the girls nor of the woman who wields the camera. Cuties forces us to look at the bodies of young girls in an “exploitative” way so that we understand what it’s like to be an eleven year old girl in today’s hyper-sexualized world. More importantly, it forces us to look at ourselves as the consumers of those bodies, as the arbiters of what is “sexy”, and as the unintended role models of millions of girls (and boys) who are simply trying to understand how to grow up. Look or don’t look, watch or don’t watch, but it’s the message that really matters, and Doucouré has created a work of flawed genius to make it heard.