Near the end of Cuties, its 11-year-old heroines take the stage at a dance competition with a routine that wouldn’t be out of place in a strip club. Clad in sparkly short-shorts and crop tops, they hump the floor, grab their crotches, lick their lips, and throw their heads back in a naive simulation of sex, to the visible discomfort of their audience.
It’s possibly the film’s most disturbing scene, and for some reason, it’s also the scene Netflix chose to highlight in their early marketing, sparking an outcry they should’ve seen coming from a mile away. (The company has since apologized.) What both the ill-conceived marketing and subsequent controversy are missing, however, is everything about the context.
Yes, it’s upsetting, and it’s supposed to be — because the whole point of Cuties is how damn hard it can be for girls to navigate womanhood in a society that’s all too eager to tell girls and women what they should be, and not at all interested in what they might be or want to be.
Written and directed by Maïma Doucouré, Cuties is the story of Amy (Fathia Youssouf), who’s just immigrated to Paris from Senegal with her devout Muslim mother and two younger brothers. While the family waits for Dad to join them, Amy becomes intrigued by a neighbor, Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), whom she (and we) first see from the back, gyrating to music in skintight pants and a belly-baring shirt. It’s a mild surprise when she turns around and we see she’s Amy’s age. Angelica and her friends, the Cuties, come across as cool and worldly to the sheltered Amy, in ways Amy’s conservative family would never approve of. Which, of course, is part of the appeal.
On the cusp of adolescence, Amy knows what her religious community expects of her. She also knows it makes her own mother miserable, as seen in one heartbreaking scene when Amy listens to her mom weep between fake-cheery phone calls announcing that Amy’s dad has taken a second wife. Amy, hiding under the bed, swallows this secret truth. She learns from her elders that womanhood means obeying a husband, being held to a higher standard of “decency,” and cooking and cleaning to satisfy a man who isn’t obligated to take her feelings into consideration.
Cuties shows these moments in all their silliness and ugliness, without packaging them in easy moralizing or faux empowerment.
These realizations fill Amy with feelings that she doesn’t quite understand, but Doucouré does. There’s sublimated rage in her fascination with the Cuties, along with simple curiosity and sincere affection. To Amy, her new friends, with their skimpy clothes, showoff-y dance moves, and boy-crazy schemes, represent fun and freedom, even as they present their own hazards, like the head-spinning politics of who’s in one minute or out the next. As intricate and intimate as their internal dynamics might be, to everyone else — the cute boys and older girls and mall employees who have the misfortune of crossing their paths — the Cuties are just a pack of undifferentiated wild girls, frequently annoying and occasionally terrifying. Doucouré knows, as any girl who’s ever been part of a clique does, that there’s power and pleasure in belonging. Even if it’s only sometimes.
For all the brashness the Cuties project, it quickly becomes apparent that they don’t know much more about the way things work than Amy does. All these girls are figuring out how to become women based on the cues they get from the culture around them — strippers twerking in internet videos, older teen dancers taking their tops off, boys checking out girls in low-cut shirts. They absorb and then reflect those lessons back out into society, quickly learning that revealing clothes and seductive moves bring likes and attention.
Yet there’s a fundamental innocence to their antics, accentuated by the bright, poppy colors that Doucouré uses to frame them. They’re kids messing with the dangerous forces of adult sexuality not because they understand it too well, but because they don’t. They gyrate to explicit music and then dissolve into a pile of giggles; they send vulgar messages to a boy while shrieking to each other about boobs. In the scene used to market Cuties in France, they buy silky lingerie and then parade down the street wearing it over their clothes in act of playfulness, not titillation. It does get darker sometimes: In one desperate moment, Amy starts undressing to placate an older cousin who’s angry with her for stealing his stuff. He stops her, shocked and disgusted, and we’re shocked, too. Where did Amy learn to do that? Did she even know what she was offering?
But in both horrific scenes and adorable ones, what remains consistent is Doucouré’s honesty. She shows these moments as they are, in all their silliness and ugliness, without packaging them in easy moralizing or faux empowerment. Amy’s attempts to put on a more grown-up sexuality may be unsettling to watch, but they’re also true to a world that bombards girls with the message that, whether they cover up or bare it all, keep their heads down and cook or shake their asses on the dance floor, womanhood is whatever men need it to be. That climactic scene of her writhing on stage isn’t about showing Amy as a sexual being, but about taking to task a culture that struggles to see young women any other way.
Rather than deny those harsh truths, Cuties gives Amy and her friends the space to experiment within them, no matter how clumsily and misguidedly, and no matter how upsetting we in the audience might find it. By doing so, Doucouré extends to these girls a generosity that, as we’ve seen in the film, is so often denied them by the rest of the world — the freedom to figure out how they want to navigate it.
Cuties is now streaming on Netflix.
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