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‘Cuties’ isn’t Cute

Netflix’s new movie Cuties raises controversy over the sexualization of young actresses

Alexandra McArver

The film Cuties, which debuted at Mignonnes, a French film festival, follows an 11-year-old girl named Amy (Fathia Youssouf) as she tries to find her place growing up in a poor suburb of Paris. At home, Amy struggles to please her family who are observant Muslims from Senegal.  She eventually falls in with a group of friends who have their own dance troupe in defiance of her family’s strict rules. The film follows Amy as she struggles between two distinct modes of femininity, one dictated by the traditional values of her Senegalese and Muslim upbringing, the other by Western society. 

Director of Cuties Maimouna Doucouré

Maïmouna Doucouré, the film’s director, said in an interview with Netflix that the movie incorporated elements of her own childhood. “I recreated the little girl who I was at that age,” she said. “Growing up in two cultures is what gave me the strength and the values I have today.” 

Doucouré said that the idea for the film came to her after she attended a neighborhood gathering in Paris where she saw a group of 11-year-olds performing a “very sexual, very sensual” dance. She said she spent a year and a half doing research and meeting with hundreds of preteens to prepare for the film.

Amy (Fathia Youssouf) with her dance troupe. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

“I needed to know how they felt about their own femininity in today’s society and how they dealt with their self-image at a time when social media is so important,” she told Netflix. “The more sexualized a woman appears on social media, the more girls will perceive her as successful,” Doucouré said. “Children just imitate what they see to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning,” she said. “And yeah, it’s dangerous.”

So why is this film so controversial?

In France, where the film was released in theaters on Aug. 19, it didn’t stir much controversy. But as soon as it was released in the United States, #CancelNetflix trended on Twitter, with parents as well as politicians calling to remove the film or even get the Department of Justice involved on the basis that the movie violated child pornography and child protection laws.

Netflix’s promotional poster for Cuties received criticism for its graphic imagery. Photo blurred due to the provocative nature.

Before the film was even released, Netflix released an apology for the artwork created to market Cuties to streaming audiences after many criticized it for inappropriately sexualizing the film’s young stars.

An IMDb guide rates the film’s sex and nudity as “severe,” due to the fact that several scenes in the film show young girls dancing suggestively in short outfits.

Reviewers at the Sundance Film Festival didn’t find the film exploitive. One critic defended the film, saying,“The sight of twerking preteen bodies is explicitly designed to shock mature audiences into a contemplation of today’s destruction of innocence.”

Although others argue that the context in which these young girls are dancing doesn’t matter because these young actresses on screen were still forced to dance sexually for a large audience. “Whatever sort of message this movie is trying to convey, it’s doing it in such a backwards manner,” says a Youtube film critic. “There are ways to say sexualizing children is wrong, without sexualizing children in the process.” 

Now the producers of Cuties are under investigation for possible child exploitation, as it was recently discovered that the casting director received videos of young girls twerking as auditions. 

The initial auditions for Cuties were reportedly done online. A source affiliated with the production claims that young girls were instructed to email their audition tapes to Cuties‘ casting director Tania Arana. The girls were told they needed to introduce themselves, talk about their hobbies and then “showcase their talents.” The girls who danced most seductively were called in for an actual screen test where they were filmed twerking.

One of the audition videos was uploaded to YouTube by the mother. In the video, 10-year-old Mallaury Martinez, introduces herself, talks about her personal life before demonstrating to the casting director “how flexible” she is.

When Netflix was asked how a movie like this was approved, they responded saying, “We understand that not all stories may appeal to all our viewers, which is why we invest in a diverse range of content.” 

Diverse content should be encouraged on all streaming platforms, but a movie sexualizing young girls may not be the right content to promote worldwide.