Did Cancel Culture Just Jump The Gun With ‘Cuties’?

Director is African, feminist, and worries about our girls

A social media firestorm has erupted in the last 24 hours over a forthcoming film by French-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré.

As advertised by Netflix, Cuties appears to be a new low in the pornification of female youth. But is that really the case?

In interviews about her film at the Sundance festival this summer, Doucouré does not come across as a cheerleader for pedo-friendly fare. In fact, she sounds like most of the people criticizing Cuties today.

Talking to Cineuropa, for example, Doucouré blasts the kind of “fame” that young girls win by posting racy photos to Instagram.

Today, the sexier and the more objectified a woman is, the more value she has in the eyes of social media. And when you’re 11, you don’t really understand all these mechanisms, but you tend to mimic, to do the same thing as others in order to get a similar result. I think it is urgent that we talk about it, that a debate be had on the subject.

“This isn’t a health & safety ad,” Doucouré  says, sounding like a radical feminist. “This is most of all an uncompromising portrait of an 11-year-old girl plunged in a world [sic] that imposes a series of dictates on her.”

Cuties is about Amy, an 11 year-old Senegalese immigrant. Arriving in Paris, she makes new friends her age who like to record themselves shaking and jiggling in the erotic hip-hop dance form known as “twerk” and upload the clips to social media.

If movie parents allowing this behavior seems unbelievable, note that Doucouré  took her inspiration from real people she found in her old Paris neighborhood.

“There were these girls on stage dressed in a really sexy fashion in short, transparent clothes,” she recalls. “They danced in a very sexually suggestive manner. There also happened to be a number of African mothers in the audience. I was transfixed, watching with a mixture of shock and admiration. I asked myself if these young girls understood what they were doing.”

Intrigued, Doucouré spent more than a year researching the topic, interviewing groups of girls she met in the street, in parks or youth associations, trying to find out what drove them to dress and dance so provocatively and then post clips publicly.

That does not sound like a director of an exploitation film. Nevertheless, in the last 24 hours, more than 20,000 people have signed a petition asking Netflix to remove Cuties before it even premieres.

Gender critical feminists were among the loudest critics, though it seems that conservatives were first. YouTubers are calling it “disgusting.” Even the right wing trolls at 4chan have jumped on the bandwagon already.

These are all people who understand cancel culture very well, and they all want to cancel Cuties, sight unseen.

If I had to guess, everyone is right to hold Netflix responsible here. Not because they have sexualized children, or given a prestigious opportunity to a female African filmmaker, but because they have committed the normal Hollywood crime of bad marketing copy.

“Amy, through an ignited awareness of her burgeoning femininity, propels the group to enthusiastically embrace an increasingly sensual dance routine, sparking the girls’ hope to twerk their way to stardom at a local dance contest,” the blurb at Netflix reads.

Granted, the format does not allow for much nuance, but that description is a complete disaster. Anyone who has not read the director’s interviews can be forgiven for assuming that a sleazeball misogynist must be responsible for this travesty.

Yet that is clearly not the case.

None of the critics who saw Doucouré’s film at Sundance has spoken out against her intentions. In fact, her name is curiously absent from all the coverage I have seen so far.

No one seems to have dug any deeper than reading the Netflix blurb and watching the trailer, which is below.

By my rough timekeeping, the young actresses dance onscreen for a grand total of 15 seconds in a 90-second advertisement. There does not seem to be a “male gaze” in the cinematography, not even when the girls steal fancy underwear and throw it in the air.

Granted, your mileage may vary, but all I see here is a coming-of-age story about a girl caught between cultures — the classic immigrant tale — in a hypersexualized, pornified era of instant gratification and social media addiction.

This does not look like exploitation to me. It looks like a talented new creator working with talented young women to present a picture of our very, very exploitative time.

Who are we actually serving with this knee-jerk reaction to a movie that none of us has watched? Are we really saving these girls, or just saving ourselves from having to look at their lives?

UPDATE: Netflix has apologized for their promotional materials and changed them, but will not withdraw the film from their platform. Worst. Marketing. Ever.

About the author

Former progressive activist declared heretic by his former movement for refusing to believe that "woman" is a costume or a feeling and recognizing male pattern behavior as male even when it wears lipstick and high heels. Just because you hate something I say does not make it hate speech.
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Joy

Sadly, even if the theme of the movie is anti-porn, it still normalizes the sexualization of girls in the media. There’s got to be a better way.

Misery

A good start could be to not flash the children’s bodies and crotches on the screen in lengthy camera shots.

Misery

Really? 11-13 year olds are “young women”?

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