French director and writer Maïmouna Doucouré was rather taken aback to find that her film Cuties (Mignonnes) — an award winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — was so violently unpopular with the American public after it appeared here on Netflix. In response to promotional materials and clips from the movie (which showed eleven-year-old girls dressed and dancing like strippers), politicians, journalists, and celebrities complained that the streaming service was “basically distributing child pornography.” A petition calling for Netflix viewers to cancel their subscription gained 600,000 signatories. Yet the moviemakers were baffled, maintaining that “Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children.”
If this were a novel — or if the lead actresses weren’t minors — I might be inclined to side with the defenders. But Cuties isn’t a novel; rather it’s a visual medium, one in which actual eleven-year-old girls have been presented to millions of viewers in ways that, in any other context, would be considered reprehensible, if not criminal.
Since I suspect that many won’t watch the movie out of principle, I’ll try summarizing it.
Cuties explores the various ways that vulnerable young girls act out sexually. Set in modern-day France, it tells the story of Amy (Fathia Youssouf), who moves with her family (her mother and two younger brothers) into a government-housing scheme. Amy, whose family are part of a strict Muslim community, soon discovers that her father intends to take a second wife, who will occupy the empty room next to hers. Owing to the conventions of her religion, her mother has no say in the matter and must even feign enthusiasm. Understandably feeling angry and confused, Amy internalizes her mother’s misery and seeks escape.
Before long, the “cuties,” a group of highly troublesome popular girls at school, attract Amy’s attention. The cuties lie, steal, fight, and (with unfettered access to hypersexualized pop culture through their phones) exhibit precocious sexual curiosity, particularly in relation to dancing. Having earned their acceptance, Amy is soon pressured into taking a video of a boy’s penis as he urinates in a school toilet. Soon, engrossed in her new double life, Amy slips beneath her hijab at a prayer meeting to watch adult women perform a raunchy stripper-esque dance routine. The cuties giggle at pornography in the school toilets; they strut, pout, and make crude sexual comments in order to attract the attention of older boys; they dress in skimpy and provocative clothing (Amy borrows her toddler brother’s T-shirt to use as a crop-top). And yet, all the while, the filmmakers remind us that they do not really understand what they are doing — that they are children. In one scene, one of the girls mistakes a used condom for a balloon, causing a chorus of prepubescent shrieking.
Angelica, the group’s ringleader, complains that she is neglected by her parents, but adds that at least “people like me.” Amy realizes during the most controversial scene in the movie — the cuties’ dance routine — that this isn’t who she is or wants to be and runs off the stage to find her mother. Thereafter, she changes into an age-appropriate outfit and plays outdoors with a skipping rope, a reminder of what girlhood ought to look like. But while the girls’ inappropriate behavior is not framed as liberation as much as a cry for help, and though depiction doesn’t equal endorsement, the nature of the depiction is harder to justify. During the dance sequence, the scantily clad girls grind, hump, and contort their bodies on stage in a way that would be gratuitously sexual for adults, never mind children. Even the (watered-down) IMDb “Parents’ Guide” fails to reassure:
A pair of tight leather pants on an 11-year-old girl are forcefully pulled down in the midst of a scuffle with another girl. . . .
11-year-old girls dance suggestively in front of a live adult audience.
Thus, whatever their artistic intentions, in making a social commentary about the sexualization of children, the filmmakers undeniably sexualized children.
Imagine if a movie, a social critique about cruelty to animals, depicted the literal burning and beatings of dogs and cats. Would it be morally convincing for filmmakers merely to replace the usual disclaimer “no animals were harmed in the making of this film” with a post-production protestation, “Oh but our whole point was to show that it’s wrong”? Obviously not. Besides, in the case of Cuties, there was an easy way around the artistic challenge that the script presented. Why didn’t they cast young adults who could be made to resemble minors?
Defenses of the film tend to start with the complaint that critics haven’t watched the film, but my complaint with those defending it is that they have watched it and yet still pretend there isn’t a major ethical problem. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody writes that “‘Cuties’ is a film of the center, and it’s aesthetically of the center — it depicts the unconsidered without advancing to the realm of the subjective, and it doesn’t allow its young protagonists much discourse, outer or inner.” Only a true intellectual could — when faced with the writhing, leather-clad bottoms and spreading legs of little girls — utter such besides-the-point nonsense.
I hate to say it but it’s not in the least bit surprising that this is a French film. In the 1970s, key thinkers of the French intelligentsia — Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Satre among them — published an open letter in Le Monde, a leading French newspaper, defending three men who had been charged with having sex with children under 15. For centuries, the French legal system didn’t classify sexual activity with children to be a criminal offense and, apparently, in some instances, it still doesn’t. In 2017, the French writer Valentine Faure summarized a recent case in a piece entitled “Can an Eleven-Year-Old Girl Consent to Sex?” (Ms. Faure thinks Not) for the New York Times:
The events, first reported by the website Mediapart, took place on April 24 in the Paris suburb of Montmagny. That afternoon, the child followed a man, who had already approached her twice in the previous days, telling her he “could teach her how to kiss and more.” They went to his building, where she performed oral sex in the hallway. Then she followed him to his apartment, where they had sexual intercourse. Afterward, he told her not to talk to anybody about it, kissed her on the forehead and asked to see her again.
On her way back home, the girl called her mother in a state of panic, realizing what had just happened. “Papa is going to think I’m a slut,” she said. The mother immediately called the police and pressed charges for rape. But citing Article 227-25 of the French criminal code, the public prosecutor stated that “there had been no violence, no coercion, no threat, no surprise,” and therefore, the man would be charged only with “sexual infraction.” That offense is punishable by five years in prison, while rape entails 20 years of imprisonment when the victim is under 15.
By comparison, the moral outrage of Americans at the first whiff of pedophilia is deeply reassuring. Yes, the filmmakers were on to something important: There is much at stake here, and in order to better protect children, we do have to explore unpleasant realities such as those discussed in the movie. Still, a clear line was crossed. The makers of Cuties didn’t merely simulate the cultural degradation and abuse of children, they became part of the problem they purport to protest.