Netflix has been at the forefront of steadily evolving our media consumption habits for years. It goes without saying that this platform has totally disrupted the market of television and movies, forging a path for what we now call streaming, and likely the start of a cable-less reality. Like any disrupter, Netflix has garnered plenty of attention and criticism, the latest being in the form of Cuties, a French film released this year, that has stirred up plenty of controversy for its portrayal of young girls growing up in today's hyper-sexualized society.
I've ruminated on this film, and I have a few thoughts to unpack, some that might be shocking to read.
First things first, I'm not going to flame this movie. You can decide to stick your fingers in your ears and stop reading now, or you can listen, but the truth will unravel on this page whether you like it or not.
Like many, I was shocked to see the images of scantily clad, young girls twerking across my computer screen. The advertisement for Cuties, popping up on my Twitter feed, was met with horror.
"How did this get produced?"
"What is going on?"
These are valid thoughts that ran through my mind. I mean, let's be honest, none of this material is easy to digest. Especially when one considers the fact that the probing shots of butts and bare midriffs are of actual children themselves.
The thing that made me stop and take pause, however, is the fact that the main character in this film is Black, a Black girl at that, and my first thought was to see what white, male director conjured up this thinkpiece. My mind, racing a mile a minute, was ready to defame this person, someone I was certain had to be so tone-deaf to produce something such as this film.
The history, in filmmaking, of having people take it upon themselves to tell stories of lives that they have not lived is nothing new. Look at Girl (2018), a Belgian film made by Lukas Dhont, a cis-male, who shamefully tried to portray the experience of a transitioning female dancer. His film was denounced by the trans community, citing his use of a cis-male actor for his main character and over-fixation on genitalia. Or shall we discuss the decades of trauma porn reenactments of chattel slavery in American films, often directed by white men, that only seem to further entrench us [Black people] in the understanding of our still unremedied ancestral grief. Even Black male directors don't get a pass, as they systematically brutalize Black women onscreen for reasons left unknown to viewers. Today, more than ever, I think it's important we think about the stories that are being told in films, and more so, the people that are in charge of telling them.
This is all to say that it was quite a surprise to find out the director of Cuties is a she, and she is a Black woman named Maïmouna Doucouré. As a director, Doucouré defends her project by saying that she was bringing attention to real issues that are plaguing our society today.
Is Doucoure correct in her assertion that young girls are at more risk than ever of being victims of unwanted sexual gaze? Yes, most definitely. One need not look far to see the manifestations of such truths –– Tik Tok, Instagram, Twitter, the list goes on. Innocent children, simply being kids, are at risk of having the wrong eyes fall on their posts, pages, profiles, and ultimately themselves. Even outside of social media, the pressures young girls face, to act far older than their age, raise their own siblings, and navigate friendships that often ask of them far more than they wish to give, are ever-present, and they cast a dark shadow over every scene of this film.
I had to do some critical thinking, as I unpacked multiple biases and previous thought processes I carried with me into watching Cuties. The easy route, for me, would be to state that this film is an abomination. That would so beautifully fit the narrative that has been spun by detractors, people who have not even watched the film, I might add. My disapproval of the film would not require me to sit and think about what the director's intentions were, or the real, lived experiences she drew upon to craft this film. It would not have me ponder how we have crafted a world where children and sex can even be uttered in the same sentence. Most important of all, my turning my back on this film would have deprived me of seeing one of the most compelling films I have seen in a while, but more on that later.
Before I made any assertions, I read a handful of articles, specifically those written by women, who found the true intention of the film hidden behind its disastrous marketing, that so easily blew up in flames across our timelines. Mary McNamara's words for the Los Angeles Times stuck out to me, in particular, as she states, unequivocally, that the film was received positively in other countries, where "No one would think to categorize it as pedophilic or pornographic because that would be crazy." Let's face it, America, land of the free, placates to abusers. We see it in the way young girls are harassed over dress codes, told to let "boys be boys," and sadly across our university campuses, as sexual assault cases continue to be swept under million-dollar rugs.
The US, as a failed state, needs Cuties. The US needs to be uncomfortable with the current state of the world. The US needs to start advocating for its young girls, who, like the characters in Cuties, are screaming for help. This goes beyond looking at the absurdity of their dance moves but looking at what they are so painfully thinking and feeling. These girls are struggling, angry at a world of adults that refuse to listen. Trust me, the erasure of this film will do nothing to stop this country's issues surrounding child sex abuse.
You know what might help? Parents that can watch this film and become more aware of what it is like growing up as a young girl today. Or male peers that can finally plainly see the pressures that are unequally placed on their female counterparts. Last but not least, young girls watching this film can take away whatever they want: possibly the message of growing up between cultures, the idea of struggling to fit in, or maybe trying to understand your own sexuality, in a world that so cruelly, both emboldens and crucifies you. Ultimately, the attempted censorship of this film is a direct affront to the community that it hopes to save and uplift. Taking away Cuties is stripping away one of the few true expressions of intersectional self-advocacy among young adults that we've seen in ages.
Honestly, let's take a step back, and look at the backlash being thrown at Cuties. White and male voices are leading the crusade against this film, and for lack of a better word, I'm irked.
It would appear Congress, state attorneys, and politicians like Ted Cruz have put more action into their vehemence against this Black-Foreign film, than they have in ages when it comes to addressing the structural issues that are plaguing their own constituents.
I'm tired of white men, in power, policing Black bodies.
I'll say it louder for the people in the back.
I'm tired of white men, in power, policing Black bodies.
Black people, Black art, Black businesses.
For some reason, these men, who haven't lived a single day outside of their own cookie-cutter existences, are always the first to speak on things that they do not know. They take one look at something, and their biases have determined their unmovable judgment. I don't need to illuminate why this is bad and oftentimes dangerous – detrimental even, but I will say that we can all do better than the example they have set. Just as I sat and did my research, and eventually watched this film, you all are just as empowered to do the same.
Research is key. How many of you know that "twerking," what this film is being so heavily lambasted for, derives from West Africa, where it was a form of worship and not sexual at all? Perhaps it might interest you to know that a great deal of the film delves into spirituality and religion, and one's struggle to find a place in our world, something we can all relate to. Open up to things that confuse you, that frighten you, and especially to things that anger you, and you will be overwhelmed by the breadth of knowledge that awaits you. I think, especially if a nerve has been struck with this piece, you should take a step back and ponder why that is, go back to the literature, build your argument, and then we can discuss.
These men have done none of the above. Centuries of inequity and they still refuse to practice empathy. They have not lifted a finger for women, except for when it was so pleasantly convenient for them. Look back at history, and you will see they have not even stood up for their own daughters! Ted Cruz, the same man that said access to abortion services is a "manifestation of a war on women," suddenly is the voice of reason on female representation? Now, they want to speak up, when, for years, 1 in 3 girls in America have been sexually abused before the age of 18?
Now, in today's world, this posturing for the sake of exercising privilege and trying to discern what they think and feel is art, simply further proves how ludicrous and out of touch the men that run this country are. People haven't received a penny from the government in months, as a global pandemic rages, but they want to fight a foreign film made by a Black woman that has received the full backing and support of the French government.
They will yell at Netflix but refuse to pass meaningful laws that would actually protect our children. Please think about this, marinate in this truth: Peacefully, they sit in ivory offices and pass laws that directly affect the young girls that they are allegedly trying to protect – railing against Planned Parenthood, taking sexual education out of their schools, taxing tampons, and the list goes on and on.
These men, let me just say, they have one finger pointed, and three pointed right back at them. They work side-by-side with the very predators this film, in part, aims to address.
Are we not all tired of being reminded, every day, the amount of work that needs to be done in this country? I can only imagine how frustrating it must feel for other countries and their inhabitants to look on as outraged Americans flail their arms in the air, angry about art that they have not even stopped to actually appreciate because they are simply too closed-minded to look beyond preconceived notions.
We live in a society where this film is already happening. Every young person can find some part of it to connect with, and they recognize it as a point of discomfort; an area that the adults in their lives can't even be bothered to pay attention to. That is until they [the adults] sit down and see it played in realtime.
Like it or not, this film is doing more for young female representation than all of its detractors combined. Discrediting this Black woman's art is not the activist stance you think it is. Throwing out one of the few films that speak up for young girls as fiercely as this one, is not the move.
No doubt, Cuties was difficult to watch at times, if not for its outrageous imagery, for its truth and sincerity. However, is that not the point of film and art; to push us to think critically and even change the way we view things? The story shown, beyond its hyperbolic clothing and dancing, is one of the most honest portrayals of contemporary adolescence, a stage of life that is slowly losing meaning in a world where social media has stripped us all of our innocence. It's a story that simply does not get told, because the people that know it, so rarely get the chance to share it. I beg you all to watch it, as its one of the few acts of defiance we have in a society that refuses to center young girls and their overlooked experiences.
Truthfully, the onus, should not fall on these children to address these issues. Still, we should all be moved and stirred to action by what's happening here. Support it or not, without these girls, and their powerful performances, we would not be talking so heatedly about these matters today. I personally applaud Doucouré. Her work is starting necessary discussions and I think it will be more impactful on young girls than I can even begin to elucidate today.
I also thank her for opening my own eyes.
Now is the time to listen to women and their stories. We cannot discount the hard work, the blood, sweat, and tears that were put into this project because of the guilt that is being thrown at us by the ever-present male gaze, the same gaze that misled us with purposely triggering advertising (that has since been recalled). This idea of sexualized bodies, especially in relation to children, is a construct that has plagued us for far too long. Why do we live in a world where our first reaction is to cover these girls up when it should be to tell perverted men to shut the hell up and keep their hands where we can see them?
It's time we begin dismantling this system. Now, is the time to listen to young people; to give young girls the tools to advocate for themselves. Now is the time to gather around Black women and support them and the messages they are finally being given the space to share.
If that is the wrong thing to do, then I most certainly do not want to be right.