'Cuties', a French drama that revolves around a group of pre-teen girls, ran into controversy recently as it was accused of sexualising them.

Still from Cuties on Netflix with the girls throwing their shopping in the air
Flix Opinion Monday, September 14, 2020 - 17:29

When I was around six or seven years old, I remember wearing a long skirt and top, looking in the mirror and trying to dance to ‘Chamma chamma’ from the 1998 Bollywood film China Gate. Starring Urmila Matondkar, 'Chamma chamma' is by all means an ‘item song’. While trying to copy Urmila’s moves, could my dancing be perceived as suggestive? Sure. But was I trying to be sexy or feeling sexual? No.

Cuties, a French drama that revolves around four pre-teen girls, ran into controversy recently as it was accused of sexualising young girls. The film, the first feature by Maïmouna Doucouré, released on Netflix recently, and stars Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas and Maïmouna Gueye. Fathia plays 11-year-old Amy, a Muslim Senegalese immigrant with orthodox upbringing, living in Paris in a poor neighbourhood with her mother and two siblings. She finds herself drawn to her schoolmate Angelica’s dance and twerking group, which has three other girls, called ‘Cuties’. As the film progresses, Amy and the others begin practising for a dance contest, trying to emulate women from music videos who twerk and dance suggestively.

The film’s director and Netflix have defended Cuties, saying it is a social commentary against the sexualisation of young children. It is no doubt discomfiting watching these pre-teens gyrating, pouting and swaying to music, trying to be like adult women from music videos. However, it is also a sobering reminder that children express what they feel by emulating what is around them. And when the media and popular culture sexualise women so much, a child may not have the nuance to understand the misogyny behind this sexualisation; they could very well see imitation as a means to express their femininity and sexuality.

In Cuties in fact, a lot of times that Amy and her friends practise their dance moves, they seem to be having more fun than anything else; celebrating, hooting and hyping each other up as they get the moves right. Even though everything from their dressing to their expressions seem to suggest that they are trying to be sexy, it is clear that they neither know the consequences of sexualising themselves, nor are they hoping to achieve anything other than preparing and winning a dance contest with it.

There is a difference in the camera's gaze when the girls are on their own. Even with Amy teaching the others how to move their bodies, there is an element of childish fun and excitement that remains dominant. This changes though when they make a music video to post on social media or when others watch them.

That said, the film does have moments which made me uncomfortable. I wondered if there was a better way of getting the message across other than panning the camera down to the girls’ buttocks when they are twerking, their waists when they are moving. Such shots – where the camera focuses on one part of the body – often have the effect of dehumanising and objectifying the person.

So, the fact that these shots are being used for young girls who are probably too naïve to know all the implications of their movements, is definitely unsettling to a viewer. Especially in one scene where the girls try to convince the male managers of a gaming arcade not to report them for sneaking in without paying. They say that they're dancers, and Amy then offers to show the men that they are dancers. She starts dancing – her moves however are the ones she has picked up from the music videos. As the camera goes to her swaying hips and waist, one of the men also looks on appreciatively – yet another indication that the girls truly think they are just dancers and that moving in this sexualised manner is normal. In that sense, the film does what it sets out to do – makes a statement about the impact of the sexualisation of girls and women in popular culture on children.

On the flip side though, at a time where child sexual abuse material is a growing problem online, it’s worth questioning whether this social commentary could have been made without using the same gaze that creates this problematic culture of objectifying women. For example, in Rasbhari, a series which stars Swara Bhasker and released on Amazon Prime Video a couple of months ago, we see flashbacks where Shanoo (Swara), as a girl, is seen dancing to ‘Saat Samundar Paar’. While her dancing is mechanical, her movements are once again an imitation of what she has seen in the media, and hence appear sexualised. While the adults around her immediately get uncomfortable – as does the audience towards the end of Cuties when the troupe put on their final performance – because of the choice of the song and the type of moves, the camera in Rasbhari does not pan in the same way across the girl’s body as it does in Cuties.

Whether the gaze of the camera indeed sexualises the young protagonists in the film can be debated, but Cuties is also another reminder that children too have a sexuality, and they will explore it. Amy’s excitement at watching a music video which shows skimpily clad women twerking in secret while she is at prayer with the other women and girls of the immigrant Muslim Senegalese community, or when she looks at herself in the mirror wearing her young brother’s tee as a crop top, or when the girls pretend to be older to talk to some boys are all things that most of us have done as children just beginning to learn about our bodies, sense of attraction, in the film’s case – femininity – and yet, these are still taboo. Amy’s actions and desperation to be part of Cuties and dance is possibly also an act of rebellion against her conservative upbringing and grief about her suffering mother who is in a polygamous marriage where her husband is soon going to bring his new wife home.

Cuties also offers an insight into what happens when adults create taboos and repress these normal aspects of growing up, including sexuality. Amy is unable to speak to her mother about wanting to dance, wanting to dress more liberally, and hence, there is no adult protecting her from getting sexualised too early as well. At the end though, after an emotional but short conversation with her mother who allows her to skip her father’s second wedding, we do see Amy ditch the sexualised clothes for a pair of jeans and top, and play with the other kids on the street, as a child should be able to. This suggests that the film has a happier ending.

Cuties is ultimately a film which will make you restless. But as women, some will also find it relatable, because we know what it’s like to grow up seeing women objectified and sexualised in films, music videos and popular culture constantly – and believing that to be normal, try to emulate it. Could the film have been made in a way where it doesn't appear to perpetuate the same gaze that it is opposing? Possibly. Does it drive the point across? Definitely. 

Views expressed are author's own.

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