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I watched the controversial ‘Cuties’ movie on Netflix. Here’s why I’m not mad at it

I’ve noticed a scattering of opinions on social media regarding the film “Cuties” on Netflix. Initially, I never really looked into it other than notice that people on Twitter and Facebook usually tied the movie with pedophilia—so I tried not to bring that into my headspace.

It wasn’t until I was tasked to give it a deeper look that I realised how serious the accusations were. Both Netflix and the director of “Cuties” (French-Senegalese filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré) are accused of promoting pedophilia. There has been a rising #CancelNetflix movement, and even Malaysians are going ham on it.

Is “Cuties” child pornography?

Sarimah Samad-Imran on Facebook posted her take on the movie, which currently has 2.8K shares. She explained why she was supporting the #CancelNetflix movement.

“The producer said this movie is about girls coming of age, trying to find their identities, battling religious, cultural and apakejadah (whatever) issue apa entah (whatever)…. Oooo yes, femininity katanya. Errrr hellooooo…. sending vagina picture to your friend has something to do with feminism mehhh? Stealing is cool? Seriously? Twerking to enter a place? A child looking so high, twerking in her underwear and a white singlet which purposely want to show a hint of her nipples is considered feminism too? How about asking an 11 year old child to show off her bare boobs? In a movie some more and for the world to watch? Doesn’t that make you a freaking disgusting producer?” wrote Sarimah.

Besides writing about how the movie involved child exploitation, she also mentioned that the Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is in support of the movie. Hastings tweeted an article by The Verge that basically tells readers that the movie’s message can get lost in the backlash and online rage.

While I completely understood Sarimah’s anger towards Netflix and the film, I was a little skeptical. She said that she “did her homework” on researching what “Cuties” was—but she didn’t say that she has watched it before posting.

What “Cuties” is really about

A few minutes into “Cuties” and I was a little confused. You mean, it isn’t a mini-documentary about 11-year-old girl dancers like “Dance Moms”? “Cuties” (Mignonnes in French) instead is an indie French film starring 14-year-old Fathia Youssouf as Amy—an eleven year-old immigrant girl from Senegal.

The movie starts by showing a day in the life of Amy as she stays with her mom and younger brothers in one of Paris’s poorest neighbourhoods. She also comes from a devout Muslim background—which is interesting seeing as the hijab is currently banned in French schools, and for public servants at their place of work.

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The movie shows that their faith is almost practised in secret—the family and a few other muslim women share their faith in a cramped apartment and they don’t have a designated space. The oppression they face trying to practise their own religion by French society coincides with the oppression they teach each other about a woman’s place (“In hell, there will be many more women than men”).

The intro seemed to be a powerful but lost message of how some people teach their faith to women. But it wasn’t until Amy comes across a fellow 11-year-old girl dancing to music in the same apartment building that I got any clue as to what people were complaining about. The girl was in a short crop top and leather pants—while it captured the attention of the main character, it made me cringe. However, that was just the beginning.

But I’m not just going to tell you what happened in the movie, in case you were planning to watch it. Instead, here’s what Sarimah wrote about the movie, and I’ll tell you if they did indeed happen or if it was misquoted:

  • “Sending vagina picture to your friend” – This refers to a scene when Amy took a picture of her vagina (not seen in the movie) and posted it on her Instagram “so that people didn’t see them as children anymore”. This wasn’t meant to show off liberal femininity, but it showed viewers that she was still a child and she can make really stupid mistakes. It also resulted her in losing her friends, so it wasn’t a ‘positive’ thing.
  • “Stealing is cool” – Amy stole a phone, and clothes for her friends to make her seem ‘cooler’, but eventually you’d know she’d get caught somehow. It was not to glorify her actions
  • “Twerking to enter a place” – This scene made me so uncomfortable. She did try to twerk for two security guards to help her and her friends get out from being reprimanded. One of the guards was seen being visibly pleased and let them out.
  • “A child looking so high, twerking in her underwear and a white singlet which purposely want to show a hint of her nipples is considered feminism too?” – Not really sure what she meant here, but there were plenty of instances of hard-to-watch scenes of minors dancing provocatively. However, I do not think that these were what the director meant as an example of feminism.
  • “Asking an 11 year old child to show off her bare boobs” – This did happen. A young dancer flashed her breast for a second, and it was very shocking and very sad to see.
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In the end, (spoiler alert) you’ll realise that the events of the movie has been teaching Amy that she is still a little girl and that she has just been the victim of hyper-sexualisation—just like a lot of other girls in the world. “Cuties” uses the uncomfortable visuals to provoke a serious conversation about the sexualisation of young girls regarding the colour of their skin, the policing of a girl’s sexuality, double standards, the effect of social media on kids, and how children learn these behaviours.

How Netflix made it worse

Image source: New York Post

While the movie did have some very shocking images, it was still meant to be cautionary tale—as many young girls might not know that they might be trying to hard to grow up and imitate adult women they see on the internet. I will not give it a second viewing and it is not a feel-good movie you can watch over and over.

Even so, “Cuties” premiered in the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on 23 January 2020, where Doucouré won the Directing Award. Monica Castillo of RogerEbert.com gave the film four out of four stars, stating that the movie is “a difficult and challenging film, pushing the idea of ‘depiction does not equal endorsement’ to its limit.”

It wasn’t until Netflix acquired “Cuties” that the movie started getting a lot of negative backlash. Netflix’s international promotional poster for the movie (seen above on the right side) were criticised for allegedly sexualising 11-year-old girls. The poster was different from the one used in its original release in France (seen above on the left side).

Not long after Netflix tweeted the poster, including descriptions of the movie as 11-year-old Amy becoming “fascinated with a twerking dance crew,” netizens called Netflix to take the poster down. There has even been a few different online campaigns asking Netflix to remove the movie. Within a couple of days, Netflix removed the poster and used different artwork for the film.

“We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Cuties. It was not OK, nor was it representative of this French film which won an award at Sundance,” tweeted Netflix.

Why you might be mad at the wrong thing

There is still a slew of tweets and reactions online of how “Cuties” is promoting child pornography. #CancelNetflix is also trending, and the director Doucouré said that she has received numerous attacks on her character from people who had not seen the film.

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I also found that most of these tweets have been made, strangely, by conservative American politicians. Senator Ted Cruz said that “every pedophile in America is going to watch this movie”. He also is among those who have called for an investigation into Netflix over its release of Cuties.

Taken from the screenshots of Sarimah’s Facebook post, Erin O’Toole and Bob Zimmer are both representing the Conservative Party of Canada. However, Tulsi Gabbard represents the Democratic party in America.

There have also been tweets that suddenly blame the Obamas because neither of them have spoken out about “Cuties”. However, people have been focusing so heavily on “Cuties” that they have virtually ignored the actual harm being done to children—which is the point of the movie.

I do not support every bit of content shot and filmed by the director and producers of “Cuties”, especially the more shocking ones. I believe the movie could have been made without those scenes, although it would not have been as shocking.

However, Netflix clearly states thats the movie is meant for people ages 18 years and older. And if parents are concerned about their kids accidentally stumbling upon the content, be assured that as long as you know how to use the parental controls function they will be fine.

As for the fact that a movie for adults contains child actors, that’s something I am not okay with as well. It doesn’t feel right to have to watch actual children copying adult acts like twerking and putting their fingers in their mouths, even if it is for a film.

However, Doucouré wanted to tell a story that was “close to her own life”. In interviews she’s given, she hoped that people will watch the movie before they make a decision about whether they think it’s good or bad.

“My one message would be that childhood is precious and we all have to protect our children. We all have to come together to figure out what is best for our children so that we can give a beautiful space to our children to grow up safely and peacefully, so that they can have the freedom to choose who they want to become and the best version of themselves,” she said.

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