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What everyone got wrong about Cuties, the black Muslim coming-of-age Netflix film accused of hypersexualisation

A poor marketing decision has seen Maïmouna Doucouré's first film under fire. But Cuties offers a rare formative story on black French family life and friendship.

27 Aug 2020

Photography via xx / Cuties

During her winning speech for Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival in February 2020, French-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré told an anecdote about a man who said he could not believe she made the movie, because “she’s too feminine”. In response, she said to him that femininity is not contradictory to intelligence and leadership. “I’m here today, more feminine than ever,” she told the audience.

But despite being recognised by both Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival, Maïmouna found herself being questioned again over the past week after a Netflix marketing decision saw her film accused of hypersexualising children.

In reality, Cuties is an eloquent film challenging the trope of hypersexualisation and the people lambasting Maïmouna’s work and questioning her judgement go hand-in-hand with a long tradition of silencing black women’s creativity. Right now, Maïmouna is being advised to stay away from the press and has removed her presence from social media due to the amount of criticism the movie has received, despite most of the critics having not yet watched the film. 

It’s rare to see a French movie centring a black girl without projecting anything onto her. But this nuanced, well-documented and respectful portrayal is how movies portraying identities, race or political subjects should be. No trauma porn, no attention-seeking salaciousness. Goundo Diawara, a black Muslim woman who grew up in a polygamist family, wrote a Twitter thread saying that she believes the film to be “essential”.

“This nuanced, well-documented and respectful portrayal is how movies portraying identities, race and political subjects should be”

Cuties follows Amy, an 11-year-old Senegalese-Muslim girl at a pivotal point in her life. She’s moving to a new apartment and a new school and is asked to attend the wedding of her polygamist father and his new wife. Her mother is not happy with her father’s decision, but has to pretend to be in front of the community. In the building where she lives, she encounters a girl of her own age, Angelica, who happens to go to her school but seems older than she is in the way she dresses, dances and talks. She leads a competitive dance group called “Cuties”. Amy quickly discovers a new world and is torn between her desire to be part of the group and the traditions she grew up with.

Maïmouna dreamt up the idea for Cuties after seeing some young girls dancing lasciviously at a block party. In a lengthy interview she did with Paris Match, a famous French magazine, she said, “I thought to myself, ‘Do they realise the message they are sending?’” For a year and a half, the director investigated little girls’ different backgrounds. The film is a cry of alarm, she says, a nod to girls of 13 or 14 “followed by 400,000 people just because they posted pictures of themselves in thongs”. 

Ultimately Cuties is a movie that tries to understand the reason why some girls are so keen to perform hyper-femininity at such a young age. It questions but never judges, gives some answers but not definitive ones. It always finds a balance. It also shows how it’s challenging to grow up in the social media era, where validation is the key to fit in with a group of girls. They are harsh to each other but they also enjoy each other’s company.   

But although the movie’s outlook is nuanced, ironically Netflix US’s marketing team decided to use hypersexualisation to promote it. Instead of choosing the original poster image, which showed the girls hanging out together and laughing, they captured an image from a scene in the film where the girls are dancing. This scene, at a pivotal point in the story, was made with intention: to have the viewer question why we think of the girls in a sexualised way when they just want to dance and be themselves. The problem, the film suggests, is not because of them, but because of how the viewer looks at them.

“It is horrific to see the difference in treatment between her, a young black filmmaker, in comparison to some famous French directors who are actually known for sexual misconduct”

In response to Netflix’s actions, Maïmouna has received death threats and called “a paedophile”. A petition is still circulating to cancel its release. When you know Maïmouna’s previous work, you’ll know this condemnation is unfair; she is a brilliant and thorough director who put in plenty of research to create a nuanced project. The poster and trailer were misguided choices from Netflix and it is horrific to see the difference in treatment between her, a young black filmmaker, in comparison to some famous French directors who are actually known for sexual misconduct (think Roman Polanski who won Best Director at the Césars in February).

Cuties is the first movie of its kind in the history of French cinema. While the list of coming of age films is long and in the US and the UK there are a few recent examples which showcase black girls and the particularity of their teenagehood (Selah and the Spades, Rocks, Pariah, Hearts Beats Loud and The Fits to name a few), in France, they mostly only exist with white casts.

Girlhood (2014) is an obvious exception. With four black girls as the main characters, the film was directed by the celebrated French screenwriter Céline Sciamma, but has received mixed reviews. Told through the white gaze, the story of Marieme and her friends wanting to escape their neighbourhood and family backgrounds, was a stereotypical depiction of the Parisian suburbs where misery, poverty and violence are too often the only stories shown. Girlhood happened to have some lovely moments of sorority and joy and most mainstream media praised it, but it replicated how black girls are often portrayed in French films, without nuance or contradiction. 

Growing up in France with such a lack of representation was not easy. It felt as though teenagehood and young womanhood was not for us brown and black people. We were not allowed to see ourselves having our periods for the first time, our first kisses, or even our first rebellions. It was nice to see American movies like Thirteen, but something was missing: the way my parents would react as immigrants from West Africa and our French idiosyncrasies. In Cuties, for the first time, I saw that and I thought about how great it would have been for my girlfriends and me to have had this movie. How, in ten years time, we would have remembered the scenes in the film.

“Growing up black in France, we were not allowed to see ourselves having our periods for the first time, our first kisses, or even our first rebellions”

Maybe it’s because Maïmouna Doucouré was inspired by her own story that it seems so relatable and unique. Like the character in Cuties, her father had two wives and she saw her mother silently struggling. Amy is a reflection of Maïmouna’s younger self. She doesn’t understand why adults act a certain way, wants to be someone else and to forget the struggles she faces – as do her friends. In a moving and intimate moment, Angelica tells Amy that her parents “work too much” and think she’s “a bad daughter”. Looking at Amy, she asks, “But people like me, right?” The girls want to be loved and freed from their insecurities. Beyond its concentration on the hypersexualisation of little girls, Cuties is about friendship and bonding.

Whether in her depictions of the Senegalese-Muslim traditions of Amy’s family, the changing body of a child into a woman’s one, even the way men look at the girls, or her relationship with social media, Maïmouna shows without judgement. Her work recalls what Cecile Emeke did with her series, Strolling, reflecting the message that there is more than one way to be black and that we contain a multitude of stories.

The controversy that Maïmouna Doucouré has faced could be fatal. While the buzz could help drive up viewers, for her to remain one of the changing faces of (very white, very male) French cinema, she needs tangible support. In Paris Match, she said, “I hope to have a strong impact and move the lines. Activism goes through creation.” And to create, one has to be given the platform and the freedom to do so.