Ms Representation: The curious case of Cuties
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author discusses Cuties
Sitting at a beauty parlour, one day, I saw a young girl, barely 12-13 years old, walk in to get her perfectly natural eyebrows threaded. The beautician asked if she had come alone, and she showed that she had the money for the service. The beautician refused and asked the girl to return with her mother. This incident, though overtly harmless, disturbed me. I kept seeing variations of this incident everywhere: on social media, where tweens and teens pretend to be an adult and pose in grown-up clothes and make-up; on reality shows where children trudge through grown-up routines; and in life itself.
The more I see this, the more I cherish and feel thankful for the innocence I had when growing up. This is what Maïmouna Doucoure says through her debut film, Cuties (Mignonnes in French), which sparked off a huge global controversy after Netflix, which acquired the French film, dropped a poster of the four girls in sexualised clothing. Widespread condemnations of the film were issued by those who had not seen the film. #CancelNetflix began trending, and Netflix later issued an apology, agreeing that the poster was not representative of the film. However, the platform defended Cuties for being a commentary on child sexualisation.
It is imperative that we get a couple of things out of the way first. The first is obvious. Don’t judge a film before you see it. The second: depiction isn’t always endorsement. Once you watch Cuties, it becomes clear that the film’s heart is in the right place. Doucoure explores the invisible trauma that children carry that is often dismissed without engagement. Coming from a conservative family, the eleven-year-old Amy yearns for attention. When she doesn’t get it from her mother, who is traumatised by her own problematic marriage, Amy gets fascinated by the Cuties: a provocative tween dance group. And it is tough to ignore the Cuties. Loud, brash, disturbingly precocious, and incredibly misguided, they demand attention.
The film’s strength is when it bares this dichotomy onscreen. These girls might be dressed in provocative clothes and might act like adults, but often, we see the children they truly are. These children who mistake a used condom for a balloon, ‘learn’ about sex and rape from porn... We often forget how corrosive misguided information can be. Fuelled by the curiosity of puberty, they break societal rules with a half-baked understanding of sexual liberation. They give themselves flawed goals and standards for beauty, ones that erode their inherent self-worth.
All of this is to depict how troublesome reality is, and how important it is to address it. When the girls are dragged away by school authorities, they cry for ‘freedom’. They sneak into a laser tag arcade and accuse the security of ‘copping a feel’ as he drags them out. And even more worryingly, Amy persuades a perverted guard to let them go, twerking her way out of the situation. It is a hazardous lesson for Amy, who tries again later to use her body to get out of a difficult situation.
However, there are sequences where I was uncomfortable with the gaze. The camera, almost voyeuristically, zooms in to focus on the midriffs and backs of these children when they rehearse. These shots are attempts to make us uncomfortable, and they succeed. But is this the best way to achieve that discomfort? Considering the sensitivity of the theme in hand, is hyper-sexualisation the best tool to use against the problem of hyper-sexualisation? To invoke support for a campaign against deforestation, would we cut a tree? (This reminds me of what a friend once remarked about rape sequences in our cinema: We always only see the pain of the victim, but rarely the perversion of the perpetrator. The victim’s pain is highlighted, while the perpetrator’s wickedness remains in the shadows.) Cuties also doesn’t really help us understand the conservative mother’s apathy towards Amy. Not all story threads tie together.
Cuties is flawed, yes, but it is bold. It reminds us how we ignore children, and often don’t engage them with the respect and empathy they deserve. But I do wonder how Cuties would have fared had the camera maintained a respectable distance, opting to explicitly villanise the apathy of adults and the media influence on these naive minds. Nevertheless, it’s a film that deserves a far more nuanced debate than the one that is happening right now.