⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Rating: 5 out of 5.
Rating: 5 out 5.
Before watching Cuties, I had, for better or for worse, acquired an idea of the controversy surrounding it. Summaries and reviews of the French film, using terms such as ‘child exploitation’ and ‘abuse’, started to mount from the moment of the film’s screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Some viewers have described the dangers of endorsing the hypersexualisation of women, let alone children. Others have applauded debut director Maïmouna Doucouré for showing us, provocatively, the pitfalls of our modern and supposedly enlightened societies.
At the centre of the film is Amy, a French-Senegalese girl on the edge of puberty, brought up in a traditional Muslim community but facing, inevitably and increasingly, the world ‘outside’. Indoctrinated with messages of evil and sin, particularly imposed on the bodies of women, Amy is shocked and intrigued by the unruliness of her peers. The hunger in her eyes is evident as she follows a girls’ dance group known as ‘The Cuties’. From this moment, Amy’s escape from one extreme to another begins.
Debut actress Fathia Youssouf skilfully portrays the many nuances of Amy’s personality, as she goes through a swift but believable character development. In the background is her girl-troupe, performing their part just as convincingly, and her mother (Maïmouna Gueye), who visibly, and dishearteningly, shares many of Amy’s struggles.
The film beautifully demonstrates a sort of code-switching, expressed more in movements and demeanour than in language. The young Amy tries, for a while, to be both the virtuous Muslim woman and the rebellious, sensual dancer, but is pressured from each side to be more one than the other. The film is, if anything, a close-to-perfect rendering of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy, pointing strongly to the fact that women, even before they have reached maturity, must face the paradox that they can only be one or the other – and the choice will always be wrong.
A number of shots which linger on the prepubescent girls for perhaps a moment too long as they twerk or pout at the camera are at the core of the controversy. One is left with a feeling of discomfort, when they, without any scruples, express their developing sexualities. But why the discomfort? As a theme, sexual liberation is slowly but surely making its way into popular culture, and overall, this is healthy and positive, even when it involves the younger generations. Cuties, however, takes it a step further in forcing its audience to take the stance of the male gaze, turning sexual liberation into sexual exploitation. At the same time, the title of the film serves to constantly remind us that hypersexual attention is aimed at a bunch of eleven-year-olds. This is where the danger lies: when cute becomes sexual.
The clever twist in the tale is that the freedom the girls feel to express their sexuality is still very limited. While desperately trying to figure out who they are, they are presented – through family, religion or social media – with already-established ideas of how they should be, first and foremost as females. In a world like this, appearance has to mean more than anything else.
Provocative as it is, uncomfortable as it is, the narration of Cuties highly political message is also immaculate. It is the type of film that deserves all the praise as well as a great deal of the reproach it has received. In discussing whether its inappropriateness is meaningful or vulgar, the very issues it tries to bring to light may be discovered and changed for the better.
Image: Leticia Roncero via Flickr