Even before Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties, or Mignonnes in French, was released on Netflix, it ignited international debate. The trailer alone provoked huge controversy for the film’s questionable use of minors, representation of minorities, and framing of Islam. Although raw emotion and knee-jerk reactions can be impulsively misleading and hinge on mob mentality, they may also be incredibly revealing. The instinctual response to a film says a lot about how well it conveys its message appropriately.
If there was one thing that all political fronts were united on, it was to denounce the use of child actors in addressing an unfortunate phenomenon: the sexualization of young girls. A clip that circulated on social media from the film was enough to wreak havoc, and for good reason. In it, a group of 11-year-old female adolescents performed on stage in scant clothing, moving their bodies in sexually suggestive ways, while the camera fixated on their private parts. There is a fine line between alluding to the consequences of social media influence on middle school girls, and explicitly using children to show an audience how it happens. We know that online culture attracts the impressionable, but it is a director’s job to creatively confront the audience with the dark side of this reality, without doing it at the expense of real girls’ lives.
It is evident that this is the first film Doucouré has directed. She jumped the gun and made bold decisions, which is commendable when it doesn’t involve pandering to a pedophilic gaze. Doucouré claims there were psychologists on set to make sure lead child actresses Fathia Youssouf, Medina El Aidi, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, and Myriam Hamma were doing okay – as if that caveat makes up for the damage caused after the fact.
Not only was the explicit voyeurism a bad move, but the cliche portrayal of a Muslim family also upset many. For a non-Muslim, it may not be as obvious, but one of the opening scenes takes place in a prayer space where a female Islamic leader cites a hadith out of context:
“There are more women in Hell”
The women in the room share reassuring hums and nods, painting them as submissive and pitifully self-deprecating. France has a history with this take — a Muslim household always breeds misfortune. While the usual presentation of this comes in the form of a woman who leaves her oh-so oppressive religion to run toward a French man’s arms (the whole removal of the hijab, forbidden love, white savior bit), Cuties looks at how Amy (Fathia Youssouf) falls into the wrong hands after her mother Mariam (Maimouna Gueye) becomes too preoccupied with preparing her husband’s wedding. Of course – he took another wife in Senegal. The film thus falls short on two fronts: it hovers over what mainstream French society sees as foreign cultural taboos and broken family life by using minority groups of West African, Maghrebi, and Latino descent, and it also sexualizes young girls in the process of criticizing the sexualization of young girls.
There was unanimous agreement on Twitter that the breaching of certain ethics simply overshadowed everything else. We arrive at the pressing moral polemic: Should we allow children to act sexually on camera, even if the point is to denounce how children get sucked into a hyper-sexual environment?
The accessibility pedophiles have to Cuties, which isn’t restricted to the Dark Web, but is just lying around on one of the biggest streaming services, is reprehensible and frightening — even more so within the context of growing acceptance of those who are now called “MAPs” (minor-attracted persons). Cuties has many strong suits, but it doesn’t appropriately respond to ethical demands. While older generations have left few traces of their embarrassing childhoods, besides pictures hidden away in a cardboard box somewhere, kids today have the potential to expose intimate moments of their lives and plaster them on the internet for everyone to see: forever. This movie aims to address what happens when kids slip under an adult radar and are immersed in social media, but in the process it has facilitated the same mistakes young people make. Somehow the permanence of film is forgotten or ignored, as a medium which produces much larger-scale reverberations than a small Instagram account.
The movie tells us parental neglect is the second biggest factor, after social media, that leads young girls to mirror poor behavior, and it shows us relatable examples of what this looks like. Amy cuts out paper butterflies she drew for her mother and places them nicely on her bed. At night, she sees that her mother whips the bed sheet open without even taking a second to see what was on it, letting the artwork sprawl on the floor. This short scene alone communicates how something as small as this move can profoundly affect a child. There is also a strong message about absent fathers. Amy asks her mother when her father is coming back from Senegal, not knowing that he will return with someone new. One day, she hides under her mother’s bed and overhears her mother making calls to family back home in Senegal, announcing the news of her husband’s new marriage. In between a few calls, Mariam breaks down and cries. Amy, underneath the bed, sheds a tear as well, both for the sense of betrayal she feels from her father and the pain she feels for her mother. This scene also gives us a window into Mariam’s personal struggles, and we see she is doing the best she can given the circumstances.
Despite the value of scenes like this, it is hard to walk away from the movie without mulling over what went on behind the scenes to groom these girls into performing lewd acts in front of an entire set crew. The girls look confident, but also very child-like in these performances, and it doesn’t seem like the work of just impressive acting. To act is to channel a part of oneself that may not be there intrinsically, and to in turn internalize that character until it effectively shines through on the surface. But the empty eyed, awkward, finger-in-mouth gestures these girls make are not the products of natural talent or training. They are products of being children.
Amy’s friend, Angelica (Medina El Aidi), through whom Amy discovers a whole new world, opens up about her parents’ lack of presence, claiming they are too preoccupied with the restaurant they run. While she is seen by most of her peers at school as fierce and unbothered, in this scene she is weak. After all, she is only a child. Tears fall down her face as she shares with Amy that she dreams of her parents one day recognizing her passion for dancing. We also visit Yasmine’s (Myriam Hamma) house when all the girls come over. Yasmine’s mom steps in to drop off juice in her bedroom, but doesn’t notice they were video-chatting Walid (Bilel Chegrani), an older boy from their school, who asks to see their breasts. Not once, however, do we get a sneak peek into the white child’s life. We don’t know what led Jess (Illanah Cami-Goursolas) into the same mess, or what role her parents played.
Doucouré completely dropped the ball in scenes where shock factor superseded any consideration for the dignity of the child actresses. The crude performances, while made to evoke temporary discomfort, are immortalized for the world to see. This may not mean Doucouré sought out to purposefully exploit these children and is a criminal on the loose, but it does mean that critics who only see the merit in this film are alarmingly minimizing the moral dilemma, which the public sees clear as day. Honoring the rights of children comes before any artistic pursuit, even one that aims to address a pressing issue of our times.
Photo Credit: radical-eve via Tumblr
About the Author: Sabrina Amrane is a journalism and political sciences student. Her interests include Maghribi history, literature, and philosophy. You can follow her on Twitter here.