By Peg Aloi
The real problem is the obsessive engagement with social media platforms that encourages attention-seeking behavior, and rewards it.
You may have noticed a bit of heated controversy swirling around Netflix over the last couple of weeks. Specifically, a social media campaign to “cancel” the streaming service because of its decision to carry Cuties (aka Mignonnes), a French film about teenage girls in Paris. Complainers fired off blistering accusations: the film promoted pedophilia, it sexualized underage girls, and it exploited the young actresses who appeared in it. Many shared memes across social media, encouraging others to boycott Netflix for this reason. No one seemed bothered by the fact that they were being asked to do this even though they knew little to nothing about the film. Indeed, people were all-too-eager to boycott Cuties simply based on a stranger’s recommendation. Apparently, there was no need to investigate the claims for themselves.
To me, this signifies precisely what’s wrong with America right now. People are willing to jump on any bandwagon of controversy or negativity without having any information about what they’re protesting. As it turns out, the people pushing out the anti-Netflix propaganda were, in many cases, affiliated with the crazy QAnon movement, which purports to be fighting human trafficking. But their aim is ideological: the cult proffers a narrative that claims liberal politicians and Hollywood celebrities are part of a Satanic cabal that kidnaps and sexually exploits children. There is absolutely no proof that any such coterie exists (maybe you heard about Pizzagate). Still, QAnon does seem to be growing in popularity by the day, and most, if not all, of them also happen to be fervent Trump supporters.
Netflix responded to the controversy by admitting that their publicity campaign for the film selected promotional imagery that was “inappropriate.” But they stood by their decision to air the film, made by a French Senegalese filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré. The filmmaker has also stood by her artistic choices, including hiring actresses the same age as their characters; this interview in Slate explores some of the issues she’s been asked to clarify. The film premiered to appreciative audiences as well as critical acclaim at Sundance.
The film draws upon Doucouré’s personal experience. She saw a dance competition featuring preteen girls and became fascinated with its attractions to the young. Over the course of a year she interviewed dozens of girls who were enthusiastic participants in this trend. Cuties is the result. As much as it is a sort of exposé of this culture, it is also a fine coming-of-age film about a young girl trying to fit in with her peers. She also has to reckon with family turmoil, given that her love of dance is at odds with her traditional upbringing.
Amy (Fathia Youssouf) is introduced as an 11-year-old Senegalese Muslim girl with two younger brothers (one is eight, one an infant) she helps take care of. Her family has recently moved to Paris. Her father has been away for some weeks in Senegal, and when she asks when he’s coming home her mother is vague and says soon. The family observes traditional customs, including having the women cover their hair and wear long dresses. One day Amy overhears her mother on the phone telling a friend that her husband has decided to take a second wife. Her mother feels obligated to call everyone she knows to tell them about this. When she breaks down crying in the middle of one such conversation Amy becomes visibly disturbed and saddened. Not long after this, Amy sees a girl her age, Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), in the laundry room of her apartment building. She is dancing to music on her smartphone — in between waiting for the dryer and ironing her long hair flat. Amy is fascinated and tries ironing her own hair at home. A few days later Amy sees a small group of girls at school and Angelica is among them. They’re dancing, practicing a routine for an upcoming competition. When the girls catch Amy watching them, they accuse her of spying and throw rocks, hitting her in the head. Later, Angelica sees her back at the building and helps her dress the small wound. The two girls slowly become friends, though the other two girls in the dance group not only reject Amy but are mean to her.
Amy’s response to the bullying is to try her best to become part of the group. She steals a smartphone left in a delivery van and watches videos so she can practice her dance moves. It takes a while, but when the group rejects another member, Yasmine, for some slight involving another girl’s boyfriend, they accept Amy as a new member to their dance troupe. In addition to listening to pop music on the stolen phone, Amy is also borrowing her little brother’s shirts and turning them into form-fitting tops so she can emulate the style of the girls she wants to befriend. She practices taking selfies and copies the other girls’ efforts to appear older than they are. It might seem unfathomable to adult viewers that Amy should want to be friends with girls who insult and assault her, but anyone who’s been a teenage girl is familiar with the depths of cruelty, aggression, and one-upmanship that characterize many adolescent friendships. Amy also begins to disregard her family’s strict rules in order to spend time with her friends. Eventually, she acts out in ways that shock her mother and elderly aunt. But she is far too obsessed with her newfound activity to care what her family thinks.
Amy turns out to not only be a very good dancer, but a natural leader who gets the others’ moves in shape for the competition. But, on the day of the auditions, a family commitment makes her late, and the other girls throw her out of the group. Amy, having had a taste of the attention of her peers, as well as the exhilarating buzz from dancing, goes to desperate measures to get back into the group. Tensions with her family increase, but Amy’s behavior only becomes more reckless and rebellious.
The film’s portrayal of adolescent girls is spot on. The young performers perfectly capture the nastiness as well as the fickle changeability of girls whose identity depends on fleeting moments of approval and praise. For those who wonder if the film goes too far in its portrait of the hypersexualized world of teenage dance competitions, the answer is no. The cinematic gaze here simply mirrors the problematic focus of a society that encourages children to speed through their adolescence by imitating the worst of adult behavior. The girls’ explicitly sexual moves are not precocious attempts at seduction. Rather, they are studied imitations of what they learn in online videos; they don’t express an innate urge to appear sensual or sexy. A fascinatingly ironic dichotomy unfolds: a lack of sophistication with regard to social behavior is set against the overtly glamorous looks and poses the girls affect to win the contest, which will increase their “likes” on social media. And that seems to be one of the film’s more salient messages: rather than easy access to porn or the threat of lurking pedophiles, the real problem is the obsessive engagement with social media platforms that encourages attention-seeking behavior, and rewards it.
Cuties is a daring and sensitive portrait of a girl whose attempt to break out of her family’s predestined path for her exposes her to things she doesn’t yet understand. It is preteen rebellion of the most ordinary sort, and if we find its trappings a bit shocking, maybe we need to pay closer attention.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.