The French film “Cuties” was released by Netflix on Sept. 9. This portrayal of 11-year-old grade-schoolers was anything but cute. Netflix chose to release the film in the midst of heavy criticism over the hypersexualization of grade-schoolers. There was a widespread call to boycott Netflix after the film’s release.
Not only does the film contain an extremely objectionable sexualization of these young girls, but it was also widely criticized for its anti-Muslim sentiments.
The film, helmed by French director Maïmouna Doucouré, won the Directing Jury Award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in January. “Cuties” focuses on a young Muslim girl, Amy (Fathia Youssouf), who has recently moved into a Parisian housing project with her family. They live in the apartments with their Muslim community and others, including a young girl named Angelica (Medina El Aidi), who the main character quickly befriends.
The first scene featuring 11-year-old Angelica is shot entirely from behind, as Amy watches her dance in tight leather pants and a crop top while doing laundry.
Angelica is the leader of the “Cuties,” a group of four mean, sparsely clothed girls united by dance at Amy’s new school. Amy gravitates towards this group within the first few days of school, even though they ridicule and bully her by throwing her books on the ground and laughing at her flat figure. The toxic group dynamic culminates in a fight between Angelica and one of the other girls, who is immediately cut from the circle, leaving an empty slot in the dance routine to be filled by an eager Amy.
Throughout the development of Amy’s unhealthy social life, the audience is also shown a toxic home life, not revolving around her family dynamic but rather the influence of Islam within it. There is a stark contrast between the crude, hypersexualized, flippant nature of the Cuties group and the conservative, strict, judgmental nature of the Muslim community in the housing project.
Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, during a session of prayer, Amy listens to a lesson about the importance of women’s piety, and that an overwhelming majority of women will be in hell. The woman speaking says, “Where does evil dwell? In the bodies of uncovered women.”
The Muslim community takes issue with the idea of Amy “finding herself” in the liberating act of removing her hijab, a headscarf which is portrayed in the film as something forced on women in Islam. An article by Religion Unplugged explains that many Muslim women today wear a hijab as a voluntary act of submission to God, not as anything forced on them by the religion or by men.
The harsh regulations and duties of this community play a large part in Amy’s rebellious rejection, not only of the principles of the religion, but also of her mother’s love and guidance, though luckily only temporarily.
Both portrayals of these two extremes are much more emphatic than necessary to convey the influences in Amy’s life. The severe constraint from the community, including physical violence for disobeying the rules and the sexualized malfeasance of the young girls, including watching stripper videos to learn how to twerk, both cross the line, proving to be problematic for the movie’s wide reception.
According to the same article by Religion Unplugged, the video’s initial description on Netflix was that Amy “becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew,” later changed to “a free-spirited dance crew.” Neither description even mentions the family’s Muslim faith, which is a huge part of the storyline.
These issues with the summary reveal Netflix’s attempt to tone down the harsh reality of the movie: the hypersexualization of young children and the chastisement of Islam. The family’s faith is portrayed as a huge source of contention in Amy’s life and in their family as her mother struggles to come to terms with her husband’s second marriage.
By the end of the movie, this struggle to fit into the mean girl’s group or the Muslim community resolves in Amy’s rejection of both.
To be clear, the sexualization of young children is not glorified in the movie. It is proven to be the source of many problems for the group of girls throughout the development of the storyline.
The issue is in the actual portrayal of these things which results in visuals that greatly disturb, or should greatly disturb, the viewer. The shots show a close-up view of the girls twerking and sexually touching each other in imitation of the music videos they’ve seen.
The bubbling of contention around this film actually culminated in Netflix being taken to court here in Texas for “lewd exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of a clothed or partially clothed child.”
According to an article by the Washington Post, a Tyler County grand jury handed down an indictment for Netflix’s promotion of the French film in September. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and other politicians even Tweeted a call for Netflix subscribers to #CancelNetflix.
From an outside perspective, the legal case certainly has legs to stand on, though Netflix told Fox News, “This charge is without merit and we stand by the film.”
The director, Doucouré, attempted to refute the claims of Islamophobia, explaining that she in fact grew up in a Muslim home and experienced much of the culture which she depicts in the movie. In an article published by The Root, she is quoted as saying, “In the reality that I grew up in, women often impose upon themselves traits which they believe are in their Muslim religion. So in the film, I actually have an Imam who comes in and talks to Amy’s mother and tells her that ‘No, in Islam, women do, in fact, have rights.’”
The largely negative view of the Muslim religion throughout the movie nonetheless seriously ruffled some feathers.
The film itself ends in Amy’s realization of the perverse nature of the Cuties group, but the visual material that the audience is given throughout the film is borderline pornographic. The actors themselves are 12 to 14 years old, a very young age to play out the extremely mature content that the storyline necessitates.
Additionally, the portrayal of Islam as another evil influence that Amy must eventually reject in order to be happy is extremely problematic.
Though the story was emotionally gripping, through the ups and downs of the friend group and the rollercoaster of Amy’s family, it was heartbreaking to watch the young actors play out these parts. It truly is a social commentary, aimed to show the struggle of a young girl growing up in a modern society with differing influences, and finding one’s own path. The message of the movie is truly beautiful, however, the delivery is nauseating. I would not recommend that anyone watch this movie and validate Netflix’s defense of the film.