Imagine being an 11 year old immigrant girl caught between two cultures. The only role models you have are at two extremes. At home, you are immersed in the values of your Senegalese heritage, which in this case is conservative Muslim, patriarchal, and polygamist. At school, you are immersed in a social media culture that appears to represent the culture that you are assimilating into, but is hyper-sexualized and misogynistic. How do you cope? Where do you position yourself in this confusing landscape? That is the story that “Cuties” explores.
The hyper-sexualization of youth has long been recognized as harmful to children, and the explosion of social media technologies has only made the situation worse. Young girls are increasingly pressured to look and act like the images they see in social media.
Despite what Qanon followers, Ted Cruz, Tulsi Gabbard, and a variety of conservative pundits claim, “Cuties” is not an endorsement of human sex trafficking, it is not promoting the sexual exploitation of children, nor is it pornography–child or otherwise. Not even close. Anyone who asserts otherwise is woefully ignorant of the issues.
In a strange collision of ‘didn’t watch and didn’t get it’, Ted Cruz has gone as far as to demand the Department of Justice investigate the film for child-pornography. Likewise, Tulsi Gabbard believes that “Cuties” will fuel child-sex trafficking. Over half a million people have signed a petition to “cancel Netflix”. Thus far, however, all the fuss has only resulted in pushing the film into Netflix’s top 5 offerings.
Those outraged by “Cuties” might want to check what their kids are consuming on social media and then have some conversations about how their kids feel about it. Research has revealed that 43% of kids feel pressure to post content that makes them look good to others, and 37% feel pressure to post content that will get likes and comments.
In reality, Maïmouna Doucouré’s multi-layered film is brilliant. Not only does it accurately depict the struggles that face pre-teen girls who are caught between childhood and womanhood, but it does it in a way that is recognizable across cultures and generations. That in itself is a big deal. Cuties is a film about growing up in an immigrant diaspora, and how to find one’s way through the morass of conflicting cultural values. The story is so skillfully told that people who are not associated with an immigrant community can come to understand the issues.
Personally, when I was an 11 year old girl, many of the same themes were present in my life, even though today’s forms of social media did not yet exist. This was the age when we began to recognize ourselves as young women, and started experimenting with make-up and clothing. We walked around our middle schools tarted up like Madonna. It was a time when we thought we should emulate pop stars, be attractive to boys, and to rebel against authority. Just like in “Cuties”, we looked and acted ridiculous.
That is an important point the film makes. All these young girls writhing around like Cardi B and wearing revealing clothing is uncomfortable. They are looking and acting ridiculous. That is the feeling that the viewer is supposed to have, and that most viewers do have. The filmaker has done a great job of showing us that 11 year olds should not be emulating burlesque style pop stars.
The tragedy is that the Cuties dance troupe are dead serious about their choreography. They truly believe that the hyper-sexualized dance moves make them look good. The truth is that twerking and other hyper-sexualized dance moves are inappropriately performed by 11 year old girls. Maybe they are inappropriate for anybody, It makes us wonder where they learned to dance like that. Fortunately, it is a relief to see the older boys, and men, continually reject the advances of the girls.
The girls are emulating the same dance moves that they see Cardi B, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Beyonce, and many pop stars do. In fact, the Cuties dance troupe were performing the exact same dance moves that are routinely seen on popular dance music videos. Perhaps this is breaking news for some, but these dance moves and the pop music stars that perform them are marketed towards youth. What do the adults think the kids are listening to and watching?
In August, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” hit #1 on the charts and it is still going strong. The song and video has achieved acclaim for being ‘sex-positive’ and empowering for women. Perhaps it is, but do the kids that consume this type of media understand the subtleties of why?
So, then, peeling away all the misinformation and hysteria about “Cuties”, we are left with a story of a girl that has been taught by social media that using one’s sexuality is how to win friends and influence people. Dancing like Cardi B brought Amy friends, popularity, and inclusion into a dance troupe. The instant success encouraged Amy to believe that sexuality was her ticket out of the difficulties of her family life, her struggle with assimilation into French culture, and the generalized angst that afflicts all children of her age.
Yet, Amy’s social success was short lived. In a fit of desperation, as she was about to lose control of the smartphone that had brought her a new life, she quickly uploaded a nude selfie onto her social media account. The results were disastrous. Amy loses her friends, her family discovers what she has been up to, and then her hyper-sexualized choreography falls flat at the dance competition. It is only then that Amy begins to figure it all out.
The irony of it all is that the style of dance portrayed in “Cuties” is the same style of dance that can be seen performed by young girls in any random dance competition. Even the costumes are the same. People pay good money for someone to teach their little girls to dance they way the Cuties dance troupe does. Why haven’t Ted Cruz and Tulsi Gabbard called for the DOJ to investigate the American dance school industry?