The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the position of ZU Media or APU.
Despite director Maïmouna Doucouré’s original intent of criticizing the hypersexualization of young girls, the film “Cuties” provides yet another reminder that Black girls are not protected in society.
Monday night was a historical feat for seasoned ESPN reporter Maria Taylor. It was Tayor’s first time covering Monday Night Football for the NFL, an accomplishment that many women — particularly Black women — are not granted.
Instead of being able to celebrate her feat, a misogynistic radio host with 670 The Score in Chicago named Dan McNeil decided the biggest takeaway from the night was Taylor’s outfit.
McNeil took to Twitter and wrote, “NFL sideline reporter or a host for the AVN [Adult Video News] annual awards presentation?”
While McNeil was fired for his sexist and misogynistic remarks, women in and outside of the sports world are subject to having their work, individuality and minds ignored and are instead objectified.
This is a continuous problem for women, particularly Black women.
America has historically viewed Black women as valueless compared to White men and women and Black men.
This truth was evident in the Suffrage Movement when Black women were ignored and betrayed by their White counterparts. This truth was clear in the Civil Rights Movement when Black women’s roles were limited because they were women. This truth was born out of slavery when slave masters forced Black girls to procreate in order to keep the fields safe.
The truth of devaluing Black women is ingrained into American society. It’s in regular jokes about “nappy” hair, Twitter comments about Serena Williams and Megan The Stallion’s features “looking manly” and in the movies we consume.
That brings us to the topic of the day: “Cuties.”
“Cuties” is a French coming-of-age drama that follows a young Senegalese-French girl who is struggling with the current internet culture and traditional Muslim value of her family. The film’s creator and director, Maïmouna Doucouré, intended for the film to criticize the hypersexualization of pre-adolescent girls.
The film, originally named Mignonnes, aired in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 23, where Doucouré won the Directing Award. Netflix aired the film nationally on Sept. 9, and that’s where controversy entered the chat.
Netflix created their own poster to market the film, using scene footage that showed the young girls in suggestive positions wearing skin-tight short-shorts and crop tops. The trailer for the film included dance scenes where the 11-year-old girls are twerking and teaching each other how to “pop” their backsides.
Many viewers were upset, and the critically-acclaimed film became a subject of national controversy.
“Cuties” is a multilayered topic. I personally wouldn’t recommend the movie because of the obvious exploitation of children, but in the same sense, this movie has forced the conversation of children exploitation in mass media.
Critic reviews are very mixed. Some critics will tell you that the film is delivering a message that is supposed to make us uncomfortable and think about how young girls maneuver within social constructs to find their truth in womanhood.
Jennifer Green of Common Sense Media commended Doucouré.
“Senegalese-French director Maïmouna Doucouré has created an evocative, compassionate portrait of young girls finding their identity and values in this controversial film,” Green wrote in her review of the film.
Then there are critics who will point out the scenes of the young girls twerking and wearing sexually suggestive clothing, and say that no matter the message, this isn’t okay.
Alexandra DeSanctis of the National Review condemned the film altogether.
“The trouble with that argument, of course, is that the film itself sexualizes young children, which is problematic regardless of the movie’s intended message,” DeSanctis wrote in her review.
And, of course, the usual Twitter mobs gathered to share their outrage with gifs, memes and Twitter threads. The hashtag #CancelNetlflix began to trend and the flames of the burning movie were fanned by the judges and executioners of the Twitter world.
Personally, the message is legit. Hypersexualization of girls is a persistent problem in society. More conversations about that particular topic should happen. With that said, the very thing the film is criticizing is being endorsed by having child actors partake in these scenes.
When I read the critic reviews of “Cuties,” as well as social media reactions, the term hypersexualization is thrown out constantly. But one term that isn’t thrown out, but very prevalent in this topic, is adultification.
Adultification is a form of racial prejudice where children of minority groups, like Black girls, are treated as if they are older than they really are. This, again, stems from the dehumanization that Blacks were subjected to in slavery that became ingrained in American society.
I was able to speak with Sacramento Unified Administrator Dr. Elysse Versher about the matter, and she explained the roots of adultification in America.
“Black children were treated as adults and were forced to procreate as soon as their cycles started — most started around nine or 10,” Dr. Versher said. “That womb genocide killed Black girls’ wombs in order to make a profit.”
“And so, just because slavery is over doesn’t mean that Black and White people in this country finally turned the switch off and said, ‘You know what, Black Lives Matter and Black girls matter and we’re going to do right by them,’” she continued. “No, we still haven’t earned reparations yet in this country for the generational trauma which we endured and continue to endure. Hence, why in 2020, we’re having the conversation of why Black girls’ lives don’t matter.”
Dr. Versher then pointed to a Georgetown University study from 2016, where scholars did a longitudinal study to see how Black girls were represented in a span of 16 years. The study showed that Black girls, as early as three years old, are marketed to appear six times older.
“Well, the first thing was that the clothing selection for the three-year-old was not a common toddler outfit,” Dr. Versher said. “They even have pictures in the study where toddlers had crop top shirts. Why does the toddler have a crop top shirt? And instead of having basic stud earrings, would have hoop earrings. Little bitty details like that make it so that we are desensitized to the fact that that is a child, a toddler.”
“And so that same mindset and frame of thought are exemplified in the advertisement for ‘Cuties.’ The story of girlhood was just slandered and completely red herring. The focus became about their bodies,” she said. “It wasn’t even about dancing. It wasn’t about the fact that the family was Muslim, and the girl didn’t want to be Muslim — instead, it was about their bodies, twerking and touching inappropriately. It’s a shame that that became the focus of the story.”
This hijacking of the film’s message falls on Netflix’s marketing. Instead of focusing on the coming-of-age story of a young Muslim girl, Netflix placed their attention on the controversial aspects of the film.
This was on purpose. Netflix is a multibillion-dollar corporation. To say that a marketing campaign didn’t mean harm, when the marketing campaign has as much money as Netflix does, is naive. Netflix marketers set to appeal to their audience, or at least what they assumed appealed to their audience.
Dr. Versher also believed that Netflix purposely shifted the focus of the film.
“I think what’s interesting is the dichotomy between the advertisement in France versus the American depiction of ‘Cuties,’” Dr. Versher said. “When I looked at the first advertisement of ‘Cuties’ in France, it was just girls smiling, with a little makeup, but nothing too over the top. One could infer that the film will be about friendship and this notion of girl power and girlhood. Coming of age, right?”
Dr. Versher then moves to the American marketing version.
“The American depiction was hyper-sexualized, and used the dance scenes — with close angles of children’s rear parts,” she said. “And so, American advertisers are going to pick what they think is going to lure people in and bring in consumers. So this says what Americans think about Black children. That we are a consumable product and can be exploited for profit, not humans with feelings, thoughts and deserving of integrity. And if we take that same type of ideology and look through again systemic racism in the history of slavery in this country, Black girls have been treated as women for forever in this country.”
This brings us to the Jezebel stereotype. White women have historically been portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control and modesty — even sexual purity — whereas Black women are often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of Black women is signified by the name Jezebel.
This stereotype often points out features that Black girls have no control over, such as their lips, hips, rears and chests. Their features are weaponized to create narratives of being promiscuous, when in fact they are just existing.
Enter a film like “Cuties,” where Black children are in these suggestive positions, wearing clothing not appropriate for their age group and doing dances that should not be emulated at that age. You can’t help but miss the message that was intended because the trauma that Black girls often internalize is then triggered.
When creating “Cuties,” Doucouré didn’t intend to trigger all of these internalized traumas that reside within Black women and girls — but that was the case.
“Cuties” is a difficult film to watch, period, but between the Jezebel sterotype, roots of exploitation within slavery and adultification, “Cuties” is an even harder film to watch for a Black woman because it highlights triggering issues in a caricature without speaking directly to the matters.
The message behind “Cuties” didn’t intend to help Black women and girls cope with these harsh realities — it didn’t even intend to speak on those specific hard realities. It’s purpose was to criticize the hypersexualization of young girls.
Despite the original intent of the film, “Cuties” serves as a triggering experience for Black women who have and continue to live with the weight of intersectionality on their shoulders.
The movie is inappropriate and perpetuates stereotypes that have long been ingrained in society. No matter the intent, endorsement of such stereotypes and toxic societal norms are prevalent in the film.
Netflix did this back in 2017, when “13 Reasons Why” hit airwaves. The idea behind the series was to show the harsh realities teens are facing to create conversations and ultimately combat such realities. With that said, the glamification of suicide was right in teens’ faces. Instead of realistically showing how the story of one’s life ends after suicide, Hannah Baker’s story continued and made for an entertaining series that made Netflix a lot of money.
It was triggering for many teens who were survivors of self harm. It was triggering for teens who lost a friend to suicide. More importantly, it was triggering for teens who were contemplating suicide.
When creating shows and movies that point out harsh realities that happen to people in real life, writers and directors must tread carefully, or else they will release a triggering effect. So it is on the writer and director to properly and holistically address and resolve these issues within their work in order to rectify the affairs they are tackling.
If writers and directors do that right, they will give these types of films meaning. “Cuties” did not do this. Instead, the holistic issues were not addressed nor resolved, leaving women — Black women in particular — triggered.
In short, Netflix should pull “Cuties” from its catalogue.