Flipping the Line: Cuties is essential family viewing
Allan Stratton: "The claim that hebephiles will sit through a serious movie for a few minutes of fully clothed twerking is absurd."
The Line welcomes angry rebuttals and responses to our work. The best will be featured in our ongoing series, Flipping the Line. Today, writer Allan Stratton disagrees with Jen Gerson’s take on controversial Netflix drama, Cuties. The film has been accused of sexualizing pre-teen girls. Gerson previously took issue in How Bad is Cuties?
By: Allan Stratton
Cuties, the award-winning first film by Senegalese-French director Maïmouna Doucouré, has set off a firestorm of controversy. Told from the point of view of an 11-year-old, it’s the troubling story of a group of misfit girls who act out to gain the love and attention missing from their lives. I think it’s an excellent candidate for serious family viewing: it enables and encourages conversations between children and parents about social pressures, temptations, cliques, and expectations.
(Ignore the current IMBd Parental Warning, “Severe.” Prior to the social media outrage, it was rated “Mild.” I’d say “Parental Guidance.” As for the backlash that prompted a Texas jury to charge Netflix with promoting lewd material yesterday, that tells you all you need to know about political charges in a conservative state during an election year.)
The protagonist, Amy, is an 11-year-old Senegalese-Muslim girl in France who rebels against the traditional culture of her family and community. She’s intrigued by a fellow 11-year-old she sees dancing in the laundry room of their housing project. Angelica is the ringleader of a small group of latchkey girls with low self-esteem. The group has decided to enter a provocative dance contest under the name The Cuties. Amy is accepted into the group, and matters quickly begin to spin out of control.
Rehearsing out of sight, the girls giggle and dare each other to copy ever-more sexualized moves from iPhone music videos, until their routine looks like, well, Cardi B with tamer lyrics. (Cuties makes clear that tween twerking is inappropriate. The dance contest was designed for teenagers, Amy and her friends are the only tweens auditioning, and the older girls ridicule them.)
At the climax of the film, the group’s performance receives a smattering of boos, frowns and thumbs-downs mixed with smiles and clapping. But the film isn’t interested in the crowd’s reaction or even the competition itself: we don’t see any other acts, nor the contest’s outcome. Rather, Cuties focuses on the emotional consequences of the performance on Amy. Mid-performance, she imagines the sound of her mother’s voice and flees the stage, running home to a scolding aunt and a maternal embrace. In the final scene, a new group of girls invite Amy to join them in something more natural for her age — skipping. Amy, having rejected control and excess, ends up, for the moment, in a state of grace.
I see Cuties as a grittier flip story to Eighth Grade: Cuties being about vulnerable, would-be rebels rather than a vulnerable, would-be-cool nerd. But social media sees it as a straight-up hyper-sexualization of young girls. If, like many of the attackers, I hadn’t seen it, I’d likewise be outraged. But let me explain why I consider the charge unfounded, or, at the very least, overblown.
As so often happens these days on both left and right, bad faith critics make their case based on Cuties’ subject. They assume the basic error that films endorse what they show — as if Twelve Years A Slave was a salute to racism. For these people, it doesn’t matter that Doucouré’s stated intention is to fight child sexualization.
Let’s set those idiots to the side.
An interesting argument is that Cuties is a fraud. In this view, the film disguises a prurient interest behind a non-existent problem because real-life tweens don’t twerk or wear cropped halter tops and shorty shorts like the girls’ costumes. Sure, most don’t, but there’s always one or two in a class that do, some stashing their trashy clothes in a school locker away from parental oversight.
There is nothing surprising or new about this. Did your parents know everything you got up to with your friends? Did you behave with them the way you did when you were pressured by your peers? Didn’t you ever try to act older — to imitate the teenagers who tried to imitate adults?
Technology has added an entirely new dimension to this age-old behaviour. A full 14 per cent of middle school kids sext. The problem’s so serious that sexting is now part of the grade four curriculum in many jurisdictions, including Doug Ford’s Ontario. I guess the good news about 14 per cent of kids sexting is that the vast majority do not. But the bad news is that in an 800-student middle school there are 112 kids sending each other pictures of their genitals. With that number, what are the odds that the other kids don’t know about it? How many do you think tell their parents?
That’s why films like Cuties are such important family viewing. They let families communicate openly about the silent areas around sex and sexuality that might otherwise never be raised or even thought to be raised. Kids have secrets, fears, confusion and shame about so much. “Is it okay to ask?” “What will they think if I ask?” Stories are icebreakers. And because we’re talking about stories with fictional characters there’s a safe space for the conversation.
The criticism I take most seriously is that the roles of the twerking 11-year-olds are played by 11-year-olds. It would be dishonest and indefensible to gloss over either that or the camera work — In her column for The Line, Gerson objected to certain camera angles that she felt were gratuitous and unnecessary — but it is possible to put both in context.
Cuties isn’t a Hollywood exploitation flick made for big bucks. It’s a low-budget, independent, art-house film; a personal work by a Senegalese-French woman dealing with analogous experiences she had as a child immigrant. More important, the girls’ mothers were with them on set. In short, these specific child actors are mature and they were surrounded on set by adults uniquely sensitive to their needs. Further, what they were performing, in a controlled environment, were the same moves that, as argued earlier, kids their age are known to imitate to look cool, shock or impress their peers, to act older or just goof off.
The dance sequences, at the heart of the outrage, are cut like music videos with closeups on clothed body parts. Yes, the effect is absolutely creepy. It was designed to repel, not titillate. And it succeeds. One keeps glancing away from the screen, it’s so transgressive. Doucouré could have chosen more neutral camera angles, but to the extent she would have, she’d have limited the discomfort we’re meant to feel. And that loss would have changed nothing about the routine itself. Some argue her aggressive choice is a lure for sickos. But given the porn available online, the idea that hebephiles will sit through a serious movie for a few minutes of fully clothed twerking is absurd.
That’s the context in which I see the performances. And having worked extensively in theatre and film as an actor, writer, adjudicator, and educator, before my move to children’s lit, I can say with assurance that kids always know the difference between real life and play.
So, here’s my final pitch to parents to see Cuties with their kids; certainly their daughters. It has no nudity, no language, no inappropriate touching, and even if most of middle schoolers aren’t up to what Amy and her friends are doing, they certainly know kids who are. Like serious children’s books that tackle difficult subjects, the movie is an opener for a real discussion between parents and kids. Sample prompts: Why do you think girls in the film misbehave? Do you feel sorry for them? If not, why not? (Kids tend to be very judgmental about misbehavers other than themselves.) Do you know anyone like that at school? What’s the reaction of the other kids? Do you think Amy will stay friends with her group? Do you think there will be consequences for pushing the other girl in the water? Should there be? If so, what?
I’d expect parents to have these sorts of conversations with their kids all the time. Tweens deal with big things, constantly, usually alone. There’s bullying, family violence, alcoholism, drug addiction — the feeling that’s something’s off, confusing, unmentionable and secret. Cuties provides an intro to several important conversations. See it alone first, you know your child best, but please give it serious consideration for your family.
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