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'Cuties' Calls Out The Hypersexualization Of Young Girls - And Gets Criticized

Amy (left), played by Fathia Youssouf, and her mother Mariam, played by Maïmouna Gueye, in a still from the film, <em>Cuties</em>.
Amy (left), played by Fathia Youssouf, and her mother Mariam, played by Maïmouna Gueye, in a still from the film, <em>Cuties</em>.

The French film, Cuties, is being praised for its critique of the hyper sexualization of young girls - and the consequences of that - as they rush to become adults in the age of social media.

It began several years ago when filmmaker Maimouna Doucouré was at a neighborhood gathering and her jaw dropped. A group of young girls in revealing outfits came out on a stage and performed a choreographed routine.

Doucouré says they couldn't have been more than 11 years old.

"And they were dancing very sensually, sexually and I was very disturbed about what I was seeing."

But instead of passing judgment, the self-taught writer and filmmaker says she wanted to understand what she was seeing. She dove into research, interviewing more than one hundred adolescent girls over the course of a year and a half.

"It's a period [that's] very specific," Doucouré says, "where you are not any more totally a child and you are not an adult. You are looking for yourself and everything is changing very fast."

Doucouré combines her findings with elements of her own upbringing in her first feature length film, Cuties.

It's about what it means to be an adolescent girl in the age of TikTok and Instagram, where 'likes' have become the currency of self-esteem and keeping kids away from anything on the Internet is near impossible.

The film is told from the perspective of 11-year-old Amy who, like Doucouré, is the daughter of Muslim Senegalese immigrants growing up in northeast Paris.

Amy is unimpressed by the traditional path for women laid out by the matriarchs in her family.

As her strict Grand-Aunt tries to groom her to become a wife and mother, Amy watches her own mom struggle to hide tears when she gets a call from her husband in Senegal. As is tradition for many men there, he's taken a second wife.

To escape the drama playing out at home, Amy befriends a group of popular girls at school who have formed a dance troop called 'Les Mignonnes' or 'the Cuties.'

Amy spends hours nailing down choreography to provocative music videos so she can impress her new friends.

Filmmaker Doucouré says social media adds a layer of complexity to what it means to be an adolescent in 2020.

"Today you have that exposition of your body on social media," Doucouré says, "and you also have this big competition of finding 'likes' and followers and that is for me a new kind of finding love."

The film provokes many questions, but doesn't provide many answers. And that's the intention, says French film critic Jennifer Padjemi, who says it's also important that Cuties was made by a woman who comes from the same background and culture as her characters.

"It's really important to have more coming of age movies in France in general and not with only white casts," Padjemi says, "because its important to represent children of every background because even if we live the same way we don't have the same cultural path and its really important to see this specific age between childhood and teenage-hood and I hope Maimouna open[s] the door for other movies like this."

That door almost didn't open.

Even though Cuties has received widespread acclaim in France and won a Sundance award, a publicity gaffe from its US distributor, Netflix, almost cost the movie its reputation.

After Netflix published a marketing poster showing the 'Cuties' twerking in revealing cheerleading outfits without any context, an online petition calling for the cancellation of the US release received more than 140 thousand signatures.

Doucouré was accused, on social media, of being a pedophile and even received death threats.

She says she hopes those who signed the petition will watch the film.

"And after that, they will see that we have the same fight and we are all together about that issue of hyper sexualization of our children and protect our children."

In the end, Doucouré says her film is about a choice.

"The choice [of] who we want to become, who we want to really become and as a child, take the time to be a child. Keep that innocence to grow up in our society."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.