I have a major complaint about the controversial Netflix movie Cuties, which was originally called Mignonnes, and it has nothing to do with the online furor you’ve undoubtedly heard about.
My issue? The performances in the English-dubbed version (which is what my Netflix account naturally defaulted to) were overdone, overly cartoonish, especially where the tween girl characters were concerned, it was a gigantic relief when the adult characters from Senegal spoke and were subtitled , and I lasted a whole 12 minutes before I switched to the original French version with English subtitles, and watched the rest of the movie as writer/director Maïmouna Doucouré intended.
It became immediately obvious that nobody – nobody – who is opposing this movie has done the same. Bong Joon-ho talked about ‘the one inch barrier’ (of subtitles), but apparently one ill-considered provocative poster (which we’ll get into more in a bit) is enough for an enormous faction of people to want to cancel it…
…even though the actual film exactly supports their point. But why am I surprised? We’re an irony-illiterate society these days…
Cuties is about 11-year-old girls figuring out their place in the world, and how to grow up, and why they can’t get there yet, and how endlessly frustrating that is. The most authentic part of the film (and there are dozens) is how often peals of hysterical pre-teen laughter take over the soundtrack, and how real it is when they do. Sure, sometimes they’re giggling about hopelessly misinformed information about sex (“No boy’s thing is big enough to reach up to a girl’s mouth”) but sometimes they’re giggling about who can eat the most candy with no hands, the fastest. It’s utterly and completely authentic.
In fact, 11-year-old life is in sharp relief here, because there’s one common thread: in where the girls try to emulate sexy, provocative dance moves, or talk to older boys, or catfish someone’s brother – they’re inevitably called out as being ‘little girls’. The fact that they’re playing at being older, and doing it badly, is precisely the point.
As for why they do those things, though? Why they want to be older? I can’t believe I have to write this down, but isn’t it obvious? As 11-year-old girls, they’re ignored. Their parents berate them for not being better daughters, and disrupt their lives with adult dramas their daughters just have to deal with. Their crushes – and the dance judges they want to impress - dismiss them for their youth. They get their goddamn periods all over their pants, as if they had any control over them, and people LAUGH.
These girls know they only start being seen when they start acting older. That being pre-teen, and pre-sexual, renders you basically invisible, a human child-unit to be shuttled from one place to another, one room to another, with nobody paying attention to their struggles, friendship crises, wants and needs… until they grow boobs big enough to make them attractive to Jeffrey Epstein types, do I have that about right?
Here’s what’s most maddening. Obviously, the outfits and poses that are so offensive on the North American Cuties poster have been seen in every Toddlers & Tiaras episode and strip-mall dance school in North America, and the only reason for the outrage is that it was streamed in the adult section of Netflix. (To say nothing of the fact that the explorations of immigration, cross-cultural assimilation, and the complexities of growing up in a modern-day Muslim environment are utterly overlooked.)
But the outrage over a bad poster for an incredible, award-winning movie isn’t just displaced, it overshadows the places where we should really be concerned – the places, and the projects, that escape criticism because of how ‘wholesome’ they seem. Take a sidebar with me:
Last weekend, Sarah Polley posted a sweet-looking shot from Road to Avonlea (or just ‘Avonlea’ internationally), the show she starred on starting at age 11. She’s posing with actor Treat Williams, who was roughly 40 at the time – and pointed out that the characters had a romantic plotline, including a kiss, as well as another episode with actor Jaimz Woolvett, who was in his late 20s at the time. (You can see the picture with Williams here, about halfway down the page.)
Polley deleted the tweet later, when she realized she’d conflated the two episodes – she didn’t kiss 40-year-old Williams, but 20-something-year-old Woolvett instead:
I also owe the producers of Avonlea an apology for confusing a creepy scene without a kiss for a creepier scene with a kiss. Sorry I didnâ€™t properly identify which scene was unethical. Iâ€™ll come up with a more well researched list of terrible experiences in the future...— @realSarahPolley (@realsarahpolley) September 8, 2020
And if two romantic episodes starring a pre-teen and a grown man seem like they’d make news, or someone would have been upset by them at the time…well…
Sadly these incidents would still rank very low on my list of the many damaging and inappropriate things that happened while making that show... but still...— @realSarahPolley (@realsarahpolley) September 7, 2020
Make no mistake – Avonlea was airing at the same time that conservatives and Karens of 1992 were wringing their hands about all the (consensual, pleasurable) sex portrayed on 90210. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that there were people calling for more ‘wholesome’, ‘age-appropriate’ programming like Road To Avonlea. So what if a 12-year-old girl was put in desperately uncomfortable positions with nobody else looking out for her well-being? She wasn’t showing her belly button, so it’s all okay!
But back to Cuties – this “Why I Made” video from writer/director Maimouna Doucouré explains that, when she met a real-life dance crew of 11-year-old girls twerking, “I needed to know how they felt about their own femininity in today’s society”. The rest of the video is similarly compelling, and – I’m feeling another scream coming on – echoes the complaints of the people who would have it cancelled. “[Main character Amy] believes she can find her freedom through that group of dancers and their hypersexualization. But is that really true freedom? Especially when you are a kid? Of course not.”
The problem, of course, is that Doucouré has created a story where Amy figures out how she feels about her body and her self-image for herself – and that’s wayyyyyy too scary for North American adults to deal with. We prefer stifled children in pretty, covered-up packages – and then wonder why ‘everything is about sex’ as soon as they turn 18.
I’d say just watch the damn thing before you start yelling about it, but clearly that’s way, way too much to ask.