‘Cuties’, the French indie movie dragged into US election fray

A still from Maimouna Doucouré's 'Cuties', or 'Mignonnes' in the French original.
A still from Maimouna Doucouré's 'Cuties', or 'Mignonnes' in the French original. © AP, Netflix

An award-winning film about a girl of Senegalese heritage growing up in a Paris suburb has become a target of vocal conservatives and Republican politicians who seized on a misleading Netflix poster to accuse it of sexualising pre-teen girls — which is precisely what the movie denounces.


The backlash against ‘Mignonnes’, or ‘Cuties’, started before it had even been released because of a Netflix poster that went viral for its provocative depiction of the film’s young female actors. The spotlight has only intensified since the film became available on the streaming platform last week, exposing it to politicised outrage from members of Congress and others online calling for subscribers to #CancelNetflix. 

At the heart of the controversy is the idea that the independent film by French-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré is dangerously sexualising pre-teen girls, which, ironically, is what the movie itself denounces. The campaign, which has led to subscribers cancelling their Netflix accounts in record numbers, is riddled with inaccuracies due in large part to the fact that the film’s critics clearly have not seen it. 

Written and directed by Doucouré, ‘Cuties’ is about an 11-year-old girl of Senegalese descent named Amy (Fathia Youssouf) who lives in an impoverished Paris suburb with her observant Muslim family. She becomes fascinated with a clique of rebellious girls at her middle school who choreograph dance routines and wear crop tops and heels. They talk about Kim Kardashian and diets, practise “twerking” and giggle about boys and sex-related things that they don’t yet understand.

Netflix acquired ‘Cuties’ after it was favourably reviewed at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won an award for its direction. A French-language film with no stars from a first-time director, it is the kind of work that could easily have gone under the radar in the US. But because Netflix’s promotional materials caught the attention of the internet and even led to an apology from the streaming giant, ‘Cuties’ was thrust onto the national stage.

Last week, Republicans senators Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton called on the Department of Justice to investigate the film’s production and distribution. In a letter to Attorney General William Barr, Cruz asked that they, “determine whether Netflix, its executives, or the individuals involved in the filming and production of ‘Cuties’ violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography".

In an interview on the Fox News Channel, Cruz elaborated that Netflix is “making money by selling the sexual exploitation of young kids". He and others have made it a sticking point that Netflix has a production deal with former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, although neither have any association with ‘Cuties’. 

Electoral leverage

While the initial reaction to ‘Cuties’ was to attack Netflix, Republican activists have since charged that the social drama is a by-product of an overly liberal culture that promotes paedophilia. They have used the animosity towards the film as a way of accusing Democrats of not doing anything about child abuse, using the ‘Cuties’ row as political leverage in the battle to re-elect Republican President Donald Trump.

On Monday, Trump's son Donald Jr. asked in a tweet why Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Trump ally, is "essentially the only mainstream Democrat who was willing to come out against the normalisation of pedophelia and the sexualisation of our children? The rest seem to be rushing to the defense of Cuties."

And just as the furore exploded online, Republican activists propelled the hashtag "pedoBiden" on Twitter to smear Joe Biden, Trump's Democratic presidential rival, posting pictures of him with young women. The US president himself retweeted a post with that hashtag on Tuesday, with the White House offering no justification. 

Trump's campaign, which is lagging behind Biden in the polls, has made a concerted push to woo suburban women voters, claiming Democrats threaten their families and communities. One particular driver of the "Cuties" furore is the QAnon network, whose mostly pro-Trump followers subscribe to baseless theories involving organized rings of Satanists who kidnap and abuse children.

The controversy over ‘Cuties’ echoes the viral "pizzagate" conspiracy theory of 2016, which was driven by Trump supporters who alleged that his rival Hillary Clinton and other Democrats were part of a child kidnapping ring operating from the basement of a Washington pizzeria. That almost ended in tragedy when a man who believed the story invaded the restaurant with an assault rifle and shot off several rounds – but ultimately did not hurt anyone.

‘A girl’s outrage at patriarchal order’

Earlier this month, Doucouré told the film industry website Deadline that she had been the target of serious harassment as a result of the controversy. 

“I received numerous attacks on my character from people who had not seen the film, who thought I was actually making a film that was apologetic about hypersexualisation of children,” she said. “I also received numerous death threats.” 

In an op-ed in the Washington Post on Wednesday, the filmmaker said her film was about the objectification of women and children, and the pressure pre-teen girls feel to be pretty and sexy. She said her aim was "to start a debate about the sexualisation of children in society today".

The film’s protagonist, Amy, is at the crossroads of conflicting messaging from her family, Western culture and the “hyper-real fiction of social media", Doucouré said. “Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualised on social media, the more she is successful. Children just imitate what they see, trying to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning," she added. "It is dangerous.” 

Film critics have also weighed in on the controversy and highlighted the merits of the film. Writing in the New Yorker, Richard Brody praised Doucouré for her portrayal of the challenges of growing up as a woman in a sexualised and commercialised media culture, particularly in the context of France’s immigrant-rich but impoverished suburbs.

“The subject of ‘Cuties’ isn’t twerking; it’s children, especially poor and nonwhite children, who are deprived of the resources — the education, the emotional support, the open family discussion — to put sexualised media and pop culture into perspective,” he wrote. “‘Cuties’ dramatises what people of color and immigrants endure as a result of isolation and ghettoisation, of not being represented culturally and politically — and of not being represented in French national mythology.” 

And while he stressed that the “scurrilous campaign” against ‘Cuties’ owed much to Netflix’s misleading advertising, Brody cautioned that the film’s right-wing critics would find plenty to object to should they bother to watch it.

“I doubt that the scandal-mongers (who include some well-known figures of the far right) have actually seen ‘Cuties’,” he noted. “But some elements of the film that weren’t presented in the advertising would surely prove irritating to them: it’s the story of a girl’s outrage at, and defiance of, a patriarchal order.”

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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