Saturday, September 12, 2020


I watched Cuties tonight. For those of you who don't fill the yawning chasm of pandemic time by doomscrolling on Twitter, Cuties is a movie about French pre-teens in a dance quartet, focusing on an 11-year-old French-Senegalese protagonist from a traditional Muslim family who turns to dance as an outlet amidst family crisis and the general misery of adolescence. Their dance style, heavily influenced by music videos, is suggestive in a way that belies their youth. Netflix used an unwise picture from the movie, in which the girls are scantily clad, heavily made up, and twerking, and this subsequently sparked an online furor about the sexualization of children.

I've written previously about the topic of young girls being sexualized, like in a Huffington Post piece 9 years ago about pushup bras being marketed to teens. So it may surprise you that I am not particularly outraged about Cuties. I found it to be a thoughtful movie that engaged with the difficulty of coming of age in a world that teaches you sexiness is your only form of worth and also that actually having sex, or wanting it, makes you worthless. It shined particularly where it depicted the capriciousness and tenderness of friendship: two girls braiding their hair into each other's, the four of them racing gleefully through the street wearing newly purchased bras and underwear over their clothes, crowding around a laptop to flirt via text with a man on the internet. Perhaps it is the latter kind of moment, along with the actual dancing, that creates the most unease for viewers, some of whom went so far as to title the movie "child porn" (US Representative Tulsi Gabbard).

If you think that Cuties is child porn, then you think my adolescence was too, and probably millions of girls'. Okay, I wasn't in a twerking dance troupe, but growing up in the halcyon days of early YouTube, when you could make an account and upload a grainy webcam video (as long as it was under 10 minutes!) my sister and I entertained ourselves on countless long afternoons by glossing our lips, singing and sashaying along to "Apologize" by OneRepublic and the Numa Numa song (actually "Dragostea din Tei" for anyone who's fact-checking) -- remember that earworm of "Mai-a-heeee / Mai-a-huuuu?" And then, of course, there were such kid-friendly standards as "Hit Me Baby One More Time." I tied my shirt up like Britney, but maybe I think it was actually our friend Katie who taught me how to do it, when we were playing in the backyard. Kids do things like that. And they go on chatrooms for no reason and pretend to be older than they really are and talk to strangers. Girls I knew would go on Chatroulette for kicks with their friends during sleepovers. There's probably a 15-year-old girl somewhere this minute (well, not this minute -- let's say the pre-COVID era) on Tinder trying to get a rando to buy her and her best friend McDonald's, and when he does they will show up, take the food, and run, laughing the whole way.

Of course this is a little terrifying. And I felt that portions of Cuties were a little terrifying. There are so many moments where you want to ask these girls to stop feeling like they have to act like grown-up women, with their innocent simulacra of expressions they learn from music videos. But of course children have mimicked what they see adults doing for ages, especially those adults portrayed as especially glamorous and successful. The real terror, more than twerking 11-year-olds, is that some people take a girl dancing like Shakira or Beyonce or Britney as an invitation to harm them. That is 100% on those people and not on those girls. In Cuties, a boy in the protagonist's class slaps her butt as she walks past and when she yells at him, he says "You're the one who's been posting nude photos of yourself online." She grabs a pencil and slams it down into his hand. I was glad to see that anger depicted, her refusal to accept the shame he so clearly thought was owed.

Shame is never protective. Let me be clear: it's worth discussing what drives the specific forms of self-fashioning young women feel attracted to, why they are so often appearance- or sexuality-based, and how we can amplify a broader range of role models so a middle schooler doesn't feel like she has to be a TikTok star. But that conversation needs to be supportive, not punitive. I think that's the conversation this movie was intended to start. And especially after seeing that scene when the protagonist snaps back at her classmate, I realized if I had a daughter growing up in this crazy, burning world, I would want for her less fear and more audacity.

I deleted the YouTube dancing videos a long time ago. In later adolescence they were just embarrassing to see. But I hold the memories quite fondly from that time when we weren't quite young women yet, reenacting movements whose etymology we couldn't understand, jumping in and out of frame. Our flying hair, our unadulterated glee.


1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:39 PM

    I can get behind most of this, but it's important to remember the method in whic h this movie was actually filmed. Children were filmed dancing, and those who did it most provocatively were selected for second rounds. It's a classic instance of the videographers taking imagery too far, to the point where it actually is exploitation. The message itself was good (I'm sure we agree on this! The movie is trying to say that this over-sexualization is ultimately harmful), but it was sort of a "oh, sexualizing children is bad" thrown it at the end amongst a slew of sexual imagery that used underage actors. With scene after scene like this, the imagery became completely gratuitous. I still believe it was very harmful to the young girls involved. It completely crossed the line.