Cuties is a French film – written and directed by Maïmouna Doucouré – which premiered in the 2020 Sundance Film Festival where it won the directing award.
But that is not its claim to fame. The promotional pictures used by Netflix was what made the film trend on Twitter. Social justice warriors and conservatives alike were up in arms over the scantily dressed young girls in the pictures and the director was accused of the doing exactly what the film tackles – the over sexualisation of pre-adolescent girls.
A coming-of-age drama, following the life of Amy, a Senegalese-French girl from a traditional Muslim family, as she befriends a group of girls who are the complete opposite of her called ‘Cuties’. The Cuties are hyper focused on winning a dance competition and gaining popularity on social media. The film shows how these girls follow social media trends, from face tuning their photos to copying over sexualised dance routines.
But what compels these girls to do these things? Doucouré in an interview remarked, “Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualised on social media, the more she’s successful. And the children just imitate what they see, trying to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning, and yeah, it’s dangerous.”
And what makes the girls obsessed with womanhood, so much so that they are willing to give up the innocence and preciousness of girlhood? The answer can be found in the film – it is their quest to be taken seriously in a world where young girls are ridiculed just for being young, and their needs and opinions are discarded. Throughout the film, the girls try to seek approval from adults – be it their parents, teachers or the older guys they have a crush on. Each adult lets them down and disregards them as individuals just because they are young.
Cuties is as much about social media and its impact on young girls as it is about an appeal to adults to take children, especially young girls, seriously; to carve out a space for young girls in society so that they are not compelled to give up their childhood just to be taken seriously.
Women already find it difficult enough to manoeuvre in this patriarchal society, be it a baby girl born in a family longing for a boy or an old widowed woman discarded by her family with no social security.
This battle for survival becomes especially more difficult for pre-adolescent girls who have no definite place, they are at an awkward stage where they are no longer little girls but not quite women. Also, the allure of womanhood that society paints out for them, of mature and independent women, makes them feel alienated and uncomfortable in their own skin.
Loss of girlhood is very apparent in the way the Netflix chose to promote Cuties. In the original French poster of the film, the girls are seen laughing and jumping on a street, the poster exemplifies that fun and cheerfulness of girlhood. But the poster used by Netflix is one in which girls are dressed in age-inappropriate dance costumes and posing sexually.
Though Netflix’s intention might be to promote this film through backlash and outrage culture – a tactic used by quite a few companies – the inherent issue is that the executives didn’t feel that girlhood is marketable and presumed that no one would be interested in a film which had a poster in which a bunch of girls are frolicking around.
As a society, we are all complicit in the loss of girlhood. It is in the small ways that we chip away the confidence of young girls by ridiculing things they like, be it the movies they watch, the songs they listen to or even the actors they have a crush on. Everything that girls like is mocked, ridiculed and considered cringe – all of which makes them hate their innocence and their childhood.
It is our responsibility as adults to support young girls in this transitional period of their lives, to listen to them and guide them as they come out of the protective cocoon spun by adults and start becoming their own selves. It is time we start acknowledging and giving respect to girls and not belittle their struggles. We owe it our girls to carve a safe space in society where they can enjoy girlhood to the fullest.
Ananya Anand is an undergraduate student of History at Delhi University. You can reach her on Instagram @byeananya.