Throughout the world, the pain, suffering and voices of little girls are often ignored and silenced. French filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré's debut film Cuties (Mignonnes) is an arresting assessment of the hyper-sexualization of young girls and grapples with the juxtaposition of this issue in a society where women are becoming increasingly sexually liberated.
The bold and disquieting film follows Amy, an 11-year old girl who moves with her mother and young brothers from Senegal to a jam-packed Paris housing project. While her mother, Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye), has become preoccupied with the devastating news that her husband has taken a second wife, Amy is left to parent her younger siblings. This includes everything from watching them, feeding them and doing the grocery shopping for the household. Similar to films like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Crooklyn and Eve's Bayou, Doucouré shines a light on how quickly Black girls are expected to stand in and complete tasks typically ascribed to adults. In contrast, little Black boys often basque in the attentions of their mothers, free of such expectations.
Though her mother has raised her as a devout, conservative Muslim, Amy soon gets her hands on an iPhone and begins to emulate the more provocative images of women she sees online and in music videos. An outcast in her plain clothing and large Afro puff, Amy soon finds herself fascinated with her classmate, Angelica, a Latinx girl who wears her slick straight hair and quick temper as armor. Angelica is fearless and volatile--the queen bee of her friend group that's dubbed themselves the Cuties. Eager to garner Angelica's attention and earn her place on the Cuties crew, Amy begins wearing her brother's t-shirts as crop-tops while intensely studying the Cuties' mannerisms and behaviors. What starts as an innocent desire to fit in and have a place in her new environment becomes a cautionary tale for not just young girls, but for the rest of the world that has decided that young girls (especially young girls of color) aren't worthy of protection.
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When the Cuties sign up for a community dance competition where they are set to compete against a group of older girls, Amy seizes the opportunity. She meticulously practices the Cuties' dance choreography, strategically placing herself in Angelica's good graces before winning her spot in the group, even at the expense of another girl. Cuties is difficult to watch. As Amy and her friends shake, grind and gyrate in the camera, wearing belly tops and booty shorts, Doucouré forces her audience to sit in a paralyzing state of fear. It is deeply uncomfortable to watch prepubescent girls behave in this manner.
Shot in one of Paris' most impoverished neighborhoods, which is rarely seen on the big screen, Doucouré shoots Amy and her crew in bold, bright colors under the beaming Paris sun. The Cuties are vibrant and vivacious; it's the predatory men who sexualize them who are terrifying.
Cuties quickly shifts to a tone of breathless terror whenever any man appears in the frame, as it is unclear how their presence will impact the girls and women. This nervousness is most acute when observing Mariam's willingness to bend to her husband's commands and how this helps to shape Amy's understanding of a woman's place in society. Through her mother's actions, she is socialized on how to contain and confine her own wishes, becoming someone she doesn't recognize. During one powerful scene, Amy hides under the bed, listening to her distraught mother weep over her father's betrayal by taking a new wife. In the next breath, Amy witnesses Mariam gleefully chat about the marriage as if her gut-wrenching sobs never happened. In that pretending and emotional constraint, Amy learns that her feelings and needs are invalid.
More than a commentary on the predatory behaviors of men, and the adultification of young girls, Cuties is a reminder that young minds are fragile and eager. They regularly bend and shift towards their most fleeting wishes. Yes, parents and guardians are responsible for the well-being of their offspring, but as a culture, we owe young girls, especially young girls of color, the shield and innocence of girlhood. They are also owed explanations, guidance and conversations.
Cuties premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2020. Netflix has bought world rights, excluding France, to Cuties.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide
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