Maïmouna Doucouré’s Netflix Film Became Controversial Overnight. But Twitter Is So Wrong About Cuties.
Filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré was at home in Paris, France, when suddenly her phone blew up. Unbeknownst to her, Netflix had just dropped the first promotional push for her feature directorial debut, Cuties, causing an online shitstorm over the poster depicting the film’s prepubescent protagonists in aggressively sexual and provocative poses.
“I started getting tagged on Twitter and was trying to figure out why,” Doucouré told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of Cuties’ Netflix release on September 4. “After a quick investigation, I saw the Netflix poster and I realized what had happened, and why my work had been so badly misinterpreted.”
Cuties, which earned Doucouré the award for best director at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in January, centers around 11-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf), who feels torn between two cultures. On one hand, there’s her conservative Senegalese Muslim family, who expect her to respect tradition and her place as a young woman. Amy watches as the news that her father has taken a second wife causes her mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) to silently break down, caught between cultural norms and her personal feelings, and wonders what that might mean for her future. On the other, there’s the allure of her French schoolmates, specifically the cliquey dance crew known as Les Mignonnes (The Cuties, hence the title). Angelica (Medina El Aidi), Jess (Ilanah Cami-Goursolas) Yasmine (Myriam Hamma), and Coumba (Esther Gohourou) appear to have the freedom and control Amy so desperately craves. So when they find themselves in need of another dancer to compete in a twerk competition, she volunteers, and realizes that the grass isn’t always greener.
The poster Netflix chose to announce the film’s U.S. release finds the crew mid-dance, clad in the suggestive costumes that Doucouré specifically chose to emphasize the way social media and the surrounding culture encourages the performative sexualization of young women before they even know what sex means. The Cuties’ dance moves are straight out of the racy music videos they have such quick access to. Gyrating and pumping in crop tops and shorts that barely cover their burgeoning curves, they radiate an incredibly uncomfortable sexual energy — but one that Doucouré and her film pointedly interrogate.
Imagine if all that energy that was devoted to blindly criticizing my film could be used towards protecting those who need it, and offering new role models.”
The streaming giant soon issued a public apology for its choice of marketing, but the damage was done. Over the next few days, Doucouré found herself at the center of a controversy blown out of proportion by right wing conservative groups, who accused her condoning what they called “child pornography.”
“Unfortunately, people didn’t have the right information,” Doucouré said.
That’s an understatement. Cuties is a must-see, the kind of tender, loving portrayal of girlhood in all its complexity that’s still sorely lacking, especially when through the lens of Black women filmmakers. In her acceptance speech at Sundance, Doucouré quoted Oprah’s "You become what you believe” mantra, emphasizing the need for better representation in film, as well as real-life role models to look up to. "Believe, ladies!" she said.
For her, making Cuties was all about providing young women with people who looked like them, going through the same things they might be experiencing. Doucouré came up with the idea for the movie by accident. She was casually strolling through a Paris neighborhood when she suddenly came across a block party where a stage had been set up for local performers.
“At one point these young girls took the stage and danced very well,” she said. “But it was also very disturbing to watch because they danced like adults, like we see in music videos. So I started wondering whether or not they were conscious of the message they were sending with this sexualized dance.”
For over a year, Doucouré did her research. “I talked to hundreds of girls about how they were living their femininity, how they were finding themselves in the midst of the metamorphosis of their bodies, and how they were navigating social media, and the perpetual comparisons and auction for the most likes that it entails,” she said. “I heard so many things that completely devastated me and really felt the urgent need to make this movie to give them a voice.”
The filmmaker also used autobiographical elements to make the plot more personal to her own experience.“The double culture that Amy is confronted with, the push and pull between different models of femininity, are things that I really grappled with as a child,” she said. “The same goes for the issue of Amy’s father’s polygamy, and the familial environment in which the story develops. That comes from my own life.”
Doucouré auditioned 700 girls to find Amy. Youssouf, who embodies the role so perfectly, was the last one she met with. “I was so scared I wouldn’t find her. When we did, I cried. It was just so obvious once I saw her natural raw talent. She had never acted before.”
Youssouf and her co-stars radiate a strange sort of dual energy. In some shots, they look like children, disgusted and laughing at a porn clip they find on the internet. In others, they seem alarmingly adult, their sexy tops concealing flat chests as they nonetheless try to seduce a group of older teenage boys with provocative bravado.
How do you film that kind of behavior without exposing your young stars to its more problematic aspects? Doucouré believes the answer is honesty.
“We communicated a lot about why I was making this movie,” she said. “It was important that they understand. I think this is a movie that will facilitate important conversations between pre-teens, teenagers, and their parents. I wanted the actresses to know the real activism that this movie was coming from, and the feminist ideology it represented.”
She also hired a psychologist to guide her stars through the more difficult scenes, but also the aftermath of the film’s release. “It can be so strange for a child to suddenly find themselves thrust in the spotlight, or be recognized in the street,” she said. “I wanted them to have a professional that they could turn to.”
But that’s the thing about girlhood — it’s a state of perpetual confusion, a tightrope between the childhood you’re so eager to leave behind and the innocence you later regret once you have.
Cuties can be uncomfortable to watch. It doesn’t pass judgement on the young women it follows. It’s not a preachy PSA about the evils of twerking, nor does it endorse the values of Amy’s friends over those of her family (or vice versa). Instead, the movie lives in the grey areas in between. Some scenes are downright haunting. But the film doesn’t just dwell in the male gaze. Doucouré devotes just as much time to Amy’s relationship with her mother and aunt, as they navigate differing definitions of femininity, both cultural and generational, as well as the more quiet moments of intimacy that exist between girls that age. One scene that has stuck with me is one where Amy and Angelica, who lives in the same building, are hanging out eating candy on the latter’s bed, braiding their hair together as one. It’s a gesture so childish, so deeply earnest, that it’s difficult to reconcile with the personas the two later adopt on stage. But that’s the thing about girlhood — it’s a state of perpetual confusion, a tightrope between the childhood you’re so eager to leave behind and the innocence you later regret once you have.
As the film finally becomes available to the public, Doucouré hopes viewers will approach it with an open mind. It’s important, she says, for young women who look like her characters to see themselves on -screen. They need role models, like presidents, astronauts, and yes, even directors; but also flawed, relatable versions of who they are now — and who they can become.
“Kids need time to evolve,” she said. “Cuties is a mirror of our society, and I hope that we can all look at each other, and work together to make a better world. Imagine if all that energy that was devoted to blindly criticizing my film could be used towards protecting those who need it, and offering new role models.”