You may have heard already of Cuties (original title Mignonnes), the debut feature film by French-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré (b. 1985) author also of the screenplay. Her film, partly based on her own childhood experiences, narrates a turning point in the life of eleven-year-old Amy, a young girl with the same migrant ethnic background as the director. When news that her father is bringing home a second wife, as the Islamic religion permits him, and in view of her mother’s resigned humiliation, Amy starts rebelling. She not only disobeys the injunctions of her stern grand-aunt, the veritable custodian of the family’s patriarchal values, but also joins unbeknownst to her mother a troupe of multi-racial classmates training for a dance contest. Amy’s appropriation of a cousin’s smartphone introduces her to the social networks everyone her age is already using and, what’s more important, teaches her the sexualized dance routines uploaded by older girls that she has her companions imitate. When they take part in the contest, spectators are far from enthusiastic about their bumping and griding and Amy understands that neither world–her family’s repressive understanding of femininity, the so-called ‘liberal’ West’s exploitation of female bodies–can offer her what she truly needs.
When this film was released on Netflix, on 9 September, it immediately caused a major uproar among the most conservative American spectators. A scene interpolated in the narrative in which the director shows the girls fooling around in their sexy dance outfits elicited accusations that this was child pornography. The dance routine the girls display at the contest was found to be unwatchable (that was the director’s intention but for very different reasons). Netflix, which was simply the distributor and not the film’s producer, even had to apologise for the poster showing the girls’ bare midriff (remember the four friends are eleven). Since then, USA Today informs, “at least four state attorneys general [have] asked Netflix to pull the film; Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) urged a criminal investigation; Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said he was unsatisfied with Netflix’s apology; and a Texas grand jury indicted Netflix earlier this month for promoting ‘lewd material of children’” (https://eu.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2020/10/20/netflix-tiny-subscriber-growth-pegged-cuties-scandal/5991684002/). This is part of an article claiming that the Cuties scandal has lost Netflix perhaps even hundreds of thousands of subscribers (in the USA) after the #CancelNetflix smear campaign connected with the film.
Many others have defended Cuties and the argumentation in its favour is very easy to understand: Maïmouna Doucouré wanted to denounce the sexualization of young girls at an age when they don’t even have a clear understanding of their own erotic impulses (and when their bodies are not even fully developed). She explains with great precision how the process works: the girls want to be liked and for that they imitate what is most appreciated on the social networks–the self-exhibition of young, sexy female bodies. If, as the many likes show, this is a valid strategy for the older girls, it must also be valid for the younger girls, they naively assume; in the absence of any adult who can explain the crucial differences, Amy and her friends go down that path without truly grasping the nuances of what they are doing.
Please note that there is nothing sexual in the film in the sense that there are no scenes between the girls and any boys (a pathetic moment between Amy and her smartphone owning cousin is stopped by him in consternation). The girls’ dance outfits are not age-appropriate, I agree with that, but they are not really different from what you can see among very young cheerleaders or what is promoted these days on Tik-Tok. In fact, let me tell you that when I first heard that there was some kind of trouble with Cuties, I assumed that it came from the Muslim community in France. I supposed they might have been annoyed by the presentation of Amy’s resistance to her father’s patriarchal choices but, as you can see, the scandal erupted in the USA.
This is ironic, to say the least, as the strategies for sexualized self-presentation that French Amy and her friends learn come from the social media invented in Silicon Valley. They come from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and similar, all of them American products routinely used by pre-teens and teenagers all over the world to poison their lives. Proof of this is the other film which I am recommending today: Eighth Grade, also available on Netflix. In fact, my recommendation is that you see the two films together for they constitute a splendid double bill about the lives of contemporary young girls. They might seem unrelated at first sight but you can see for yourself that both narrate a state of matters that must be extremely difficult to navigate, and I say this as a fifty-something adult woman that would not know what to do in these girls’ position.
Eight Grade (2018) has been written and directed by Bo Burnham (b. 1990) an American comedian, musician, actor, filmmaker and poet, who “began his performance career as a YouTuber in March 2006” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bo_Burnham) and who is quite well-known as such. This is his first film. I knew nothing about Burnham but I must say that I totally applaud his brave decision to immerse himself in the world of shy thirteen-year-old Elsie Fisher to show the rest of us what it is like to be an American teen girl today. Neither Cuties nor Eight Grade have been made for children but I think it makes perfect sense to see them with the teens in your family, if you have any, not only for them to validate what the films narrate but also to open up a much needed discussion about what girls specifically should accept or reject in their lives.
Elsie’s narrative arc is very simple and very simply limited by her eighth grade in school. Most films about teenagers focus on the high school years but this one pays, exceptionally, attention to that grey area between early childhood and adolescence properly speaking. As I recently told my students it’s funny how the -teen suffix conditions an understanding of adolescence in the Anglophone countries. In Spain we take it for granted that adolescence begins at 12, which is in the English language an age in the pre-teen years (supposedly starting at 10). In any case, Elsie, who lives with her divorced dad Mark (a loving, supporting man), faces difficulties that while common to any adolescent since the term was invented 120 years ago are enhanced by the impact of social media in her age group. Having pimples, being body-conscious, making awkward moves to approach someone you like, fighting a losing battle against the most popular girls in class and so on are hardly novelties. What is new is the obsessive documentation in the social media of every single step taken, for good but mostly for bad, and the dangerous pressure this puts on all teens. Burnham has chosen a girl but it would be interesting to see a companion piece about a boy, perhaps the nerdish but also charming guy that befriends Elsie, for no teen is free of that tremendous burden.
It seems to me that all those Americans so offended with Cuties have missed the ways in which Eighth Grade is also lewd, even though these are different. There is a very uncomfortable scene in which Elsie picks a banana, a fruit she hates, to teach herself how to give a blow job, as the YouTube videos she is checking suggest. Her befuddled father catches her in the act, totally misreading the situation, and Elsie tries to eat the banana only to choke on it. This is not at all American Pie-style dirty humour but a comment on how pathetic it is that 13-year-old girls need to give blow jobs in order to be sexually enticing to boys their age (at least to the most coveted ones). Predictably, Elsie is interested in a popular boy that Burnham portrays with no compassion as a total jerk undeserving of her attention; the scene when she tries to awaken his interest by pretending that her private nudie pictures can be seen in her smartphone is another sad moment.
Worst of all is the terrifying encounter with a boy who, as he informs Elsie, just wants to train her into the type of sexual activity that will make her popular at parties and who is miffed when she rejects that kind of favour (though she is in tears at this point). I wonder, then, why Eighth Grade has not provoked and even bigger scandal than Cuties, though I think I know the answer. Even though there is much talk of sex in Burnham’s film, Elsie cannot be said to be sexy (though she is prettier than she assumes). In contrast, even though there is hardly any talk of sex in Cuties, Amy and her friends do look sexy in their dance outfits. Any healthy spectator understands why this is necessary. The ones disturbed by their sexiness are, in short, the dirty-minded individuals that enjoy that sexiness too much. How do they deny this ugly truth? By calling for a witch-hunt against the female film director, accusing her of being dirty-minded. How truly sad.
A personal anecdote to finish. Elsie has a YouTube channel in which she gives advice about how to face the crises of being a teen like her. She has very few followers but it is obvious that the advice she gives is solid. Unlike her everyday shy self, Elsie appears to be confident and quite wise in her videos. The day after I saw the film, my youngest niece (eleven) messaged me to say that she wanted me to buy her a sleeve for her smartphone. Knowing that she had to negotiate this purchase, she offered to upload a video of herself on TikTok and I had to determine how many likes it should get. I accepted her offer but stipulated, thinking of Elsie, that it should be a video in which she said something clever. Ah, no, my niece replied quite cross: either a dance video or nothing; the kind of video I proposed would get no likes… In that way she deprived herself of her coveted sleeve and I learned yet another lesson about young girls and social media. See Cuties and Eighth Grade and learn their lessons.
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