Does Netflix’s “Cuties” Deserve the Hate?

Maxine Como, Contributing Writer

The French film Cuties is one of the latest movies to become available on Netflix, but it has many customers threatening to cancel their subscriptions. At first glance, one can see the movie has drawn so much negative attention. The movie’s main focus is a group of four 11-year-old girls who form a hip-hop dance group featuring provocative moves and costumes. The film has rather disturbing elements including pedophilia, pornography, and violence. But a deeper look into the movie reveals that this is a shockingly accurate portrayal of life as a preteen girl.

One of the main problems people have with the movie is the advertising. The American posters show the four lead girls posing provocatively in booty shorts and crop tops while the French advertising shows the girls jumping excitedly while holding shopping bags. The English description on Netflix’s page of the movie also misconstrues the plot. It reads: “Amy, 11, becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew. Hoping to join them, she starts to explore her femininity, defying her family’s traditions.” While the film is meant to be a social commentary on the sexualization of young girls and how social media plays into that, at face value, it seems to be promoting pedophilia. The complexities of the storyline are not highlighted in this description and one who has not watched the movie might view it as an overtly sexual portrayal of children and not a coming-of-age story. Many people were quick to criticize the movie because of these poor advertising choices, leading to the widespread backlash Netflix and the creators involved in the movie received. The content also may be shocking to people who did not grow up in the social media age. The film is a drama, but sadly it’s not that unlikely in the current age that an 11-year-old girl would be encouraged to act this way.

Another fault is the graphic nature of the film. It is hard to watch school-age girls dance in such a manner and even harder to watch the way that the girls are influenced by it. They are numb to overtly sexual behavior because of what they see on TV and social media. In the beginning of the movie, the girls giggle while watching pornography on one of their cellphones. They gossip about the boys in their classes in a sexual nature and then pressure Amy into taking a video of one of their male classmates in the bathroom. As the movie progresses, Amy gets worse and worse. She steals money from her mother to go on a lingerie shopping spree, takes nude pictures of herself and posts them online, and uses her body to get her way, even with family members. While all of this is disconcerting, the film is not meant to glamorize this behavior. At the conclusion of the movie, Amy sees the err of her ways when she sees the reaction her dancing gets from a crowd of adults. She runs home and changes from her revealing outfit into jeans and a t-shirt. She then plays with the neighborhood kids in the street, and the last scene of her jumping rope with them is the first time we actually see Amy smile. 

The character arc of Amy reminds me of Lindsey Lohan’s character, Cady Heron, in Mean Girls. Both characters immigrate to new, Western countries, begin at new schools, befriend people who are bad influences on them, and in the end realize their true selves. Even the way that the two characters dress mirror each other. At the beginning of the movies they dress pretty conservative and “unstylish,” then towards the middle more revealing and adult, and at the end, they settle at a happy medium. Mean Girls, however, is seen as a classic coming-of-age story, while Cuties is widely condemned. Part of the reason for this is because the characters in Cuties are significantly younger and the content is more graphic. But it also has to do with the fact that many people have not watched Cuties because of its bad reputation and therefore can’t realize the deeper meaning behind the film.

Another problematic theme in the movie is subtle Islamophobia. The film portrays Islam as an oppressive, misogynistic religion and portrays a lot of Amy’s behavior as a rebellion from her traditional upbringing. Amy’s female family members tell her that modesty will get her into heaven and instill in her the belief that women are more sexual beings than men. They teach her that a woman lives to serve her husband, which is supposed to be one of the reasons why Amy offers sexual favors to men in order to get her out of trouble. The characters themselves are depictions of negative stereotypes of Muslim women. Amy’s aunt says that she was engaged at 11 years old and describes her wedding as the happiest moment of her life. Amy’s father takes a second wife without her mother’s permission, but her mother is forced to call her family members and invite them to their wedding. While in religious services, Amy is obligated to wear a hijab, which she resents and uses as a curtain while watching videos of women dancing suggestively as the people around her pray. These stereotypes of Muslim women being oppressed child brides and submissive polygamsists is insensitive at the very least.

Despite major flaws in the production and advertising of the picture, Cuties gets a lot of things right. Personally, I can relate a lot to Amy. Both of us lived pretty sheltered lives up until middle school and both of us attended a public, urban middle school. I can confirm that 11, 12, and 13-year-old girls try to seem older than they really are in the way that they dress and act. Middle school is a time when many kids get their first phones and have mostly unrestricted access to the internet. The girls in the movie mirror a lot of the behavior they see on TV and social media. 

When I was in middle school, Dance Moms was a very popular reality show that featured girls as young as six dancing suggestively, wearing makeup, and dressing in revealing costumes. Artists like Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry were very popular and were also known for their risqué outfits and suggestive lyrics. Their sexuality was a double-edged sword; empowering to many but to a lot of impressionable young girls can enforce the idea that dressing and acting in an adult manner was acceptable. Male pop stars too featured scantily clad dancers in their music videos and used objectifying language towards women. When I was eleven, the number two Billboard top hit was Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, a song glorifying date rape with a music video of naked female models. 

The narrative that women need to dress and act a certain way to attract the attention of men is everywhere in today’s society and a lot of the characters’ behavior is a reflection of that principle. Social media also plays a huge role in the hypersexualization of young girls. The main characters receive largely positive feedback on their videos of them dancing, which in turn makes them feel good and continue to push the envelope in the maturity of their dancing. What the girls are viewing on social media also leads them to feel subconscious about their prepubescent bodies. 

Her friends tell Amy that her body is flat and one of the main characters that she needs to diet. Consequently, Amy buys herself padded bras and Jasmine develops an eating disorder. Young girls growing up have constantly seen unrealistic standards of beauty in the media. When I was in middle school, the Kylie Jenner lip challenge was a trend that prompted people to insert their lips into shot glasses or bottles to achieve bigger lips. Not only did it cause many medical emergencies, but Kylie Jenner later admitted to getting plastic surgery to accentuate her lips. It is damaging to young girls to constantly see unattainable beauty in the media. Other aspects of Cuties, like the girls having physical fights, stealing from and fighting with their parents, and getting in trouble in school are also not uncommon in adolescence. 

All things considered, Cuties deserves a lot of the criticism it has received. But before you cancel your Netflix subscription, I would consider watching the movie and formulating your own opinion.