Cuties is about Amy, an 11-year-old Senegalese French Muslim who lives with her mother and two younger brothers in one of Paris’s poorest neighborhoods. At home, she seems to be oppressed by the strict and rigid Islamic cultures. So, she feels liberated when she befriends a group of girls who seem to be rebellious and carefree. This film is directed and written by Maimouna Doucoure, who is a Senegalese French Muslim herself.
As a young adult Muslim living in this age, when a movie comes out with inclusive representations of Muslim ‘characters’ or ‘communities’, I can’t help but pray that it doesn’t send wrong messages or misrepresent anything that I hold so close to my heart.
Cuties was one of the three chosen French films to be premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. There, director Doucoure received the Directing Award. When it was first released in France after the festival, it didn’t gain much backlash. That was until Netflix revealed its international promotional poster. From a poster of a group of 11-year-old girls laughing together to a picture of them wearing revealing clothes in twerking positions. The public then blames Netflix and the film itself for normalizing the hyper-sexualization of adolescent girls.
Petitions and hashtags against Netflix went viral and people started calling out to the film director. Some critics even sided with the public in condemning Netflix but defended Doucoure. They claim that the poster is an accurate representation of the film, and that people should watch the film before calling out Doucoure.
Regardless, the film still garnered more attention with people reviewing that the film itself did sexualise its 11-year-old characters. Despite Doucoure’s intentions of creating the film in to raise awareness and conversations on the topic, majority reviews claim that a film cannot criticize the act of sexualizing children, while sexualizing them at the same time.
Although this debate is unquestionably essential, an issue that was not raised in the Cuties discourse is the misrepresentation of Muslim women. While arguments and articles focusing on misrepresentations exist, overall reviews on the film didn’t bring this into the spotlight. This could be due to the fact that Muslims are considered a minority in Hollywood culture, or that majority reviewers and film critics are non-Muslims themselves. However, the impact of misrepresentations only contribute towards existing stereotypes and misunderstanding of Muslims globally. It becomes all the more crucial since the religion’s reputation is already fragile as it is.
In the film, the main character, Amy finds freedom and liberation in dancing with her friends. In other words, rebelling, dancing sexily, and taking inappropriate photos; this is what the public criticizes. These activities act as an ‘escape’ from stressful situations at home. Further, her father’s polygamous ways; her mother’s silent struggles; her roles and responsibility as a Muslim female; and compulsory religious meetings all seem to promote ‘restricting’ images of Islam.
When I first watched the film, I immediately understood the role of Islam as a tool of oppression in Amy’s life, and dancing as a tool of freedom. As much as I tried sugarcoating what I didn’t want to believe, I couldn’t help but ponder. If I weren’t a Muslim, I would’ve considered Islam as a pretty restrictive religion after watching the film.
At the end of the film, Amy doesn’t attend her father’s wedding; wears regular western clothes without a headscarf; and plays with the local kids outside her apartment. Hypothetically, viewers can assume that she chooses a perfect balance between religion and ‘freedom’. I strongly believe that one’s faith is completely personal and not the businesses of others. However, I couldn’t settle well with the fact that Islam was used as a tool of oppression.
Doucoure reveals that the film is a reflective representation of her past growing up as a black Senegalese French Muslim girl living in Paris. In a Twitter thread, a Black Muslim woman who grew up in a polygamist family, Goundo Diawara, claims that the film is well-documented and essential. Although a few opinions cannot be representatives of a whole, this still leaves space for the belief that the film may well represent some communities in the world.
Therefore, on a brighter note, maybe this film did achieve in raising new crucial conversations. Maybe, Doucoure has opened wider doors for Black people, Muslims, French directors, and women. Maybe, she has opened doors for opportunities, and maybe, doors for mistakes. Regardless, this has definitely created a new space of thought for me, which I will continue to ponder and reflect upon.
Written by Nurul Iman.