Maïmouna Doucouré’s feature-film debut, Cuties, is not merely a film about the hyper sexualization of young girls, even though that is what panicky calls to cancel Netflix suggest. In reality, the movie is a warning about ignoring the cries of vulnerable immigrant children.
Cuties tells the story of Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old Muslim daughter of Senegalese immigrants, living in one of Paris’ poorest neighborhoods and navigating layers of trauma and pain. The narrative arc of the film follows her father’s polygamous pursuits to take a second wife. Her family moves into a new apartment with an extra bedroom and Amy’s mother begins preparing it for the new couple. These first few scenes hit you hard as everything stable in Amy’s life—her sense of identity and stability—are ripped out from under her. What’s left is a young girl holding the grief of her father’s actions, all while not being allowed to voice her pain because of her family’s strict religious background. Amy remains mostly silent, in tears, watching her world spin out of control all while navigating typical preteen realities of trying to fit in and be accepted by her peers.
Much of the criticism leveled at Cuties has to do with its isolated dance scenes. However, even before Amy joins a dance troupe, she already doubts her own dignity and self-worth. The struggles of immigrant status coupled with an unstable family life challenge Amy’s view of herself as a child of God, made in the imago dei. In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness. . .” This declaration over the creation of men and women serves as an indicator to our inherent worth as human beings. In a 2016 ERLC post titled “What does it mean to be made in God’s image?,” David Closson argues that the image of God in humans boils down to both who a human is and what humans do. First, we are created beings with intellectual, emotion, and relational capacities. We possess these things because they are true of God, in whose image we are created. But also, second, God gives us these capacities to use for his glory.
The questions of capacity and purpose are ultimately what Amy is seeking to answer. Who is she? What should she do with her life? But instead of turning to faith to answer these questions, she rebels, turning instead to technology and dance. In one scene, she and four other girls sit huddled around a phone screen, watching a choreographed dance video. The dancers are adult women and some of their gestures are erotic. At one point, a woman lifts her shirt and the girls all look at each other and giggle. As a preteen girl, Amy doesn’t fully understand the meaning of these women’s dance moves. She doesn’t understand the sexualized nature of them. But she imitates them later because she believes this is a way for her to define herself and find meaning in her life.
Even before Amy joins a dance troupe, she already doubts her own dignity and self-worth.
Of course, we are supposed to feel uncomfortable watching this. Cuties does not endorse what it depicts. These girls fall prey to the influence of social media in the ways we fear most, becoming hypersexualized by their screens while being far too young to understand concepts like erotica and sex. In a 2017 message, Pope Francis spoke out on the ways that social media denies the image of God in ourselves and cautioned, “Don’t be led astray by the false image of reality” that the online world may portray. We see this clearly in Cuties as social media and videos on the girl’s phones replace real identity development and authentic relations with superficial substitutes. What’s worse, the children don’t realize what they are becoming.
But more than that, Amy’s choice to replicate dance moves on YouTube is part of an effort to acculturate. Rather than use her God-given likeness to love and serve God, she uses her image-bearing qualities to love and serve the western world. Amy’s initiation into the world of dance westernizes her. With these new friends, she wears European clothes and dons a new hairstyle. As such, the film not only criticizes social media’s sexualization of young girls, but the context of the western world that allows this possibility to flourish.
The film sets up traditional Muslims in Amy’s life—her mother and her uncle in particular—to draw her out of this dangerous spiral. (Spoilers ahead.) Amy’s dance competition is set on the same day as her father’s second wedding. While another preteen drama would probably frame dance as a form of empowerment and freedom, Cuties uses it as an agent of confusion. Amy breaks down in tears mid-performance and runs home, finally acknowledging her hurting self and the emptiness of her actions. Her mother simply welcomes her with open arms and tells her she doesn’t have to attend the wedding. These are the words Amy has longed to hear this whole time. It’s her mother’s permission to be herself that actually sets her free. Amy quickly takes off her dance clothes, lays them on the bed next to the traditional Muslim dress she was supposed to wear for the wedding. Then, donning a T-shirt and jeans, she goes downstairs and plays jump rope with the neighbor girls. As Amy jumps rope, she smiles and we know she is on a path to recovering her humanity. She is recovering her identity as a child of God because she is also free to be a child again.
There are only a couple of dance scenes in Cuties. They are small elements in a much greater narrative. But the power of these few scenes is their ability to show how technology profoundly molds and shapes children’s views of themselves. Beyond that, Cuties dramatizes the vulnerability of a young immigrant girl to such an uncomfortable extent that it can no longer be ignored. Amy’s plight is a reality for immigrant children across the world. Cuties forces us to ask: How does social media exploit young children, especially immigrant children, and taint the truth that they are children of God?