“Cuties” stirs controversy

A questionable movie plot and execution shroud an important message about cultural sexism.

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Courtesy of IMDb

Emily Coffey, Staff Writer

Cuties” was released in France on Aug. 19 and internationally on Sept. 9 on Netflix. What followed was a firestorm of political tweets, articles and posts arguing whether the film crossed the line of child sexualization, or if it shone a brutally honest light on the truth of cultural sexism and how it affects childhood development. 

PLOT

In the film, the main character, 11-year-old Amy, moves into project housing with her family when her father has chosen to marry an additional woman. Amy meets some girls in this new environment who prove to be a bad influence on her at school, and lead her away from her cultural values. After Amy and her grandmother prepare food for her father’s wedding ceremony, the fragile life and lies begin to unravel. The dress she is to wear to the ceremony begins symbolically dripping with blood, and her mother discovers the web of lies she’s maintained to keep her friends at school. 

Soon after, she uploads an explicit photo of herself on the internet using her father’s stolen phone. A priest comes to hope to heal Amy of demonic activities, but soon discovers that the root of her issues is her father’s infidelity and the rejection she feels as a result of that.  

Running from the heartache, Amy participates in a highly explicit dance competition with her friends from school, and it is here that the first scene of the movie takes place: Amy runs off of the stage and back home, to her father’s wedding, where her mother tells her that she does not have to go.

She then runs outside in new clothes, past the celebration of her father’s wedding and jump ropes with other kids her age, symbolically jumping higher and higher.  

SYMBOLISM 

This film is filled with symbolism all of the way through. If not watched with a careful eye, the meaning could become shrouded by the disturbing nature of the film. The first instance is the mentioned dress, dripping with blood. It should be noted that this is the same day Amy gets her period for the first time, and her grandmother exclaims, “You’re a woman now!” The dress holds symbolism as a piece of her duty as a woman in her current culture: she must wear it to honor her father, even though her father has not honored her, in the same way that she must awake before the sun and chop hundreds of pounds of onions. A woman is not seen as valuable outside of what she can offer in the household: fertility and service. A woman is not allowed autonomy. 

Then, there is a scene where Amy steals money from her mother to buy underwear after she is indecently exposed in a public setting and a video of it is posted to the internet. The girls are shown gleefully running down the street, carelessly throwing the underwear about, only to have her little brother pick it up after her, stuffing it in his bag. This scene, alongside the one of her grandmother calling Amy a profanity and reinforcing the belief about a woman’s duty, shows the depth of generational sexism. Neither iteration of it is better. Both find a bitter pain, and both genders are hurt. Sexualization exists inside of the family unit and is passed along like a disease in the most basic building block of society.  

A BIOLAN CHIMES IN 

Junior cinema and media arts major Dakota Martinez shared his perspective on the controversy as a filmmaker with a screenwriting concentration. 

“The director’s intention behind it is to expose how gross it is, to expose how our culture sexualizes children and promotes it and rewards it,” Martinez said. “But in doing so, also, I think she fell into the trap she was trying to expose. In terms of exposing the exploitation, she did some exploitation herself.” ”

He also thinks that Netflix’s marketing strategy played a large part in the reception of the film. 

“ As a filmmaker, I know what marketing is like. A lot of times the people who market the film don’t even watch the film. I can guarantee you, the people at Netflix who marketed this film did not watch the film. Because the way they marketed it was nothing like how the film actually is,” Martinez stated. “The initial description of the film was like, ‘oh, watch these children twerk their way into exploring their femininity and rejecting the traditions of the past,’ and that’s not at all what the film is about.

A PERSONAL NOTE 

The truth is that there are many other equally important and graphic scenes in this movie to dissect. It is not a lighthearted watch, and I would not recommend it. It made me sick to my stomach, put a weight on my chest and exposed an ache I have been feeling since I was seven years old. I danced as a child, and the shortest and tightest thing I had in my closet was my dance costumes. I was entranced by them the same way Amy loved her new tops. The first time I was called “sexy” I was also seven years old. And when a 14 year-old boy hurled those words at me like insults, I ran away crying. I didn’t even know why I was upset. I get cat-called almost weekly, and the worst part of this story is that this sexualization is mild compared to many other girls’ testimonies. Of course, there is more to mine, as well. 

My point is this: this over-sexualization of children is not new. It has been happening for as long as societies have existed under the shroud of religion or even, might I say, feminism. This is because people are not seen as whole outside of their sexuality. It is an underlying perverted culture that women and men alike can get sucked into to find value and to feel desired. It happens under different lights in different cultures, and something that “Cuties” does so well is to show that. In America and France, underage girls twerk on stage for parent-attended dance competitions. In third-world countries, the same age is married off and expected to have children, or sold as sex slaves into a booming and ancient human trafficking industry. 

This movie should not have been produced in the manner that it was. The camera angles were inappropriate and the scenes in which this sexualization happened were too long. The girls who acted in this movie are likely too young to understand what they are saying or doing. Is it important work? Yes. Was it shocking enough to leave an imprint on minds, to bring awareness to a larger issue and to even propose a solution? Yes, absolutely. 

There is no easy way out. But something beautiful remains at the end of the film that helps bring healing and proposes a solution: the mother tells Amy that she didn’t have to attend her father’s wedding. She walks out, wearing a long-sleeve T-shirt and jeans, past the women celebrating her father’s infidelity in bright dresses, to jump rope on the sidewalk. She walks back into the land of innocence. 

Concerning youth, this shows that it is not a girl’s job to bear the burden of her father’s mistakes. It also shows that as a woman, she has the choice to walk away from a man who could not respect her or treat her the way that she deserved. The child is preserved, and sex is simply a gift of intimacy and not a place of value. Because she is valued by her mother, she can move forward to a place where she is truly free. Amy is allowed to say no.

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