I Watched Netflix Movie Cuties With My Teen Daughter And She Has Four Words For It
By Paula Schuck
PHOTO © Rushay via Twenty20
Sep 28, 2020
"Cringey, inappropriate, relatable and triggering."
These were the words my daughter used to describe the parts of Cuties that she watched before she left the room where we were watching the movie.
Our discussion began a few days ago.
We were talking about the French coming-of-age film and the ensuing debate. In recent days, the movie, streaming on Netflix, has generated all the clickbait headlines imaginable and cancel culture has reacted with #CancelNetflix calls. "Cuties promotes pedophilia," some said. "Cancel your subscription to Netflix unless they remove it," others shouted.
"MOM. There’s nothing redeeming to be said about that show. Cuties sexualizes young girls and it’s completely inappropriate."
“But have you seen it?”
My teen daughters are spectacularly opinionated sometimes. I love that they have a strong sense of social justice and even stronger opinions that they are more than willing to share, but I have to challenge that when it seems like they are reacting to something they’ve heard instead of forming their own conclusions.
"'Do NOT write about it. It’s not worth it. The comments will be awful.'"
"But have you seen it?" I asked her this week.
"No, but I’ve seen the trailers and the debate online. Do NOT write about it. It’s not worth it. The comments will be awful."
"But what if that’s exactly the problem? That people are forming judgements about it before actually seeing Cuties or understanding the message behind it?"
My oldest daughter just started studying social sciences at university. I figured if anyone would be interested in studying this film, and assessing it from an anthropological perspective in the context of growing up as a teen girl, it would be her.
So, I sat down and watched it, partly with her, but she was reticent and only made it through part of the movie. My oldest daughter has anxiety and to this day sometimes still avoids situations she senses will make her feel uncomfortable or provoke extreme emotion.
When Paulas's daughter started high school, she was bullied through social media. Read what Paula did about it here.
Cuties, Les Mignonnes in France, is that sort of movie. It makes you squirm in your seat, close your eyes and holler "No!" at the main character, Amy.
Amy is an 11-year-old Senegalese girl. When we first meet her, she’s moving into a small apartment with her mother and two younger siblings. A Muslim girl, she attends a completely gender-segregated prayer group with her mom and listens to prayers about a woman’s duty to be pious and modest, while her brother plays with trucks nearby.
"Cuties is a sad statement about what growing up as a young girl right now looks like for many of them."
Fathia Youssouf plays Amy, in a raw, powerfully honest portrayal of a young girl who is adjusting to extreme culture shock at a crucial moment in her life. She is thrown into public school as a fish out of water. She rebels against her family’s traditions and her obligations as a girl, expected to be a caregiver, and begins lying, stealing and acting out when she becomes fascinated with a tween girl dance crew.
When we first meet the girls in the troupe, they are clumsily trying to build a dance routine to enter a competition together. They are a mouthy, sexually curious, aggressive little clique of tweens all dreaming of becoming Insta-famous. Their currency is likes. They do the mannequin challenge (which my daughter had to explain to me) during a lunch break at school, they bully others and cajole the new girl, Amy, into sneaking into the boy’s restroom to try and capture a photo of a boy at the urinal.
Yes, it is — 100 per cent. It’s icky and it makes you feel vile and horrified when the group decides to toss out the young girl with an eating disorder and admit Amy into their dance troupe.
It’s cringey when 11-year-old girls start twerking as a means of avoiding punishment when they have been caught sneaking into a laser tag business without paying. When they are suggestively imitating a dance routine that they’ve seen on social media, aiming for more likes by tossing their hair and sticking their fingers in their mouths — absolutely it will make you cringe.
No. Not really when you actually watch it. If art is a reflection of society, and I believe this movie is, then what’s inappropriate is us, the audience, accepting that popular culture, social media, reality shows and music all get a pass on the images and videos they share. We talked about this and my daughter listened.
That was not a word I expected to hear my daughter flat out say while she was watching the first half of Cuties. But here’s how that came up.
Amy’s mom is setting up the new family home waiting for her husband, who is about to marry his new second wife. Mom puts on a brave face despite clearly showing the camera slumped shoulders. As Amy hides under her mom’s bed one night, she overhears her phoning friends telling them of her husband’s second marriage as she breaks into sobs between calls. Masking. The brave face women put on and the struggle for power throughout life. Masking is relatable. We have all done it.
Interesting word choice, I thought to myself as we talked about it later. And then absolutely, yes — it is triggering, especially for tweens and teens. Cuties triggered a lot of uncomfortable feelings here.
When my oldest daughter started high school, we went through a week or two of aggressive social media bullying when someone set up a fake Instagram account in her name and posted vile messages to other students all the while impersonating her.
When my younger daughter was in Grade 5, she was asked to do a project on her hero, and she wrote how inspired she was by a young Youtube star with millions of followers. I remember how for months, if not years, her peer group all openly stated that their career goals were Youtuber. Replace that with TikToker and you’d be speaking in today’s terms right now for many kids.
Paula has learned that "no" is what her teens need to hear sometimes, even if it can be uncomfortable to say. Read how she's getting used to just saying it here.
But I was a teen girl. Sometimes that thought pops into my head when the kids are arguing with me about what’s appropriate to post on social media. Over the years I have asked both of the girls to remove something they posted on social media.
These are the conversations we have as parents of teens. What is appropriate or acceptable or self-respecting to post online, how nothing is temporary and anything can be used against you. Occasionally, I overhear and see what their teenage peers post on social media. Kids drinking, doing drugs, vaping, sexting, posting threats and more.
"It’s the relationships between the girls in the movie that are far more terrifying than the dance routines or outfits."
I was there too, I think first, but more and more I stifle the comment — because I was never a teen girl like this. I am no digital native. While I get social media and enjoy using it for multiple reasons, I did not grow up sharing every hour of every day on Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok. The only thing that kept me awake at night was a good book.
Cuties is a sad statement about what growing up as a young girl right now looks like for many of them. Is the tween coming-of-age plight exaggerated at times for effect? Perhaps. It also contains some gorgeous acting and a story that needs to be told.
What alarmed me most about the plot and the characters in Cuties, was how easily the girls drop their friends, trading them in for a newer, skinnier, sexier member of the group. How effortlessly they bullied others and how much rage they all expressed. It’s the relationships between the girls in the movie that are far more terrifying than the dance routines or outfits.
So, does Cuties cross the line? Does it exploit preteen girls to sell a movie?
If anything, the most offensive part of this whole story is how Netflix marketed the show, choosing to promote it with the most sexual image of the entire film, one of 11-year-olds dressed in their tight booty shorts and glittery crop dance tops.
Otherwise, Cuties is a relevant, occasionally artful movie packed with truths that are hard to take. You could look away, but you probably shouldn’t.
Are you a writer? Are you a parent? Do you feel differently about this subject? Feel free to reach out to us with a pitch.
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