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The film Cuties unsettled me – but not for the same reason it upset the Twitter mob

Netflix has been criticised for how it has marketed the film Cuties – but Katie Glass says the problems don't end there

Still from the film Cuties, showing the four girls in the dance troupe
Cuties debuted at Sundance Film Festival Credit: Film Stills

This weekend people called for a film to be banned which most of them had not even watched. Surprisingly though, this time, those shouting loudest were not from the intolerant Left but from Conservative America. Even more surprisingly, I agree with them.

Cuties, a small independent film first shown at Sundance Film Festival to limited attention, has caused fresh outrage since it was released on Netflix. Most of this controversy centres on how the streaming service chose to advertise the French language film, originally titled Mignonnes. In France, the movie’s original poster featured a group of young girls gleefully shopping. For the US release, Netflix opted instead for an image from the film’s most controversial scene, showing three 11-year-olds, in barely-there outfits, twerking. The creepy accompanying blurb panted over how lead character Amy, 11, joins a dance group who “enthusiastically embrace an increasingly sensual dance routine”.

Cuties is a film about an 11 year-old girl joining a dance troupe

Without even watching the film people began demanding Cuties be banned. The hashtag #cancelNetflix trended as members of Congress, including Ted Cruz, demanded the film’s removal from the channel and a Justice department investigation. It was a simplistic response to a film that presents a complex problem.

The motivation behind Cuties feels promising. The directorial debut of Franco-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré, it was was inspired by her own experiences. Its lead character is a young Muslim girl, Amy, negotiating two potential versions of womanhood. On the one hand, Amy’s family offer her a traditionally claustrophobic existence as a subjugated housewife. On the other, modern Western pop culture promises her a tantalising alternative, if one with its own constraints. It is the virgin/whore dichotomy updated for the 21st century. Amy’s options are housewife or Cardi B.

Doucouré deliberately shows Amy negotiating the two extremes. It is surprising that critics of Cuties were not equally outraged by Amy's other existence, as she's forced to spend her childhood raising her siblings while her mother cries about her bigamist dad. Still, it is the part of the story where Amy joins a young troupe of dancers that has attracted the most attention. And indeed, it is deeply unsettling to watch this tiny girl-gang, wearing tinier outfits, thrusting and pouting their way through increasingly sexual dances.

Perhaps Cuties is a work of art. It certainly accomplishes something art should: It makes you feel something. Cuties is disturbing – and this is precisely what Doucouré intends. Through the girl's routines, she makes us look, in horror, directly at the grotesque way our society pornifies young girls.

It is profoundly effective. It is one thing to read about Matalan selling two-year-old’s crop tops and another to see these small characters squeezed into them. It is one thing to know girls are pressured into sexual behaviour and another to see an 11 year-old perform it.

Having recently celebrated Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s sexually-expressive WAP video, Cuties made me reconsider how such content impacts impressionable children.

Cuties is uncomfortable in a subtler way too. In the same way it really is uncomfortable to be an 11-year-old negotiating your developing body in a society frantically sexualising you. It reminded me of my own experiences and made me think how rare and wonderful it is to watch a coming-of-age film about girlhood.

Still, if Cuties is art it is bad art. It becomes too obvious, goes too far, becomes unnecessarily crass. It reminds me of the portrait Marcus Harvey painted of Myra Hindley made up of the handprints of little children which, when the Royal Academy tried to display it, was pelted by the public with eggs. It reminded me too of photographer Sally Munn whose portraits of her own naked children, although moving, exploited them. Munn’s work was criticised by feminist Mary Gordon who complained Munn used her children like marionettes.

Is Doucouré also guilty of this? Whatever important points Cuties raises appear to be at her young actresses’ expense. Doucouré uses their bodies to make her points. In asking us to see how they are sexualised, they are inadvertently being sexualised.

The director has said that she worked with a child psychologist throughout and after filming, adding: “I explained to the [actresses] everything I was doing and the research that I had done before I wrote this story. I was also lucky that these girls’ parents were also activists, so we were all on the same side. At their age, they’ve seen this kind of dance. Any child with a telephone can find these images on social media these days.” That said, I don’t understand why Doucouré couldn’t use older actors. Shows like Dawson's Creek and Glee have 20-year-olds portraying teenagers. Doucouré’s cast, even now, are barely in their teens.

As older actresses increasingly reveal they performed scenes in their youth they later regret, it feels essential that a film about sexual exploitation should have been made with actresses old enough to give informed consent of their own and not just by parents or guardians on their behalf.