[Music: "Wirklich Wichtig (CB 27)" by Checkie Brown, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]

LAMI: Hey, this is Lami Zhang

VICTORIA: This is Victoria Benefield.

LAMI: Welcome to Subtitled, a podcast where two fake film students take a look at popular movies and TV shows. Seriously, neither of us can get into any film classes. So if  anyone knows how, please help us.

LAMI: This episode contains strong language and discussion of the sexualization of children and sexual assault.

VICTORIA: And also spoilers.

VICTORIA: Today, we’re talking about Cuties, a French film released in September directed by Maiimouna Doucouré. If you somehow haven’t heard anything about this movie, I’ll sum it up for you: An 11-year-old Senegalese girl, Amy, who has just immigrated to Paris with her family, meets a group of young girls who are preparing to enter a dance competition. The film follows her friendship with the girls, their journey to the competition, and Amy’s internal conflict between her traditional Muslim roots and the liberal culture represented by her friends and social media. Sounds innocent enough, right?

LAMI: Wrong. Backlash around the movie started in August, after U.S. Netflix released promotional material showing the young cast in suggestive dance poses and costumes. Critics deemed the movie “child pornography,” saying it sexualizes the 11-year-old main character and her friends. The hashtag #CancelNetflix started trending on Twitter. Disapproval came from both sides of the political spectrum, including Rep. Brian Babin, Senator Ted Cruz and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Two weeks ago, a grand jury in Texas brought criminal felony charges against Netflix, indicting the streaming giant for “promotion of lewd visual material depicting a child.”

VICTORIA: So, Lami, what did you think about this movie?

LAMI: I heard about the controversy surrounding this film before I actually saw the movie on Netflix. To be honest, I was a little skeptical about the backlash, mostly because I don't trust a single word that comes out of Ted Cruz's mouth. But after I watched the movie, I honestly really liked it. It covers a lot of issues pertaining to growing up as a girl and learning how to be a woman in this modern age.

VICTORIA: I've had friends who quite literally cancelled Netflix. And so I went into it thinking it was going to be pretty bad. And then I watched it, and I understand the concerns, but I think it was exaggerated. I thought that the film raised a lot of really important themes that you don't really hear or see portrayed in film or any other form of media very often. One of the really important themes that Cuties raises is the sort of dichotomy between the two different cultures that Amy is a part of, which is her African Muslim background, and the Western culture that she finds herself in when she immigrates to Paris. Some of the ways that the director talks about this is, it's most definitely through the lens of womanhood and how womanhood is defined in both of those cultures.

LAMI: She's trying to figure out what it means to be a woman, meaning what responsibilities come with that and how she's supposed to get in touch with her sexuality. What does her sexuality mean? And her female family members don't really go into much detail about that. For me, there was a really poignant part of the movie, where she gets her period. For every young girl, the first time you get your period is pretty memorable, right? I distinctly remember mine. Her mother later that night just said to her, "You're a woman now." As validating as that may be to young Amy, I feel like there needs to be more discussion.

VICTORIA: And I think it's just sort of indicative of the way that Amy's family really wasn't there for her as she's growing up and as she's discovering more about herself and her sexuality and her womanhood, and she's also making this huge transition from living in Africa and then moving to Paris. She's going through all of these things, including getting her period. And her family is just not there to listen to her.

[Music: “Sometimes it Rains” (ID 1206) by Lobo Loco licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]

LAMI: So let’s talk about one of the more controversial parts of the movie, the laser tag scene.

VICTORIA: The Cuties girls sneak into a laser tag place, and they get caught by two security guards who wouldn’t let them leave without paying. The girls protest, and one of the security guards grabs Angelica by the arm, and she was like, “If you don’t let us go, we’ll tell everyone that you sexually assaulted us.” And I think that was really interesting, because it shows that Angelica knows that she is an easy victim in society and that she can use that status to her advantage. I also think it's kind of sad that she's so aware of that and that she knows that that is believable.

LAMI: Right, and that was a really jarring moment. Her accusation didn’t end up working, so [Amy] started dancing, in a pretty provocative way. She was twerking in front of the security guards, and we could clearly see this disturbing-ass expression on the security guard’s face, and he was very intently staring at her body.

VICTORIA: And I think that was intentional because I think the director really wanted to emphasize how wrong this was. And this is an aspect of our society that we need to be aware of and that we need to critique and that we need to work on.

LAMI: That reminds me of that other scene where they're being filmed for a music video on that bridge, and they were dancing. It's clearly filmed from the male gaze, because it's focusing on their crotch areas. And I just find that to be an interesting choice on the director's part. Because, on one hand, she's clearly saying, we should not sexualize children. Look at this fucking security guard. And on the other hand, she's showing the scene that's kind of sexualizing them in a way.

VICTORIA: One of my friends who actually cancelled Netflix over this pointed this out and that you don't make a stand against killing puppies by killing puppies, which was her way of saying that the director shouldn't have been making a stand against exploiting children by exploiting children. And I think in that scene specifically, she was really exploiting these young child actors without showing how wrong it was. I think at this point, we should mention while the director is female, the cinematographer was a male. And I think that it's really interesting to watch the movie from that perspective. And I just think that's kind of strange. And maybe a poor choice, on her part.

LAMI: It definitely gives the camera a sort of voyeuristic perspective. I think another moment in the film that’s pretty hard to watch is when Amy takes a picture of her vagina and posts it on social media. The next day, all her friends were extremely angry with her for doing that.

VICTORIA: One of the boys in her class, and, as  she walks by him, he smacked her on the ass. And she was like, "What the fuck, dude?" She didn't say that. But it was essentially that. This man considered her posting her nudes as permission for him to not just sexualize her but sexually assault her basically.

LAMI: Right. He feels like just because she holds ownership of her own body by posting a nude, he somehow gets the permission and access.

VICTORIA: To me, that was really just like an encapsulation of what this film is about. Any time a girl, a young girl, is putting herself out there sexually on social media, men, even young boys, are taking advantage of that, sexualizing them, using their method of expressing themselves as a way and as a reason to sexualize them inappropriately.

[Music: “Sometimes it Rains” (ID 1206) by Lobo Loco licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]

VICTORIA: So like we mentioned earlier, in Texas, Netflix is being indicted for “promotion of lewd visual material depicting a child.

LAMI: In order to qualify the film as child pornography, they'll have to make a case that there's no artistic, literary, or any educational value in the film itself, which I think will be a hard case to make, because obviously, the director is very passionate about her cause. And she's trying to show that oversexualization of young girls is wrong.

MAIIMOUNA DOUCOURÉ: I put my heart into this film, because this is my story. I believe that cinema, and art in general, can change the world. We are able to see oppression of women in other cultures. But my question is, isn’t the objectification of a woman’s body that we often see in our Western culture, not another kind of oppression?

LAMI: As we can clearly tell from this interview, she has all the right intentions for making this film. It's her story. It's her culture that she's depicting. And she also did research on girls of that age and how they're kind of coming into their own bodies and coming into teenagehood.

VICTORIA: Yeah, so I think a lot of the backlash surrounding the age and the provocativeness of the film is coming from people who have not actually watched the movie, which is very important when you're going to judge content. They're just making assumptions, based off of what they've heard from others, and also…

LAMI: Promotional material.

VICTORIA: Yes, Netflix, what were you thinking?

LAMI: So the advertising for the film is different here in the U.S. versus in France, where it first premiered. So in the American advertising, there were provocative images of the girls dancing in crop tops and very, very short shorts.

VICTORIA: Yeah, and then the advertising in France and other countries just showed them holding shopping bags and running in the street.

LAMI: Also, marketing is so important. It's your first impression of a film. And if your first impression of a film is, "Oh my god, these young girls are being sexualized," you're going to look at the film in a completely new light as opposed to, "Oh, these young girls are trying to discover their sexuality."

VICTORIA: At the same time, I think we both generally agree that the casting of actual underage girls to be in these very provocative scenes shot in a very provocative way is a problem. Regardless of whether they agreed to this, I mean, the director was like, "We tried to make this as safe as possible." There was a counselor on set. The thing is, they’re 11. At the age of 11, I wasn't capable of making the decision about whether I would be in a film where I would be dancing, where I would be shown taking nude photos.

LAMI: And even if they were able to comprehend kind of the gravity of the role they're taking, they don't necessarily know what's going to happen in the future, like with all this backlash. I doubt any of them anticipated this.

VICTORIA: This film would not even be close to as problematic if the actresses were over 18. But also, another question we have is like: How much of this critique is actually about the casting versus about the expression of young girls’ sexuality? Are all these Republican politicians really that concerned about the five girls in the film? Or are they more bothered by the mere idea of girls being sexual entities at all?

LAMI: There really haven't been a lot of films, where shows girls at that young of an age trying to discover their sexuality, like I can’t even think of any off the top of my head, I guess, like coming-of-age movies, but they’re usually in high school, they're like, 17, 18, going into college,  and they're trying to finally discovering their sexuality, which I feel like is unfair because with social media and what Amy and her friends are going through, when you're seeing portrayals of female sexuality and oversexualization of the female body at such a young age, you just unintentionally start to think about your sexuality and your own body from that age.

VICTORIA: Yeah, I guess the question is it bad that girls are becoming more sexually aware younger because of social media?

LAMI: Well, let's look at it from the other perspective. If you have a young boy discovering his sexuality, at the age of like, 11 to 13, we think of it as normal. There's so many depictions of that in coming-of-age films.

VICTORIA: One that comes to mind is Mid90s, which is on Amazon Prime. And in it, the main character, who is 13, is shown in his boxers with a girl who is also only in her underwear. Later, he describes their sexual encounter to his friends in, I’ll just call it explicit detail. And then further, at the time of filming, the lead actor was only 11, and the woman in the sex scene with him was 22. So where was the backlash when this came out? Why didn’t anyone cancel their Prime subscription? I think the director had every good intention in the world. But I think the problem is that, yes, while you can make a piece of art with all of these good intentions, you don't know how the result is going to be perceived by the world, and you don't know what the actual impact of your film is going to be. And I think the problem that a lot of people have with it is whether people are going to use this as, like, pedophilic material. I think she ends up unintentionally exploiting these young actresses.

LAMI: If you make a film depicting a clearly very controversial and very hard topic to depict, directors and writers shouldn't have to take into account the feelings of pedophiles and rapists. Like do we not include a rape scene, just because a rapist might find it sexually rewarding?

VICTORIA: I guess the problem is like when you're doing a rape scene, the person isn't getting raped. Right? It's consensual.

LAMI: But she's unintentionally sexualizing, portraying these child actors in a sexual light.


LAMI: Which is something they didn't ask for.

VICTORIA: Yeah. I wonder, though, if the backlash to this film will scare people away from this topic. Like if the thought now of talking about young girls and their sexuality will become taboo.

LAMI: But also I feel like future directors can take away a lot from this controversy and this discussion. Whether it's casting older actresses to portray a younger role, or just like framing the story in a different way. So I think it really brings up questions on how you tell these stories, because obviously these stories are very important to tell, especially surrounding issues like pedophilia, which is kind of clouded in a way. So how do you tell these stories in a way that doesn't exploit or sensationalize the issues?

VICTORIA: I think that is kind of the main point to take away from not only this film, but this whole controversy. She has a good story to tell. This is an important message to talk about.

LAMI: In a way it's her story.

VICTORIA: And it’s also every little girl’s story in this society about the way that social media shapes who you are as a person, the way your culture shapes your concept of womanhood. But it's so marred by the controversy.

LAMI: Also I think, it's hard to pinpoint what the actual impact of the film is right now, because there are so many films throughout  history that were thought of as very controversial, temporarily. And then in like, a couple of years, people were like, "Oh my god, this sends such a strong message." And I think that might be the case for this film.

LAMI: This episode was produced by me, Lami Zhang and Victoria Benefield, for NBN Audio. Thanks for listening!

[Music: “Wirklich Wichtig (ID 211)” by Checkie Brown, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]

Graphic by Lami Zhang and Victoria Benefield