The outrage over Cuties, the feature-length debut by Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré, says a lot about how poorly we discuss youth sexuality. The film, originally called Mignonnes in French, is meant as an indictment of the sexualization of girls by entertainment and social media.
In the face of such unfounded hysteria, the impulse among many is to pooh-pooh the naysayers and praise the film. That’s no better because the film has a lot of problems that should be scrutinized. However, screaming “sexualization” does not help get us to a place where, in Doucouré’s words, “politicians, artists, parents and educators could work together to make a change that will benefit children for generations to come.”
The film follows Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant to the impoverished banlieues (suburbs) of Paris. Surrounded by purity-obsessed female Muslim elders and angry over her father’s impending polygamous marriage, she befriends Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni) and joins her dance crew. Her new friends’ sexual attitudes confound her much as do the conservative community to which her mother devotes herself.
Last month, Netflix rolled out an advertising campaign for the film that many — including Doucouré — rightly found objectionable. The ad featured four pre-pubescent girls in spandex hot pants and crop tops doing explicit dance poses. Some politicians, religious leaders and children’s media advocacy agencies demanded the U.S. Department of Justice investigate the production of the film. #CancelNetflix began trending.
A legacy of the male gaze
Core to Cuties’ problems are the dance sequences. And there are reasons to be concerned. To help understand why, the work of feminist film scholar, Laura Mulvey, and her concept of the male gaze can help.
The male gaze describes how cinema distinguishes between the male protagonist, who drives the plot, and the female spectacle, whose value to the film is more for her visual appeal than her contributions to the plot, what Mulvey calls her “to-be-looked-at-ness.” The male gaze isn’t only for men in the audience. It defines how the film is constructed so that everyone sees through its gendered perspective. Cinematic techniques from lighting to editing and camera work induce this voyeuristic and even sadistic gaze on the actress.
When the girls dance in Cuties, the camera travels slowly down their bodies, lingering on their midriffs and crotches. There are quick cuts to close-ups on spread legs and gyrating bums. The girls are not clumsy or awkward, intensifying the male gaze with a dazzlingly flawless spectacle. There is a lot to criticize here — but blaming sexualization makes things worse.
Racist and narrow definitions of sexuality
Sexualization was introduced in 1975 by psychologist Graham B. Spanier to define the development of gender identity and sexual attitudes. Thirty years later, the American Psychological Association (APA) helped make the concept the dominant framework for any discussion of adolescent sexual development through their Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. The APA established an oppositional relationship between sexualization and “healthy sexuality, [which] fosters intimacy, bonding and shared pleasure, and involves mutual respect between consenting partners.”
While that might sound fine at first, sexualization hinges on the unquestioned acceptance of monogamous, romantic heteronormativity as the only model for “healthy” sexuality. Furthermore, it overemphasizes the media’s negative influence while ignoring negative sexual discourses in religious, educational, medical or family social systems. It fails to consider, for example, religious purity morals or sexual education programs that focus on peril rather than pleasure and marginalize 2LGBTQ+ identities. It does not address patriarchal medical practices, nor parents who are unwilling or unable to talk about sex with their children.
Sexualization also has undercurrents of racism. It privileges ideals of white femininity. A regular target of critics is urban dance music, in particular hip hop’s legendary video vixens, the backup dancers known for their revealing costumes and explicit choreography. The best-known vixens are Black or racialized women.
The fear that girls are emulating a distinctly Black female sexuality is rooted in racist anxieties that Black women are too seductive for white men to resist, and therefore they threaten the purity of a white supremacist race.
Black women who assert their right to be sexual face backlash not just from racist abusers but also from those who blame them for not behaving “respectably.” When Cuties relies on the shock value of dance music lyrics and video-vixen-inspired routines, it inadvertently aligns itself with the same social conservative panic trying to have the film cancelled.
Caught in its own contradictory thesis on sexualization, the film can find no satisfactory conclusion. In the middle of a dance contest, suddenly shocked and embarrassed by her behaviour, Amy flees the stage and returns home where her mother is getting ready for her husband’s second marriage.
They reconcile as the mother gathers her dignity and leaves for the wedding in her most glorious Senegalese attire. Amy stays behind and, now dressed in skinny jeans and crew top, she joins a game of skip rope in the apartment quad. We are to believe that she has somehow freed herself from both oppressive and excessive sexuality by adopting normcore fashion.
The pat resolution of the film capitulates to neoliberal, western respectability politics. It seems to suggest that Amy is both the cause of and relief from her sexual confusion. That is a hallmark of sexualization: reducing complex, interconnected forms of social and sexual oppression into a psychological pathology.
Sexualization diverts attention from the confluence of social structures that enforce conflicting expectations on young women, turns social issues into individual personality problems, stigmatizes female sexual pleasure and ignores men’s and boys’ own anxieties over the equally abusive sexual standards demanded of them.
Feminist scholars remain skeptical of sexualization because it displaces a far more important discussion of sexism.
Dismantling patriarchy and heteronormativity to make way for consent-based, pleasure-positive and diverse sexual choices for young women is urgently necessary. Without it, stigma and shame — the blunt tools of sexualization — will persist and young women will continue to be blamed for the systemic sexual harassment and assault that they must learn to endure at far too young an age.