“One for the party, two for the shorty, three when we shake your bum, bum, bum, bum…”
Mignonnes aka Cuties, 2020 (Fathia Youssouf) BAC Films/Netflix
How do you deflect a serious argument made by a film about the injustices and degradation Muslim women are required to endure on a daily basis for their religion? Apparently (at least in this country) you amplify claims of child pornography. The hysteria and outrage over Cuties has crescendoed to the point that anyone not on the same bandwagon of witch-hunters and name-callers attacking the film will be labeled a “pedo-apologist.” I was off that bandwagon for a time because I refused to comment on the movie before I watched it. I came up against an enormous amount of antipathy from people who would not watch the movie on the basis of those claims. I decided to put my money where my mouth is and actually (gasp!) watch the movie!
Amy (Fathia Youssouf) lives a challenging life with her extended family. Her mother, Mariam, is miserable after learning her husband has taken a second wife, but being Muslim, feels powerless to intercede because of tradition. She shares a cramped apartment with her precocious, hyperactive little brother, and an infant, and soon an Uncle and second mother. One day she spies a girl about her age dancing while doing the laundry in the basement of the apartment building. Later, she spots this girl among her friends in the playground dancing provocatively while wearing adult-looking clothes. At first the girls tease her, but soon she joins their clique. The girls are like little devils getting Amy into trouble at every turn, but she begins to open up as a young woman.
Maybe she doesn’t want to be subjugated, produce children, and exist merely as a seat-filler for her husband’s ambition. During the woman’s daily prayer meeting, she hides under her hijab and watches videos of girls dancing. Amy and her friends start a dance group, “twerking” for a chance to enter a dance competition at the Parc de la Villette. Thematically, the film reminds me of Saturday Night Fever, where Tony Manero also grows up in a restrictively religious household, but he wants to be a dancer! He wants to gyrate his hips-like this-like this-like this-like this! These are girls, of course, so there’s bound to be some misadventure.
When one of the girls finds a condom and starts playing with it, the other girls are convinced she has AIDS (because only “AIDS people” use condoms, you see), so they set about washing out her mouth (with soap, yuck!) and face and hands. It’s interesting to me also that they fight and get vicious and nasty with each other like boys. Let’s get to the twerking. According to my not-terribly-exhausting research, twerking started in the late 1980s. Because the dance form did not require an enormous amount of skill (like say break dancing), it could be adopted by anyone and went across gender and orientation lines. At that point in the culture, it did not cause an uproar.
Could you imagine how scandalous the twist was when it was introduced in 1959? Before the twist, couples kept to a discreet distance of at least six inches. If you think your kids are growing up too damned fast, imagine how your parents or grandparents felt. Amy (and I suspect the others) knows they won’t get a fair shake with their skills up against much older opponents, so she decides to step up the game and add sexually-suggestive moves to their repertoire. This might be a bad move from an observer’s point-of-view, but if movies were made up of nothing but good decisions, they’d get boring in a hurry, wouldn’t they? The story hungers for drama and conflict, but it also depends on a satisfying character arc, and as Amy is the focus, she undergoes many interesting changes.
Her family is convinced she is possessed by evil spirits. It could be that her behavior is a direct result of contamination from Western influences, or it could be that she’s simply growing up in a different world than her mother and grandmother. Either way, this is not pornography. Pornography has but one purpose and, more often than not, does not rely on a narrative. To suggest otherwise is to deny all cinema. I’m reminded of when Graham Greene, writing for Night and Day, was successfully sued for libel by suggesting that Shirley Temple’s movies (specifically Wee Willie Winkie in 1937) were made to cater to old men’s fantasies about little girls. In that context, Temple’s movies were far more unseemly, but it was a different time. In the end, Amy abandons both worlds and the movie ends with her skipping rope with other girls her age.
Cuties does more to promote ideas of feminine empowerment, youthful rebellion, defiance, and individuality than most movies being made today. Filmed in a modified cinéma vérité quasi-documentary fashion, the camera is an uninvited guest in the girl’s (and her family’s) private life, skillfully directed by Maïmouna Doucouré with a devastating performance by 14-year-old Youssouf, exemplar of no-budget filmmaking. It does what any good film does. It provokes and inspires and inflames, but it does not judge. All of this will be lost in the fray of accusation and offense. Yes, there is some stuff in there that might make a 90-year-old man cringe, but since when did we let 90-year-old men dictate our respective tastes? The cowards of this world will continue to hide in the shadows behind their computers. Fingers will be pointed and names will be called. Why? Why does Cuties inspire such hatred and intolerance simply for existing?
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