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The Cuties Backlash and Policing of Girlhood Are All Too Familiar

Cuties/Mignonnes movie poster.

Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties is a genuinely difficult movie to watch, and if your wifi hasn’t buckled under Zoom overload, you probably already know about the controversy—the uproar sparked in part by Netflix’s marketing, centering around claims that the movie’s story about children’s dance groups sexualizes young girls (often not even based on actually watching the film). But Cuties does more than critique the hyper-sexualization of girls; it unflinchingly depicts girls’ first encounters with sexuality.

Cuties tells the story of Amy, a French-Senegalese girl, as she works to join the titular dance group. Amy becomes enamored of the clique’s clothes, confidence, and moves, but the Cuties world teeters on the brink of sexuality and quickly pulls Amy under.

For those of us who recognize ourselves in the Cuties, the backlash to the film isn’t a new rallying cry to #saveourchildren or a shocking example of Trump-era internet wars. It’s the same tired, familiar policing of girlhood that we experienced when we were girls.

Despite the controversy, when I watched Cuties, the image I saw reflected onscreen wasn’t a hypothetical daughter to save; it was my childhood self learning to dance in the mirror.

We all have that one music video, the one that opened new doors of possibility and made us wonder, “Can I move like that?” For some, it was Britney’s “Slave for You,” or maybe Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie.” Mine was Beyoncé’s “Check On It.”

I’ll never forget the day I opened the “Special Features” menu of my Pink Panther DVD (welcome to the reminiscing of a zillennial). Beyoncé was dripping with pink—the bubblegum leather boots, the mauve cashmere sweater, the cotton candy mini-skirt—rolling her hips as she strutted to the beat.

I was ten years old, and I wanted to be exactly like her. When my mom walked in on me, I was practicing one of the same moves that shocked the internet after appearing in Cuties.

Much of the pearl clutching surrounding Cuties completely ignores the fact that it depicts a common phase of girlhood. Girls twerk. Girls sneak makeup and high heels into their backpacks to put on at school. The prospect of womanhood is shiny and exciting, especially when you’re too young to understand the responsibilities it carries.

Regardless of how common this phase is, so few girls navigating it are met with understanding or empathy. I was lucky; my mom channeled my Beyoncé-curiosity into “street funk” dance classes (the best approximation of hip-hop that Portland, Maine had to offer).

But many girls, especially Black girls, caught acting outside their age are punished. When Amy’s exploration of womanhood spirals from twerking with her friends to posting a nude picture online, her family performs a kind of exorcism, stripping her down to her underwear and dousing her with water while praying.

While exorcism isn’t the most common method, the strict policing of girls happens all the time. As a child, I was constantly reprimanded for not sitting with my legs together, and my wardrobe walked the tightrope of hiding my maturing body without making me look like a sack of potatoes (neither succeeded). Girls are forced to trade shorts for pants when company visits, and school dress codes send them home for visible bra straps or tank tops.

Girls who don’t conform—or, like me, mature earlier than the surrounding skinny white girls—are labeled “fast,” a thinly veiled precursor to “slutty,” setting an early foundation for victim-blaming. Through parenting, church, and school, we outline the borders of girls’ bodies and police them more and more as they approach adolescence.

Of course, there’s a difference between policing girls and protecting them. Girls deserve a safe space to enter adolescence and figure out what it means to feel beautiful and empowered. No, it’s not a particularly graceful stage of childhood development—I don’t know a single girl who was mature enough to be sexy the first time she wanted to feel sexy. I certainly wasn’t.

But by shaming and punishing girls for making missteps on the path to womanhood, we only distort their idea of what it means to be a woman. In Cuties, her family’s crackdown only pushes Amy further away. Even when policing girls’ bodies “works,” it sows seeds of insecurity that crop up throughout young adulthood.

Cuties isn’t a movie for girls; it’s a movie for people who once were girls or might help raise them. It reminds us how hard it was to be 11 and growing into a body that is both sexualized and strictly monitored. Hopefully, those of us who actually watch the movie can use that reminder to be better for this generation of girls.

(image: BAC Films)

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Kimberly Henry (she/her) takes movies far too personally. A former black girl of Maine, she repatriated to Los Angeles to study and write about film, which she does on her blog, Watch List for the Apocalypse. Twitter: @KimJustTrying