On the ‘Cuties’ Controversy, Girlhood, Looking & Being Looked At

Still from Cuties
Still from Cuties, 2020 Jean-Michel Papazian/Netflix

In the opening scene of Maïmouna Doucouré’s controversial coming-of-age film, Cuties, the main character, Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an oval-faced eleven-year-old newly immigrated to France from Senegal, stares stunned into the camera. Her eyelids bejeweled, her adolescent body encased in glittering spandex crop-top and shorts, she begins to cry, tears silently spilling from her eyes. In the background, an ethereal song plays in Wolof, her mother’s native tongue. The viewers enter into a troubled headspace, a moment of almost adult insight on the part of the spirited main character, Amy. If she spoke, she might well say, What am I doing here?

But Doucouré’s meticulous direction wouldn’t allow such frank self-scrutiny on the part of her lead actress. Instead, she lets the camera linger over her subjects’ bodies for far too long, forcing viewers to come to terms with the stunned lookism that leaves Amy so vulnerable to the whims of others. Cuties doesn’t leave anyone exempt: we have become the voyeurs who make Amy’s premature sexualization possible. It’s this act of looking which Cuties fundamentally addresses. In watching the film, we become the hungry spectators that Doucouré later satirizes. 

Watching Cuties, I examined how it reflected – and differed from – my personal experiences. I was most overwhelmed by the sense of reciprocation and understanding the film brought me, even though I grew up in radically different circumstances. One thing was clear: Doucouré had captured the lives of young girls with incisiveness and bravery, and uncannily delved into the seedier parts of society. Another was that the convoluted interactions among these girls were far from an anomaly, as critics might have preferred to think. Rather, their interactions struck me as the uneasy byproducts of a sexualized, social media-obsessed environment, where friendships are transitory and pragmatic rather than absolute and binding. 

The film brought a backlash that reflected the inconvenient truth at the heart of its story: Amy is coming to terms with what it means to be a woman, and it isn’t pretty. Accusations of pornography and pedophilia by prominent political figures across the spectrum were knee-jerk reactions to the profound ugliness of the film’s conclusions.  The director asks the audience to directly confront their  collective responsibility for a world that is brutal towards young girls, and for the corresponding brutality that these girls visit upon each other in reaction to their surroundings. 

How Power Works: A Recollection

Watching the film, I could feel myself slipping back into some memory-laden version of my own adolescence. Those were years when I was similarly confused by the mutability of friendships with other girls, by the way that they were informed by implicit – and insidious – social expectations, seemingly as natural as the air we breathed. I had about half of Amy’s bold defiance, heeded much more vigilantly the wisdom my mother provided me about safety. Only walk where it’s well-lit. If somebody is following you, run and make noise. 

Still, I was aware of the tools one needed to belong at the girls’ school I went to — athletic ability, a shared history with other families in the area, a familiarity with and an acceptance of the quaint traditions that made the place what it was — and I was aware that I did not have them. Athletic skills far exceeded any social capital that wisdom or intelligence could bring, and because I was sorely lacking in the former department, I spent a lot of time dreaming about what I would do if by some miracle my mental acuity translated into a newfound physical adeptness. I could run steadily, but not quickly; could play soccer, but not exceptionally. I was in that world but not of it: I did not play club sports on weekends or regularly go to a church or a country club — which, socially speaking, had much the same function. No, what I think I yearned for, at the end of the day, was power: the ability to transcend both the expectations of the sexualized world outside school and the sexless uniformity of my life in school.

It’s this same power that Amy wants — the ability to be accepted on terms amenable to both herself and others, to find a way to be. That she is intoxicated by the power of her body as a means of acceptance, then, and by the power of her friends’ bodies — their long hair and spiky elbows, their small bottoms and pouting lips — should come as no surprise. Still, Amy lacks their transactional understanding of friendship, their pragmatic aggression. When she takes her own sexualization too far, she is surprised to find herself shunned by them. She has played by the rules but misunderstood the politics of social acceptance, and for this she is roundly punished. 

The precariousness of this acceptance makes me think of Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel about the intricacies and pitfalls of girlhood. By then, Atwood had enjoyed the runaway success of The Handmaid’s Tale. Cat’s Eye, though, is a psychological study of the kind of suffocating friendship that Amy experiences in Cuties, in which social acceptance is revocable for the smallest of infractions. In the novel, the main character, Elaine, damaged by an intense friendship with another girl, tries to find meaning in her suffering, only to be answered with silence: in a recent review of the novel, Irish Times reviewer Lucy Sweeney Byrne dwells on this lack of answers. “It is a pain felt silently, that comes of the realisation that such experiences are inexpressible amongst women — that we lack the necessary vocabulary,” Byrne writes. Because we never talk about such suffering, she seems to say, it’s easy to believe it never happened. 

Even now, writing this, I find that words often fail me. I’m inclined to minimize the growth of my self-awareness, which was defined by the realization of things I could not do, things that were not acceptable, things I could not be. Acclimating to this made me curious about the apparatus of female power, about where it derived from.

Social Alienation in Privileged Worlds

In my own strange adolescent world, physicality seemed to be important, and so, like Amy in Cuties, I assiduously studied the bodies of my peers. You’re so tall, people used to say to me, as if it was something for which I was directly responsible. At twelve I was leered at; at thirteen I was followed by a car; at fourteen I had retreated from the world. Going to school each day, I told myself that I was lucky to be protected from these sorts of unpleasant intrusions, which invariably occurred when I was in public. 

Moreover, my mother — who also did not conform to the impossible standards set for women – worked at the school. Her labor enabled my privilege, and I felt guilty about the implacable anger and frustration I felt, which was inherently linked to the ostracization I was facing among my peers. The knots of girls in the hallways had acquired an aura of hateful mystery. I could never figure out when the laughter I brought turned into snickering, when invites turned into mystically engineered exclusion – an exclusion which many other girls were experiencing but of which I, in typical adolescent fashion, believed myself to be the sole victim. 

Sarah Miller’s brilliant 2019 essay, My So-Karen Life, examined this dilemma among school-age girls, starting with the ubiquitous Boomer/Gen-X “Karens” and then dissecting her peers into Emilys, Sarahs, and Alexandras. The results were fascinating, a glimpse into the rigorous self-categorization that preoccupied myself and my peers at that age. Yet I lacked the wherewithal to dispense with people’s expectations; I was not, in my heart of hearts, one of Miller’s rebellious Alexandras, and lacked the confidence to be outrageous, preferring (like a Sarah) to stand on the sidelines and judge, a foot in each world. 

It seemed ridiculous for me to complain about sexism, because there were no men to be sexist towards us in school: the opposite sex was virtually invisible. No one ever talked to us about the need to be ladies; the advice was implicit. Overt strength, overt expressions of curiosity or intelligence, were suspect. As girls we were believed to be inherently frail, in need of some sort of corrective to tell us that we could do anything­–as long as we did it right, as long as we didn’t step on anyone’s toes. We were being taught what mattered and what didn’t. In the real world, we would say, as if we weren’t already coming face to face with its expectations, in our own weird, preppy, privileged way.

Still, like Amy, I struggled with the duality of my life at home and my life at school. My parents exposed me to the privileges and resources that Amy simply does not have: travel, books, education. I had no need for sexual rebellion, because I was straight and went to an all-girls’ school. And to my way of thinking at the time, standing out would have been pointless: who would it be for? The risks and costs with which I associated rebellion outweighed the psychic freedom it might have offered me. 

By contrast, Amy’s Senegalese heritage informs a cultural and familial emphasis on modesty and piety that becomes exhausting and disorienting for her as she is exposed to an overtly sexualized culture at her French middle school. Witnessing her mother’s humiliation and private despair as her father, planning to join them in France, decides to take a second wife, she withdraws from her cultural background and tries to embody the kind of sexual freedom that her so-called friends seem to espouse. And although many of them also are from immigrant backgrounds and are people of color, their adjustment is easier, more explicit: they have been in the country longer, perhaps have even been born and raised there, and know what the rules are. Amy does not, and her intense loyalty to her friends’ ideals becomes off-putting to them because they can detect her desperation and lack of authenticity. The appearance of wanting something too much, of trying to belong rather than making it look effortless, is what ultimately – and unfairly – causes her ostracization from the group. 

As someone who was nevertheless mostly within the dominant local culture, I did not have to grapple with this particular conundrum: I understood the language of social acceptance and did not bear the burden of navigating two nationalities. I shared a mother tongue, if not a sensibility, with my peers: I had social capital, though I mostly rejected popular culture. Being White, blond-ish, straight, cisgendered, and from a (very) nominally Christian background, I looked the part and did not suffer from the questions of race, nationality, and religion with which Amy must necessarily grapple.

It’s easy to think that our physical appearances don’t inform our experience of the world, but that just isn’t true. Surfaces matter: they are the key to blending in and to belonging. After all, how can I forget now that my Black classmates almost exclusively relaxed their hair and would leave school for hours at a time to do so? That only a few of them could “cross over” into the White social groups? Or that many of my Jewish classmates had their hair straightened for school dances and got spray tans just like their WASP contemporaries did? Or that the Chinese and Korean boarders at our school were often ignored and boxed into the category of being “smart” and “quiet” even though they were much more than that? What price might they have paid — what price did they pay — for refusing to accept the assimilationist and frankly racist pressures to which I was not privy? These questions continue to haunt me.

I ask myself now: Where did I belong in those years? I think that, like any teenager, I wanted things which were mutually exclusive: to be accepted, but to be taken on my own terms; to be part of things, but to retain the ability to judge. I wanted to belong; I was afraid of losing myself in the process.This duality never struck me as original. I assumed I’d wake up one day and the nightmarish quality of my existentialist fears — loss of personhood, loss of freedom, loss of meaning — would be gone. This was not to be. My anxieties later manifested themselves in an eating disorder, which seemed to be the ultimate insult to my intelligence. It meant that I couldn’t hold myself apart, that I had needs. I learned that the disorder was both genetic and environmental. I learned it was not my fault, nor the fault of the people who loved me: my family and the handful of friends I had at school who accepted me for who I was. Still, the illness felt like some obscure payback for being different, for looking the part but being unable to act it. I had seen too much; now it was my turn to go quiet. I could never view the disease as purely biological, because it felt so external: a piece of the disordered world, intruding. 

Loss and Gain

At fifteen, I left the school and moved away with my family. Transported to a new environment, I was relieved to find that, though certain insidious expectations were in the air, the rest of the world wasn’t as bound up in them. Still, getting sick forced me to grow up faster. I like to think that it made me stronger: after all, there has to be some benefit to walking through hellfire. But what it also made me realize was the precariousness of our personhood, and our vulnerability to violation and collapse when we are told how little we matter, whether directly or indirectly. The ability to reinvent myself strikes me as an unbelievable stroke of luck, a reflection of the privileged circumstances I grew up in, and of my parents’ efforts to extricate me from the toxicity of the school and get me well again. Moving was my privilege, my ticket out – something not everyone gets to benefit from.

Today, knowing that my life experiences pale in comparison to those of many of my female contemporaries is all the more disturbing. At the end of Cuties, the main character, Amy, discarding her revealing dance outfit, jumps rope with some friends of hers. She’s reverting to her childish freedoms, enjoying the last moments of girlhood, for there is no middle period between that and becoming a woman. Still, she’s a kid again, lithe and athletic, enjoying something that doesn’t involve dressing up, being looked at, being filmed, going viral. That’s what critics were missing: Cuties worked to expose the often oppressive conditions of girlhood without endorsing them. In fact, to my way of thinking, the film was a scathing critique of such brutally enforced lessons. 

My tears at the end of the movie, nostalgic as they were, were rooted in a sense of loss, the curtailing of childhood which happens so soon for women. I wanted to call my mother immediately afterward: to say that I was sorry, that she was right about the world we live in, to say that I would never stop being angry. Doucouré’s conclusion, however sad, is one that every female-identifying individual will come to at some point or another: being a girl is messy and complicated and difficult, and the terrible sacrifices inherent in becoming a woman are all the more excruciating. Anyone who says otherwise is simply wounded by the candid revelations Doucouré presents.

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Rebecca Bihn-Wallace is a graduating senior at the University of California, Davis, where she majored in Studio Art and double minored in Professional Writing and German. Her fiction has previously been published in Miracle Monocle (University of Louisville), The Marathon Literary Review (Arcadia University), Sink Hollow (Utah State University), Underwood Press, Running Wild Press Anthology Vol. 2, and the William and Mary Review (College of William & Mary). Her nonfiction has been published in the Hawaii Pacific Review (Hawaii Pacific University). Her art has been featured at the O'Hanlon Center for the Arts in Mill Valley, CA, at the Black Box Gallery in Portland, Or., and in Griffel, a publication based in Oslo, Norway. She is relocating to New York soon, where she will pursue an M.F.A. in Fiction at Brooklyn College. Her art and writing can be found at www.rebeccabihn-wallace.com