Moving to a new country and trying to make friends while balancing chaos at home is hard. And 11-year-old Amy (pronounced as Ami) feels it.
Part of a devout Muslim family, Amy has just immigrated from Senegal, Africa, to the liberated West in France. And the new world she finds herself in is very different from anything she’s ever known.
Here, girls can dress and dance however they please. Here, girls are not expected from a young age to take on the heavy future role as a wife. Here, girls can enjoy their childhood, free from the many cultural and gender constraints of her own traditional religious culture.
Or so it seems.
Amy has just learned that her father, who’s still in Senegal, will be taking a new wife who’ll be moving in with family in their tiny apartment in a poor Parisian neighborhood. Filled with confusion, Amy watches her mother plaster on a fake smile and push forward, dutifully, taking care of her two younger siblings. Her mother says all the right things to the other devout Muslims in her community. In private, she weeps bitter tears. Amy weeps as well, even as she longs for a deeper relationship with her mother. Alas, the older woman is emotionally unavailable to her, crippled by her own quiet grief.
Unable to process her emotions, Amy seeks an escape in the cool group of young girls at her school. The Cuties. A wild, reckless group of 11-year-olds, the Cuties are everything that Amy is not: liberated, provocative and popular. One of them, free-spirited Angelica, lives in the apartment above her.
Grasping at a chance for freedom, Amy forces her way into the group as she learns to twerk and dance, just like the girls. Experiencing a new way of life, Amy soon begins to emulate what she sees on social media, in music videos and amongst her peers. Sexuality is the key to everything: power, attention, popularity.
But is it?
The more that Amy immerses herself in a hypersexualized culture, in an attempt to escape from her troubled home, the more she’s filled with anxiety and the pressure to conform. And in truth, these young girls’ sexual mimicry isn’t something they really understand. The simply know that it gives them “likes” and the attention they desperately long for.
But living in two worlds—one modern, one traditional—as well as living between girlhood and womanhood is a heavy burden for Amy to bear.
At the beginning of the film, Amy is a great older sister, taking on responsibilities and helping her mother care for her younger siblings. (Though it’s also implied she has to take on the responsibilities because of her mother’s almost complete emotional absence from the family.) As Amy engages in increasingly reckless and rebellious behavior, however, we see how that negatively impacts her willingness to care for her siblings.
Although the Cuties cause trouble and have their own issues, it’s clear in a few scenes that these girls crave the innocence of childhood, even while trying to emulate the provocative, sexualized examples all around them. We see this clearly when one of the Cuties cries because she doesn’t understand the implications of some of her actions. They emulate adulthood as they’ve understood it from social media and popular culture, but it’s clear that they’re in many ways just confused and broken girls longing for belonging and affirmation.
Amy’s mother, Mariam, struggles to provide close emotional support for her children for much of the movie. She takes care of her children’s physical needs, but not their inner needs for support and encouragement in a new place. In the end, Mariam seems to have a moment of realization that what her daughter needs from her isn’t rules and heavy cultural expectations, but relationship and love.
Amy’s great aunt cares for Amy and her family in her own way, making sure that they have safe, proper housing once they arrive in France. She also teaches Amy how to cook and how to take on the responsibilities that will inevitably come her way as she gets older. There’s a quiet dignity in the Muslim community’s connection with each other, even if Amy is largely unable to appreciate the community’s often strict religious standards.
Angelica tells Amy that she wants to dance because she wants to show her parents that she has a gift that they can be proud of. While this dancing is obviously sexualized, she is merely imitating what she sees and, without the right parental involvement, Angelica is left on her own, trying to do whatever she can to gain her parents approval. In moments like this one throughout the film, we see how deeply these girls need parental figures who are almost completely absent from their daughters’ lives.
Amy and her mother attend a spiritual gathering where an elderly woman speaks about the importance of piety because, according to her, there will be “more women than men in hell.” Therefore, keeping your body covered is a necessary step in getting to heaven because “evil dwells in the bodies of uncovered women.”
Amy and her mother attend this gathering a few times throughout the film and the women pray, chant and talk about service to Allah. These scenes seem designed to communicate the burdens and relational expectations carried by traditional Muslim women. But while there’s a quiet dignity in these women’s lives, it’s hinted that these gender roles are also the result of an abusive patriarchal religion that largely treats women subserviently.
In an attempt to wash Amy’s sins away, her mother and great aunt throw water on her after they find out that she’s been dressing inappropriately and engaging in behavior that they do not approve of. This scene is played out like an exorcism; as they throw water on Amy, she begins to convulse and twerk as these movements are almost drawn out of her. Later, Amy’s mother calls in an imam to free her daughter from evil spirits. Once he prays over Amy, the imam tells Mariam, “There is no devil or evil spirit here.”
The imam also tells Mariam that if the burden of her husband’s new marriage is too much for her to bear emotionally, that she would be permitted to leave him. (Mariam has been required to decorate an elaborate bridal chamber in their apartment for her husband and his new bride.) Amy’s mother is forced to tell others that she hopes God will bless the marriage between her husband and his new bride, giving them many children.
Amy shows her younger brother a necklace that reflects in the light, telling her brother that it looks like a ghost.
It’s clear that the Cuties have learned their sexualized moves from watching older girls and women dance both in real life and, mostly, on social media. The Cuties show Amy a video of teenage girls dancing in crop tops and short shorts, where one girl’s bare breast is momentarily exposed. That girl goes to their high school, which obviously means she’s being depicted as a teen.
Throughout the movie, Amy learns how to twerk and thrust. She watches hypersexualized YouTube videos and music videos and tries to emulate every move that she sees. Amy even teaches the Cuties how to twerk and perform other sexualized dance moves while rolling on the floor and thrusting. Amy shows the girls how to do this by example, and later by grabbing their rears, moving them and spanking them. We see crotch grabbing as well.
When Amy’s older cousin realizes that Amy has stolen his phone, he asks for it back. She refuses and thinks that by seducing him she might be allowed to keep the phone. So, she unbuttons her shirt and pants, but he stops her, horrified. This shows a common thread that the girls are taught to believe that they could, and should, use their bodies to entice men and find acceptance.
The more that Amy posts sexualized pictures on social media, the more she receives likes and affirmation and wants to post more. This goes to an extreme level when Amy uses the phone to take a picture of her genitals and posts them on social media. We don’t see the picture, but we do see her pull down her pants and underwear to take the pic. Amy does this in a moment of desperation to try to gain more attention and more likes for her group.
One classmate demeans Amy because of the picture, slapping her backside in class and claiming that he’s justified because of the way Amy has already objectified herself. He calls her a “whore.”
Others at school ask the other Cuties for similar pictures. They’re horrified and frustrated with Amy, saying she’s wrecked their image. They tell others they’re not strippers and won’t be sending similar pictures, as well as temporarily kicking Amy out of their dance group.
The girls learn various “seductive” faces, bite their lips and fingers, as well as running their fingers up and down their bodies. Up-close camera shots show the girls rears and other body parts in several separate dance scenes throughout the movie. They wear high heels, short skirts and crop tops. They also wear thongs and bras atop their clothes in one scene.
At one point, the girls get caught sneaking into a laser tag business. When the older men try to restrain the girls from leaving and ask for their phone numbers to call their parents, they yell out “child molester” and “pervert” to get away. The men let the girls go, but not before Amy twerks to distract them. One of the men looks creepily at the young girls, obviously enjoying what he sees, and the other man hits him in disgust.
The Cuties make it clear that they do not want to be viewed as “young” or innocent. Once, the girls video chat with a teenage boy (with their video shut off), asking him if he’d like to touch their breasts. He blushes, and one of the girls turn on the camera. The young man is horrified when he realizes the girls are so young. The Cuties force Amy to try and video a teen boy urinating to get a picture of his penis.
She doesn’t succeed. The girls also flirt with a group of teen boys, lying and telling the boys they are 14 (they get mad when Amy tells them that they are actually 11).
One of the Cuties finds a used condom and, not knowing what it is, blows it up to look like a breast, sticking it in her shirt. When her friends tell her what it is, they scream that “AIDS people have sex with that” and that, as a result, she probably has AIDS. They then proceed to scrub her mouth out with soap.
Amy gets her first period and bleeds through her jeans. Her great aunt then shares a story about how she was engaged to be married when she was Amy’s age. Amy is told from that moment on, “You’re a woman now.”
Amy is given a dress to, eventually, wear to her father’s wedding when he returns from Senegal. In multiple scenes, the dress seems to come to life as the material rustles. Once, blood even pours from the bottom. These scenes illustrate how this dress represents a traditional understanding of Muslim womanhood that Amy does not want—in part because that belief system has wounded her own mother so deeply.
After jumping an older teen girl in the park, Amy is tackled and the girls pull her pants down and film her while in her underwear (teen boys are present as well).
The Cuties make fun of Amy’s rear and breasts, calling them “flat.” The Cuties watch pornography on a phone (which we don’t see), commenting enthusiastically on male and female genitalia, as well as sexual positions and bodily functions. One girl talks about how a boy’s anatomy smelled, and it’s implied that she had a sexual experience with him.
The Cuties final, truly hypersexualized dance routine in a competition finds them once again mimicking just about every sexual pose and movement you can imagine that they’ve seen in videos. The crowd roars approvingly at first, and the judges seem to encourage them. As they pout and writhe about, however, the crowd and judges get increasingly uncomfortable with their routine, one of the ways the film itself critiques the overly sexualized moves that the girls have adopted.
Amy’s mother is shown in a long skirt and a bra at home.
The Cuties hit Amy with small rocks, and one hits her in the head, leaving a mark. Elsewhere, a few members of the Cuties get into a fight where they slap and hit one another before being pulled apart by a teacher.
Amy jumps an older girl and starts hitting her after she throws a soda can at her friend. Amy bites her older cousin when he tries to take his phone away from her. In school, Amy stabs a male classmate in the hand with a pencil after he sexually harasses and embarrasses her. Amy pushes one of the Cuties in a river, just to take her dancing spot, and the girl nearly drowns.
When Amy’s mother learns of Amy’s misbehavior in school, she slaps her and hits her with a shoe, saying that because Amy has dishonored her she should kill her. (Of course she has no real intention of harming her daughter, but only acts out of frustration, anger and embarrassment.)
Amy’s mother finds out that her husband will be taking another wife. She weeps and hits herself to try and keep composure (the camera never shows her slapping herself, but we hear the sounds).
A few girls say “oh my god” multiple times. The f-word is heard about five times and the s-word is heard twice. Other profanities include “h—,” “d–mit,” “a–,” “b–ch” and “dumb a–.”
Young girls tell one another to “shut up.” Girls are called (by either adults, peers and one another) “losers,” “whores,” “hoes,” “idiots” and “brats.”
The Cuties drink boxed wine.
A key issue in this film, from beginning to end, is the lack of parental involvement that we see from nearly every family.
Amy neglects her responsibilities as the eldest child and, as a result, her brother floods the bathroom. Amy even goes so far as to call her little brother a liar when he tells their mother that Amy stole money from her. She also ignores her mother when she collapses on the ground from stress.
Amy steals a cellphone and gets on social media. She and the Cuties also talk about how social media stars, such as the Kardashians, influence their makeup, outfits and life choices as if they were their mothers.
The Cuties cause trouble in a store, disobey their teachers, break the law, are mean to Amy and cause issues outside of school and elsewhere. One of the Cuties, Yasmine, is told to “go on a diet.” Later, Amy hears her vomiting in the bathroom.
When Amy’s mother finds that her husband will be taking another wife, she is told by her aunt to “be a woman” and call relatives to share “the good news.” This is a devastating reality for Amy’s mother and her children, but they’re told to act as if nothing has changed and to bury their emotions.
Angelica tells Amy that her parents are disappointed in her and have told her that she is “a failure” of a daughter, especially when compared to her intelligent older brother.
When Netflix began to advertise for Cuties, the streaming network chose a hypersexualized image of young girls dressed in provocative clothing, as if they were headed to a strip club. And that was all it took to set the internet ablaze.
And rightfully so.
It is wrong to sexualize young girls. It is wrong to create films that portray young girls as sexual objects, thus fueling pedophilia, the porn industry and sex trafficking. And Cuties does indeed creepily objectify the young girls whose story it tells. Lingering camera shots of the girls’ sensual, stripper-inspired poses are deeply uncomfortable and unsettling. And one apparent teen’s briefly exposed breast in a video has raised legitimate questions about whether that moment might legally constitute child pornography.
If that were all that was happening in Cuties, this could mark the end of our review. But there’s more we need to talk about.
What’s less apparent in all the conversation about Cuties is that director Maïmouna Doucouré seems to be critiquing the very sexualization that has generated so much controversy. These girls barely know the basics about sex. But they’re imitating what the culture has shown them, and they’re enjoying the apparent (if counterfeit and self-destructive) “power” that objectifying themselves provides.
We see how this sexualization starts at a very young age, fueled by music videos and online social influencers (the same things many young girls are watching today, things that often get a pass by society as “creative freedom”).
We repeatedly watch as the girls view porn and pornographic music videos, a graphic “education” that their parents are clueless about. They giggle and laugh and blush and … really have no idea at all what they’re looking at. Because, well, they’re 11. But that doesn’t stop them from imitating it.
Amid these deep problems, then, Cuties painfully illustrates the vicious cycle of social media’s influence. As Amy posts provocative (and anatomical) pictures, she receives more and more likes. So, what does that teach her? It teaches her that sex sells. It teaches her that the more likes she receives, the more she is valued.
In the end, a tearful Amy runs away from her dance crew, exchanges her revealing clothes for more modest ones and goes out to jump rope with neighborhood friends. The ending implies that Amy’s carefree, childhood innocence has been terribly sullied by her journey into self-objectification, but that there may yet be hope for her to embrace innocence again.
For those reasons, I think the director meant to spark thoughtful discussion about how we should protect our children against these constant pressures. But while that’s a laudable goal, the film’s path to it is still deeply problematic—which brings us right back to where we started.
Cuties may try, on some level, to critique the sexualization of young girls. But it does so by taking a group of young girls and objectifying them through their dance movements, revealing clothing and life choices. Some of these images are simply shocking—and they’re the ones that have provoked the firestorm around Cuties. The film gratuitously, excessively indulges in the very images and ideas it’s supposedly criticizing. To say that the result is a mixed message is an understatement indeed.
But does anyone of any age really need to see such a graphic portrayal of this problem to know how damaging it is to young girls growing up in this toxic cultural fog today? The answer is clear, especially when we acknowledge the sad fact that certain viewers with a pedophilic predilection for children won’t be watching this film because of its cultural commentary or cautionary message.
For more on the ongoing conversation and controversy surrounding Cuties, including experts weighing in on whether the depiction of the girls in these movies meets the criteria for child pornography, check out Focus on the Family’s Daily Citizen article “Lawmakers Call for Investigation into Netflix for Violating Child Pornography Laws with Cuties.”
Kristin Smith joined the Plugged In team in 2017. Formerly a Spanish and English teacher, Kristin loves reading literature and eating authentic Mexican tacos. She and her husband, Eddy, love raising their children Judah and Selah. Kristin also has a deep affection for coffee, music, her dog (Cali) and cat (Aslan).