A Public Plea to the Director of ‘Cuties’

Ms. Doucouré:

Even though I have grave concerns over your feature-length debut, I am also troubled by the overt hatred you have received since Netflix picked up Cuties for mass distribution. The uncharitable names you’ve been given, the perverted motives imputed to you, and the death threats you have received are wholly inappropriate. They are tantamount to violence against both your humanity and the God who created you with dignity and value.

I recently discovered an interview in which you shared from your heart the catalyst for writing and directing Cuties. Several things you said resonated with me:

  • “Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she’s successful. And the children just imitate what they see trying to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning. And yeah, it’s dangerous.”
  • “…isn’t the objectification of a woman’s body that we often see in our Western culture not another kind of oppression?”
  • “I think all together we have to fix what’s gone wrong so we can give the most beautiful space to our girls and boys to grow up safely.”

Based on this and other interviews, it seems your intention in producing Cuties is to critique our culture’s abundant use of sexual objectification. You even say as much in your interview with Indiewire, in which you address those upset with your film: “[W]e’re both on the same side of this fight against young children’s hypersexualization.”

Ironically enough, the reason why I have decided I cannot watch your film is the same reason why you decided to make it. Because we are, as you put it, “on the same side of this fight,” I hope you can accept the following as a form of constructive criticism.

To be clear, I will not critique your film as a whole. How could I judge the quality of a work of art I have not seen in its entirety? To do so would be dishonest and uncharitable.

With that said, the method by which a visual story is told is just as important as its message. And my concern is that your film’s central message has been hijacked by your transgressive method.

Even celebrated masters of your craft have fallen prey to communicating unintended messages. In writing about his film Taxi Driver, for example, Martin Scorsese shares how “I was shocked by the way audiences took the violence.” He had intended the brutality to “create a violent catharsis…like some strange California therapy session.” Instead, moviegoers yelled and screamed with evident approval. “When I made it,” writes Scorsese, “I didn’t intend to have the audience react with that feeling” (Roger Ebert’s Book of Film, 534).

Scorsese’s example illustrates how a director’s intention does not exist in a vacuum. It would be intellectually dishonest to believe artistic intent automatically nullifies any potential misuses of style or technique. And explicit depictions of violence and sexuality are susceptible to unintended messages.

In a visual medium like film, you can critique sexual objectification either by pointedly avoiding it or by shoving it in the audience’s face to the point of horror and revulsion. The former shows respect to your actors and audience, while the latter garners publicity (both positive and negative) through shock value.

It appears you have tried to walk a line between the two above options—a course of action that is virtually untenable. As Salt Lake City Weekly points out, “Cuties attempts a tricky tonal act” in which it acknowledges “the problem it poses of pandering to this movie’s viewer,” but also in which it fails in its purpose “during the [dance] numbers themselves; the girls are clearly playing to [the] camera.”

Even Psychology Today confirms the above sentiment:

[W]e see young girls not only sexualized (e.g., in crop tops and short shorts) but also sexually objectified, as we watch 11-year-old girls posing and dancing in very sexual ways, like sitting with their legs open, twerking, grinding, and humping the floor. In a few scenes, the camera even zooms in on the girls’ body parts, as though we were watching a raunchy rap video.

That last sentence highlights the key problem of your movie—the particular way in which certain scenes are filmed. Your camera work undermines the very message you and I are both so passionate about.

To further illustrate my point, Madmoizelle magazine draws attention to one scene in particular:

You don't need an adult to explain to Amy that she might be a bit young to twerk in panties: the camera just needs to linger on the actress’ face, where a thousand contradictory emotions are intertwined, so that we understand at the same time as her that her dance movements are not that trivial. . . .

If you had more judiciously applied the above filming style—by discreetly emphasizing faces and emotions—you would have more successfully reinforced the point of your film, rather than contradicted it. Put another way, your mise-en-scène would then have emphasized, rather than compromised, your message.

Compare your filming techniques with those of Kitty Green for her 2020 film The Assistant (also about the sexual exploitation of women):

I was very careful not to linger or zoom or do close-ups of [women’s] bodies, but rather see them the way a young woman would see them, without leaning into any of those traditional tropes of the male gaze, seeing them as objects and not human beings.

In contrast, through your transgressive camerawork, you have imitated the protagonist in your film by “latching on to a mode of revolt that is itself a trope of a misogynistic order.” To drive home your point, you have chosen, at times, to emphasize the body parts and sexual acts of your underage talent.

Now, you may disagree that your child actresses were involved in “sexual acts.” You may echo the sentiments of Vox, which says Cuties critiques the sexualization of young girls “[w]ithout ever actually presenting sexual content.”

But consider the dance scenes alone. According to AP News, the dictionary defines twerking as dancing “in a sexually provocative manner, using thrusting movements of the bottom and hips while in a low, squatting stance.” The Online Etymology Dictionary goes even further: twerking, it says, is “to dance in a way that simulates the body's action in copulation.” Twerking is simulated sex. The young actresses you employed have been immortalized on film committing sexual acts.

Your intentions in making this movie, as admirable as they are, cannot desexualize what is inherently sexual. The laws of visual storytelling will not allow sexualized activity and exploitative camera angles to communicate anything other than sexual exploitation.

That many of your critics are mislabeling your film as blatant pornography is no excuse for you to mislabel your film as being free of pornographic content. With the visual material you’ve included in your film, your defense of it (based on intent and context) serves only as a smokescreen from legitimate and warranted scrutiny.

Even with all the controversy surrounding your movie—and possibly in part because of it—Cuties is enjoying international success. It garnered you the Directing Award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It has received generally positive reviews by critics, with an 86% Tomatometer rating. Cuties is also currently one of the top 10 most popular movies on Netflix.

I wish I could celebrate with you. I wish I could agree that your film is, as you put it, “sounding an alarm.” I wish I could congratulate you on your success. Instead, I’m saddened by your inadvertently tragic self-commentary: “This film shows…that success comes from a woman being objectified.”

With Cuties, your success is borne on the backs of several minors—not even yet women—being objectified, even if only intermittently. That is not a cost worth celebrating. Rather, it is worthy of grief and mourning.

In an attempt to correct our collective moral compass, you have mistaken the loss of your actress’ innocence for the loss of societal ignorance. In an attempt to galvanize your audience to fight against child objectification, you have incentivized it to defend hypersexualized artistic expression. In an attempt to liberate impressionable girls from sexualizing themselves, you have spoken with the visual language of the sexual oppressor.

Please know, I am not publicly sharing my criticism out of malice, nor to destroy your reputation. On the contrary, I hope and pray my perspective will prove informative and constructive. My opposition to your movie is based on the understanding that our goal is ultimately the same—to fight against young children’s hypersexualization.

I beg you to receive my words in the same spirit I have sought to share them—with respect, honesty, and a desire to, as you yourself put it, “give the most beautiful space to our girls and boys to grow up safely.”

Photo by Dima Solomin on Unsplash