The backlash to Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties has become as important a story as the one the movie tells. The French-Senegalese director’s first feature has been caught up in a controversy that began when Netflix released a promotional image for the film that critics said sexualized its 11-year-old leads. Although Netflix quickly apologized for the image (which Doucouré says she was never asked to approve), the damage had been done. Ted Cruz even released a letter asking United States Attorney General William Barr to investigate Netflix and “individuals involved in the filmmaking” to determine whether the film “violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography.” Last week, French Minister of Culture Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin came to the film’s defense, noting that much of criticism of the film is dependent on images taken out of context, and Doucouré wrote an Op-Ed for the Washington Post explaining that the film is about modern girlhood and how, in the digital age, the confusion young girls experience during puberty has taken on a new, confusing challenge. But she had more to say, so she talked to Slate about why she stands behind her directional choices and why the film remains a story all people can relate to, if they give it a chance.
Note: This interview took place in both English and French and utilized translation. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Kovie Biakolo: Cuties premiered at Sundance in January, where it was warmly received and even won an award for your direction. Did you imagine at any point that once the film was set to premiere to a wider audience at Netflix that it would garner the sort of controversy that it has?
Maïmouna Doucouré: I of course had hoped that it would have prompted a debate on the hypersexualization of preadolescents. But never in my dreams had I imagined that my point of view would become so misinterpreted.
Are there any lessons here for yourself, given that Cuties is your first feature film, as well as perhaps other directors, specifically Black directors, regarding the differences between festival reception and wider release to the general public?
I was not under the impression that there would be a big difference between the presentation of the film at the Sundance Film Festival or festivals in general, because at Sundance, the audience was American, and they reacted like all other audiences in other countries. They understood what I was saying with my film, especially because of the subject. Of course the film is set in France and in Paris, but it is a universal subject that concerns all societies and all countries. I think that the most important thing to bear in mind is to be as honest as possible with one’s view and opinion. You have to be very sincere. That’s why I became a filmmaker—because I wanted to have a gaze on the world and hopefully change it for the better.
I think that what has happened [with regard to the backlash] depends on the fact that the reaction was triggered because somehow the message was delivered in the wrong way; they didn’t get the message right. And most of the people who protest have not taken the time to watch the film from beginning to end.
One of the things that was clear to me is that you were depicting how early girls really start to be aware of their sexuality and what their body means in society, in addition to portraying how young girls are thus hypersexualized. Do you think, however, there were different directional choices you could have made, in some of the more explicit dancing scenes, for example, as well as other scenes?
My cinematic starting point in this film was to become myself as an 11-year-old again, and to make all of us take on her gaze—the 11-year-old little girl—in order for the audience and myself to try and experience that stage in life when you try to build your own identity in today’s society. My choice was not to judge the kids, but also never to take on an adult gaze on them, so that I am able to understand the complexity of the feelings and emotions in the process of transformation that you experience at that age with the tools that our present society gives us. And what is quite obvious to me is that those girls [in the film] are not aware of the meaning of that kind of dance. In their own eyes, it is just a way to become more popular, to get more likes from social network, and to win the contest.
My aesthetic take, aesthetic perspective is to hold a mirror in front of the world so that we as adults are able to see what we have created, what is our responsibility towards our children, in the way we have brought them up. These girls, these preteens that dance in that very hypersexualized way, exist everywhere. On the web, on social networks, there are thousands, hundreds of thousands, and I can tell you that there are dances that go way beyond what I show in my film.
Have you seen The Tale? It’s a film written and directed by Jennifer Fox based on her own childhood sexual abuse. In it, she uses body doubles to stand in for her young actress in sexual scenes, and it’s very apparent to the viewer that’s what she’s doing—she doesn’t want you think you’re looking at a sexualized 13-year-old girl. Thinking of such possibilities and considering some of the critiques of the film—separate from the backlash —would you have made similar choices? Is there a way of portraying that hypersexualization that you could have done differently?
I haven’t seen the film, The Tale. My main concern was being very true, very authentic in that delicate age of passage between childhood and teenage years, where you are no longer a child, but you still are, at the same time. And I wanted my actresses, I wanted my performers to be exactly that age. I’ve seen films where you have some 20-year-old actress that pretends she’s much younger, but that was not my own interest. It was very important to me in my work with the girls, with the actresses, to always state very clearly that making a film is beautiful, it’s important, but life is more important.
I took very good care of the well-being of my actresses and also, of what I was showing onscreen. There’s no nudity, there’s no sex scene in the film, and I made very long working preparations with the parents of the children and with the girls themselves and we discussed a lot about the importance of the commitment that we were taking in making this film—of the feminist and activist approach that we had on this problem, on this social problem. This concern of mine was fully understood by the parents that shared my view on the importance of what we were doing. My job was really to open up and make everyone fully aware of what we were doing, both the adults and the children.
It was important to me that the girls had a clear understanding of when they were acting, therefore they were taking on a role, and when they were living their true lives. Furthermore, there was always a psychologist present, she was there before the shoot, during the shoot, and even after the shoot, to constantly communicate with the girls, and to avoid any risk of confusion with the cinematic roles they were playing and their real lives as children. And I can tell you they did not suffer any confusion and they are now the spokespeople of the message of this film with their peers.
One more thing I’d like to add, the characters in the film, they mimic all the women they see on television, on social networks, those women that think they can enhance their value by objectifying themselves and they try to imitate them. That’s what the characters in the film do. But they were never objectified, and I don’t think it’s possible to mistake that because they were living—and we are living through them—that experience in a subjective posture, we have a subjective experience of what they experience.
Do you think there are cultural and perhaps even religious misunderstandings, or maybe there is a lack of cultural competence in how this film is being received? I’m specifically thinking of how Anglophones, Americans specifically, have viewed this film versus French and French-speaking people. Because of course language affects culture. And then I’m also considering how people who do not share community with or understand the identity or experience of a young Black Muslim Senegalese immigrant in France may misunderstand?
I believe cinema has no boundaries, and if you let the emotions that you feel take you by their own force, then it doesn’t really matter the country or continent or culture or the religion you belong to, you can identify with the character, with the journey of a character, and the narration and the story.
I keep on receiving messages about Cuties by women, young women, older women, mothers, fathers, men, that can identify with the experience of the little girl beyond the issue of religion or differences because they are just touched by that experience and they can recognize themselves in it.
What really stuck out to me about the film was how Amy was essentially being prepared for adulthood and wifehood in her home, from her cultural lens. What was the message you were trying to get across in this portrayal? And does it strike you as odd, maybe even a little hypocritical, that there has been little emphasis on this aspect of the film?
Amy’s character and her journey in the film is based on my own experience when I was a child. And I remember back then that everybody surrounding me just considered me a woman whilst I still thought of myself as a child. In the case of Amy in the film, there’s this double push in a way. On one side, the hypersexualization of the society she lives in pushes her to become a woman fast. At the same time, it is just that her family pushes her to grow up too fast.
And Amy in the film, my character, at the end chooses to carve her own path and feels entitled to still live her childhood. She considers her childhood precious and allows herself to take time to become a woman, and to choose the woman she wants to become.