Updated: Oct 29, 2020
By Ashly McNally
Image from Netflix
In fifth grade, I was a quiet kid who forced her curly hair into a ponytail and wore earrings all the time so adults wouldn’t mistake me for a boy (they still did).
In seventh grade, I began puberty, and people started to notice I suddenly existed. Especially men and boys. I suddenly didn’t need push-up bras because I had them built-in. My mom would joke about my “bubble butt,” and how women pay for ones like mine. My dad would tell me not to wear any shorts when my mom’s boyfriend was around.
This sudden focus on my body and the aesthetic of it made me uncomfortable, and I shrunk myself. I wore oversized hoodies over my jeans and tried to fade into the background. No matter what I did, there were still the 20 or 50-year-old guys whistling at me in the Ross parking lot and the pressure to post cute Instagram and Snapchat selfies that made me seem “mature for my age” was real. Simultaneously, I felt the pressure to hide my body and be conventionally attractive enough for boys to like me.
Growing up in the internet age as a young Black girl isn’t easy, and the French movie, "Cuties" (“Mignonnes”) certainly hits the nail on the head with that.
Image from Netflix
Written and directed by Maïmouna Doucouré, a French Muslim Senegalese filmmaker, "Cuties" won a Sundance Film Festival award for directing. The movie is “challenging [of] the audience by showing [how] the hypersexualization of children has become normalized.” And like me, the protagonist, 11-year-old Amy Diop (Fathia Youssouf), fell victim to the trap of the overabundant, readily-available “sexualized media” on the internet.
In short, "Cuties" focuses on Amy, stuck between the worlds of traditional femininity of her community and the provocative nature of the social media her and her newfound friends are consuming. Amy rebels against the traditional values throughout the movie, by joining her friends’ dance group, les Mignonnes (the Cuties) and even taking a nude photo.
Doucouré spent over a year researching and interviewing young girls — with parental permissions — about their experiences with social media while growing up. She and her team also notably auditioned some 700 girls, Youssouf being the last, and had a psychologist available for the girls both on set and after the movie came out.
“We communicated a lot about why I was making this movie. It was important that they understand. I think this is a movie that will facilitate important conversations between pre-teens, teenagers, and their parents,” the director said.
The movie talks about the struggles of being a teenage girl, torn between being a kid and being sexualized all while trying to find your place as a person and woman. Amy sees that the more provocative and sexual a woman is online, the more successful she is (read: the more likes she has). And thus, monkey see, monkey do.
It discusses “how limiting it is in today’s society, to see a woman as an object and that success comes from a woman being objectified,” writer-director Doucouré says. “Isn’t the objectification of a woman’s body that we often see in Western culture another kind of oppression?”
Original poster (left) vs. Netflix poster (right). Image from Deadline.
Netflix did just that when it started promoting the movie on August 19. The trailer—and original poster—was an example of the normalization of sexualizing children online that the movie itself speaks out against. It played out the situation Doucouré was describing to a tee and took a turn for the worst.
Image from Heavy.
When the trailer came out on social media, the world—or, more specifically, Twitter— tore it to shreds. The YouTube trailer has amassed over one million dislikes, and there are multiple petitions on Change.org for Netflix to take the movie down. Doucouré deleted her social media, after the overwhelming backlash and even death threats. And honestly, I was one of the people who took the promotion to heart, told by people on Twitter it was an act of pedophilia by Netflix for buying the movie. To everyone reading this (including me): don’t get your information off Twitter. And, as per Anna Menta’s Decider article, I have to profusely and personally apologize to Maïmouna Doucouré.
Nonetheless, this isn’t the first time that Hollywood has misrepresented a movie in its marketing. Another movie’s marketing disaster, remarkably similar to "Cuties,” was the 2009 horror-comedy "Jennifer's Body."
"Jennifer's Body,” written by Diablo Cody and directed by Karyn Kusama, was released on September 18, 2009. (Happy 11th anniversary!) The movie was primarily marketed toward teen and college-age boys as a sexy movie featuring Megan Fox.
Cody, as she recalls in a reunion with Fox, “got a very memorable email from a marketing person at the studio once. I, you know, had sent him this articulate defense of the film and here is how it should be marketed and I said, ‘What specifically are you thinking?’ And he wrote back, ‘Megan Fox hot.’ Three words.”
The movie was a commercial failure. Now, over a decade later, it’s a cult classic.
Both stories are about teen girls finding themselves and making sense of the world around them with little to no guidance or restrictions. Although there are differences between the two stories, the marketing ultimately led to their initial failures. The most notable difference between the projects is, however, the overwhelming and frankly scary response to "Cuties.”
The movie was misrepresented almost entirely by Netflix’s promotion of it, without Doucouré’s say-so on it.
“I discovered the poster at the same time as the American public,” she says. “My reaction? It was a strange experience. I hadn’t seen the poster until after I started getting all these reactions on social media, direct messages from people, attacks on me. I didn’t understand what was going on.”
The movie has now become a target of a “right-wing campaign” before even being released on the platform. This misreading of the room by Netflix and the mob-like mentality of the internet combined to form an ugly monster.
Although the campaign against it is continuing on, hopefully, it’ll find some peace soon. There has been support for "Cuties" from the French government, Sundance itself, and others in the industry too. Who knows; maybe one day it’ll have the same fate as "Jennifer's Body" did.
"Cuties" is available for worldwide viewing on Netflix September 9. Happy streaming.
Written by writer Ashly McNally