I have always had trouble with critics — allies included, allies especially — who weigh in with strong opinions on a movie they have not seen. So I decided to take one for the team and check out the highly controversial film Cuties, a French import originally titled Mignonnes.
As I spelled out C-U-T-I-E-S letter by letter in the search box, I had a moment of trepidation, wondering whether I had hooked into some algorithm especially attuned to pedophiles. Here is hoping I didn’t.
A pedophile, I confirmed by watching, I am not. To cut to the chase, I found the sexual posturing by our 11-year-old protagonists repulsive and the movie an unwelcome journey to a moral no-go zone. I fully understood why the film lacked a “No preteen girls were harmed in the making of this film” disclaimer. They were harmed.
It did not have to be this way. Cuties has much to recommend it. For one, the film offers the most unflinching look at Muslim life in the post-Rushdie era. For another, it shows, without intending, how the increasingly vile cultural imperialism of the Hollywood Left is laying waste to ethnic traditions worldwide.
The film tells the tale of Amy Diop (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old Muslim Parisian of Senegalese descent. Her father’s decision to bring home a second wife upends Amy’s otherwise happy home. According to custom, Amy’s mom, the first wife, has to feign happiness at the prospect. When Amy sees the inevitable anguish the upcoming wedding causes her mother, she rebels.
Disillusioned with traditional Islam, Amy finds refuge in America’s trashiest gift to the world, rap-oriented pop culture. To fit in with the cool girls at her new school, Amy adapts the moves she sees on music videos and helps transform the girls’ merely vulgar dance troupe into a precociously slutty dance troupe. In truth, it was not that much of a transition.
This is where novice French filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré needed guidance. Someone at Netflix should have told her, “We get your point. Little girls are exposed to too much too soon, but you have to cool it with the indecent moves, the finger sucking, and especially those close-up crotch shots.”
There are two extended sequences that could have been saved by editing: in one, the girls make their own video; in the second, the climactic one, they perform their routine for an audience. The editing choices repel because they lack any artistic justification. The healthy members of the audience do not need to see closeups to know that what the girls are doing violates moral norms everywhere in the world beyond Lolita Island.
In the climactic scene, for instance, it would have been sufficient for the film audience to watch the dance routine from the same angles as the live audience. The latter audience sees enough to shift from clapping along with the music to booing as the girls’ moves gets progressively more vile.
But not everyone boos. A closeup of two audience members suggests that Doucouré knew how the film audience would respond: a chubby young white guy leers and applauds; the black woman sitting next to him shields her daughter’s eyes. Hollywood is that chubby young white guy. The black woman with the child is the rest of the world.
It is at this moment — spoiler alert — that Amy has her crise de conscience. She freezes in place, and the rap music yields to soulful strains of traditional music seeping into her subconscious. Realizing how tragically far she has wandered from her roots, Amy rushes off stage.
As Amy understands, however, Islam is not the answer. She returns home but refuses to attend her father’s second wedding. The final scene shows her jumping rope with her old girlfriends, wondering, one imagines, how she will find her own place between two potentially destructive worlds. Yes, there is a worthy message here, one that almost offsets the likely emotional damage done to the young actresses in making the film.
The dependably myopic Netflix execs aggravated the controversy to come by leading initially with a poster of the girls in their scanty outfits making provocative gestures at the camera. The marketing materials described the film as the story of an 11-year-old girl who’s “fascinated with a twerking dance crew.”
Alarmed by the widespread blowback, Netflix tweeted, “We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Mignonnes/Cuties. It was not OK, nor was it representative of this French film which won an award at Sundance. We’ve now updated the pictures and description.” Too late. Isolated in their own amoral bubble, Netflix decision makers failed to anticipate viewer reaction outside the TMZ.
In rushing to Netflix’s defense, many in the media pinned the controversy on that old hobgoblin, the religious Right. The New Yorker, for instance, headlined its article by Richard Bordy “Cuties, the Extraordinary Netflix Début That Became the Target of a Right Wing Campaign.”
BuzzFeed tried a new angle, blaming the negative response on “#SaveTheChildren Conspiracy theorists.” Reporter Stephanie McNeal singled out “the larger QAnon collective delusion, which baselessly claims that the world is controlled by a secret cabal of child sex abusers that President Donald Trump is fighting.”
Although Doucouré cannot escape blame, the real culprit here is Netflix. Since the company started its streaming service in 2007, it has consistently either ignored or insulted the conservative half of America. In 2016, CEO Reed Hastings dismissed this potential audience with his public wish that “Trump lose by a landslide to reject what he stands for.”
In March 2018, Susan Rice, best known for her serial lies about Benghazi, joined the Netflix board. In May of that year, Barack and Michelle Obama signed a multi-year deal to produce original shows, Obama’s most unwarranted windfall since the Nobel Peace Prize.
Of course, this studied contempt makes Netflix no different from any other major player in the entertainment industry, but its business model leaves it more vulnerable to customer outrage. Netflix does not come as part of a package. The 73 million American families that subscribe have made that decision themselves. For many, Cuties was the final prodding they needed to say, au revoir.
Jack Cashill is an author and documentary producer. His new book, Unmasking Obama, is now widely available. To learn more see www.Cashill.com.