The French film Cuties (Mignonnes) streaming on Netflix has been denounced for sexualising girls and making them vulnerable to paedophilia. Though rightly focusing on gender, these critiques have all been curiously mute on the film’s depiction of race.
This silence is deafening for a film that features a Muslim girl as the lead character. Indeed, the lack of focus on race exposes how well-rehearsed stereotypes about Islam’s views on women and towards sex are alarmingly normalised.
Cuties narrates how Amy, an 11-year-old French girl of Senegalese origin, navigates two putatively opposing models of femininity: one rooted in Western, liberal feminism; and the other in Islamic morality read through Senegalese culture. In telling this story, the film repeats the narrative of a so-called ‘clash’ of gender values believed to exist between the West and Islam.
Western girlhood is portrayed as one in which girls show their hair and lots of skin, watch pornography, contour like Kim Kardashian, dance in public, flirt and sex chat with guys online, and swear prolifically. In this model, femininity is outspoken, defiant, unsupervised and unconstrained.
In contrast, Islamic, Senegalese girlhood is portrayed as one in which girls must cover up or go to hell, clean, raise children, grocery shop, marry men they do not know, obey their husbands, and even allow them to move a second wife into the marital home. In this model, femininity is muted, obedient, surveille and subservient to the will of men.
In reality, these models of girlhood are but two of the many embodiments of gender available to girls in both the West and Senegal. Nonetheless, these two narratives are juxtaposed to reinforce the view that Muslim gender norms are singular and oppressive; insurmountably at odds with liberated Western attitudes.
To make matters worse, the film symbolises these supposedly opposing girlhoods through clothing: the Senegalese via a blue, traditional dress which Amy must wear to her father’s wedding to a second wife. The Western by body con: miniskirts, leather hot-pants, tube tops and booty shorts.
The film repeats the erroneous view that modest Islamic clothing is the marker of an alien gender system that equates devotion to God with subservience to men. This could not be further from the truth for the vast majority of Muslim girls and women who abide by Islamic sartorial prescriptions.
We become aware of Amy’s disaffection with Islamic Senegalese girlhood and aspiration towards forbidden femininity in a scene which takes place during a religious circle of learning.
Bored with the moral lesson, Amy grabs her voluminous hijab, pulls it over her head, and hides under it like a tent. The camera comes under the hijab to expose Amy as she watches an adult film featuring women in thongs and stilettos, grinding and thrusting. The camera pans out to show Amy entirely covered: Muslim on the outside, but inside containing a repressed interest in sex.
This scene recycles a favourite Western depiction of Muslim women as sexually repressed – a representation that typically circulates through discourses of forced marriage, female genital mutilation and honour killings. And it exists alongside a sister concept of Muslim sexual perversion, popularly depicted through the marginal practices of polygamy and child marriage.
Cuties brings together these two tropes both in this scene and elsewhere during the film – for example, when Amy tries to gain membership into a mouthy, saucy, brash schoolgirl clique self-styled as ‘the Cuties’.
The Cuties kick down doors, get in fights and dance. At first, the group rejects Amy, mocking her flat butt and bullying her into filming a boy’s genitals. But, when she proves that she can dance like them – or even like an adult – she is allowed in.
Amy teaches the Cuties how to pout, finger their mouths, roll, shimmy, drop it low, twerk and gyrate in ways that evoke sex. As she does, the Cuties’ dance routine transforms from hip-hop cool to adult striptease. The Cuties become sexualised and it is Amy, the Muslim girl, who is responsible. This sexualisation of children is perverse and Amy is cast as the ringleader.
This is further exemplified later in the film when Amy posts a picture of her genitals on Instagram, a move that even the rebellious Cuties think goes “too far”. The viewer is not shown the picture, but the inability to visualise what is posted leaves the viewer uneasily imagining what was missed.
That the film eroticises a Muslim girl’s private parts harks back to pornified orientalism – a western literary, artistic and photographic fantasy about Muslim women’s bodies and the sexual life that was hidden from Western male view.
This eroticisation is further evident in the film’s close-up shots of the girls, producing the justified outrage at it paedophilic gaze. Eroticised as a Muslim girl, Amy’s character evokes the contradictory promises held in the figures of the ‘virginal whore’ and the ‘submissive dominatrix’, to borrow from Faegheh Shirazi.
So, the critics got it wrong. Yes, the film sexualises girls. But, to stop there would be to ignore race. A feminist, intersectional analysis that brings together race and gender properly exposes how Cuties stereotypes Muslim women through deep-rooted ideas of religious and cultural difference, sexual perversity and exoticism.
Originally published with BylineTimes.com