The Other Problem with Netflix’s Cuties: Crude Islamophobia
In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. All praise and thanks belong to God, Lord of the Worlds. May peace and prayers be upon Prophet Muhammad.
By Edward Ahmed Mitchell, CAIR National
Very few issues unite Americans these days. Whether the topic is police brutality, climate change, COVID-19, or Donald Trump himself, millions of us do not only stand apart. We live in alternate realities.
However, one unexpected issue has finally united many of us across political, religious, and cultural fault lines: Netflix’s Cuties.
Over the past week, the public has used social media to vocally condemn the French film, which features preteen girls wearing revealing clothing while engaging in dance routines and other conduct that could be mildly described as risqué and frankly described as pornographic.
The official trailer for the film on YouTube has received 1.8 million dislikes compared to 46,000 likes, while #CancelNetflix has repeatedly trended since the film’s debut on Netflix — and rightfully so.
Although the filmmakers and their supporters have argued that the plot of Cuties is meant to criticize the sexualization of children, it makes no sense to criticize the sexualization of children by actively sexualizing children.
After all, the gyrating, half-naked children featured in the film are not CGI creations, nor are they adult actors hired for their youthful appearances. They are real preteen children who were paid to engage in sexually provocative conduct before a camera.
If a law enforcement agency had found footage of these children engaged in such acts on a computer hard drive,a child pornography investigation would have undoubtedly been opened. A few elected officials have called for just that: a criminal investigation into whether the film violates U.S. law.
Point being, the widespread uproar against Cuties is justified. It’s bad enough that major films, network television shows, and corporate commercials now feature graphic depictions of sexual activity that were once limited to cable, outright banned, or even illegal.
At least, thank God, many Americans still draw the line at children twerking.
However, there’s another major problem with Cuties that has garnered far less attention or condemnation: Islamophobia.
The story centers around Amy, an eleven-year-old daughter of Senegalese Muslim immigrants who live in France. At the start of the film, Amy’s father is overseas preparing to marry a second wife, much to the displeasure of his depressed first wife.
As for Amy, she must act as a de facto housewife: cooking, cleaning, and otherwise taking care of her family. She must also join her family in prayer, which she finds boring. In one of the earliest scenes, a female Muslim teacher tells Amy and a group of women that they must obey their husbands and uphold their decency because “evil dwells in the bodies of uncovered women.”
For me and other Muslims, this storyline sounds familiar, for it represents how anti-Muslim bigots typically think of the Muslim community — especially immigrant Muslim communities. Polygamist fathers, abused mothers, oppressed young girls, religious zealotry.
Because we have seen this story on the big screen and small screen many times before, we also know how the story unfolds.
Praying and wearing hijab supposedly represent symbols of oppression, so the oppressed must find liberation by disregarding prayer and casting off their Islamic clothing. For anti-Muslim bigots, the less you pray and the less clothing you wear, the more liberated and civilized you are.
In the case of Cuties, eleven-year-old Amy goes further. She secretly joins a dance troop of pre-teen children who twist, twerk, and gyrate before audiences. Amy also devolves in her personal life: she attempts to seduce her cousin when he realizes that she has stolen his phone, and she then takes a picture of her own private area and posts it online.
To make matter worse, Amy’s family performs some sort of exorcism on her. In a scene as disturbing as it is offensive, a melodic Arabic recitation that was clearly used to mimic the Quran plays as Amy stands in the middle of a room, wearing a tank top and short shorts. Amy’s hijab-clad aunt invokes God in Arabic and throws water on her, causing the young girl to shake, gyrate, and twerk — again, while the Arabic recitation is playing.
Unlike other films that reinforce anti-Muslim sentiment, Cuties was not written by a wealthy bigot without any connection the Muslim community. Cuties was written and directed Maïmouna Doucouré, who grew up in a Senegalese Muslim family in France.
In an interview with Time Magazine, Doucouré explained the film’s message: “When I was young, I also saw a lot of injustices around me lived by women. We’re used to saying that women in other cultures are oppressed, but the question that I had when making the film was: Isn’t the objectification of a woman’s body that we often see in Western culture another kind of oppression?”
Although no one can fault Doucouré for sharing her unique perspective, the implication that a family teaching their preteen daughter to follow Islam or adopt Senegalese culture is the moral equivalent of a preteen girl stripping down, dancing and gyrating on a public stage is incredibly problematic.
The film’s conclusion drives this flawed point home. In the final scene, Amy seems to reject both the conservatism of her family and the hedonism of her friends.
She settles upon what Doucouré apparently considers the correct balance: she skips her father’s polygamous wedding, puts on western clothing without a hijab, and plays joyfully outside with a new group of local kids.
In other words, religious conservatism and secular hedonism are two sides of the same oppressive coin, and the appropriate middle ground is for children to avoid both.
If you have any doubt about the film’s potential to reinforce negative stereotypes about Muslims and African immigrants, consider Cuties’ most vocal supporters.
According to Time, “Doucouré…has the support of the French government, who have expressed their wish to use Cuties as an educational tool for teachers, and have invited her to be part of a working group to combat the hyper sexualization of children in society.”
This is no surprise. The French government is openly hostile to Islam and Muslim immigrants. So is a large segment of France’s population. A film about a Muslim immigrant who liberates herself from her devoutly religious family fits perfectly into French stereotypes and expectations of Muslims.
Indeed, Doucouré should ask herself why French and American film studios were willing to fund, distribute and elevate her script over the many other positive stories that could be told about Muslims and immigrants in France. Other filmmakers who find Hollywood success with scripts about Muslims who disregard their faith traditions should ask themselves the same question.
No doubt, artistic merit is not the only explanation.
Whatever good intentions may have motivated Cuties, the bottom line is that the film sexualizes children while reinforcing already-prevalent negative stereotypes about Islam and African immigrants.
That’s why Netflix should immediately pull Cuties off its platform and apologize for the damage done.
On this point, all Americans should agree.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell is a civil rights attorney who serves as Deputy Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR is America’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.