“I really hope that once the film comes out, they will watch it, and they will understand that those who were criticizing me were actually walking the same path as me,” explains Maïmouna Doucouré in her interview with Time Magazine as she discusses the controversy that erupted concerning the release of her film 'Cuties' (French title 'Mignonnes') on international streaming platform Netflix. While the original poster of the coming of age drama, for which Doucouré won the Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival, depicted a group of girls throwing colourful clothing and confetti over their heads on a Parisian street, Netflix chose a more indelicate approach: the four dancers of the eponymous group at the uncomfortable climax of the film, dressed in scanty clothing and crouched in indiscreet positions. The reaction was extreme to say the least, as people took to social media in fits of rage to heavily critique Doucouré, accusing her film of sexualising young girls. Hundreds of thousands even went as far as signing petitions to cancel and censure the film, dubbing it “the viewing pleasure of paedophiles”. Here was the catch though: they had not even watched it.
'Mignonnes' tells the story of eleven year old Amy (talented newcomer Fathia Youssouf), originally from Senegal, who lives in a poor neighbourhood in Paris with her mother and younger brother. Awaiting the return of her father, Amy is closely watched by an elderly aunt who teaches her traditional religious values and customs. This is until Amy becomes transfixed by and eventually joins a group of four girls who wear booty shorts, heels and makeup, and who dance by the train tracks after school.
'Mignonnes' is first of all dichotomous in nature. Amy’s home life is plagued with guilt, mystery and a tad of boredom during prayer time. But it is the female condition in religion, heavily inspired by Doucouré’s childhood (although it was happy, she mentions her and her mother’s disagreements, citing the word “mougni”, which means “endure, resist, despite everything”, as one of the origins of her feminist uprising), that takes centre stage. Early on, it is revealed that Amy’s father is marrying a second wife, and in a particularly sinister scene, the pious aunt makes Amy’s mother call all of her friends and tell them the news. Young Amy witnesses all of this from underneath her mother’s bed, shedding a quiet tear and channelling her emotions into disobedience instead. It is however the room at the end of the apartment’s corridor, out of bounds and denied to Amy when she attempts to claim it as her new bedroom, that serves as a metaphorical allusion to the barriers in women’s lives, a door shut on opportunity and emancipation. It is thus no surprise that when Amy’s new friend Angelica kicks down the door and spreads gummy bears across the bedspread, Amy cannot help but be entranced and attracted to the seemingly free-spirited girls who show their stomachs and thighs, who have dyed hair and whose parents don’t seem to question where they are or what they do. Doucouré’s case here is clear: having spent a year and a half interviewing young girls on how they felt about their femininity and their exposure to adult content on social media, she was shocked to hear the anecdotes the girls told her, a lot of which appear in the final film. Her inspiration for the whole concept in fact was witnessing a group of young girls dancing in the way the Cuties do in the final scene, the culminating moment that contradicts the reproaches the film underwent and makes her film a pioneer in the debate on the hyper sexualisation of young girls in today’s media. In this sense, the cinematography as the girls practise their routine is thought-provoking as, in order to denounce, one must also demonstrate.
Protagonist Amy is at the heart of this debate, desperately seeking social acceptance but entering without her knowing a whole other disturbing world. Obsessed by older girls who twerk and crassly show a breast at the end of a music video, the Cuties attempt to rise to the level of their opponents, blatantly unaware of the inappropriateness of their movements and attire. When Amy asks her younger brother if she can use his T-shirt, which on her looks like a tank top, one cannot help but see the childishness of her actions taking on a sexualised quality, especially when her friends point out how cool she looks. At all times, the amount of likes and followers remains the priority and although the original Cuties have a juvenile spirit of competition and a naughty schoolgirl attitude, it is Amy who takes everything a bit too far, increasingly confused by her home life and by social morals for lack of a guide. In other words, she is the most affected by the attitudes modern girlhood and social media have forced her to adopt, veering away from her traditional mother and aunt in ways her friends had never fathomed.
The film inevitably also explores how easy it is to accuse others through the lens of schoolgirl disagreements – one of the Cuties is aggressively excluded from the group when she embarrasses another, and a violent fight lashes out between the two of them during which they call each other names and pull at each other’s hair. It is no coincidence that this fight ultimately reflects the build-up of tension centred around this heated debate: people were quick to attack 'Mignonnes' based on a poster spread across social media, calling it disgusting and pulling at the intricate threads of political and personal that Doucouré has so beautifully intertwined. This is no doubt why this debate needs to be had.
Edited by Andriani Scordellis, Film Editor