On Aug. 18, Netflix accidentally fired the first shot in what may be the single dumbest battle of the culture wars, this one over “Cuties,” Maïmouna Doucouré’s sweet-spirited French coming-of-age drama about Amy, an 11-year-old Muslim girl in Paris looking for friendship among the competitive dancers in her class at school.
Netflix briefly promoted the film, a Sundance directing prize winner, with a digital “poster” that made it look a bit like a horrible American reality TV series — the notorious “Dance Moms,” perhaps, which ran for eight seasons on Lifetime, or Netflix’s own “Dancing Queen,” or “Bring It,” which had five seasons on Lifetime, or its companion show “Step It Up,” which got only one season, all of which came and went without protracted public objection. Within hours of that first trailer for “Cuties,” the pedophile-obsessed American right, driven by QAnon, had a new target.
It’s legitimately upsetting to see this movie so cynically hijacked. It’s a very witty indie film — impeccably framed and shot — about the tug-of-war between Amy’s Sengalese Muslim heritage (which is brutally subjugating her mother) and her new French friends’ brazenness as they compete with older girls in dance competitions where they borrow choreography from sexy American music videos.
As rebelling conservative kids have done from time immemorial, Amy overcommits: She’s more dedicated than any of her friends to the dance group, she’s willing to steal, try (and repeatedly fail) to use her not-yet-available feminine wiles on men and attack another girl who threatens to take her place on the team. Much of this is very funny — Fathia Youssouf, who plays Amy, is wonderful — and the focus is fully on Amy’s inner life and on her decision about which of the apparently mutually exclusive cultures she will ultimately embrace.
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It is, annoyingly, important to state plainly that “Cuties” does not portray child abuse, it does not glorify or countenance pedophilia in any way, and it does not “sexualize” its characters — which is, to put it plainly, a favorite description of people so disturbed by their own reaction to a piece of art that they have to quickly plant the blame for that reaction on the artist before anyone notices. Doucouré’s movie is about platonic relationships between women and girls; there is no sexuality to be had anywhere in this movie, which makes the outrage over it seem all the more extraterrestrial.
The backlash to the film has, however, twisted the deliberately provocative choreography these girls perform into a problem, if not an international crisis — again, a little strangely, since people who take the time to actually watch the film are shown again and again that the characters are dancing to impress one another with their skill, and with how daringly they’re willing to imitate the scary and mean older girls, not for the benefit of perverts onscreen or off.
It’s probably worth observing, at this juncture, that if you see an adult woman perform similar dances in a music video on YouTube (or on a stage) you can safely bet that she learned the basic mechanics when she was at least as young as the actresses in “Cuties” — if you’d like to check that fact, please refer to any of the reality shows in the second paragraph. Doing body isolations and making your butt cheeks clap is hard; as a longtime theater nerd, I know quite a few professional dancers, and they can do stuff with their bodies I will never be able to do simply because I didn’t start dancing as a child. (As an adult, I have tried, and I will never be allowed back in that Taco Bell.)
But, of course, culture warriors love to hate the movies; that’s where the secret seat of political power is, according to the patron saint of right-wing media, Andrew Breitbart, who often said that “politics is downstream of culture.” The question of personal creative expression — and this is a very personal film, a coming-of-age story about a Senegalese-French girl much like the filmmaker’s younger self — isn’t even a tertiary concern once you’ve decided to engage with art this way.
And, at the moment, the culture upstream of conservative politics is a hodgepodge of insane far-right conspiracy theories called QAnon, a movement that posits that senior Democrats, Hollywood executives and media barons feast, quite literally, on children, whom they also molest. It is a worryingly popular delusion and contains a lot of other credulity-straining canon, such as the classic antisemitic blood libel (which is related to the aforementioned cannibalism), the theory that the late John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive, and the belief that common vaccines cause autism.
Right-wing news sites — now monstrously popular on Facebook in part because of systematic and deliberately overlooked violations of that company’s rules — have helped to spread these and other fictions by mixing in with it news about actual sexual predators like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein. They have now leapt aboard the “Cuties” conspiracy train, declaring it evidence that supports all of their most depraved fantasies about liberal elites.
And as their own political movement loses steam amid the malicious bungling of the Covid-19 pandemic, Republican politicians and their allies have rushed to embrace this distraction, secure in the knowledge that some of them are probably slightly more popular than pedophiles.
“I find @netflix decision to peddle child pornography disgusting,” wrote Sen.Tom Cotton, R-Ark., attaching an article with a screenshot of the material — the movie’s girls, in typical competitive dance attire, posing on stage — that had so deeply offended him. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.,, sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr, bizarrely claiming that “Cuties” depicts “children being coached to engage in simulated sexual acts.” (Again: It does not.)
Their fellow senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz, R-Texas, joined Cotton in deploring the film, tweeting out an image of his own letter to Barr in which he exhorted the DOJ to begin “investigating and prosecuting offenders who possess and distribute images and video sexually depicting minors.” (Perhaps Cotton, having tweeted an image from the film, will qualify for work-release.)
Cruz and Cotton also inventively placed the blame for its invented offenses at the feet of Barack Obama, the most famous black person in America, who has a completely separate development deal with Netflix. Clearly, this is the work of Joe Biden.
Works of art are press-ganged into duty in the culture wars fairly often — some hapless filmmaker or novelist gets caught up in a tornado of bad faith and stupidity — and it’s easy to throw up our hands and declare that there’s no rhyme or reason to it. But I don’t think that’s quite the case here: This isn’t a provocative movie at all. It’s a funny coming-of-age story about friendship and dancing, of which there are many on the market, from “Fame” to “Step Up” to “Save the Last Dance.”
But “Cuties” is daring in that it aspires to both show the reality of the modern competitive dance scene and transcend exactly the kind of tiresome argument that conservatives are now having about its content — to dramatize the conflict a single person feels about two cultures that both insist on commodifying her as a teen girl in ways that erase her individuality. At the end of the film, Doucouré suggests that there is a middle way. I hope she’s right.