Written by: Marion Umpleby
Image courtesy of the Guardian
When asked to discuss what her film is about for an interview, director, Maïmouna Doucouré explained that Cuties (2020) asks a simple question: “How does a girl become a woman in today’s society?”. The answers emerge through the story of Amy, an 11-year-old French-Senegalese girl who finds herself torn between two disparate models of femininity: her traditional Muslim upbringing wherein women are expected to be loyal wives and mothers, and the images of hyper-sexualised women valorised in Western society and perpetuated by social media. In an effort to rebel against the expectations of her family, Amy joins an all-girls dance group at her school called the Cuties, who take inspiration from music videos of sexy female dancers they find online, dressing in crop-tops and mini-skirts, learning promiscuous dance routines, and adopting a care-free and gregarious attitude. Through contrasting her women characters’ behaviour in public and private spaces, Doucouré explores how a woman’s value and purpose are often decided for her by external sources. These juxtapositions highlight the lengths to which her characters must shrink and hide away parts of themselves and what this means for young girls beginning the transition into adulthood.
Amy’s first model of womanhood is rooted in her Muslim community, wherein femininity centres around dedication to one’s family and faith. This model is realised through the character of Amy’s mother, Mariam, a woman constantly chasing after her three young children, preparing for the arrival of her husband’s second wife, and all the while hiding her hurt and embarrassment about the upcoming wedding. It becomes clear for Amy and the audience alike that in order to fulfil this model of womanhood, to do right by her family and community, Mariam must split herself in two, shielding her interiority from the outside world. This dichotomy of self is portrayed through a series of scenes that juxtapose Mariam’s public and private selves, the latter of which is always captured through the eyes of quiet, observant Amy. Whenever Mariam is interacting with friends or neighbours in the apartment complex – note that she never leaves the building but is forever confined to the domestic space– she is constantly bustling about, making arrangements for the upcoming ceremony, and sorting through piles of wedding gifts. She never lets the dust settle long enough to make her true feelings visible – or maybe even experience them for herself – rather, her personhood dissolves into a slew of tasks, allowing action to pass for enthusiasm.
However, when alone, Mariam’s dutiful mask falls away and her true feelings regarding the engagement surface. In one such instance, Amy wakes one night upon hearing her mother stir in the hallway. In secret, she watches Mariam standing in the doorway of the lavish bedroom made up for her husband’s new wife, as she faces away from the camera. Deafening silence replaces the usual hustle and bustle of the apartment. For once, Mariam’s body is still, and her hanging arms betray an immense fatigue. We watch with Amy as she turns with a sigh and pads back to bed. The scene carries a sadness as it alludes to Mariam’s unhappiness about the wedding, but beyond that, it captures a universal part of motherhood seldom privy to children. Watching it reminded me of schooldays when I would slip downstairs early in the morning to find my mother sitting alone in the kitchen, enjoying her coffee in the peaceful moments before she had to take care of anyone - before she had to be a mum. These are the brief instants when women emerge from their roles as caregivers – as givers, really– and resurface as themselves. Here, Doucouré illuminates the inherent sacrifice and performance that is expected of mothers and wives, as they relegate a piece of their personhood to private moments in the name of service.
The following portrayal of Mariam’s private life takes on a darker tone. We bear witness to the full extent of her isolation and pain as her community pressures her to put on a brave face for the wedding. Amy is dancing in front of her mother’s mirror when she’s interrupted by the sounds of her mother and la tante, the leader of their prayer group, approaching and takes refuge under the bed. Before leaving, la tante explains that it’s time Mariam calls her neighbours and announces the engagement. Once again, the audience watches the scene unfold through Amy’s eyes with only her mother’s ankles visible from the hiding spot beneath the bed. With reluctance, Mariam begins to call her friends, each time announcing the engagement with a trickle of laughter as she feigns excitement, but as soon as she hangs up, she begins to smack her face, moaning and crying. Amy remains still but cries silently with her mother. The glimpses Amy catches of her mother in these private moments provide her with a full understanding of exactly what is demanded from women in her community, namely their pain and the suppression of their voices, and the experience catalyses her decision to rebel and join the Cuties.
While Amy’s Muslim community measures a good woman by her dedication to her family, even at the expense of her own interiority, Western society is portrayed as valorising a woman’s sexuality above all else, making her desirability her greatest form of social capital. This is a hazardous message to send young girls who are just beginning to explore their sexuality and are eager to be accepted by their peers and male counterparts. As with Amy’s mother, Doucouré explores the performative nature of this feminine ideal by contrasting the Cuties’ behaviour in public and private spaces. We watch as the Cuties experiment with the notion that sexualising themselves grants them a certain amount of power. They turn heads as they strut through the halls of their school in glittery heels and pencil skirts, receive encouraging smiles from judges as they twerk and grind at a dance competition, and garner attention from posting seductive selfies and videos online. One incredibly poignant example of this kind of social power transpires when Amy trades in her baggy jeans for a pair of pleather trousers and crop top and marches into school. The camera tracks Amy’s walk to meet the Cuties at the top of the stairs (a physical marker of her social ascent) as boys flock to talk to her. Her transformation has granted her a new ability to manipulate the male gaze and experiment with the bounds of her sexuality. There is nothing inherently harmful about learning to harness one’s femininity, in fact, there may even lie a degree of liberation and empowerment for Amy through this experience, especially when contrasted with the suffocating expectations she finds at home.
However, the danger lies when desirability in the eyes of men eclipses every other aspect of the girls’ identities. Away from the gaze of onlookers, there are moments when the girls drop their sexy personas, and the audience can see another side to who they are. For example, early in the film Angelica, a fellow Cutie, and Amy sneak into the second wife’s forbidden bedroom. They jump on the bed in fits of giggles and compete to see which one of them can fit the most gummy bears in their mouths – essentially losing themselves in play. Here we see two girls who truly toe the line between childhood and adolescence and yet there is no room for that complexity in their sexy personas, so they are forced to consign those parts of themselves to private moments, moments when they forget to play a part.
Another sobering example of this kind of suppression transpires when Amy hears Yasmine, a somewhat chubby girl who was ostracized by the Cuties, throwing up in the school bathroom before promptly exiting and strutting to class with her head held high. As is the case with Mariam, Yasmine is forced to live a double life in which she presents a confident exterior and all the while harms herself in private in an effort to appease external standards advertising power and acceptance.
Cuties concludes with Amy rejecting both definitions of womanhood as she flees the big dance competition for which the girls have been rehearsing and runs home. At home, her mother explains that she’s free to decide for herself if she’d like to attend the wedding. Amy forgoes the ceremony and emerges from her flat in simple clothing – neither the sexualised outfits of the Cuties nor traditional Senegalese dress – and begins to jump rope with a group of other children; finally playing in the open. At last, Amy is freed from the burden of choosing between two predetermined models of womanhood. Her conversation with her mother suggests that what is most important is not what kind of feminine model she subscribes to, but rather that she chooses that model on her own terms. After all, neither motherhood nor the overt expression of one’s sexuality is inherently harmful; the harm is done when a woman is pigeon-holed into one or the other and pays the price of dampening every remaining facet of who she is. With this in mind, Cuties gives the simple question: “How does a girl become a woman in today’s society?”, a simple answer “With freedom.”