“Cuties”: Outrage or Opportunity?

“Cuties” Netflix | 2000

Every so often a bold artistic endeavor emerges, that is courageous enough to ask the question: “Do parents actually know what their kids are up to?”

If you were a teenager growing up in the nineties, you probably remember one of these valiant gestures presented in the form of a film called Kids.

Kids stirred up a ton of controversy. It aimed to depict some of the most extreme circumstances that teens [and even pre-teens] were either curious about, or already engaging in. The New York Times described it as “Lord of the Flies with skateboards, nitrous oxide and hip hop.”

For anyone unfamiliar with the film, it centers around the lives of a group of teenagers hedonistically exploring alcohol, drugs, and sex in NYC in the mid-1990s. Most profoundly portrayed, is the heartbreaking story of a 12-year-old girl named Jennie.

Jennie is a virgin and is reluctantly persuaded into having sex with an older boy named Telly. Telly is known for preying on young, inexperienced girls and Jennie is just one of his many victims. Following her encounter with Telly, Jennie visits an STD clinic where she tests positive for HIV.

At the time the film was released, HIV wasn’t really a topic that lived in the mainstream. So, a movie that so candidly depicted a 12-year-old girl contracting HIV during her first sexual encounter was incredibly jarring to many. There were calls for banning the film and threats of charges of pornography, exploitation, and child-endangerment aimed at the producers.

Eventually going on to win a number of independent film awards, the movie simultaneously received a fair amount of pushback from the general public upon its release. Parents did their best to keep their own kids from watching it, which only made them want to watch it more. I distinctly remember kids in my own circle covertly obtaining copies of the film — usually through older siblings or more lenient adults.

In my own home, media consumption was relatively unrestricted (in the age of helicopter parenting, this concept may seem bizarre). And, Kids sparked my curiosity, so I got my hands on a copy and watched it with my mother’s blessing.

Although it was probably the most uncomfortable hour and thirty-five minutes of my life, it was also probably the most enlightening. At the time, I was about to enter high school, where I would quickly be confronted with some pretty shocking realities. Ones I absolutely wouldn’t have been prepared for had it not been for Kids.

After watching Kids — and having Jennie’s character terrify the hell out of me — I made a pact with my best friend to steer clear of the situations that could put us in that kind of danger. To this day, we both credit our decision as one that kept us out of a lot of trouble. And, that decision was made solely as a result of watching the cautionary tale of Jennie.

To us, 12-year-old Jennie offered a sense of the very real dangers of partying and casual sex. She was a vicarious outlet. She allowed us to view what life as a carefree teen could potentially lead to, before actually experiencing it ourselves. Jennie was our living, breathing cautionary tale. She helped us understand the pressures and dangers we could face, helping us navigate our teen years in ways that conversations and warnings from adults never could have.

Jennie’s story followed us. We talked about it often as we watched our peers engage in so much of that same activity we saw happen to Jennie and her friends. The reckless use of drugs and alcohol. The emotionless sex. And, in our minds, the potential consequences of all of it, just wasn’t worth the risk.

Kids may not resonate with the youth of today — or, perhaps it may still be relevant to some. But I do believe that the youth in 2020 also need some of their own bold artistic gestures to help them navigate their formative years. After all, teens today socialize in very different ways that we did back in the nineties. So, perhaps they need their own characters. Their own Jennies. Characters that might provide them with their own cautionary tales, instead of allowing them to become one themselves.

And, perhaps one of those characters can be found in Cuties heroine, Amy.

Cuties, the directorial debut from French filmmaker, Maïmouna Doucouré follows the story of

Amy, an 11-year-old girl growing up in Paris in a traditional Muslim household. Amy is surrounded by women who are taught early on that they “must strive to preserve [their] decency, obey [their] husbands, and fear God.” Amy’s life inside her home is very different from the one she witnesses outside of it.

Whenever she leaves her home, Amy is surrounded by girls her age who seem to live a carefree, self-expressed existence. They are everything she has spent her life being taught not to be. They dance, wear makeup and flashy clothing, talk to boys, and are active on social media. They seem fun. Alive.

What Amy doesn’t see, is the darker elements of their existence. Things like bullying, diet culture, and a constant struggle to feel accepted. And, once she starts spending time with them, these things quickly become her reality as well. She is tangled in a culture that she is only learning to understand as she goes.

And, for many young girls today, Amy’s story isn’t unique. They go to school and see it. They go online and see it. They are constantly bombarded with images of girls all around them that seem to have everything — beauty, sexuality, popularity, fame, money. As adults who never had to deal with the added pressure of social media at such a young age, we can’t even begin to imagine what they are going through. Meaning that we may be missing something when it comes to our conversations with our kids.

And, in a decade where we are seeing record-breaking numbers of suicide among pre-teen girls, Amy may just be what young girls today need to explore these missed conversations. To see. To understand that the things they are experiencing — the pressures, the boys, the bullying, the sex — are being universally experienced by other girls.

Many parents who might be reading this think that their child may be immune. That they don’t have social media accounts. That they aren’t allowed. To them, I say, where there’s a will, there’s a way. I’ve personally experienced kids as young as 5 in my own life, who have asked what TikTok is. They’ve asked to see it and learn the dances that they keep hearing about. They have questions. And, if we don’t give them answers. Questions that they might be uncomfortable to ask adults. Questions that they might be asking their peers and getting misinformed answers to.

So, perhaps, like Jennie for us kids of the nineties, Amy is a character that can provide them some answers. And more so, show them the consequences of going down the rabbit holes of curiosity that they might be on the brink of doing anyway.

Perhaps a vicarious look at the correlations between actions and consequences vis-à-vis a fictional character is exactly what they need to steer clear of making those same mistakes. Amy might just be 2020’s cautionary tale for young girls everywhere. And, shielding these girls from her, may just cause more harm than good.

The confronting nature of films like Kids and Cuties often exists because of a fundamental misalignment — between parents and their children — as to where innocence ends, and maturity begins. Generally, the latter occurs much earlier than most parents want to admit or accept. This also means, that the opportunities to have crucial conversations, are often happening too late, or being missed completely.

Because, in the end, parents can talk at kids as much as they want. But eventually, kids seek out things to connect to in order to truly understand them. And, Cuties seems to genuinely strive to achieve that connection.

So, perhaps instead of reacting with outrage, we should look at Cuties as an opportunity.

An opportunity that us young girls growing up in the nineties had with Jennie. An opportunity for them to have their own Jennie, in Amy. To allow that connection to inform them [of what lies ahead for them] in a safe space — before they get confronted (and they will get confronted) in a more precarious one.

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