While I normally only review and analyze Japanese movies, the current controversy surrounding Maïmouna Doucouré’s first feature film Cuties (2020) has persuaded me to make an exception. In this article, I am not going to attempt to review Cuties but offer an analysis of the narrative structure and the themes of Doucouré film.
Before offering my analysis of the narrative, I wanted to highlight that it is important to read the film from the perspective of Amy. Only by taking her position, only by situating oneself as spectator within the film as Amy, can one truly unearth what this film is about.
Why do I emphasize this? Because it is what many negative (and even some positive) – comments do not do. What, in fact, stands out in the negative comments of Cuties is that many commentators do exactly what Doucouré’s film critiques. Can we not see that the negative comments, those comments bashing the film for its hyper-sexualization of youth, the efface the very dimension of subjectivity that structures the film? Does Cuties not urge us to take the position of Amy and experience her social context from her subjective position and the conflict she struggles with? What most negative comments do is nothing other than what the film condemns: the fact that within contemporary society, be it in a contemporary religious context or in the globalized context of social media, the true subjective voice of women is silenced – in this case the voice of Amy and the voice of her creator Maïmouna Doucouré.
A form of acting-out.
It is important, in my view, to distinguish two different but highly interrelated fields of tension and conflict.
The first tension concerns the conflict between the ideal image of femininity within Islamic religion versus the hypersexualized image of femininity present on social media. Due to this tension – a tension Amy is daily confronted with – I felt that her identification with this hypersexualized image needs to be understood as a sort of refusal. What she refuses is not so much the image of Islamic femininity as such, but the effects such oppressive image has – e.g. on her mother Mariam. It is, in fact, in so far that her mother, whom she identifies with, is a victim of the patriarchal religious system that Amy seeks a way to protest and refuse this image.
Why is Amy attracted to Angelica, Coumba, Yasmine and Jess and their dancing? Is it not because their dancing and their rebellious comportment seemingly offers a certain freedom? While her mother accepts her position as woman within the Islamic rules and structures, Amy finds in dancing and their comportment a way to refuse the female position that is forced upon her. In a certain way, one could even say that Amy refuses what her mother is not able to refuse. When Amy’s father calls her and she throws the phone out the window, she has no other intention than to show her mother that Amy does not accept her mother accepting her position.
The second tension that structures the narrative concerns the sexual repressive atmosphere of Muslim religion and the sexual revelatory nature of social media. Given this tension, can one not read Amy’s behaviour in function of the dynamic between the repressed and the return of the repressed?
If the dynamic of repression is in play, what is repressed then? Is it Amy’s sexuality? No, what is, in fact, repressed within Amy’s familial context is any possible way to broach the question of what it is to become a woman. Let us note how the image of motherhood/womanhood is subtly forced upon Amy – this ideal image is introduced as the way it is and the way she needs to subjectify herself. The scene of cooking for her father’s marriage is telling because of the way her aunt introduces it: ‘Today, I’m going to teach how to be a woman’.
Even though I stated above that Amy’s identification with the hypersexualized image of femininity needs to be understood as a refusal, I think that it is even more correct to understand her behaviour as an acting-out directed to the Islamic Other. Even though she hides her enamoration with the sexualized images from the others of her family, her identification with these images is an attempt to show the Islamic Other what cannot be spoken about in within her religious familial context and express to this Other the conflict she is struggling with. She shows ‘sex’ in order to broach the riddle of being sexed as a woman that is forced upon her. It is, in this respect, not unimportant to note that is it Amy that introduces the hypersexualized style of dancing to the dance troupe.
If one understands Amy’s identification with the hypersexualized images on social media as being a form of acting-out, one can easily understand that Amy does not to attempt to solve anything with her identification. She wants to show her conflict to the Islamic Other, but this ‘showing-off’ puts her in danger. By identifying with these images, an identification also spurred on by her desire to please and impress those whom she wants to befriend, Amy falls victim to the neo-liberal societal system of phallic (read male) enjoyment. These images of ‘liberated’ femininity – images indorsed and strengthened by the circuits of pleasure related with attaining fame and gaining popularity on (i.e. the likes) and outside social media – foreclose the possibility for Amy to explore, at a subjective level, the conflict she struggles with and the question of womanhood that is forced upon her.
Amy is, in other words, caught between two oppressive images – the Islamic religious image and the hypersexualized image – that leave no room for her to question what she is struggling with, i.e. the question of becoming a woman. Or to put it differently, Amy is, as she is forced to deal with the question of womanhood, confronted with two different gazes to be subjected under: the repressive religious patriarchal gaze and the objectifying phallic gaze of the neo-liberal society. While the latter may promise a certain freedom to master one’s own blossoming sexuality, this path ultimately forces the young female subject to objectify herself to appease the gaze of the (male) Other. What Amy fails to perceive is that her (preoccupation with) fame on social media – a fame she enjoys – is only function of how well she objectifies herself as sexual image for the gaze of the enjoying neo-liberal Other.
Any attempt to deal with the conflict of womanhood in this way will, in other words, force the female subject to turn herself, for fame and peer-recognition, into an object to be sexualized by the gaze of the Other. At various moments in the narrative, i.e. when framing certain dance-routines, Maïmouna Doucouré’s forces the spectator’s gaze in the position of this sexualizing gaze of the Other. It is only in this way that she succeeds in confronting us with the structural problem of contemporary society. By trying to transform the spectator’s gaze into a sexualizing gaze, Doucouré reveals that what is truly sexualizing is the gaze, i.e. the act of looking as such. Even though these girls enjoy dancing, bond (albeit superficially) through dance, and find a way to express themselves via dance, their suggestive dance-moves urges or even forces the gazing Other to objectify and sexualize them. It is thus not unsurprising that most spectators feel uncomfortable watching these scenes – these scenes have, in fact, no other purpose than to create a sense of discomfort.
The relation to puberty.
That the question of becoming a woman is central in Cuties is also underlined by the fact that Amy’s symptomatic identification with the hypersexualized image of femininity takes places at the very moment that her puberty starts to blossom. This phase is not only explicitly evoked by Amy’s first menstruation, but also more implicitly evoked by her friends’ interest in boys and in sexuality as being played out between a girl and a boy. Concerning the latter, Cuties vividly shows that for these young girls sexuality interests them (see the various scenes where they try to pretend that they are older in front of boys) as much as it scares them (see for instance the condom-scene).
One should not dismiss the ‘playful’ interest these girls have in sexuality and what plays between a boy and a girl at a romantic level as wrong as such. What we should feel uncomfortable with is that, under influence of social media, the answer of what plays out between a boy and a girl is solely a sexualized one. As there is no safe, structured inter-subjective space to broach the question of womanhood as such, these young girls are, in a way, forced to find a prefabricated answer to the riddle of becoming a woman. But, as we said already before , while this visual answer may promise a certain freedom of expression, the identification with these images amounts to nothing other than a willing subjection to a social dynamic where there is no place for them nor interest in them as subject.
The various references to the phase of puberty urges the spectator to read Amy’s trajectory in function of her starting puberty, to read her trajectory as being function of the developmental phase where the riddle of sexed identity necessitates an answer. What is, in this respect, very important to note is that for Amy the two different answers to the riddle of womanhood are forced upon her before this riddle has become, under influence of her blossoming puberty, a urgent subjective problem for her. While this aspect might lead some spectators to state that Amy is not marked by a subjective conflict, these spectators ignore that Amy’s hyper-sexualization is the very expression of the conflict she struggles with. Her hyper-sexualization is a symptom, an acting-out, a way to bring into play that what she, from her subjective perspective, cannot talk about: the conflict between the familial drama, that what takes place between her father as man and her mother as woman, and the ideal imagery of Islamic womanhood the aunt wants to subject Amy to.
Conclusion: How is the acting-out resolved?
The end of the narrative underlines the symptomatic function Amy’s identification with hyper-sexualized images had. When Amy returns home, after being suddenly confronted on stage with the suffering of her mother, her mother does two things. Firstly, she stops Amy’s aunt from shaming her and silences the Islamic religious ideal of womanhood she tries to push on Amy. Secondly, she recognizes Amy’s suffering and allows her to skip her father’s marriage. That Mariam recognizes her suffering and accepts Amy’s refusal of her father and, in this respect, the patriarchal structure that enabled it makes her hyper-sexualized acting-out obsolete and unnecessary. The mother, as Islamic Other, has responded – giving a ‘no’ to the aunt and a ‘yes’ to her refusal – and has left the important opening for Amy to regain her position as child, a place beyond the oppressive and the sexualizing objectifying gaze, a place that will allows her, when the riddle truly necessitates a subjective answer, to construct her own subjective answer to the riddle of womanhood.