Mignonnes, a movie by Black French filmmaker, Maïmouna Doucouré, is one of the most-talked about films of this year. It initially premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2020 and became controversial after its summer debut on Netflix under its English title, Cuties. The backlash against Cuties is partly related to anxieties around girls’ bodies—particularly in stories that engage with puberty and sexuality. The spotlight is specifically on Black/African people: The main character is a young Senegalese girl, and the story relies on popular music and dance produced primarily by Black women. Thus, implicit in the film are the perception and representation of Africanness and Blackness through Black women’s bodies and Black popular culture.
Cuties falls within a genre of films about preteen and young teenage girls that have evoked controversy. For example, the U.S. film, Thirteen, which was released in 2003 and co-written by a then thirteen-year-old Nikki Reed, was very controversial. Unlike Cuties, which does not involve any sexual activity, Thirteen featured White girls having sex, taking drugs and self-cutting as a response to their unstable home environments. Major differences lie in the races of the protagonists, as well as Thirteen’s release long before the rise of social media. Perhaps the film that most closely resembles Cuties is another French film, Girlhood, directed in 2014 by White filmmaker Céline Sciamma. Girlhood tells the story of a Black teenage girl in France who begins to come out of her shell after joining a lively group of other girls. Where Cuties is based on ethnography and draws on the experiences of Black French preteens, Girlhood evolved from the writer-director’s observations of Black teenagers in France. Though Sciamma received some criticism for being a White woman portraying a Black story, the film was widely praised.
Most reviewers have written positively about Cuties, which won a World Cinema Dramatic Directing award at the Sundance film festival, and many journalists have supported the film and been critical of the outrage that followed its Netflix release. This outrage became political and was mainly driven by White and other non-Black Americans. Republican Congressman Ted Cruz called for a federal investigation of the film as did the Concerned Women for America. Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard similarly referred to the film on Twitter as child porn without viewing it. In addition, the writer-director, Maïmouna Doucouré received death threats, and many verbal assaults on social media. This led her to pen an op-ed in the Washington Post, explaining why she made the film, her reliance on ethnographic research with girls in the making of the film, and the importance of adults understanding modern girlhood.
We want to engage with how Cuties represents biculturality as well as puberty from the perspective of a young African/Black girl. The film is part of an ongoing project by artists and academics to increase the visibility of Black French people, and conversations about race and gender in France. Notwithstanding its national specificities, there is much in Cuties that speaks to wider concerns in the African Diaspora, particularly with respect to invisibility and hypervisibility of Black women and girls, as well as migration and its effects on children. This context is critical for viewing the film and for understanding the protagonist’s journey.
Cuties: The Story
The main character is Aminata or Amy for short, played by Fathia Youssouf. Amy is an 11-year old girl from a poor Muslim Senegalese family that just migrated to France. The family abides by the principle that women are first and foremost modest caretakers. Thus, Amy has to help take care of her younger siblings, clean the house, do laundry, go to school and never question authority. The transformative moment in the story happens when the family learns that her father back in Senegal decided to marry another woman and move to France with her. Amy’s mother, Mariam (played by Maïmouna Gueye) becomes depressed and inadvertently neglects her. Eventually, she forms a friendship with another girl, Angelica, who lives in her building. Angelica’s life is also defined by poverty and a troublesome relationship with her immigrant parents, but Amy is attracted to her sense of freedom and her trendy outfits. She meets Angelica’s friends and finds out they have formed a dance group called Mignonnes (Cuties) and are preparing for a competition in which their major rival is a group of much-older girls.
Through her association with the members of Cuties, Amy stops being a bullied outsider. She learns the latest Afrobeat and hip-hop dances, including twerking, which she teaches the other girls. Amy joins the group after one of the members is kicked out, and her behavior quickly changes. She steals money from her mother to purchase new outfits, gets into a fight, steals her cousin’s phone, and becomes obsessed with social media. Eventually, Amy’s reliance on attention leads to her posting a revealing photo of herself on Instagram. Afterwards, the other girls reject her out of fear that they too will be seen as indecent. She becomes a pariah, the very thing that she had been trying to avoid, and the girl she replaced is invited back to the group. In the penultimate scene, on the day of her father’s wedding, Amy runs away to dance at the final competition. Most of the audience at the event rightly disapprove of the girls’ dancing and outfits. They boo them, and while a few people watch intently, others are visibly disturbed. Then, in the midst of the dance, Amy freezes onstage as the implications of everything she has done dawns on her (including throwing one of the group members into a pond so that she would not show up at the competition). She runs back home in tears, where Mariam, who had previously reacted violently to her daughter’s behavior, tells her she does not have to go to her father’s wedding and embraces her as she cries. The film ends with Amy skipping rope with other girls outside her building and the closing shot is of her smiling face against the blue sky.
One of Amy’s defining characteristics is that she barely speaks, though she is the protagonist. In almost every scene, she has the least dialogue— a trait that underscores how marginalized she is within her family, her peer group, and her environment. When adults speak to her she is more accurately spoken at, than with, including in one scene in which her great-aunt discovers that she started menstruating and declares to her jovially that she is now a woman. In some ways, Amy is a filmic successor to Diouana, the young Senegalese protagonist in Ousmane Sembene’s 1966 classic, Black Girl. The two films are also connected through casting as Diouana was played by Mbissine Thérèse Diop who also stars in Cuties as La Tante, Amy’s great-aunt. In Black Girl, Diouana moves to France to work as a nanny to a White French couple who mistreat her. Diouana never speaks to the White people in the film, partly because she is not fluent in French, but also because she has been forced into a position of submission. Eventually, the alienation she experiences from her family in Senegal, her employers, and France is so intense that she commits suicide. Black Girl has been analyzed as an allegory on the postcolonial condition, particularly the continued exploitation of African nations by Europe after colonialism and the implicit violence of Western assimilation. Cuties appears to continue the commentary on Western assimilation and biculturalism begun by Black Girl, including its effects on the psyche of African people through a young girl’s experience in a more modern and nuanced exploration of the socio-cultural effects of migration. These overlap with the psychological adjustments Amy has to undergo as she comes into puberty.
The Convergence of Biculturality and Coming into Puberty
Setting the film at the onset of Amy’s puberty provides a backdrop for understanding her uneasy journey from shy wallflower to dancing provocatively on the internet and in front of crowds. Research in developmental psychology points to the timing of the onset of puberty as a particularly vulnerable stage in a girl’s life. Rona Carter, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, has found that Black girls who begin their period before their friends (or even think they have before their friends) are more likely to show defiant behaviors. This held true for girls who, like Amy, had immigration in their recent family history. We see some of these behaviors in the girls in Cuties: their argumentativeness with authority figures and their defiance of rules and laws, like their breaking into an arcade and buying clothes with stolen money.
During a time that is emotionally and physically tumultuous for any young girl, Amy is also battling with disruption in her family, specifically as it relates to female gender roles. She watches as her mother, Mariam, prepares for her father to bring his new wife into their household. To the outside world, Mariam puts on a happy face, seeming to welcome the new bride, but at home, Amy witnesses the toll the upcoming nuptials takes on her. As Amy is coming into her own womanhood, at least physically, she is surrounded by examples of emotional and physical suffering from Mariam and subservience and manual labor by her great aunt. The representations of womanhood in her home are in stark contrast to the models in the music videos who seem to own their bodies, and by extension, their futures. Even her young girlfriends embody an empowerment that Amy does not see represented at home. Her budding gender identity is influenced by competing models of femininity.
The intersection of gender and culture is particularly poignant for Amy at this juncture in her life. Like many immigrant children, she is “caught” between two cultural worlds: that of her hyper-conservative Muslim Senegalese family, and the relatively unrestrained French pop culture her friends open up for her. Through this mainstream culture, she is able to try on different forms of girlhood that are at odds with the expectations of her home life. At Mosque, her head is covered as she listens to messages of female subordination and damnation (“there are more women in hell than men”). With her friends, she shows more skin than would ever be allowed in her religious community. Instead of hellfire, she is met with what these girls consider to be liberation and fun. At home, as the oldest child and the only girl, she must care for her younger siblings and complete household chores. In her small dance troupe, she choreographs newer and more suggestive dance moves. At home, she is quiet, a background player to the drama unfolding in her parents’ marriage. Outside, she makes noise—through her choreography and her increasing delinquency.
For many young people who straddle two cultural worlds, the journey to reconciling them is often fraught with missteps and stress. The drama that unfolds in Amy’s life represents so many youth who attempt to navigate such disparate cultural frames of reference. As she runs away from the perceived limitations of one culture, she appears to lose herself in the extremes of the other. The end of the film quietly shows Amy’s resolution of the tension between these two cultural poles. On her bed lies her competition uniform (a pair of short shorts and a tank top). Next to it, we see the dress she was to wear to her father’s wedding: formal, sequined, almost overpowering next to the dance outfit. A gentle breeze lifts the fabric of both garments, as if to suggest that there is life in both options. The camera then follows Amy as she walks outside of her building, dressed as a typical (Western) pre-teen, in jeans and a t-shirt. As she skips rope with other girls, she smiles in such a youthful, genuine way that the viewer is led to conclude that she is embarking on a journey that will bring her to merge both worlds in a way that is truly agentic.
The film tracks with ongoing critiques of Islam in France and elsewhere. However, Doucouré seems to challenge a White, non-Muslim audience to think more profoundly about these critiques. For example, the healer, El Hadj, when summoned to “cure” Amy of her rebelliousness, tells Mariam that there is no “evil spirit” in her daughter. He also sympathetically acknowledges Mariam’s struggles with her husband’s new marriage and tells her she does not have to stay with him. In her Washington Post op-ed Doucouré states, “All my life, I have juggled two cultures: Senegalese and French. As a result, people often ask me about the oppression of women in more traditional societies. And I always ask: But isn’t the objectification of women’s bodies in Western Europe and the United States another kind of oppression?” This commonality of Amy’s experiences, and those of the other girls in the movie, is no doubt responsible for how much of the movie is translatable across cultures and nationalities. In particular, the film speaks transnationally to the experiences of Black girls and women throughout the African Diaspora, particularly regarding body agency.
Hypervisibility and the Problem of Representation
In her desperation to be accepted, Amy becomes hypervisible through engaging in explicit modes of popular culture primarily practiced by adults; and ultimately, both invisibility and hypervisibility prove alienating. Amy’s hypervisibility in the story is mirrored in how Cuties was initially advertised by Netflix. The original poster showed an airbrushed image of the girls dancing on stage, very different from the film’s French poster. Netflix apologized and withdrew the poster but kept the trailer. Marketing the film as a feel-good, girls movie, the trailer focuses on the scenes in which the girls dance and Amy rebels to the sound of Afrobeat artist, Yemi Alade’s Bum Bum and other popular songs. Considering that the film is a drama, and at times very painful, this trailer seems to emerge from an association of Black popular culture and girls’ stories with comedy and sensationalism. The first poster and trailer may have garnered Cuties more attention than it would have gotten with a more subdued approach. However, this marketing format also repelled many potential viewers and influenced the controversy around it.
Certainly, the film itself is a work of art and deserving of critique like any other. Aspects of it are disjointed. For example, it needed more minutes to intuitively arrive at the ending, especially given how painful previous scenes were. Doucouré’s directorial choices are mostly very nuanced and empathetic, particularly in how she depicts Amy’s emotions through close up shots of her facial reactions to the suppressive circumstances beyond her control. There are other moments, though short, that focus considerably on the girls’ bodies (i.e., the close-ups of them dancing). Nathalie Etoke, whose research focuses on the African Diaspora in France, asserted that she thinks much of the film was lost in translation, because its story and aesthetic are “very French.” As examples, Etoke singled out scenes depicting the girls dancing in slow motion and close-up shots of their bodies—indicative of a more “laissez-faire” attitude towards bodily representation in France and a current tendency in mainstream French feminism to be explicit in female bodily representation. These more explicit scenes have spurred both critique and undeserved outrage. Much of the outrage reveals a generally more critical attitude towards Black popular culture and bodies.
In a Washington Post review, Karen Attiah pointed out the racial hypocrisy in the outrage towards Cuties. She argues that in America there is a simultaneous castigation of Black women and girls who display erotic agency, or break the rules of decorum, while lauding images of Black women’s victimization, including in movies about slavery and racism. The Black people who were uncomfortable with the film struggled with these complex implications given histories and presents in which Black girls’ and women’s bodies have been exploited for other people’s financial gain. While some thought the controversy was overblown, others thought the dance sequences and sections in which Amy was in her underwear, veered too close to commercialized images of girls’ and women’s bodies in popular culture. There are also gender double-standards at play in how we think about bodily agency, illustrated by a tendency to be more carefree with boys but less concerned about their exploitation, and hypervigilant and suppressive towards girls.
In “Black Girlhood Interrupted,” from Thick, her collection of essays, Tressie McMillan Cottom describes the simultaneous victimhood and dispensability of young Black girls. In her writing, she grapples with the paradox of being hypervisible when attempting to gain body autonomy but invisible when actually the victims of assault (as was the case with the girls abused by R. Kelly, who was convicted for his long-time predation of young Black girls). But what happens in the Black community, no matter how painful for the girls among us, must stay in the Black community. McMillan Cottom writes, “People of color are similarly hypervigilant when we navigate a white social world. We screen our jokes, our laughter, our emotions, and our baggage. We constantly manage complex social interactions so we are not fired, isolated, misunderstood, miscast, or murdered.” Perhaps many Black people who were opposed to watching the film wished for a better management of Amy’s messy, and yes, uncomfortable life. Certainly, many of the White viewers who resisted the film misunderstood its aim. But by putting an all-too-familiar journey through biculturalism, autonomy, and self-acceptance in a social media age, Cuties might go far in eliminating much of that opposition. As Maïmouna Doucouré wrote, “Some people have found certain scenes in my film uncomfortable to watch. But if one really listens to 11-year-old girls, their lives are uncomfortable.” This is multiply so at the intersections of race, gender, age, and culture.
 Catherine Hardwicke, Thirteen (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2003). The screenplay for Thirteen was written by Reed and Catherine Hardwicke and directed by Hardwicke. The film garnered both criticism as well as praise, which included several awards and an Academy Award nomination.
 Céline Sciamma, Girlhood (Pyramide Distribution, 2014).
 See Nathalie Etoke, Afro Diasporic French Identities (Nathalie Etoke, 2013); Félix Germain, Silyane Larcher, and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, eds., Black French Women and the Struggle for Equality, 1848-2016 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018).
 Ousmane Sembene, Black Girl (Filmi Domirev and Les Actualités Françaises, 1966). Black Girl is one of the first films by an African creator to be widely distributed in Europe and North America.
 For a discussion on how Sembene and other authors and filmmakers have commented on the postcolonial African state through stories about women, see Susan Z. Andrade, The Nation Writ Small: African Fictions and Feminisms, 1958-1988 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
 Rona Carter et al., “Ethnicity, Perceived Pubertal Timing, Externalizing Behaviors, and Depressive Symptoms among Black Adolescent Girls,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 40, no. 10 (October 2011): 1394–1406.
 See Aria Halliday, “‘Twerk Sumn!:’ Theorizing Black Girl Epistemology in the Body,” Cultural Studies 34, no. 6 (2020): 874–91. In “Twerk Sumn!” Halliday writes about the ways Black girls across the Diaspora gain knowledge of and pleasure in their bodies through dance, including twerking. Further, Halliday highlights the communal nature of this corporeal journey–for Black girls, dancing in community is liberating. Although Amy’s story is situated in a specific context, her story reflects the lives of many Black girls and women.
 Etoke, personal communication with Nicosia Shakes.
 Some have contrasted the continued airing of Toddlers & Tiaras on U.S. television with the rush to “cancel” Netflix and launch a criminal investigation into Cuties. Toddlers & Tiaras was canceled due to controversy, but TLC continues to air reruns and spinoffs. The reality show glamorizes the adultification of toddlers in beauty pageants, while Cuties critiques the effects of social media hypervisibility and beauty standards on preteen girls.
 We had conversations with several Black people of different ages who we asked to provide their thoughts on the film. Some of their names are Niga Jacques, Ryan McLeish, Agostinho Pinnock and Maziki Thame. Their opinions varied. We also thank Kabria Baumgartner for her feedback on this essay.
 Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays (The New Press, 2018).
 Cottom, Thick, 193.
Nicosia Shakes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Merced. Her book, Gender, Race and Performance Space: Women’s Activism in Jamaican and South African Theatre, is under contract with University of Illinois Press.
Barbara Thelamour is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. She runs the Identity, Culture, and Immigration Lab where she primarily investigates the cultural adjustment and identity development of Black immigrants in the United States. She is on Twitter at @B_Thelove.