Cuties, I learned, was a French movie directed by Maïmouna Doucouré that premiered to acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It follows an 11-year-old girl named Amy who, like Doucouré, is the child of Senegalese immigrants. As she struggles to accept her family’s cultural and religious traditions, Amy befriends a group of girls who are part of a dance crew called the Cuties. Hot pants, hair dye, and twerking ensue. The film also grapples with class, race, and the role social media plays in shaping young women’s self-image, but that’s not what pulled it into a cultural firestorm.
By now, the beats of the controversy are familiar: Ahead of the film’s release, Netflix shared a misleading poster showing Amy and her friends in their stage outfits—mid-competition, midriffs exposed, knees spread. The poster was so bad I wondered if the provocation was deliberate. Netflix apologized, but the damage was done. #CancelNetflix became the No. 1 trending hashtag on Twitter the day after the film dropped. The director received death threats. Movie critics and Twitter users who defended Cuties were called rapists or pedophiles. Politicians, most notably Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard and Republican Senator Ted Cruz, accused Netflix of promoting child pornography.
Last week, news surfaced that a grand jury in Texas indicted Netflix for promoting work depicting the “lewd exhibition” of girls under 18 (the company is standing by the film). The indictment also declares that Cuties “has no serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
This claim is reckless, and untrue.
After my father’s death, I began trauma-informed therapy, the kind designed to pull the patient out of the vortex of shame that pedophilia creates in its victims. Part of the recovery process involves giving up what I call “the search”: an impulsive hunt for fictional portrayals of sexual abuse in movies or books, anything that could trigger a sense of nausea. This compulsion has eased, but it lingers—this desire to find portals to the origin of my pain, to the imagined place where I can make sense of what happened to me once and for all.
Read: On marrying a survivor of childhood sexual abuse
When I sat down to watch Cuties, I expected to disassociate or panic. Instead, I just felt wistful and a little sad. Although at times uncomfortable, the film I watched was hardly the sordid filth that its detractors were claiming. (“Disgusting and wrong,” Cruz called it. “Appeals to the prurient interest in sex,” the indictment stated.) This was a coming-of-age story, told with obvious care and emotional sensitivity—a meditation on how lonely, complex, and occasionally joyous the road to adolescence can be. When the credits rolled, I thought to myself, That’s it?
Cuties thoughtfully portrays Amy navigating the exhilaration and cluelessness that can emerge between true childhood and early puberty—especially in an era when young people spend so much time on platforms such as TikTok and YouTube, where sexualized content abounds. While researching the movie, Doucouré spent a year and half interviewing more than 100 Parisian girls about their experiences with social media so that she could better understand the forces that shape young women today. Cuties has plenty of contemporary relevance, but it has a timeless quality as well: The film shows what it’s like to desperately need your mother and hate the life she’s given you at the same time. It depicts the intense, capricious love that can undergird young friendships.