Preteens and Techno-Determinism

What ‘Cuties’ Tells Us about Us

“Eleven-year-old Amy starts to rebel against her conservative family’s traditions when she becomes fascinated with a free-spirited dance crew.” This is Netflix’s razed-down, after the fact description for Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties (Mignonnes), the film released at Sundance in January of this year, that offers a quick glance into girlhood today. It is also the film whose poorly-executed marketing release spurred mass Netflix cancellations, calls for the film to be removed, and even threats to Doucouré’s life. Netflix has since apologized for the way the film was presented (and thus interpreted) as promoting the sexualization of young girls. But, even in its current presentation of the film, Netflix seems to miss the mark: it’s not about oppressive family traditions, or rebelling, or “fascination.” As the French-Senegalese writer and director points out herself: the film is about being eleven, and what it’s like to try to find your own definition of womanhood when you’re presented with multiple cultural realities, expectations, and contradictions.

Watching some of the scenes in Cuties honestly made me want to dance, too. Fathia Youssouf’s portrayal of Amy sometimes took me back to when I was eleven, watching a crew of girls just a little bit older than I was with quiet admiration. Those girls were cool, they were a little mean, but most importantly, they could dance. They would take over using the CD player at after school, and “Goodies” by Ciara would be on replay as they practiced their choreography (the formation of who got to be front, right and left was pre-set and not subject to change). They’d usually do “One, Two, Step,” because they’d get in trouble for actually playing Goodies. I remember listening to Ciara, doing the choreo along in my head, feeling a little scandalous. It was fun, and that was the point. Doucouré’s film does a great job capturing these elements of girlhood: just wanting to dance, let loose, and have a crew of friends to call your own. 

Watching other scenes in Cuties, I was deeply upset and uncomfortable, seeing things from Amy’s perspective. The film cleverly implicates you, the viewer, forcing you to realize how much harsher the edges of reality are now. Set in the present-day, the girls spend most of their time together on cell phones — using them for music for their routines, to chat, and to promote their dancing. At first glance this doesn’t seem out of place, after all, that’s what we’re all doing on here, isn’t it? But without putting too fine of a point on it, the film shows what being on social media is like growing up in a pressure cooker — while it offers a space for personal expression and self-discovery, this comes with false senses of privacy and validation. In my case, if someone were to walk in on me secretly dancing to Ciara it would have been embarrassing for me, but temporarily. Our current collective reality continually highlights how relationships in the digital age are both facilitated and made more fragile as the personal becomes increasingly public. As Amy quickly finds out, the social consequences of failing to adjust and conform to unwritten social norms are harsher, and more enduring, than before. As she also realizes, the sexier you can be online, the better. Even if you’re only eleven.

As she also quickly realizes, the sexier you can be online, the better. Even if you’re only eleven.

Part of the problem, many will say, is that social media allows for exploitation. This is the explanation given for the rise to fame of young TikTokers such as Charli D’Amelio, and the panic over “copycats” amongst young girls aspiring to fame via decidedly sexual TikTok dances in the same way. In a different but similar vein, Jia Tolentino’s writing on the phenomenon of “Instagram Face” speaks to the subtle but powerful homogenizing force of technology in shaping beauty norms. A techno-deterministic view would say that these platforms are addictive, and that validation online creates powerful changes in brain chemistry, leaving people (especially young ones!) susceptible to manipulation and powerless against these forces in the long run. Likely, those pushing for less kids’ screen-time, or for fewer films by Maïmouna Doucouré, hold a similarly deterministic (and also paternalistic) worldview: that children are being corrupted and exploited by technology, and must be protected. I’m not convinced that this is true, and part of what I liked about the film is that it doesn’t pass a strong moral judgement on technology, nor does it strip away the agency of Amy or her friends as it shows their stories to the audience. 

A techno-deterministic view would say that these platforms are addictive, and that validation online creates powerful changes in brain chemistry, leaving people (especially young ones!) susceptible to manipulation and powerless against these forces in the long run.

There is a trend on millennial TikTok, where people, mostly women, showcase “GenZ doing an activity at age 11-13” (such as doing their hair), while looking extremely composed and chic; jump-cut to “me doing that same activity at age 11-13,” while embodying a more awkward, early 2000s cringe aesthetic. It’s a fun trend, I guess, if you’re trying to relish the nostalgia of your own preteen years. It’s less so when you strip these clips down to some of their other effects: by praising kids as chic and cool for being so “put together,” “grown up” or “mature,” it cements the idea that they should have these traits. In this instance, it isn’t TikTok shaping these ideals, though the platform amplifies it. In her book Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, scholar Ruha Benjamin implores us to reject techno-determinism — the idea that society is affected by technology, but doesn’t in fact shape technology itself. She highlights the fact that “anti-Black racism, whether in search results or in surveillance systems, is not only a symptom or outcome, but a precondition for the fabrication of such technologies.” Drawing from this line of thinking, one might instead conclude that, with racism, capitalism, and sexism as its preconditions: social media is built to maximize engagement in order to maximize profit, and in doing so will encourage people to engage with racist and sexist content. The nature of girlhood is not fundamentally changed by being online, just strongly reinforced. While Amy’s life changes as she starts to be more on the phone she steals, being online isn’t the focal point. The phone is swiped as a tool; to fit in and to express oneself — and as her social relationships shift and develop, it becomes increasingly necessary. Her “fascination with dance,” however, develops offline: she walks in on her future friend dancing with herself in their building’s laundry room.

The nature of girlhood is not fundamentally changed by being online, just strongly reinforced.

Benjamin later discusses how digital technologies allow multiple forms of “coded exposure,” how being online both increases visibility as well as renders some invisible, and facilitates surveillance. The effects that visual imagery have, however, in exposing difference, vary based on different codes — often rooted in racial and desirability politics. She refers to visual anthropologist Deborah Poole, “[who] in her study of colonial-era photography, argues that we must not assume a singular interpretation of the relationship between images and society, one that looks for an all-encompassing ‘gaze’ to exercise domination and control. Rather, it is important to investigate the social nature of vision, because, once ‘unleashed in society, an image can acquire myriad interpretations or meanings according to the different codes and referents brought to it by its diverse viewers.’” 

I particularly liked Cuties because in its ninety-six minutes of French dialogue, it shows us a snapshot of Amy coming into an extremely rapid understanding about the “social nature of vision,” as she navigates the shifting aspects of her own identity as a young Black girl. Starting to become a woman means something different at school, versus online, versus at home. It doesn’t skip the small details: showing us her tender relationships with her younger brother, her new friends, her mother, her family. It elegantly shows us the world from Amy’s perspective. And of course, Doucouré seeks to question the very same hyper-sexualization of girls that the film is being targeted for supposedly promoting. With Poole’s definition in mind, the answer to that question becomes more complex. The film asks: what are you going to do about it?