Misadventures with misogynoir

How Netflix turned a necessary exploration of the hyper-sexualisation of pre-teen girls into yet another avenue to silence, intimidate and bully Black women

Photos: Cuties original poster

Cuties Netflix poster

One of the most insidious forms of violence and hatred alive in the world today is misogynoir – the fear and hatred of Black women and girls. Rather than the comparatively simple violence of racism or misogyny, misogynoir takes aim squarely Black women and girls and seeks to alienate us from everything and everyone around us. This is done by utilising the gendered standards set down and enforced by white supremacy to demarcate the Black woman as a foreign object both within society and within her own body. This is the concept at the heart of Maïmouna Doucouré’s latest film, ‘Cuties’. Misogynoir is everywhere in society and has become particularly prevalent in mass media and messaging. 

In addition to misogynoir, the proliferation of brands on social media has given rise to a peculiar phenomenon in media – outrage marketing. Many brands have come to the realisation that they can bypass adblockers and get millions of pounds worth of free advertising by taking advantage of the clicks generated by social media outrage. In fact, the most notable example of this was last year’s Gillette ‘We Believe: The Best Men Can Be’ short film encouraging men and boys to improve themselves and the world around them by eschewing toxic masculinity. Slowly but surely, this harnessing of outrage clicks has found its way into film and television marketing with shows like ‘Cracka’ – a violent race reversal drama relying solely on the latent fear a lot of white people seem to have that Black people will, one day, treat them as horribly as they have treated the world’s non-white peoples to garner attention ahead of its release. One can argue that because the subject matter of such films and TV shows is already severely polarising, it should logically follow that the marketing for them also be. But what happens when a company tasked with generating buzz for an upcoming release so effectively utilises the outrage machine as to turn public opinion against a film and its director?

Contrary to most of the right-wing smear merchants that we’re all supposed to believe suddenly care about paedophilia and the hyper-sexualisation of teenage girls, I actually watched ‘Cuties’. It was an uncomfortable viewing experience made infinitely worse by trying and failing to shut out all the social media noise that preceded the film’s release and tainted its intended message. This is due, in no small part, to the aggressively inept marketing decisions made by Netflix. However, it cannot be ignored that so much of the film’s negative press came from a group of people whose favourite pass-times include; blaming survivors for their own assault and rape, insisting that female characters in children’s media and videogames function as wank fodder first and characters second, and fostering a general culture of rape apologetics. Whilst trying to give the film as fair a viewing as I could muster, I came to the realisation that the reason the film made me so uncomfortable was because that was the intention of its director, Doucouré. The film follows 11-year-old Amy as she tries to navigate life as a pre-teen Black girl living in Paris the 21st century. A lot of challenges she faces come from existing in a conservative religious household whose interpretation of its holy text imposes sexuality on girls and women by casting them as the bearers of the sexual sin and immodesty. Amy’s life is only further complicated by the secular world outside her home that seems committed to imposing sexuality on her by feeding her hyper-sexualised images of women and framing that hyper-sexuality as something that should be aspired to.  Looking at the film and the apology that Netflix itself issued for the gross mishandling of the film’s marketing, one could be easily forgiven for thinking that all of this was a simple misunderstanding. However, the twisting of the narrative surrounding the film by US Senator Ted Cruz and other conservative voices, the harassment of Doucouré and Netflix’s history with various other Black creators and talent paints a far more insidious picture.

Video: YouTube/Steve TV show

Even though, she has spent years being dismissed and shouted down as being pushy, entitled and wanting more than she was worth, actress, comedian and academy award winner, Mo’Nique had been very open about her struggles with the pay disparity that she had noticed in her dealings with Netflix. She is currently suing the streaming platform for racial and gender discrimination because they wanted to pay her $500,000 for her stand-up special in 2017 while comedians like Ricky Gervais, Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock, Ellen DeGeneres and Amy Schumer all received deals with pay negotiated in the tens of millions for their own specials. Mo’Nique is, by no means, the only Black woman that has found themselves being lowballed in negotiations with the streaming giant. Comedian and actress, Wanda Sykes also spoke up about her dealings with Netflix in which she said they offered her less than $250,000 for her own stand-up comedy special and, more recently, it  came out that Michaela Coel, the creator of ‘Chewing Gum’ and ‘I May Destroy You’ turned down a $1 million deal with Netflix that would have left her with no claim to any percentage of the copyright for her own story. 

Netflix’s issues with racial and gender pay disparity are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Just days ago, that actor Jeremy Tardy announced on social media that he would not be returning for the fourth and final season of ‘Dear White People’ – a Netflix and Lionsgate co-production citing racial pay disparity as the main reason for his exit from the show. It is against this sustained pattern of discrimination against Black talent (specifically Black women) that Netflix must be held accountable. Netflix’s mishandling of ‘Cuties’ cannot be dismissed as a simple misunderstanding, but rather, the latest symptom of a much bigger virus – misogynoir. Looking at all the evidence laid out in this article, it would be all too easy to point the finger at Netflix as bearing sole responsibility for the threats and harassment lobbied at Maïmouna Doucouré and this media misunderstanding. In reality, Netflix is just one carrier and the pandemic of misogynoir was already widespread before any of these gender and racial disparities could be noticed. 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us that there exist multiple films and TV shows depicting the phenomenon of teen girl hyper-sexualisation that long pre-date ‘Cuties’. ‘American Beauty’, ‘Lolita’, ‘Death Proof’, ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ and ‘Dance Moms’ are but a few examples of this. All the cinematic examples given here voyeuristically focus on teenage girls as seen through the gaze of older white men. The only difference, this time, is the fact that ‘Cuties’ chooses to focus on this sensitive ever-present phenomenon of culture through the eyes of one of its targets to hold up a mirror to society. The result has been the film and its director becoming the centre of such dedicated moral panic and outcry. This series of events should set off more than a few alarm bells. If we can learn anything from all of this, it is that white men will continue to be afforded unchecked impunity to explore all topics however sensitive or polarising they may be. And while this goes on, the actual subjects of study will continue to find themselves heavily penalised for taking an active part in their own exploration. 

Article by Tariyé Peterside. To see more from Tariyé here


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