Scandalous Dance: ‘Cuties,’ Kids and Dance Culture

If you think John Wayne didn’t dance and men only dance to get laid, then you’re too lost in the woods of mistaken machismo to have a valid opinion about the Netflix released French film, “Cuties.” Netflix may have misjudged the American audience because there is a heavy-handed loud-and-proud cultural travesty that frowns upon dance, often clashing in the aisles of American cultural exchanges with the subcultures where dance is something to be proud of. The controversies over “Cuties” points to acute problems in the United States on the dance floors and off.

I have viewed “Cuties” once and know that the French are different in many ways from not only the Americans, but also the British. Yet, remember, the British are not so opposed to dancing. When I was briefly at a British university in the 1990s, social dancing (folk dance and ballroom) were popular. I was told the ballroom club was the largest campus student organization. Ballroom dancing is serious stuff in the UK. Remember Len Goodman of “Dancing with the Stars” fame is British and Blackpool is internationally famous as the site for a ballroom dance competition.

That doesn’t mean at your average college dance party that the Brits were ready to dance. Most needed to get slightly inebriated before they hit the dance floor and displayed their moves and for that group pub crawls were probably preferable to partnered dancing. 

In the US, there is a dance community, but not everyone is part of it. A few years ago, I was involved in a heated discussion about a flash mob planned for a community college open house as part of the Fine Arts Department. The debate was over the inclusion of belly dancers. After all, there were families expected. What is acceptable performance in a public space or on a dance floor? The main voices behind this debate, myself and another woman, were at least a generation apart. I was participating in the flash mob and one of the belly dancers. The younger woman was not. 

As an undergrad, when I wasn’t working a minimum wage job, I went to dance parties at dorms, invited through friends. The all-male dorm and frats and some special interest dorms were places one didn’t let one’s guard down. Unlike other women, I would say no to some men who asked me to dance, including those known to be creepy. There were also some types of dancing I refused to be a part of.

You’ve probably seen “Dirty Dancing,” a film I love, where there’s a lot of grinding in the dirty dancing camp workers scene.  We don’t know the relationships between the ass-grabbing man and his female dance partner. As portrayed in the film, this is all mutually consensual dancing and likely between regular dance partners who may or may not (as in the case of the Patrick Swayze character Johnny Castle and his dance partner Penny (played by Cynthia Rhodes)) be lovers or at least friends with sexual benefits. 

A few generations later, when I hit the dance floors as an undergrad,  there was sloppy drunk dancing as well as another type of dirty dancing. Getting up on the floor and doing variations of doing it doggie style while mostly standing (or not). While at the time, that dance floor sexually suggestive act seemed limited to one ethnic group, a few decades later, it had filtered into the main stream. By this I mean White folks were doing it and not even the marginalized cool subculture, but the dancing tie-wearing type. For a recent dance appreciation class, my fellow students introduced me to another kind of dirty dancing: daggering. Daggering and twerking seem to be related. 

If someone asked me to dance, I would refuse to do this type of sexual simulation just as I had done a few decades earlier. I’m not unfamiliar with a close embrace. When I was single, a fellow East Coast swing dancer expressed disgust over the closed dancing of Balboa. This dance originated in Orange County and is considered a style of swing dancing. 

I’ve taken a class in the quickstep and my favorite night club dance is Argentine tango. My first two partners and I were not romantically involved although we remain good friends and I have played the part of a wingman and a marriage did result for two friends.  Programs like “Dancing with the Stars” may have changed the attitudes of some viewers in the US about dancing, particularly with the inclusion of former football stars, some who have gone on to win (Emmitt Smith, Hines Ward, Donnie Driver and Rashad Jennings). Yet I’m not convinced that enough Americans have been converted to dance as a heterosexual activity for men. I might be wrong.  

Tango is, for the most part, misunderstood by Americans and the English. I see that often enough in the movies and television shows. Tango is often sensual, but not necessarily sexual. For the Brits and Americans those two are hard to separate. Tango and Balboa do not ask the viewer or the dance partner to focus on a particular part of the human anatomy like twerking or daggering does. 

Tango is also from a culture that values dance and views male dancers differently than the US. That’s something one can see in the Latino and Spanish cultures, a vibrant place for music and dance. Dance is also something stereotypically associated with American Black culture. 

If you watch some of the videos of informal dance parties, you’ll see that other men feel free to slap the female dancer on the buttocks and the protective attitude one traditionally expects from the leader for the follower is absent. 

As a dancer, I draw the line at simulating sex or the dirty dancing where men think it’s okay to grope your derriere, vaginal area or breasts. Dry sex on the dance floor doesn’t really seem to be about dancing. While the daggering, twerking and doing it doggie style on the dance floor here between partners seemed to be voluntary, from my perspective it doesn’t make the female partner seem cool or liberated. Both daggering and twerking seem to advertise sexual prowess and objectify the dancers, the female dancers more so than the male dancers. For the male dancer, there seems to be a sense of carnal machismo. For the woman, such dancing seems to advertise her skills to please. To a large extent, it seems that women are being taught to view themselves through the male gaze. 

The male gaze is problematic. It can choose to objectify anything. One holiday party, the professional photographer decided to make upskirt shots of me when my partner dipped me. And when I say this, I mean, he didn’t bother to even include our faces. He did close ups and turned them in for the whole company to view and human resources did nothing. As a former photographer who had seen press photographers take any chance to take such snaps, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. 

The male gaze has been part of the subjective evaluation of the arts for centuries. That is particularly true for the United States where once and still the Guerrilla Girls complained that the only way women could be displayed in the Met was by getting naked.  Critics for all the arts–paintings, photography, theater, plays, novels and film are predominately male. The male aesthetic cannot be denied and is the bias taught to generations. 

Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? 1989 Guerrilla Girls null Purchased 2003

That is hardly any different in France although the French are different. They do have topless beaches.  More importantly for the Muslims, it is where Catholic nuns can wear wimples to cover their hair, but the conservative Muslim women cannot wear head scarves without being harassed. Currently, “teachers and students cannot wear ostentatious religious symbols in public,” but a mother on a field trip wearing a head scarf sparked debate in 2019

You might have forgotten that there was a time when headscarves were thought to be elegant and glamorous. Of course, I’m talking about old Hollywood and a woman who played a princess and another who became one.


The French gave Western culture Madame Chrysanthemum and Miss Saigon. At the movies, the French also gave us the 1978 “Pretty Baby.” For those who don’t remember, the film was an American production directed by Louis Malle and produced by Malle and the screenwriter Polly Platt for Paramount Pictures. The film is witnessed through the eyes of French créole Ernest Joseph Bellocq (1873-1949). The real Bellocq was born wealthy family but is known as a photographer of prostitutes of Storyville, the legal red-light district of New Orleans.  Most of his photos surfaced posthumously. 

Roger Ebert gave three stars (out of four) to “Pretty Baby,” and wrote:

Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby” is a pleasant surprise: After all the controversy and scandal surrounding its production, it turns out to be a good-hearted, good-looking, quietly elegiac movie. That’s a coup for Malle, who sometimes seems to dare himself to find acceptable ways of filming unacceptable subjects. 

The titular Pretty Baby was played by the then-12-year-old Brooke Shields. 

His subject this time is a twelve-year-old girl who is raised in the New Orleans brothel where her mother works. She plays in the garden, she rides a pony, she likes ragtime music, and one day she’s auctioned off to the man who will deflower her. This is, of course, tragically perverted, but “Pretty Baby” itself is not a perverted film: It looks soberly, and with a good deal of compassion, at its period of history and the people who occupied it.

The pretty baby of the title is named Violet, and is played by Brooke Shields, as an extraordinarily beautiful child. Before anyone had seen “Pretty Baby,” Malle was being accused of exploiting that fact. But he’s thoughtful and almost cautious in his approach: Given the film’s subject matter and its obligatory sex scenes, Malle shows taste and restraint. And Shields really creates a character here; her subtlety and depth are astonishing.

Yet in the 1970s, Shield was a pretty baby. She might not have had her virginity sold off, but she was merchandized, heavily and to the male gaze.  “Pretty Baby” was not the only place she posed nude in deals signed off by her mother, Teri Shields. Shields is probably the highest profile minor who posed nude for the Playboy Press publication Sugar ‘n” Spice. The photographer, Gary Gross (1937-2010), did not emerge entirely unscathed from the 1981 court case in which the adult Brooke tried to suppress the 1975 photos.

In the photos, the then-ten-year-old Brooke was heavily made up, covered in oil and posed in a well furnished room and standing and sitting in a bathtub. In 1983, the judge ruled: “The issue on this appeal is whether an infant model may disaffirm a prior unrestricted consent executed on her behalf by her parent and maintain an action pursuant to section 51 of the Civil Rights Law against her photographer for republication of photographs of her. We hold that she may not.”

Gross later went on to do fine art dog portraits. Playboy’s founder continued on his lavish and lurid lifestyle. When Hefner died, some lauded him as “a revolutionary who helped to dismantle the long-standing secrecy and shame surrounding sexuality.”  Others note that he was behind the “fetishization of young girls.”

Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University Michelle Smith, writing for The Conversation, notes:

The Sugar and Spice series of books in which the images appeared promised “surprising and sensuous images of women” from contemporary photographers, coding them as “artistic”.

Shields was lucky. She went on to do some questionable movies that capitalized on her beauty–the 1980 “The Blue Lagoon”(nude scenes performed by Kathy Troutt) and the 1981 “Endless Love.” The youngest girl to appear in a Playboy nude pictorial was Eva Ionesco. Her mother, Irina Ionesco, took erotic photos of her daughter in the 1970s. Eva modeled for French photographer Jacques Bourboulon. Bourboulon’s nude photos of the 11-year-old Eva appeared in the Italian edition of Playboy (October 1976). Two years later, she was featured in the Spanish edition of Penthouse. Ionesco had a small  part in a Roman Polanski movie, “The Tenant,” a poorly reviewed film that came out about a year before Polanski was arrested for raping a minor.

While Eva is the youngest girl to appear in a Playboy nude pictorial, the youngest to appear in the US editions was 16. Elizabeth Ann Roberts posed in 1958 and her mother signed a statement claiming Roberts was 18. 

The year Polanski was arrested, 1977, was the year that Ionesco was on the cover of the German magazine Der Spiegel, full frontal and completely nude. She claims her life is the inspiration for “Pretty Baby.” 

L’étape d’après, ça a été des films érotico-pornographiques en Italie. Ça devenait de plus en plus fou. Pendant les interviews, ma mère était à mes côtés, je me demandais quand ce cauchemar allait s’arrêter. Je rêvais d’une vie normale, avec une gentille maman qui protège son enfant. Le scandale était énorme, en dépit de l’époque, plus tolérante. Louis Malle a écrit « La Petite » en s’inspirant de mon histoire. Je me suis sauvée, je ne voulais plus être l’exaltation des fantasmes sexuels de ma mère. Son prolongement. Ensuite, j’ai voulu devenir comédienne, mais autrement. J’ai suivi les cours de théâtre d’Antoine Vitez, puis ceux de l’école des Amandiers dirigée par Pierre Romans et Patrice Chéreau.

Eva sued her mother three times. In 1998, French police confiscated photos at Irina’s apartment that featured the five-year-old Eva nude and in suggestive poses.

Sur ordonnance judiciaire, il y a eu une saisie par huissier, dans son appartement, de plusieurs centaines de photos sur lesquelles j’ai 4, 5 ans. Ma mère ne montre jamais ces images-là, pédophiles, si bien que j’aurais presque pu douter de leur existence si je ne les avais vues. Je ne demande qu’une chose : qu’elle me rende la totalité de ces clichés, qui ont été pris sans mon consentement.

In the Elle magazine, Eva interview opined: 

Encore maintenant, ma mère continue de vendre, en Asie et en Russie, les photos ultra-érotiques que je récuse. Après la projection cannoise, elle m’a laissé un message sur mon répondeur : « Eva, tu as parlé. Il va t’arriver beaucoup de malheurs. De grands malheurs. »

Her mother continues to profit off of the erotic photos she took of her underaged daughter in Asia and Russia. Her version of her own story is the 2011 French film, “My Little Princess,” which she directed and co-wrote with Marc Cholodenko and Philippe Le Guay.  Perhaps everyone should watch “My Little Princess” before viewing “Pretty Baby.”  

Unlike Ionesco, Sally Mann went to great lengths to protect her children. She infamously photographed her children naked, all under the age of ten, in black and white,  for her “Immediate Family” which was first exhibited in 1990 (Chicago) and published in 1992. The New York Times reviewed it as “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann.

More recently, in 2008, the use of a 13-year-old model by Australian photographer Bill Henson sparked controversy, but the model’s mother spoke out in support of Henson. The girl who was photographed refused to speak to the police.  Actress Cate Blanchett supported the artist.  How that model faired and feels now is unknown.

Brooke Shields was 14 when her infamous ad about jeans lifted the fortunes of Calvin Klein. In the comments someone questioned the respective ages of the man and Shields–is he 35? Is that about as icky as the relationship between the twice-divorced 42-year-old writer (Woody Allen) who is dating the 17-year-old (Mariel Hemingway) in “Manhattan”? Hemingway much later recounted Allen’s pursuit of her after the film. Hemingway also remembered her time on set as a frightening

Far from a girl who’d fall in love with an older man because they “have laughs together” and “great sex,” in real life, Hemingway was then a 16-year-old “virgin [who]’d never even really made out with anybody,” as she said in 2015 when promoting her 2015 memoir. She worried about her kissing scene with Allen for weeks, repeatedly saying, ‘How long was it going to be?’ I was scared. I even asked my mother, ‘How do I make out?'” When they finally shot it—Hemingway’s summary: “He attacked me like I was a linebacker”—she was still so nervous that she ran over to the film’s cinematographer, Gordon Willis, and said, “I don’t have to do that again, do I?” (At the time, she added, “everybody just laughed.”)

Brooke Shields and Mariel Hemingway both were featured in Playboy as adults–Hemingway in April 1982 and Shields was featured on the cover in 1986 when she was 21.

Shields was better known as a model than an actress at first. There was and is, as one might suspect, a problem of mistreatment and abuse of models in Paris as well. 

In this #MeToo era, the treatment of models in Paris has been questioned. 

The use of underage girls as sexualized objects of desire is something that isn’t new. It has, in the past, been dismissed as art and part of the artistic life. It would seem to be a reflection of how the female sex is viewed in a wide variety of cultures.  

“Cuties” (“Mignonnes”) comes out in a culture that has a less than innocent attitude toward young girls. Written and directed by  Maïmouna Doucouré, the film is about an 11-year-old Senegalese-French girl, Amy, who rebels against her traditional Muslim culture. 

France is not without sex scandals. To better understand the ethnic Senegalese in France, which includes Doucouré, there are a few things we need to know. France colonized parts of West Africa, including what is now Senegal. Although Senegal achieved independence in 1960, French is the official language, a lingua francas that unites the ethnic and linguistic communities. Prostitution is legal and regulated in Senegal since 1969. About 96 percent of the population is Muslim. About 26 percent of the women have undergone genital mutilation. Child marriage in Senegal is a problem with 31 percent before the age of 18 and 8 percent before 15.

Yet let’s consider the growing scandal in France about the lack of scandal and instead, public support of a French writer who “wrote for years about his predilection for children and won awards: Gabriel Matzneff

In France, it is illegal for an adult to have sex with a minor under the age of 15. But it is not automatically considered rape, unlike in countries with statutory rape laws where people who are underage are considered incapable of giving consent.

As one might expect, proving coercion is difficult. Two cases involving 11-year-old victims gained international attention: One involving a 28-year-old man in Montmagny and another involving a 22-year-old man

This is the French society that Amy is growing up in, a country that in 1959 was rocked by a sex abuse scandal involving girls aged 15-17  who were brought in to dance for prominent political figures (ballets roses). And yet also a France where men can have sex with 11-year-old girls and the defense attorney (Sandrine Parise-Heideiger) can claim, “we are not dealing with a sexual predator on a poor little faultless goose.” As the colleague Marc Goudarzian explained, “She was 11 years and 10 months old, so nearly 12 years old. It changes the story.” 

Amy (Fathia Youssouf) has just learned that her father will return from Senegal with a second wife, something that Amy’s mother (Maïmouna Gueye ) isn’t pleased with but must endure. Amy meets Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni) and is fascinated by her twerking and her clique, a dancing group with adult styles moves. When Amy joins the girls are already wearing revealing outfits, influenced by the older competitors. Amy uses social networks to discover more popular moves, ones that are overtly sexual. The Cuties incorporate them into their routine, but after an argument, Amy is cast out of the group. As the Cuties prepare to perform their hyper sexualized routine, Amy finds a way to rejoin the group.

The outcome [spoiler alert] is that Amy performs but she realizes the audience is revolted by their routine. The weight of her betrayals to her mother and culture crashes down and bursting into tears, Amy runs away, leaving the stage and going home to rejoin her mother.

“Cuties” comes out the year that the actions of the 83-year-old Matzneff are being reconsidered: 

But the publication, last Thursday, of an account by one of his victims, Vanessa Springora, has suddenly fueled an intense debate in France over its historically lax attitude toward sex with minors. It has also shone a particularly harsh light on a period during which some of France’s leading literary figures and newspapers — names as big as Foucault, Sartre, Libération and Le Monde — aggressively promoted the practice as a form of human liberation, or at least defended it.

According to the New York article: 

Caught now in the crosscurrents of France’s changing attitudes toward sex, Mr. Matzneff is the product and longtime beneficiary of France’s May 68 movement, the social revolution started in 1968 by students and unions against France’s old order.

With the slogan, “It’s forbidden to forbid,” the movement rebelled against authority and fought against imperialism, capitalism, racism, sexism and homophobia. Some also argued for abolishing age-of-consent laws, saying that doing so would liberate children from the domination of their parents and allow them to be full, sexual beings.

In his 1974 book, “Les Moins de Seize Ans,” or “Under 16 Years Old,” he wrote, “To sleep with a child, it’s a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure.” If you need to be reminded, Roman Polanski was arrested in 1977 and fled to France in 1978.

It was only this year in February that he came under investigation. The investigation was looking into rapes committed on minors under 15 by Matzneff. Others like editor Christian Giudicelli, a member of the Renaudot Prize jury might also come under investigation.

Un deuxième personnage serait dans le collimateur des enquêteurs, rapporte également Mediapart : l’éditeur Christian Giudicelli, aujourd’hui âgé de 78 ans, membre du comité de lecture de Gallimard, membre du jury du prix Renaudot et ami intime de Matzneff. Il ne serait ainsi pas étranger à l’obtention du prix Renaudot de l’essai, en 2013, par ce dernier. Se décrivant volontiers dans ses écrits comme le « fidèle complice » de Gabriel Matzneff, il relate dans de nombreux livres, textes et interviews des détails de leurs voyages aux Philippines.

The film “Cuties” isn’t child pornography. It is tame compared to “Pretty Baby.” Yet “Cuties” should make its audience stop and think about the actions of adults on and off the dance floor and how they are perceived by children. Instead of dancing like no one is watching, dance like everybody is watching. Christian Parrish Takes the Gun, or Supaman, says: 

They say to dance like nobody is watching. I think that implies that we are afraid or ashamed to dance in front of the people. I say dance like everybody is watching. Dance like your children are watching, your ancestors, your family. Dance for those who are hurting, those who can’t dance, those who lost loved ones and those who suffer injustices throughout the world. Let every step be a prayer for humanity! Most of all dance for the Creator, who breathed into your soul so you may celebrate this gift of life! Shoutout to Nakoa Heavy Runner with the beautiful song “Let us Dance” A’ho




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