Pseudo-progressives oppose depicting the harsh reality of young girls caught between the misogynies of two worlds, the Islamic and the Western.
The ostensibly “anti-racist feminist” backlash against Franco-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré’s coming of age film Mignonnes (Cuties in English) is a quintessential example of everything it rhetorically disparages.
Mignonnes is a Muslim female director’s tender portrait of an eleven year-old Senegalese-French girl who is struggling to navigate a lonely childhood and the contradictory expectations placed on her. The narrative follows protagonist Amy and her crew of pre-teen girls living in a fairly deprived Parisian environment and dealing (in some cases) with neglect and the influences of conservative patriarchal Islamic culture as well as the modern West’s pornified culture that feeds youngsters with highly sexualized images and messages through social media. In either case, things are far from ideal for girls.
Set in cramped Paris apartments, schools, and outdoor urban empty lots, the film neither condemns nor endorses what it shows. Whether it is the hurt inflicted on Amy’s mother by her polygamous husband or the way Amy and her adolescent girlfriends mimic disturbingly ‘grown-up’ dance moves and modes of (un)dress, the film invites viewers to draw their own conclusions about what it is like to be a young female growing up in a mixed society.
One particularly dubious “anti-racist feminist” critique of Mignonnes begins with the assertion that we cannot see the film as the work of the individual artist who made it but as the product of “a structurally racist and sexist French film industry”.1 Having demolished the director’s agency, we are now invited to condemn the ‘real’ forces behind its production and to analyse what the narrative really means, irrespective of the director’s stated intention to draw from her own experiences.
Now you might naively expect that a white person hurling the “racist” label at a black artist’s rendering of her own life might have the burden of proof. You’d kind of expect her to explain why this particular black vision of the world is illegitimate and why the French Film Industry’s support, critical acclaim and funding of this film by and about a Black woman’s experience is somehow proof of its “systemic racism”. But question-begging only works when we start from a conclusion, not when we present evidence in support of it. So it was refreshing when, in a particularly generous moment of “anti-racism”, our woke feminist critic took the time to white-splain why this Black director’s feminist outlook needs to be supplanted by her own reading of the film’s hidden meanings.
She went on to show that the unwitting black female director, thanks to malevolent French bigots bankrolling her, not only failed to represent all Muslims as the ultra-conservative, completely exotic traditionalists that they truly are but brazenly deployed the “racist stereotype” that some Muslims like to think outside of a Wahhabist box. As she so bravely put it, “you can of course start with a cliché in order to break it down. But this film didn’t.” If only the film’s protagonist had not pursued her individuality and explored her sexual agency, then she would have been the kind of “realistic” Muslim character that woke white feminists can celebrate: the one who is not like us. Instead, this Muslim director was obviously “stereotyping” all of characters who act like real Muslims (you know, by being heterosexual, dressing modestly, subscribing uncritically to an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, hating secularism and liberalism, and praying a lot).
After all, feminism is all about valorising the patriarchal religious customs that silly Muslim directors like Doucouré have rejected, not supporting the few interlopers like her who might wish to reform their own cultures from within. And although Doucouré grew up within a Muslim family and subculture, Mignones would make you think that she actually expects Muslim men to be faithful to one wife, as if they were Muslim women or something. This “anti-Muslim bigotry” ignores the fact that when French men have (secretly) had second families they didn’t even have to get stoned to death for adultery. Like some right-wing Sarkozy lover, Doucouré represents immigrant male polygamy as something objectionable. Obviously, a more left-wing feminist approach would be to make adultery illegal in France. This way French men would never lord it over “immigrant culture” while hypocritically cheating on their wives, since they could just convert to Islam and marry multiple women instead of cheating on just one, which is morally wrong and sexist.
For the self-proclaimed “anti-racist” saviour figure, Doucouré’s biggest failing is that she doesn’t fetishize and idealise absolutely everything about Islamic culture, nor does she purify all Muslims as perfectly angelic victims of Western evils. Instead of churning out the tired old cliché of Muslims as once in a while thinking for themselves, Decourré could have presented them more fairly as ambassadors of conservative Islam whose sole job is to represent their monolithic community’s fundamentalist religious customs.
And since appeals to vividness and anecdotal evidence are great distractions from the analysis of well-reasoned arguments (and a lot more fun), it is important for “anti-racist feminist” film critics to add a dash of their own personal history to bolster their rants. It goes something like this: “When I was a kid, me and my friends listened to black rap artists because we were cool and back then cultural appropriation was not yet a capital offense. We didn’t notice anything dirty in the sexually explicit lyrics, since we were just youngsters with no experience of adult sexuality. But there were some classic forms of male behaviour that we noticed, and boy were they dodgy! One commonplace was the secret ‘older boyfriend’ – i.e. a 24-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl. In hindsight, bitter experience has taught us that our own culture was overly tolerant of this sort of thing. Today, it would be recognised as child sexual exploitation.”
Of course, child marriage in other cultures can’t be seen with that kind of perspective, since other cultures are completely different to ours; they just get things right. We shouldn’t “other” the members of a culture that is completely different to ours in every way, nor should we expect them to be anything like us. From the perspective of our “civilizational superiority”, we tend to think that other cultures can do what we do, i.e. look critically at their own customs. But we need to understand diversity. Other cultures are just not capable of the kind of internal “evolution” that we are because they are already fully evolved. Unlike Christianity, Islam is based on infallible prophets and teachings. We should respect that. It is a lot more important than the “welfare” of “child brides” (Western concepts that distort Islam through a Euro-centric frame of reference).
But what is really disturbing about this film for “anti-racist feminists” is how girls who are only just beginning to understand their own sexuality end up being aggressively sexualized by a deeply misogynistic and patriarchal society – a Western one that doesn’t even keep its lust for girl children within the decent confines of marriage. This is actually shown in the film, and yet the director had the audacity to just let us see it without prompting us to be disturbed. It is as though she thinks we might find it disturbing all by ourselves. As if. Nor did she drop clues about who exactly is responsible (straight white men) or why it is so morally outrageous (Western political liberalism). At least she could have shown some truly evil characters (white dudes) salivating over the raunchy crotch shots of the girls so that the film could reflect at least some aspect of the real world rather than just an eleven year-old girl’s subjective experiences.
Any film critic worth her salt knows that you shouldn’t judge a film on the basis of what it actually presents but on the myriad things it doesn’t. And since every film should represent males as the predatory pigs that all men (essentially, by nature) truly are, any self-respecting “anti-racist feminist” will measure this film against its missed opportunities to expose that reality. On occasion, like in almost every other shot, there is an attempt to film from the perspective of the girls themselves, especially Amy’s viewpoint. Even when you see really explicit sexualized dance routines with the girls gyrating around like porn stars, there is no male onlooker in the film with whom the viewer can identify while watching the girls. How sexist.
Instead, it is always the girls who film themselves, or watch one another or other women, and the viewer (even male viewers) are positioned to identify with the girls’ point of view. It is as though the director wanted male viewers to empathise with what it is like to see the world from a girl’s perspective. How could that benefit anyone but men?
Another problem the truly “woke feminist” found in watching the film is that it is such an uncomfortable experience, partly because you recognise the naivety of the kids doing these adult dance moves. And this is problematic because, uh, that is something that should make you feel really comfortable. The whole point of art is to provide the masses with escapist entertainment, not to make them think.
Moreover, genuinely “feminist” viewers are obviously supposed to lament that all of the male characters in the film – who collectively receive about 1 minute of screen time – are benign. The one exception is Amy’s father, whose choices send reverberations through the family even in his absence. This film is “racist and sexist” because it explores the impact of Islam’s patriarchal customs on women and girls, none of whose Black lives matter. Furthermore, Mignonnes examines the ways in which women who are raised in religious traditions internalise patriarchal values and then impose them on other women and girls. Again, totally irrelevant to any “feminist” analysis! Mignonnes even represents older boys as responsibly declining sex from awkward young girls, which sets a totally “unrealistic” example for male viewers. It should have shown French boys behaving more like British ones, since all white males are the same. British guys would have tapped that!
The only “woke” conclusion to be drawn is that this film’s sole appeal was its uncritical hypersexualised representation of 11 year old girls. Everyone knows that the only reason unpleasant aspects of society are ever presented in a work of art is to promote them.
Anyone who supports Mignonnes, therefore, epitomises the deeply reactionary version of “feminism” that started in the late nineteenth century and then had a second wave in the early 1960’s. Those so-called feminists made no progress. Their nonsense would have come to dominate academia and social media in the twenty-first century too, if the (correct) Newspeak version of Feminism had not risen to its rightful place as the standard-bearer for genuine (fe)male empowerment.
Majalli Fatah is a French-Arab independent scholar whose main interests are philosophy and cultural studies. She lives in Marseilles with her husband and two cats, Simone and Maurice.
- See for example, Vince, Natalya, ‘Who are we producing these images for? An anti-racist feminist critique of Cuties’ at FiLia.ork.uk, accessed online on 21 September, 2020 at https://filia.org.uk/news/2020/9/15/who-are-we-producing-these-images-for-an-anti-racist-feminist-critique-of-cuties?rq=Cuties