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Majalli Fatah rips apart a so-called ‘feminist’ critique of an uncomfortable feminist film.
The backlash against Franco-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré’s recent coming-of-age film Mignonnes (Cuties in English), as being both racist and anti-feminist, is a clear example of everything it rhetorically rages against.
Mignonnes is a Muslim female director’s tender portrait of an eleven-year-old Senegalese-French girl struggling to navigate a lonely childhood and the contradictory expectations placed on her. The narrative follows the protagonist Amy and her crew of pre-teen girls living in a fairly deprived Parisian environment. It deals with neglect and the competing influences of conservative patriarchal Islamic culture and a modern Western culture which continually feeds youngsters highly sexualized images and messages. Set in cramped Paris apartments, schools, and outdoor empty lots, the film neither condemns nor endorses what it shows. Whether it’s the hurt inflicted on Amy’s mother by her polygamous husband, or the way Amy and her adolescent girlfriends disturbingly mimic ‘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 woman growing up in a mixed society.
One particularly dubious ‘anti-racist feminist’ strand of criticism on Mignonnes asserts that we must not see this film as the work of the individual artist who made it, but instead as the product of ‘a structurally racist and sexist French film industry’ – see for example, ‘Who are we producing these images for? An anti-racist feminist critique of Cuties’ by Dr Natalya Vince, at FiLia.org.uk. Having demolished the director’s agency, we are then 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 and portray her own experiences.
Does depiction imply endorsement?
Film Images © Bac Films 2020
You might naively expect that a white person hurling the ‘racist’ label at a black artist’s rendering of her own life might bear the burden of proof for their allegation. You’d expect the critic 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 and sexism. So it was sort-of refreshing when, in a particularly generous moment of ‘anti-racism’, Dr Vince took the time to whitesplain why this black director’s feminist outlook needs to be supplanted by her own reading of the film. She went on to argue that thanks to malevolent French bigots bankrolling her, this unwitting female not only failed to represent all Muslims as the exotic ultra-conservative traditionalists they truly are, but instead brazenly deployed the ‘racist stereotype’ that some Muslims like to think outside of a Wahhabist box. As Dr Vince so boldly 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 perhaps she would have been the kind of ‘realistic’ Muslim character a white feminist can celebrate: the one who is not like us. Instead, this Muslim director obviously mistakenly believed that 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) are themselves ‘stereotypes’. After all, feminism is not about supporting the few interlopers like Doucouré who might wish to reform their cultures from within, but rather, about valorising the patriarchal religious customs that silly Muslim directors have rejected!
Although Doucouré grew up within a Muslim family and subculture, Mignonnes might even make you think that she actually expects Muslim men to be faithful to one wife! Like some rabid right-winger, Doucouré represents immigrant male polygamy as something objectionable. Such ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’ ignores the fact that when French men have (secretly) had second families, they didn’t even have to be stoned to death for adultery. Perhaps a more left-wing and egalitarian feminist approach would be to make adultery illegal in France. That way, French men would never lord it over ‘immigrant culture’ about unfaithfulness while hypocritically cheating on their own wives. Rather, they could just convert to Islam and marry multiple women, instead of cheating on just one, which is morally wrong and sexist.
So Doucouré’s biggest failing is apparently that she doesn’t fetishize or idealise everything about Islamic culture, nor does she portray all Muslims as angelic victims of Western evil. Instead of churning out the tired old cliché of Muslims thinking for themselves once in a while, Decourré could have presented her characters more fairly as ambassadors of conservative Islam, whose sole job is to represent their monolithic community’s fundamentalist customs. And since appeals to vividness and anecdotal evidence are major distractions from a well-reasoned analysis (and a lot more fun), it’s important for ‘anti-racist feminist’ film critics to add a dash of their own personal history to bolster their rants. The history 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 an offence. 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’ – for instance, a twenty-four-year-old man and a fourteen-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, however, child marriage in other cultures can’t be judged with that kind of perspective, since other cultures are different to ours. They just get things right. We shouldn’t ‘other’ the members of a culture completely different to ours, nor should we expect them to be anything like us. From an old-fashioned ‘civilizational superiority’ perspective, we tended to think that other cultures should do what we do morally, and looked critically at their customs. But we need to understand diversity. Other cultures are just not capable of the kind of internal evolution that we have undergone, 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’ – two more Western concepts which distort Islam through a Eurocentric frame of reference.”
Still from movie plus a poster (above) for which Netflix later apologised, saying it was inappropriate.
Yet apparently what’s really disturbing about this film for ‘anti-racist feminists’, is how girls who are only just beginning to understand their sexuality end up being aggressively sexualized by a deeply misogynistic and patriarchal Western society which doesn’t even keep its lust for children within the decent confines of marriage! This sexualization is shown in the film, yet the director had the audacity to just let us see it without overtly signalling us to be disturbed, as though she thinks we might find it disturbing all by ourselves! As if. Nor did she drop any clues about who exactly is responsible (rich straight white men, obviously) or why it is so morally outrageous); she could at least have shown some truly evil characters (white dudes) salivating over the raunchy shots of the girls dancing, so that the film could reflect at least some aspect of the real world, rather than merely an eleven-year-old girl’s subjective experiences.
Genuinely feminist viewers will obviously lament that all the male characters in the film – who collectively receive about one 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.
Any film critic worth her salt knows that you shouldn’t judge a film on the basis of what it actually presents, but rather, on the myriad things that it doesn’t. And since every film should represent males as the predatory pigs they all are, any self-respecting ‘anti-racist feminist’ will measure this film against its missed opportunities to expose that reality. Instead, in almost every shot, there is an attempt to film from the perspective of the girls themselves, especially Amy’s viewpoint. Even when you see the sexualized dance routines, with the girls gyrating around like porn stars, there is no male onlooker in the film with whom the male viewer can identify. It is always the girls who film themselves, or watch one another or other women, and even male characters are positioned to identify with the girls’ points 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 sexist! How could that benefit anyone but men?
Another problem the ‘woke feminists’ found in watching this film is that it is such an uncomfortable experience, partly because you recognise the naivety of the kids doing these dance moves. This is problematic because, uh, you should feel comfortable. The whole point of art, including film, and dance, is to provide the masses with escapist entertainment, right?
The only ‘woke’ conclusion to be drawn is that this film’s sole appeal was its uncritical hypersexualized representation of eleven-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 had a second wave in the early 1960s. 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 one correct Newspeak version of Feminism had not risen to its rightful place as the standard-bearer for genuine fe male empowerment.
© Majalli Fatah 2021
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.