I directed ‘Cuties.’ This is what you need to know about modern girlhood.

By Maïmouna Doucouré,

Maïmouna Doucouré is a director and writer.

I was at a community event in Paris a few years ago when a group of young girls came on the stage dressed and dancing in a very risque way. They were only 11 years old, and their performance was shocking. Curious to understand what was happening on that platform, I spent the next year and a half interviewing more than a hundred 10- and 11-year-old girls across the city.

The result was my movie “Mignonnes,” or “Cuties” in English. I wanted to make a film in the hope of starting a conversation about the sexualization of children. The movie has certainly started a debate, though not the one that I intended.

Puberty is such a confusing time. You are still a child, with all that wonderful naivete and innocence, but your body is changing, and you’re self-conscious and curious about its impact on others all at the same time.

The stories that the girls I spoke to shared with me were remarkably similar. They saw that the sexier a woman is on Instagram or TikTok, the more likes she gets. They tried to imitate that sexuality in the belief that it would make them more popular. Spend an hour on social media and you’ll see preteens — often in makeup — pouting their lips and strutting their stuff as if they were grown women. The problem, of course, is that they are not women, and they don’t realize what they are doing. They construct their self-esteem based on social media likes and the number of followers they have.

To see these youngsters put so much pressure on themselves so early was heartbreaking. Their insights and experiences with social media informed “Cuties.”

The main character in the film is an 11-year-old girl called Amy whose family, like mine, came from Senegal and lives in Paris. Frustrated by her mother’s failure to take control of her own life, Amy decides to seek freedom by joining a clique of girls at school who are preparing to enter a local dance contest and design increasingly risque routines copying what they’ve seen on their phones. The girls don’t have the maturity, however, to realize what their gestures and dance moves look like to the audience. It is only in seeing the shock on parents’ faces in the audience, and at the same time thinking of what her mother is going through, that Amy realizes that these dance routines bring no freedom at all. She chooses her own path, balancing her family’s traditional roots and the more liberal city in which she lives.

Some people have found certain scenes in my film uncomfortable to watch. But if one really listens to 11-year-old girls, their lives are uncomfortable.

We, as adults, have not given children the tools to grow up healthy in our society. I wanted to open people’s eyes to what’s truly happening in schools and on social media, forcing them to confront images of young girls made up, dressed up and dancing suggestively to imitate their favorite pop icon. I wanted adults to spend 96 minutes seeing the world through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl, as she lives 24 hours a day. These scenes can be hard to watch but are no less true as a result. Like most 11- and 12-year-olds, our actors in the film had already seen these types of dances and more. Despite this, during filming we were extremely mindful of their age. A trained counselor was present on set. There was no nudity except for a one-second shot in which the main characters see the exposed breast of an actress over 18 while watching a video of a dance routine on a grainy mobile screen. The project was even approved by the French government’s child protection authorities.

This film is my own story. All my life, I have juggled two cultures: Senegalese and French. As a result, people often ask me about the oppression of women in more traditional societies. And I always ask: But isn’t the objectification of women’s bodies in Western Europe and the United States another kind of oppression? When girls feel so judged at such a young age, how much freedom will they ever truly have in life?

And that’s why I made “Cuties”: to start a debate about the sexualization of children in society today so that maybe — just maybe — politicians, artists, parents and educators could work together to make a change that will benefit children for generations to come. It’s my sincerest hope that this conversation doesn’t become so difficult that it too gets caught up in today’s “cancel culture.”

Read more: Sonny Bunch: We’re disgusted by what we see in ‘Cuties.’ We’re also responsible for it. Alyssa Rosenberg: The people freaking out about ‘Cuties’ should try it. They might find a lot to like. Alyssa Rosenberg: ‘I May Destroy You’ and ‘The Vow’ can help us through the next stage of #MeToo Daniel W. Drezner: Who needs to apologize about ‘Cuties’? Megan McArdle: The real problem with ‘cancel culture’