The colonial wounds of Senegal’s girlchild
In ‘Black Girl’ (1966) and ‘Cuties’ (2020), M'Bissine T. Diop is a cautionary figure who warns of colonialism's wounds and afterlives for Black girl belonging in the present day.
Maïmouna Doucouré tells us what we already knew and shows us what we have already seen. Her directorial debut, Cuties (Mignonnes), is a cautionary tale in many forms. The film, which saw a maelstrom of criticism when it debuted on Netflix in 2020, is a criticism at its core. Doucouré, born in Paris of Senegalese origins, conceptualized the film after having witnessed a hypersexual youth talent show. The film, castigated for its depictions of a pre-pubescent twerk team, depicts something that has become so stitched into the fabric of society that cognizance of its existence disquiets us; every day, Western shows such as Dance Moms and global media sites such as YouTube or TikTok project young girls’ suggestive dances to digital masses. These invisible digital communities are so large that their size is beyond comprehension, but the projections have become a template, choreographies of puberty that mediate the ways in which young girls come of age.
If we take this Debordian reading as a point of departure—that images mediate society—it is necessary to understand that these media have been racialized and contorted by cultural hegemonies. In a rather upsetting scene, the protagonist Amy takes a selfie. Glancing at her imaged self, she makes a concerned face. She then opens up an editing app, manipulating her features into those which fit an Instagram-age beauty standard that exposes and hardens anti-Blackness; lightened skin, bigger eyes, pinker cheeks.
A Black girl coming of age in the Parisian suburbs, Amy is suspended between her Senegalese roots and the Parisian environment in which she lives. The latter, which she explores through her membership in a twerk team with fellow schoolmates, is an identity largely made up of images. The girls gather around phones and watch dance videos, absorbing movements that display “proper” figurations of mature French womanhood. It is these images that form the contours of what Amy seeks to become; the problem is that Amy does not fit. At the end of the film, Amy’s twerk performance is disastrous. The crowd, anxious and disturbed at the young girls’ provocative dancing, all but boos them off the stage. Amy panics, weeps, and returns to her home in the cité. Strolling in a solemn state, she catches a glimpse of other girls—Black girls—taking part in the markedly Black game of double-dutch. She joins in, and Doucouré’s camera pans up as Amy skips to super-human heights. She is transcendent, finally broken away from the image-based standards that have been impressed upon her body from the film’s beginning. She is Black, she is young, and she is blissful.
It appears that one character, Amy’s unnamed Auntie, knew this was going to happen. The Auntie very rarely speaks but spectates, always overseeing Amy’s coming-of-age with a concerned glint in her eye. She encourages Amy’s appreciation of her Senegalese roots and (even if implicitly) cautions Amy against the ill-fitting standards of Whiteness for youth in metropolitan France. While Amy does not understand this warning until the end of the film, the Auntie’s presence harkens to one of Senegal’s most cautionary characters—the actress who plays Auntie is M’Bissine Thérèse Diop, known for her role as the watershed protagonist in Senegalese opus Black Girl (La noire de…).
Under the direction of Ousmane Sembène in 1966, Diop gave form to the young Diouana, hired as the housemaid for a White family in the south of France. Removed from her native Senegal, Diouana is initially thrilled to have “du travail chez les blancs” (“work with the Whites ‘). Upon her arrival in Antibes, she immediately seeks to embody that which is emblematic of 1960s French femininity: long hoop skirts, glamorous heels, and a bouffant in her hair. However, the household mother, Madame, literally and figuratively strips her of these garments, constantly reminding her of her status as a colonial subject and relegating her to a position below human.
Diouana, having sought so desperately to assume an ideal of French womanhood, is instead enslaved. Her misery overwhelms and overcomes her, and the film ends with her suicide in the Antibes bathroom. The household father, Monsieur, returns to Dakar to return Diouana’s belongings and pay her family a restitution. The family refuses—their daughter is not an object to be bought nor refunded—and a young Senegalese boy chases Monsieur through the town. The child embodies Diouana’s ghost, donning the mask that she had left behind upon her transition into the afterlife, and haunting the Monsieur until he anxiously boards his plane to France.
M’Bissine T. Diop only starred in one other film after 1966— Sembène’s 1971 Emitai. Her appearance in Doucouré’s film is a rare, treasured, and curious one. Like the young boy at the end of Black Girl, it is as though Diouna’s ghost reappears through the actress who gave her breath, this time as a soothsaying and omniscient aunt watching a niece balance her Senegalese being against the cumbersome act of belonging in France.
Amy does not die. With the aid of her Senegalese community, she traces out the joy of Black Senegalese girlhood. Nevertheless, the colonial wound is present and always at risk of re-opening. Ancestors remind us of this fact. The ghosts of imperialism are present.
Caution— we already know this. We have already seen this.