With the fall streaming season officially on, Netflix launched a wave of fresh content over the weekend, including TV shows like The Duchess and Julie and the Phantoms and the buzzy feature documentary, The Social Dilemma. But the most talked-about title on the streaming service remains Cuties, the French coming-of-age story that’s at the center of an ever-growing national controversy over its depiction of growing up in the social media era.
Since the film’s release on Sept. 9, a #CancelNetflix campaign has been one of the top trending topics on Twitter. In a report provided to Yahoo Entertainment, the data trends analytics company SEMrush noted that over 50,000 tweets were posted about Cuties from Sept. 10 to Sept. 14, and almost half of those also carried the #CancelNetflix hashtag.
Some of those tweets are coming from prominent political voices. On Thursday, author, lawyer and political strategist Christine Pelosi — daughter of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi — took to Twitter to encourage Netflix to remove the film from its platform. “Cuties hypersexualizes girls my daughter’s age no doubt to the delight of pedophiles like the ones I prosecuted,” Pelosi wrote, finding common ground with a segment of Twitter that professed surprise at agreeing with her.
Hi @netflix, from a customer and former ADA in SFDA’a Child Abuse-Sexual Assault Unit: “Cuties” hypersexualizes girls my daughter’s age no doubt to the delight of pedophiles like the ones I prosecuted. Cancel this, apologize, work with experts to heal your harm. #CancelNetflix
— Christine Pelosi (@sfpelosi) September 10, 2020
Thank you. This should NOT be a partisan issue.
— Mary R (@MRheingrover) September 13, 2020
On the other side of the aisle, several Republican members of Congress have issued statements condemning Netflix, including Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, and Congressman Vern Buchanan of Florida. Cruz submitted a letter to the Justice Department urging them to investigate both the production of the film and Netflix’s choice to stream it, suggesting that it could potentially have “violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography.”
Following @netflix’s disturbing promotion of “Cuties,” I sent a letter calling on @TheJusticeDept to investigate whether Netflix, its executives, or the filmmakers violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography. pic.twitter.com/P7wLXixU6X
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) September 12, 2020
Even as the debate over Cuties spills over from the entertainment world to politics, Netflix is standing behind the film and its director, Maïmouna Doucouré. “Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children,” a Netflix spokesperson remarked in a statement provided to Variety. “It’s an award-winning film and a powerful story about the pressure young girls face on social media and from society more generally growing up — and we’d encourage anyone who cares about these important issues to watch the movie.” The streaming service acquired the film after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where Doucouré won the World Cinema Dramatic directing award.
In multiple interviews, Doucouré has talked about how she was inspired to make the film based on her own childhood, as well as her observations of watching today’s generation growing up in vastly different circumstances. Born in Paris to Senegalese immigrants, the writer/director remembers the clash between her parents’ way of life and the Western culture she was exposed to at school and elsewhere. “I grew up in two cultures, and I wanted to show my personal story,” she told the online magazine Zora. “I recreated the little girl I was at that age and what it was like for me to grow up with the Senegalese culture at home and the Western culture outside.”
Doucouré’s onscreen stand-in is 11-year-old Amy, played by Fathia Youssouf. As the film begins, Amy and her younger brother are living with their mother in Paris, awaiting their father’s return from Senegal with a second wife. Alienated from her own community, she finds acceptance and friendship with the “Cuties,” tweenage dance troupe who model their lives after the barely-dressed influencers they see on Instagram. “Kim Kardashian is my mom,” one of Amy’s new friends says without a trace of irony.
Much of the controversy surrounding Cuties has to do with the film’s dance sequences, which feature the young actresses performing routines that are intentionally uncomfortable in their maturity and suggestiveness. Doucouré has said that she set out to reflect the kind of content that young girls this age are exposed to online. “What happens is young girls see images of women being objectified, and the more the woman becomes an object the more followers and likes she has — they see that as a role model and try to imitate these women, but they’re not old enough to know what they’re doing,” she told Deadline in a recent interview.
It’s should be noted that whenever the film shows other peoples’ reactions to the Cuties’ dance moves onscreen, they range from shock to sadness. That includes the climactic sequence at an outdoor dance competition, where the girls show up with an Instagram-influenced routine and costumes that they believe the audience will love. (Those costumes were originally featured on the widely-condemned posters for the film that Netflix eventually apologized for.)
Instead, the crowd openly boos the girls, leading Amy to flee the stage in tears. In the film’s final moments, she re-emerges into the world with clothes that finally reflect her own youthful personality. “The main message of the film is that these young girls should have the time to be children, to enjoy their childhood, and have the time to choose who they want to be when they are adults,” Doucouré explained to Deadline. “You have a choice, you can navigate between these cultures, and choose from the elements of both, to develop into your own self, despite what social media dictates in our society.”
Some of the movie’s critics have signaled they understand the director’s intentions, but disagree with her methods. In a statement posted on Twitter, Lina Nealon — the director of corporate and strategic initiatives at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation — wrote: “While we commend director Maïmouna Doucouré for exposing the very real threats to young girls having unfettered access to social media and the internet, we can not condone the hypersexualization and exploitation of the young actresses themselves in order to make her point.” Cruz’s letter to the Justice Department similarly suggests that the young cast was exploited in the making of the film.
Speaking with Zora, Doucouré outlined the precautions she took in directing the young actresses, including the use of composite shots and the participation of a child psychologist. “I created a climate of trust between the children and myself,” the filmmaker said. “I explained to them everything I was doing and the research that I had done before I wrote this story. I was also lucky that these girls’ parents were also activists, so we were all on the same side. At their age, they’ve seen this kind of dance. Any child with a telephone can find these images on social media these days. However, these were composite shots, so the girls weren’t dancing like that all the time. We also worked with a child psychologist throughout the filming. She’s still working with the children, because I want to make sure that they can navigate this newfound stardom.”
Based in Paris, Doucouré has been watching the film’s U.S. release from afar and has expressed sadness about the controversy, particularly after seeing Cuties embraced by critics and audiences alike at Sundance. Thor: Ragnarok star Tessa Thompson was among its early champions, and spoke up in support of the film after the poster controversy broke in August.
#CUTIES is a beautiful film. It gutted me at @sundancefest. It introduces a fresh voice at the helm. She’s a French Senegalese Black woman mining her experiences. The film comments on the hyper-sexualization of preadolescent girls. Disappointed to see the current discourse. 😞
— Tessa Thompson (@TessaThompson_x) August 20, 2020
Speaking at a French film event on Monday, the director recalled how those Sundance viewers understood the film’s ultimate message: “I met the public there and they really saw that the film is about a universal issue. It’s not about French society — the hyper-sexualization of children happens through social media and social media is everywhere. People [at Sundance] agreed with that.” Doucouré also stressed that she’s ultimately fighting “the same fight” as Pelosi, Cruz and Nealon. “We need to protect our children. What I want to is to open people’s eyes on this issue and try to fix it.”
Cuties is currently streaming on Netflix
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