Netflix film Cuties becomes target of politicized backlash

The backlash to the French film Cuties started before it had even been released, because of a poster that went viral for its provocative depiction of its young female actors. But the spotlight has intensified since the film became available on Netflix, becoming the target of politicized outrage.

Director Maimouna Doucoure asks audiences to watch film 'without judging this child'

This image released by Netflix shows the cast of the coming-of-age film Cuties. The backlash against the movie started before it had even been released, because of a poster that went viral for its provocative depiction of its young female actors (Netflix/The Associated Press)

The backlash to the French independent film Mignonnes — translated as Cuties — started before it had even been released because of a poster that went viral for its provocative depiction of its young female actors. But the spotlight has only intensified since the film became available on Netflix last week, and it has become the target of heightened politicized outrage.

Members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and others have started a campaign calling for subscribers to the streaming platform to "#CancelNetflix."

At the heart of the backlash is the idea that Cuties is dangerously and irresponsibly sexualizing preteen girls, which, ironically, is what the movie itself is criticizing, too.

The campaign against the film, which includes calls for the Department of Justice to investigate it and hundreds of thousands calling for subscribers to cancel their Netflix accounts, is riddled with inaccuracies due in part to the fact that some critics have not seen the film. (One claims that there is child nudity when there is not.)

Netflix said in a statement that it is a "social commentary against the sexualization of young children."

Written and directed by Maimouna Doucoure, Cuties is about an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant named Amy (Fathia Youssouf) who is living in an impoverished Paris suburb with her observant Muslim family.

She becomes fascinated with a clique of rebellious girls at her middle school who choreograph dance routines and wear crop tops and heels. They talk about Kim Kardashian and diets, practice "twerking" and giggle about boys and sex-related things that they don't yet understand.

Netflix acquired Cuties out of the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year where it was favourably reviewed and won an award for its direction.

It is the kind of film (foreign-language and with no stars from a first-time director) that would otherwise have flown under the radar. But because Netflix's promotional materials caught the attention of the internet and even led to an apology from the streaming giant and the removal of the posters, Cuties was thrust onto the national stage.

Politicians call on DOJ to investigate 

Late last week, Republicans Cruz and U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas called on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the film's production and distribution.

Cruz, in his letter to Attorney General William Barr, asked that they "determine whether Netflix, its executives, or the individuals involved in the filming and production of Cuties violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography."

On Sunday in an interview on the Fox News Channel, Cruz elaborated that Netflix is "making money by selling the sexual exploitation of young kids."

Cruz and others have raised the point that Netflix has a production deal with former U.S. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, although neither have any association with Cuties.

Congressman Ken Buck of Colorado tweeted that he and Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona also want the DOJ to investigate.

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican, also sent a letter to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings asking for the film to be removed from the platform while he awaits answers about how it was made and marketed.

The criticism is not just from Republicans. Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, in a Twitter post called Cuties "child porn," included a photo of the recalled poster and wrote that it will "certainly whet the appetite of pedophiles & help fuel the child sex trafficking trade."

"Netflix, you are now complicit," Gabbard wrote.

Melissa Henson, program director for the Parents Television Council, said that it "normalizes the sexualization of little girls," and more than 640,000 accounts have signed a Change.org petition calling on users to cancel their Netflix accounts over the film.

Critics defend film

Despite the sustained backlash since the film's release, Netflix is not apologizing.

"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," a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement.

Cuties director Maimouna Doucoure speaks onstage during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival Awards where her film debuted in January. Doucoure said she was inspired to make the film after seeing girls dancing 'like we're used to seeing in video clips.' (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Some film critics have also weighed in on the controversy and highlighted the merits of the film.

"It would have been easy for Doucoure to use a broad brush to paint the different extremes of Amy's experience ('stifling tradition bad, dancing good'), but she's not exactly making Footloose here," New York Magazine film critic Bilge Ebiri wrote.

"Cuties is not a blunt screed or a finger-wagging cautionary tale in either direction — which is one reason why anyone watching the film looking for clear messages about right and wrong is bound to be disappointed, maybe even outraged."

Doucoure was inspired to make the film partly because she observed some 11-year-old girls dancing "like we're used to seeing in video clips" at a gathering in Paris and wanted to investigate why such young girls were mimicking such adult behaviour.

"Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she is successful. Children just imitate what they see, trying to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning," Doucoure said. "It is dangerous."

Director asks audiences to watch 'without judging'

Her protagonist, Amy, is at the crossroads of conflicting messaging from her family, French Western culture and the "hyper-real fiction of social media," Doucoure said. 

She encouraged audiences to watch the film "without judging this child."

According to Lauren Aronson, a representative for Cruz, who said he has not seen the film, the intent of the filmmaker is not the point.

"There should be absolutely no place for the filming and distribution of these scenes," Aronson wrote.

But Doucoure believes that her film is a worthy call to action. And her messaging seems to have the same goal as those bemoaning its existence.

"We must all come together to figure out what is best for our children. As a director, as an artist, I am doing my part with this film," she said.

"Politicians, the education system, parents and children must come together to fix what's gone wrong."