The Netflix Cuties Controversy, Explained

Over the past month, director Maïmouna Doucouré's film has drawn accusations of promoting paedophilia
The Netflix Cuties Controversy, Explained

How did Netflix's Cuties, about a group of 11-year-old girls in Paris, spawn accusations of paedophilia, cause #CancelNetflix to become a trending topic and lead to calls for a federal investigation into whether it had broken laws regarding the distribution of child porn? Let's break it down:

What is the movie about?

Written and directed by French-Senegalese writer Maïmouna Doucouré, Cuties follows Amy, a 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant, who moves to Paris with her family. Rebelling against her family's traditional Muslim values, she joins her neighbour's twerking dance group. "I really put my heart into this film. It's actually my personal story as well as the story of many children who have to navigate between a liberal western culture and a conservative culture at home," the director told Deadline.

How did the controversy start?

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it received largely positive reviews and won Doucouré the World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award.

When Film Companion critic Rahul Desai watched the film, he called it 'excellent' and wrote: To her credit, Doucouré doesn't shy away from objectifying the girls' physicalities, almost as if she were deliberately trying to reflect the general gaze in the hope of procuring an epiphany. And that epiphany comes. The sighs turn into gasps. Once Amy goes full Beyonce, there were winces of uneasiness. The shock creeps up on unsuspecting viewers, almost as if the anticipation of the climactic dance competition had fooled everyone into overlooking their own awry moral compass. 

The controversy began when Netflix acquired the film and, to promote it ahead of its release on September 9, put out a poster that was markedly different from the original French one. While the original depicted four grinning girls carrying shopping bags on the street against a background of confetti, the Netflix one featured them in crop tops and shorts striking provocative poses. Its description read: Amy, 11, becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew. Hoping to join them, she starts to explore her femininity, defying her family's traditions. The film, and by extension, Netflix were accused of promoting paedophilia.

Several petitions for Netflix to 'remove' the yet-unreleased film from its lineup were started. This one has as many as 5.86 lakh signatures.

Others, including actress Tessa Thompson, defended the film. Thompson, who had also watched it at Sundance, called it 'beautiful' and said she was disappointed by the current discourse.

Netflix apologized for the poster, released an updated one and deleted mentions of twerking from its description of the film. The new description read: "Eleven-year-old Amy starts to rebel against her conservative family's traditions when she becomes fascinated with a free-spirited dance crew."

Doucouré said she had received a personal apology from Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos.

How has it snowballed?

After the film released on Netflix, clips of the girls dancing began circulating on social media, prompting claims of paedophilia once more.

#CancelNetflix became a trending topic on the site. Critics who had given the film positive reviews became the subject of targeted harassment. After continued backlash, Texas House of Representatives member Matt Schaefer tweeted that he had "asked the  Texas attorney general's office to investigate" Cuties for "possible violations of child exploitation and child pornography laws." Democratic Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard called the film "child porn" and said that she had canceled her Netflix account.

Senator Ted Cruz seconded her statement and said he had asked the Department of Justice to investigate if the film violated federal laws regarding the production and distribution of child porn.

"Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children," a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement. "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."

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