Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 30 September 2020

Why the release of 'Cuties' has led to calls for thousands of subscribers to cancel Netflix

Despite winning an award at Sundance Film Festival, 'Cuties' has been shrouded in controversy

'Cuties' is centred around a young Senegalese migrant who joins a dance group in Paris. IMDb
'Cuties' is centred around a young Senegalese migrant who joins a dance group in Paris. IMDb

Despite it only being released on Netflix last week, the backlash to Cuties started long before.

At the beginning of the year, the French film was receiving high praise at Sundance Film Festival, where it also won an award for direction, but fast-forward a few months, and the picture has been shrouded in controversy.

The film, known as Mignonnes in France, follows an 11-year-old Senegalese Muslim girl, Amy, who joins a dance group – named the Cuties – in Paris. The film is centred around Amy's struggle to balance her family's conservative outlook with her desire to join her friends.

At the heart of the backlash is the idea that Cuties is dangerously and irresponsibly sexualising pre-teen girls, which, ironically, is what the film itself is criticising, too.

Backlash against the film started last month after Netflix released a poster showing a group of young girls in risque dance poses, wearing minimalist costumes. The bungled marketing for the film also led French-Senegalese filmmaker Maimouna Doucoure to receive death threats.

Ted Sarandos, co-chief executive of the US streaming platform, made a personal apology to Doucoure, who was forced to delete her social media accounts due to the backlash.

“We're deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Mignonnes/Cuties,” Netflix said in a statement. “It was not OK, nor was it representative of this French film which won an award at Sundance. We’ve now updated the pictures and description.”

The film was also blocked ahead of its release in Turkey by the country’s media watchdog, over fears it "contains exploitation and abuse, which might lead to potential child exploitation behaviour patterns emerging".

Many critics clearly haven't seen the film

However, the spotlight has only intensified since the film became available on Netflix last week and it has become the target of heightened politicised outrage from members of US Congress, including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has joined others online calling for subscribers to #CancelNetflix.

French-Senegalese film director Maimouna Doucoure was honoured at this year's Sundance Film Festival. AFP
French-Senegalese film director Maimouna Doucoure was honoured at this year's Sundance Film Festival. AFP

However, 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).

Late last week, Republicans Cruz and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas called on the Department of Justice 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.”

A number of other US politicians have expressed concern over the film, calling for its removal from the platform. But it’s not just politicians. More than 640,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling on users to cancel their Netflix accounts over the film.

However, this time Netflix is not apologising.

“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.

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, in part, after observing 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 sexualised 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.”

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

Doucoure encouraged audiences to watch the film “without judging this child.”

According to Lauren Aronson, a representative for Cruz who said she 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.”

Additional reporting from Associated Press

Updated: September 15, 2020 01:32 PM

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