Much Ado About ‘Cuties’

How GOP lawmakers came to target a French film distributed by Netflix

Cuties (or Mignonnes in French), the breakout film from writer and director Maïmouna Doucouré, debuted on Netflix this week after winning the World Cinema Dramatic Directing prize at Sundance Film Festival in January. The film is a coming-of-age drama about Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old Senegalese-French girl from a conservative Muslim family who starts to dance provocatively in an attempt to befriend the cool girls at school.

Doucouré says the film is a depiction of what life is like for preteen girls who see hypersexualized beauty standards pointed toward them from social media at a young age. But some GOP lawmakers (many of whom have not seen the film) say the film’s depiction of preteens dancing amounts to child pornography, and some are calling on the Department of Justice to take action against Netflix.

How did a French independent film become such a talking point in the American culture wars?

From Last Temptation to now

First, some context. This is not the first time American politicians have spoken out against a film before its release, and it won’t be the last.

The U.S. Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations denounced Martin Scorsese’s “morally offensive” The Last Temptation of Christ ahead of its release in 1988 because of the “characterization of Jesus as an imperfect, allegedly ‘wimpy’ figure,” among other things,  according to the Los Angeles Times.

When Darren Aronofsky’s Noah premiered in 2014, Christians who had yet to see the movie boycotted it and caused an uproar after Glenn Beck reported the film “had no mention of God.”

A weird controversy erupted in 2018 when false reports circulated that Damien Chazelle’s First Man would not feature the American flag on the moon and would replace all American flags with Chinese flags in the Chinese market. In actuality, the film does not have a scene where Armstong plants a flag, but it does feature several shots of the American flag on the moon and it did not replace the American flag with Chinese ones in any market. But that didn’t stop folks like Marco Rubio and President Donald Trump from speaking out about it.

Last year, direct commentary from President Trump about The Hunt’s subject matter was one of the factors that got that film delayed for months until its eventual release in March 2020. The use of film as political prop is nothing new, but there have been several examples of such usage in the last few years. 

Q-Anon theories

Enter Doucouré. The Senegalese-French writer/director has said she wanted to make a film about her own experienced growing up as an immigrant in France after attending a Paris talent show where she witnessed young girls dancing provocatively for a conservative audience.

“I was transfixed, watching with a mixture of shock and admiration. I asked myself if these young girls understood what they were doing,” the director told Screen Daily. “I came to understand that an existence on social networks was extremely important for these youngsters and that often they were trying to imitate the images they saw around them, in adverts or on the social networks. The most important thing for them was to achieve as many ‘likes’ as possible.”

She then wrote Cuties, which concludes with a scene reminiscent of that talent show that results in young Amy realizing the supposed freedom granted to her by her dancing really isn’t freedom at all. The film won the World Cinema Dramatic Directing prize in January 2020 at its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and debuted in France on Aug. 19. Netflix acquired it for American distribution.

While the film was picking up awards and being released overseas, the #SaveTheChildren movement was picking up in America. The hashtag used by QAnon conspiracy theorists to ferret out alleged pedophiles is not at all affiliated with the legitimate Save the Children nonprofit but is a way for QAnon adherents to further their narrative (with roots in Pizzagate) that several U.S. government officials and Hollywood celebrities organize sex trafficking rings and that Trump’s main goal as President is to stop said sex trafficking.

Bad marketing

Netflix’s botched marketing campaign for the first trailer and poster for Cuties only added to the QAnon theory that people in high levels of American society want to promote child sex trafficking and child pornography. The film’s French poster is below on the left. The Netflix poster is below on the right.

Cuties

This poster and the trailer prompted swift backlash from pretty much everyone (rightfully so). Doucouré said she received death threats because of the way Netflix promoted the film. Turkey’s version of the FCC demanded Netflix remove the film from its site.

Netflix eventually apologized in a tweet about the marketing, saying “We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Mignonnes/Cuties. 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 new description now reads “Eleven-year-old Amy starts to rebel against her conservative family’s traditions when she becomes fascinated with a free-spirited dance crew.”

The film debuted on Netflix on Sept. 9, after critics praised it even amid the controversy about the film’s content.

Backlash and investigation

#CancelNetflix started trending on Twitter the night Cuties premiered on the service. People were tweeting about the film, often out of context, saying that the film promotes child pornography and entices pedophiles. The film was review-bombed on every user review platform available. A change.org petition calling for Netflix to remove the film from its platform and asking people to cancel their Netlix subscriptions gained more traction that night as well. At the time of this writing, the petition has more than 650,000 signatures.

Many of those tweeting #CancelNetflix were conservative American politicians.

“child porn Cuties’ will certainly whet the appetite of pedophiles & help fuel the child sex trafficking trade,” former presidential candidate and current Hawai’i Rep. Tulsi Gabbard tweeted Sept. 11.

“Deeply disturbing: Netflix aggressively promoting new movie sexualizing children. Hollywood should not be celebrating & making $$ off of the sexual abuse of 11-year-old girls. This is not OK,” Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted Sept. 11.

Sen. Josh Hawley suggested that Netflix testify about the film before Congress.

Actress Rachel Evan Wood also shared Instagram stories about the film’s supposed child exploitation. Conservative outlets and pundits like Alex Jones and Steven Crowder derided the film and any “liberal” outlet that praised it.

Calls for legal action

Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Indiana Rep. Jim Banks gave an exclusive statement to right-wing website The Daily Caller Sept. 11 where they call for the Department of Justice to take legal action against Netflix for releasing and distributing Cuties.

“There’s no excuse for the sexualization of children, and Netflix’s decision to promote the film ‘Cuties’ is disgusting at best and a serious crime at worst,” Cotton said. “I urge the Department of Justice to take action against Netflix for their role in pushing explicit depictions of children into American homes.”

Banks agreed, saying:

“As a father of young daughters, I find it sickening. Not only is this movie fodder for pedophiles, it encourages very young girls to defy their parents’ wishes and share pornographic images of themselves with strangers.

“Our culture has come a long way in recent years, recognizing the power of television, movies and magazines to affect young girls.

“The lessons taught in this film are not ones I want my daughters learning. The DOJ should be readying charges against Netflix for distribution of child pornography.”

Netflix responded to these claims, calling the film “a social commentary against the sexualization of young children.”

Doucouré wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post Sept. 16 called “I directed ‘Cuties.’ This is what you need to know about modern girlhood.” agreeing with Netflix’s statement.

She said that at no point were any of the child actors in danger on set, and that the crew employed a trained counselor. The film was approved by France’s child protection authorities. The nudity many people are claiming is in the film is a “one-second shot in which the main characters see the exposed breast of an actress over 18 while watching a video of a dance routine on a grainy mobile screen,” the director said.

“Some people have found certain scenes in my film uncomfortable to watch. But if one really listens to 11-year-old girls, their lives are uncomfortable.

“We, as adults, have not given children the tools to grow up healthy in our society. I wanted to open people’s eyes to what’s truly happening in schools and on social media, forcing them to confront images of young girls made up, dressed up and dancing suggestively to imitate their favorite pop icon,” Doucouré wrote.

“I wanted adults to spend 96 minutes seeing the world through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl, as she lives 24 hours a day. These scenes can be hard to watch but are no less true as a result. Like most 11- and 12-year-olds, our actors in the film had already seen these types of dances and more.”

As of this writing, Cuties is still in the Top 10 trending titles on Netflix’s American site.

 

Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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