Netflix sought to address mass-outrage and accusations of sexualizing pre-teen girls by apologizing and taking down a promo image for French-Senegalese film, Cuties (Mignonnes), which depicted the young actresses posing in skimpy, spandex dance costumes. Amidst the controversy, the makers of the film stressed their intention to address the very issue of sexualization of young girls as the central theme.
Soon after the video streaming giant Netflix released the poster, petitions started circulating on social media demanding that the “inappropriate” and “suggestive” poster be removed, with some even calling for the award-winning film to be banned.
Watch: Cuties | Official Trailer| Netflix
The backlash prompted Netflix to issue an immediate apology. The OTT platform announced that it was taking down the controversial artwork, which featured young girls posing in “provocative” ways.
The streaming giant Netflix tweeted, “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.”
While the platform is going ahead with the scheduled September 9th release of the film, demands to remove the film completely are continuing unabated. Simultaneously, there is a semblance of growing support for the film and its creator. Thousands are expressing anguish over the poster for promoting pedophilia, exploitation and Islamophobia, while many fans are angry at Netflix for “destroying the career” of the French-Senegalese film-maker, and risking her safety in its portrayal of the film
What Is Cuties?
Soon to premiere on Netflix, Cuties, the directorial debut of French-Senegalese screenwriter, Maïmouna Doucouré, is a coming-of-age drama of a group of teen girls who join the titular dance group, Cuties. The film follows a Senegalese-Muslim immigrant, 11-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf), and her friends, who defy their conservative families to join a free-spirited dance troupe, known for its risqué and sometimes hypersexualized dance moves. Amy is instantly fascinated with the group’s contrast to her family’s traditional values, and is eager to explore something vastly different. She joins the group as they embrace an “increasingly sensual” dance routine in the hopes of reaching stardom at a local dance contest.
Social Media Pushing Children Toward Hypersexuality
The film won the World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award at the 2020 Sundance film festival. Doucouré, herself an immigrant, interwove her own life experiences as a young black refugee to make the movie.
Watch: Doucouré’s powerful speech at Sundance Film Festival
Speaking to CineEuropa, Doucouré said she had been inspired to make the film when she saw a group of young girls at a neighborhood party “going up on stage and dancing in a very sensual way while wearing very revealing clothes.” Doucouré says, “I was rather shocked and I wondered if they were aware of the image of sexual availability that they were projecting.” What surprised her more was that the audience was comprised of a set of very conservative mothers, some wearing veils.
This set her thinking along the lines for the film and while researching, she found some very young girls “were followed by 400,000 people on social media and I tried to understand why.” It appeared to her that “There were no particular reasons, besides the fact that they had posted sexy or at least revealing pictures: that is what had brought them this ‘fame’.”
The young French screenwriter went on to explain that the film, “is most of all an uncompromising portrait of an 11-year-old girl plunged in a world that imposes a series of dictates on her.” She stressed that “It was very important not to judge these girls, but most of all to understand them, to listen to them, to give them a voice, to take into account the complexity of what they’re living through in society, and all of that in parallel with their childhood which is always there, their imagination, their innocence.”
Netflix Oversimplifying A Complex Narrative?
The criticism of the Netflix poster does seem to hold merit, for neither the film nor the director are intent on sexualizing young teen girls. It is instead a critique of the ways in which modern culture sexualizes young women and forces them to grow up. The film’s original French poster used a less controversial image in which the four young girls are seen throwing shopping bags in the air.
However, the backlash against the film itself does seem a little unfounded. It is highly unlikely that the thousands of petitioners who claim the film “sexualizes an 11-year-old for the viewing pleasure of pedophiles” could have all watched the film even before its official release. The disparagement seems based on a now-deleted poster, which by Netflix’s own admission, was an erroneous depiction of the film’s actual intent.
Cuties Isn’t the First Instance When Netflix Has Been Called Out
This is not the first instance where the platform has been accused of “glamourizing” children’s sexuality. In 2018, a US-based media watchdog raised serious concerns over an Argentinian film Desire for allegedly portraying child pornography. In the same year, an Italian show called Baby prompted the National Center on Sexual Exploitation to call out Netflix for the show that “glamorizes sexual abuse and trivializes the experience of countless underage women and men who have suffered through sex trafficking.”
However, the backlash has been so strong and the trolling so vitriolic that the director has been pushed into deleting her social media profile. Many supporters of the film and a few who have actually seen it during its Sundance premiere have come out strongly in defense of the director. Marvel actress Tessa Thompson tweeted that she was disappointed with the current discourse around the film and spoke of how it had “gutted” her when she saw it at the Sundance Festival.
Critics of the film also seem unaware or deliberately ignorant of the filmmaker Maimouna Doucouré’s explanation that the story is an attempt to highlight how social media pushes young girls to mimic hypersexual cultural norms without fully comprehending the dangers behind these.
Doucouré stressed in her CineEuropa interview, “Today, the sexier and the more objectified a woman is, the more value she has in the eyes of social media. And when you’re 11, you don’t really understand all these mechanisms, but you tend to mimic, to do the same thing as others in order to get a similar result.” She called for a discussion and debate about these issues. “I think it is urgent that we talk about it, that a debate be had on the subject.”
Given these arguments, while Netflix’s marketing promos on the film do seem problematic, calling for a ban on the release of the film itself feels like yet another baseless social media uproar with a half-baked understanding of real issues that threatens to derail the debate that the director aims to fire up with Cuties.