UPDATED: Netflix, amid a backlash over the sexualized portrayal of children in recently released drama “Cuties,” is encouraging critics to watch the movie — which it says makes a statement about pressures young girls face in conforming to societal role models of female sexuality.
The movie, which is rated “TV-MA” for language, centers on Amy, an 11-year-old Senegalese girl living in Paris who joins a “free-spirited dance clique” (called “the Cuties”) to rebel against what she perceives as her family’s oppressive mores.
After its Sept. 9 release on Netflix, “Cuties” has elicited outrage for showing the girls performing highly sexualized dance routines and depicting the characters in other sexual situations. The backlash has included an online petition calling on Netflix customers to cancel their subscription over “Cuties” and other “disturbing” content about kids on the service. On Twitter, “#CancelNetflix” was a top-trending topic Thursday in response to “Cuties.”
As the outcry continued to grow on Twitter, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) tweeted a letter addressed to Netflix’s Reed Hastings, demanding that Netflix answer his questions “no later than Friday Sept. 18,” such as “Did Netflix take measures to ensure the protection of child actors made to perform simulated sex acts.”
“‘Cuties’ is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children,” a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement to Variety. “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.”
“Cuties” (“Mignonnes”) premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré won the world cinema dramatic directing award.
In a six-minute segment accompanying the film on Netflix, Doucouré says that in performing research for the film — her feature directorial debut — she met with hundreds of pre-teens to understand how they perceived their femininity in today’s society.
“Our girls see that the more a woman is sexualized on social media, the more she’s successful,” she says in “Why I Made Cuties.” “And yeah, it’s dangerous.”
Amy, the film’s protagonist, is “navigating between two models of femininity,” Doucouré says — one represented by her Muslim mother’s traditional beliefs, and the other by the Cuties dance squad. Amy believes she can “find her freedom through that group of dancers and their hyper-sexualization. But is that really true freedom? Especially when you’re a kid? Of course not.” Doucouré, born and raised in Paris in a Senegalese family, adds, “I put my heart into this film because this is my story.”
According to the conservative American advocacy group the Parents Television Council, which said it reviewed the film, “Cuties” is objectionable because of its overt sexualization of the child characters. That, the PTC alleged, eclipses its implicit message about the dangers of social media and how sexual images in popular culture negatively affect kids.
The PTC says that in addition to the girls’ sexualized dance routines and costumes, one scene shows Amy pulling down her underwear to photograph her genitals and then posting it on social media. Earlier in the scene, she tries to seduce her adult cousin to get out of trouble for stealing his mobile phone. At another point, Amy is browbeaten by her new Cuties friends into an attempt to take a picture of a boy’s penis in a school bathroom (she fails).
“Although there is a danger that little girls will be attracted to this film, the far greater risk is the way this film normalizes the sexualization of little girls,” PTC program director Melissa Henson said in a statement Thursday, adding that Netflix is “desensitizing millions of viewers at home by asking them to be entertained by it.”
The latest backlash comes after Netflix released a promotional poster for “Cuties” in August depicting its young cast members in provocative poses. The company apologized for the “inappropriate artwork,” and said it was not representative of the film.
Netflix did itself a disservice with the “misleading” marketing, which stirred up a right-wing campaign against the movie, New Yorker contributor Richard Brody wrote of the film.
“The subject of ‘Cuties’ isn’t twerking; it’s children, especially poor and nonwhite children, who are deprived of the resources — the education, the emotional support, the open family discussion — to put sexualized media and pop culture into perspective,” he wrote. The film, according to Brody, tells the story of “a girl’s outrage at, and defiance of, a patriarchal order.”