French film "Cuties" caught up in U.S. fake news
From a small controversy around the Netflix poster of Cuties (Mignonnes), which addresses the difficult subject of hypersexualization of children, to becoming a national debate, caught up in the presidential campaign and now a swirl of fake news fueled by Qanon supporters.
How did Cuties become accused of dangerously sexualizing pre-teen girls when, ironically, this is what the movie itself is criticizing?
The first wave of criticism came in August, when people took to Twitter to criticize Netflix's artwork chosen from a scene in the film without the consent of the French director. This led Netflix to withdraw its "inappropriate" artwork used to promote the film, which was released in theaters that month in France. "Netflix apologized publicly, and also personally to me," said, director Maïmouna Doucouré", after she start receiving death threats. Fortunately, many celebrities and those working in the industry have defended the film having seen it and understanding the subtext:
Disappointed to see how it was positioned in terms of marketing. I understand the response of everybody. But it doesn’t speak to the film I saw. https://t.co/L6kmAcJFU1— Tessa Thompson (@TessaThompson_x) August 20, 2020
As Deadline said, "The truth of the movie, as has been well covered by reviews and audience reactions since its buzzy Sundance and Berlinale screenings, is that it is the nuanced, sensitive tale of a pre-teen girl who gets caught between two cultures – her conservative, religious upbringing and the pull of her liberal French school friends who are influenced by the internet and social media. That reality appears to have been lost in the storm, and the truth is very few of the people reacting so strongly will have actually seen the film."
Doucouré was inspired to make the film partly because she observed 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 behavoir. “Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she is successful. Children just imitate what they see, trying to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning,” Doucouré said. “It is dangerous.”
In just a few days, Cuties became one of the most watched film on the US straming platform.
Netflix hurt by boycott calls
But the controversy didn't stop there. Thousands of people launched a call to boycott Netflix on Thursday over Cuties , furious that its young stars were portrayed in a sexualized way. It soon became a Twitter trend with the hashtag #CancelNetflix becaming the top trending topic, and hurting the American streaming platform on the stock exchange.
Broader opposition to some of the imagery came from across the political spectrum in the United States. DeAnna Lorraine, a former Republican candidate for Congress from California, tweeted that "Child pornography is illegal in America."
"As the mother of an 8-year old girl, I STRONGLY support #CancelNetflix," added Beatrice Cardenas, another California Republican.
Netflix lightly took the defense of the film by stating that "Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children. 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."
Fake news takes over the film
The campaign against the film, which includes calls for the Department of Justice, was fueled by claims of child nudity in the film (which there is not). Late last week, Republicans Ted Cruz and U.S. Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas called on the Department of Justice to investigate the film’s production and distribution. In his letter to Attorney General William Barr, Cruz 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."
According to Lauren Aronson, a representative for Cruz who confirmed that he has not seen the film, the intent of the filmmaker is not the point.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican, also sent a letter to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings asking for the film to be removed from the platform while he awaits answers about how the film was made and marketed. The criticism is not just from Republicans. Democratic Hawaii Rep. and former U.S. presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, called Cuties “child porn” in a Twitter post and included a photo of the recalled poster and wrote that it will “certainly whet the appetite of pedophiles & help fuel the child sex trafficking trade".
Meanwhile baseless theory created and spreaded by Qanon supporters have started to link the film with pedophile rings, or accusing the Obamas of having worked on the production of the film, as Michelle and Barack Obama previously struck a deal with Netflix for producing content - and although neither of them worked at any point on the production of Cuties. Theories were then used by many conservatives outlets.
The main character in #Cuties is an 11yr old black girl. In this day & age, there’s no way @netfflix put out movie sexually exploiting a black girl w/o approval from their most influential partners: the Obama’s & Susan Rice. Not happening. #CancelNetflix https://t.co/W081o8bK3z— Jesse Lee Peterson (@JLPtalk) September 15, 2020
Netflix is now under pressure. Their stock has plummeted. And the company is feeling tension from activist groups like the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) who wrote in a statement "While we commend Director Maïmouna Doucouré for exposing the very real threats to young girls having unfettered access to social media and the internet, we cannot condone the hypersexualization and exploitation of the young actresses themselves in order to make her point." But so far, the streaming platform has been behind Maïmouna Doucouré.
And the best advice we can give anyone who weighs in on the film is to start by actually watching Cuties on Netflix.