Groups of conservative provocateurs, QAnon supporters, and others on social media have jumped on the release of the French coming-of-age film Cuties and a trending “Cancel Netflix” hashtag to associate the company with pedophilia.
This isn’t the first time that people have tried to cancel Netflix. Republicans tried it in 2018 following Netflix’s confirmation that it had signed a multiyear deal with Barack and Michelle Obama to produce a series of titles. Earlier this year, people threatened to cancel Netflix over 365 Days, a movie that petitioners argued glorified sexual violence against women. And, at the same time that people are calling for others to cancel Netflix over Cuties, there’s a petition from fans of shows like Jessica Jones, The OA, and Anne with an E, hosting a “cancel Netflix” campaign to try to bring attention to their favorite series that have been canceled.
But while some of those cancel campaigns are pretty direct — Republicans don’t like the Obamas, Jessica Jones fans just want more Jessica Jones — the Cuties situation gets very complicated very quickly. It moves from people being upset about the way young girls were positioned on a poster in a marketing campaign to QAnon supporters using this as proof that their dangerous conspiracy theories are real.
Alright, let’s back up.
What is Cuties?
Directed by Maïmouna Doucouré, Cuties is a French movie that critiques society’s sexualization of girls. The movie follows an 11-year-old Senegalese girl living in Paris who dreams of joining a local dance clique. She decides to protest her parents’ strict household and join the other girls in dancing their way through competitions, trying to make a name for themselves.
Cuties uses “uncomfortable images to provoke a serious conversation about the sexualization of girls — especially regarding girls of color, the policing of a girl’s sexuality, double standards, the effect of social media on kids, and how children learn these behaviors,” one critic wrote on Roger Ebert. Doucouré’s intent is to show “that our children should have the time to be children,” she told TIME magazine this month. In using imagery about exploited youth, Doucouré wants to hit home just how important innocence is, and how much it’s taken for granted today.
The film even won the World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance Film Festival this year, and it was widely praised for its depiction of the pressures of girlhood. Netflix secured the global streaming rights to the film, with Variety noting at the time that Cuties would be translated into more than 40 languages. Under the Netflix umbrella, the film would stream in 190 different territories that Netflix operates in, excluding France where it had domestic distribution.
Attacks on the movie began before people had even seen the film. Criticisms lobbed against Cuties and Doucouré came from people who saw a poster and assumed the film was one thing, and as the backlash grew, it became apparent that criticism was disingenuous, based on preconceived notions of what the movie was without having sat down to watch it. Which is why Netflix only made it worse.
Despite the film existing for some time, it wasn’t until August that people really became aware of it.
In August, Netflix tweeted a teaser for the movie’s release date that came with a new poster. Designed by Netflix’s team, the new poster seemed to present a different type of movie than the one Doucouré made. The original French poster framed the main cast of girls as that — young girls, walking through the streets of Paris, waving around shopping bags and having fun. Netflix’s now-deleted poster positioned the girls as older characters, similar to posters for other dance movies like Step Up. Here’s a side-by-side comparison.
Not long after Netflix tweeted the poster, including descriptions of the movie as 11-year-old Amy becoming “fascinated with a twerking dance crew,” tweets sprang up calling Netflix to take the poster down. Those tweets then snowballed into a few different Change.org campaigns decrying Netflix’s decision to carry the film, garnering tens of thousands of signatures. Within a couple of days, Netflix had removed the poster and used different artwork for the film on its platform.
“We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Cuties,” a statement posted to Netflix’s account on August 20th read. “It was not OK, nor was it representative of this French film which won an award at Sundance.”
A statement and removal of the poster didn’t clear everything up. By September 3rd, a Turkish media watch group demanded the film be banned from Netflix in Turkey over concerns that the movie promoted child exploitation, Reuters reported. Several high-profile, conservative commentators picked up on the story, too. They started tweeting about Netflix “grooming” children and arguing that it’s “pedophilia soft-porn.” Former NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch demanded Netflix “remove the film” entirely. The accusations lobbed at Netflix also found their way to Doucouré who told Deadline she received countless death threats.
“I received numerous attacks on my character from people who had not seen the film, who thought I was actually making a film that was apologetic about hyper-sexualization of children,” Doucouré said.
Doucouré received some support from celebrities and high-profile Twitter users alike, including Tessa Thompson, who noted she was disappointed by Netflix’s marketing campaign. Thompson added she understood people’s response to the post, “but it doesn’t speak to the film I saw.” Again, much of the complaints at the time were coming from people who hadn’t seen the movie, while defenses came in from people who had.
As Rolling Stone’s critic wrote in his review of the film, “Out of context, the girls’ outfits look questionably flashy and trashy; seen in context, as the costumes for a hip-hop dance troupe competing for a grand prize, you understand how they function in regards to a bigger-picture message that Doucouré is trying to get across.”
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos called Doucouré to personally apologize for the poster the team created. She’s currently working on another project for Netflix and told Deadline that despite the negativity associated with the poster, she had many back-and-forth conversations with Netflix to avoid this happening in the future.
A new wave of attacks
The “cancel Netflix” trend picked up again on September 9th alongside Cuties’ release. But unlike the original controversy a few weeks prior, attacks online became far more aggressive and targeted.
The fact that Cuties is streaming on Netflix, a big entertainment company with deep tech roots that’s perceived as “liberal,” also plays into this equation. Tech companies with liberal-leaning policies have found themselves at the center of anger and discourse from right-wing and conservative groups. Netflix deciding to carry an evocative film of this nature easily lends itself to those critics.
Posts went around Twitter and Instagram tagging critics who reviewed the film positively, calling them out as promoting dangerous material, but it was also a way to mobilize harassment against those writers. Conservative provocateurs like Steven Crowder and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones dedicated videos to calling out the “leftist media” that praised Cuties. Writers and personalities from conservative publications like The Daily Caller and Breitbart also criticized the film’s content.
Actress Evan Rachel Wood posted a series of Instagram stories about the film’s use of child exploitation. Republican Senator Josh Hawley commented that Netflix might “like to come talk this over before Congress,” retweeting a Daily Caller columnist. Senator Ted Cruz called Netflix carrying the film “deeply disturbing.” On Rotten Tomatoes, the film was review bombed, with plenty of audience reviews calling the film sick and twisted.
Unfortunately, a marketing attempt to promote a coming-of-age movie took on a life of its own beyond Netflix and Doucouré, as conspiracy theories about deep-rooted pedophilia rings in Hollywood — a popular theory within QAnon circles — grabbed hold of the story.
Supporters of QAnon, a group that believes Hollywood is controlled by a cabal of pedophiles, seized on the backlash. Tweets littered with hashtags like #SaveTheChildren — known for its connection to the group — started populating, and soon it was a perfect storm of anger centered on Cuties that had nothing to do with the film itself.
Not all of the criticism came from people who openly support QAnon. But the backlash makes Cuties an easy target for QAnon supporters to spread conspiracy theories. The focus has shifted away from the actual movie, including its purpose and contextual uses of certain scenes, because of the resurgent backlash. But as a critic wrote in his Rolling Stone review, Cuties is not “a salacious bit of pedo-bait designed to appeal to baser instincts rather than better angels.”
Alongside all of the criticism and backlash that led to #CancelNetflix trending, there’s also been a show of support for Doucouré and Cuties. Several film critics have tweeted positively about the movie and the director, alongside their own published reviews. Their words echo the message that Doucouré worked to show in her film: giving the audience a chance to experience what it’s like “to become a little 11-year-old girl in today’s society and not judge her,” as she told film site Shadow and Act. Netflix also issued a statement decrying the criticism and supporting Doucouré’s film.
“Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children,” a Netflix spokesperson told The Verge. “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’ message can get lost in the sea of backlash, online rage, and conspiracy theories that have found themselves attached to the film, but Doucouré wanted to tell a story that was close to her own life. In interviews she’s given, she’s expressed hope that people will watch the movie before they make a decision about whether they think it’s good or bad.
“My one message would be that childhood is precious and we all have to protect our children,” she told Shadow and Act. “We all have to come together to figure out what is best for our children so that we can give a beautiful space to our children to grow up safely and peacefully, so that they can have the freedom to choose who they want to become and the best version of themselves.”