Nothing cute about child exploitation
Culture | An upcoming Netflix film about pre-adolescent dancers draws criticism
by Megan Basham
Posted 8/25/20, 03:47 pm
Netflix apologized last week after promotional materials for one of its upcoming films sparked accusations it hypersexualized young girls.
The summary for the French drama Cuties, which is scheduled to hit the streaming platform on Sept. 9, originally read, “Amy, 11, becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew. Hoping to join them, she starts to explore her femininity, defying her family’s traditions.”
As social media backlash to the idea of children performing sexually suggestive dance moves such as twerking grew, the company amended the language to say, “Eleven-year-old Amy starts to rebel against her conservative family’s traditions when she becomes fascinated with a free-spirited dance crew.”
The streaming giant also jettisoned an image that showed four pre-adolescent girls wearing hot pants and midriff-baring tops while striking seductive-looking poses. The original French advertisement depicted them skipping together in street clothes, carrying shopping bags.
“We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used,” Netflix said in a statement posted on Twitter. “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.”
But critics are upset with more than Netflix’s promotional campaign; they also find the subject matter of the film unacceptable.
“Cuties clearly sexualizes children, and, in particular, girls of color,” said Dawn Hawkins, senior vice president and executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “The pornography industry is built on these stereotypes, and Netflix is taking a page from this playbook by featuring these children in such a manner.”
One of several Change.org petitions calling for Netflix not to add the movie to its library already had more than half a million signatures by Tuesday.
If early reports are correct, both the artwork and the original summary may accurately represent the film’s content.
Two days before the controversy struck, the entertainment news site The Wrap described Cuties as the story of a girl from Senegal who inspires her friends to “embrace more sensual dance moves as part of their routine even as she begins to face the realities of growing up, and they hope to twerk their way to stardom at a local dance contest.”
Along with Netflix’s characterization of Amy’s journey as one of developing “self-confidence,” several reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes said dance moves that originated in strip clubs help the child protagonist achieve “emancipation.” That suggests the movie shares at least some like-mindedness with the brand of third-wave feminism that claims displays of sexuality empower young girls.
Director Maïmouna Doucouré, who has since deleted her Twitter account, said seeing young girls dancing in an amateur competition in Paris inspired her to write the script as a critique of Western media culture. “They danced in a very sexually suggestive manner,” she told Screen Daily. “There also happened to be a number of African mothers in the audience. I was transfixed, watching with a mixture of shock and admiration. I asked myself if these young girls understood what they were doing.”
Some major celebrities, like Avengers actress Tessa Thompson, have come to Doucouré’s defense. “Cuties is a beautiful film. It gutted me at @sundancefest,” Thompson tweeted. “It introduces a fresh voice at the helm. She’s a French Senegalese Black woman mining her experiences. The film comments on the hypersexualization of preadolescent girls. Disappointed to see the current discourse.”
It might be easier to give Netflix the benefit of the doubt on its artistic intent, though, if the company didn’t have such a poor track record featuring hypersexual material involving young characters.
In 2019, the platform developed the original teen series Sex Education that features nudity and numerous explicit sex scenes. And its original animated comedy series Big Mouth follows a group of seventh graders who engage in masturbation and carry “hormone monsters” on their shoulders.
Whether Cuties criticizes or participates in sexualizing pre-teens may still be up for debate, but one social media site, at least, isn’t taking chances. Imageboard 4Chan has already issued a warning to users that it will ban anyone posting images of children from the film, saying, “Netflix may allow this … 4Chan does not.”
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Megan is film and television editor for WORLD and co-host for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All. Megan resides with her husband, Brian Basham, and their two daughters in Charlotte, N.C. Follow her on Twitter on @megbasham.