And I’m not talking about cancelling Patriot Act, though yes, I’m upset about that, too.
But I’m actually more baffled by the way it has handled a different controversy. Maybe you saw #CancelNetflix trending on Twitter yesterday? Well that was all about Cuties, a French coming-of-age film about an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant who joins a dance crew and finds herself in conflict with her family’s conservative values. It’s coming to the platform in September, so Netflix started promoting it this week.
And… it did a terrible job.
WTF Is Up With This Movie Poster
If you don’t love dance movies—think, Honey, Step Up, even Magic Mike—the way I do, you might not recognize the tropes in the movie poster Netflix created for Cuties. But if you have, this all looks familiar: skimpy outfits, sexy poses… Even the lighting and airbrushing adhere to the aesthetic of the genre. (I.e., everyone is strangely poreless and even when there’s no actual sparkles, it kinda feels like there should be.) Here’s what doesn’t match, though: the actual dancers, 11-year-olds who, in some cases, look even younger.
That was Netflix’s first mistake. The second was the original description: “Amy, 11, becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew. Hoping to join them, she starts to explore her femininity, defying her family’s traditions.”
If you’ve been paying even a little bit of attention to the #SaveOurChildren discourse, you know what happened next: Twitter was outraged.
Because @netflix is promoting and streaming the movie "Cuties", I have cancelled my account.— Jared Harfield (@JaredHarfield) August 20, 2020
This is disgusting. Exploiting and normalizing child sexuality is heinous and must not be tolerated.
This movie should be removed, people fired, and lessons learned.#CancelNetflix pic.twitter.com/uNvZxOswWv
Former NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch, anti-abortion activist Lila Rose, alt-right figures Jack Posobiec and Bryan Sharpe and thousands of QAnon adherents condemned the platform for sexualizing children. And, the message started spreading beyond conspiracy theorists. Two petitions sprung up demanding the movie be removed, which quickly garnered tens of thousands of signatures. In sum: scores of people who hadn’t even watched the trailer believed the platform would be streaming the softcore equivalent of child pornography, and they took action to stop it.
Netflix’s Marketing Campaign Has Nothing To Do With the Actual Movie
To be clear: Cuties isn’t child porn. But it isn’t actually a dance movie, either. The protagonist, 11-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf Abdillah), lives in a poor Paris neighbourhood. She’s just moved to a new apartment building and started at a new school, and puberty is imminent. Amid all that change, she falls in with a crowd of cool girls who are trying to start a dance crew; they’ve named themselves the Cuties. These girls are beguiling: brash, modern, unconstrained by the traditions Amy feels pressure to follow. This story is about being torn between two cultures, yes, but also between childhood and adulthood.
In the movie, that plays out in the contrast between the Cuties and their slightly older rivals, the Sweety-Swaggs (which maybe sounds cooler in French?). As IndieWire explained in its review back in January, “the Cuties certainly don’t understand that even the elder Swaggs are at the mercy of a hyper-sexualized culture and its demands, and that there’s something deeply wrong with a teenager taking her top off in the middle of dance video.” When they update their own routine to match the Swaggs’ energy, “the foursome does realize that there is something here beyond their reach—new best pal Angelica balks at a move that involves lasciviously sucking on her fingers and they all seem to think their butt-bumping is silly more than anything.” Viewers are not supposed to see any of this as attractive or good. As IndieWire put it, “the audience must endure their sexualization as increasingly horrified spectators.”
In real life, director Maïmouna Doucouré intended the movie to be a commentary and criticism of the way society sexualizes young girls. She told Cineuropa that her inspiration for the film was something she saw in real life:
“The day I saw, at a neighbourhood party, a group of young girls aged around 11 years old, going up on stage and dancing in a very sensual way while wearing very revealing clothes. I was rather shocked and I wondered if they were aware of the image of sexual availability that they were projecting. In the audience, there were also more traditional mothers, some of them wearing veils: it was a real culture shock.” She saw a connection to her own childhood, when it felt like her Senegalese and western cultures were in conflict—something any immigrant or second-gen kid probably understands. And she realized that those girls at the party, and later, the girls in Cuties, were picking up ideas about femininity, adulthood and sex from social media—but they didn’t yet have the emotional maturity to understand the messages they were being inundated with.
I Honestly Wonder If Netflix Was Deliberately Courting Controversy
This is a nuanced and well-meaning film, which is why Netflix’s decision to market it as if it were any other dance movie is problematic, yes, but also baffling. The platform is often praised for its marketing prowess, including its relatable social media tone, meme game and even its recent announcement that it would be releasing classic Black sitcoms on Netflix U.S. (But not Canada, which is rude.)
Clearly, it understands the power of marketing, and the importance of handling Black stories sensitively, for that matter. And as a company that publishes content, its employees should understand the tenor of the conversations happening on the internet right now, including how QAnon is mobilizing over any implication of pedophilia.
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.— Netflix (@netflix) August 20, 2020
Netflix has since apologized and changed the poster and description, but it’s difficult not to wonder if they saw an opportunity to generate conversation about this movie, just in a super irresponsible way.
And it is irresponsible. As Kara Weisenstein wrote [https://www.mic.com/p/no-netflix-is-not-promoting-pedophilia-with-cuties-32004252] in Mic yesterday, “the calls to cancel Cuties entirely are misguided and symptomatic of the reactionary ignorance that runs rampant on social media. If successful, the virtual mob will have erased the work of a female director of color, all because they couldn’t be bothered to actually research and understand her film.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Doucouré received so many threats that she has deleted her Twitter account. She’s experiencing real-life consequences for Netflix’s carelessness.
#CUTIES is a beautiful film. It gutted me at @sundancefest. It introduces a fresh voice at the helm. She’s a French Senegalese Black woman mining her experiences. The film comments on the hyper-sexualization of preadolescent girls. Disappointed to see the current discourse. 😞— Tessa Thompson (@TessaThompson_x) August 20, 2020
It’s important to remember that the virtual mob Weisenstein referred to is not just QAnon or alt-right trolls. It can be us, too.
When Tessa Thompson tweeted about the movie yesterday, her mentions were full of progressive people who were surprised that she was defending a film they were sure was sexualizing young Black girls. And of course they were sure! Black girls and women are always being sexualized in media, so it would hardly be surprising if it was happening again. But while there are fair criticisms of the film (Amy’s Muslim faith is used as shorthand for oppression, which is Islamophobic; there is apparently a weird twist in the third act), many of the tweets in Thompson’s replies, and on Twitter at large, were outraged about something that wasn’t actually happening… which meant otherwise progressive people were pushing a narrative conceived by people who didn’t have progressive interests at heart.
I have two takeaways from this story: First, we have to remember that because something feels true doesn’t mean it is. And second, Cuties is streaming on Netflix starting on September 9, and it sounds like it’s worth the watch.
And Did You Hear About…
The Cut’s profile of the bloggers who made a video about “re-homing” their adopted son back in June.
The NYT’s trend piece on rapid COVID testing, which rich people are using to make sure they can still have their summer weddings and parties 🙄.
This interview with Omid Scobie, a longtime royal correspondent and the co-author of Finding Freedom.
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