Sometimes, a movie is just a movie. And sometimes, a movie becomes an unexpected flashpoint in the ever-escalating culture wars.

That’s what has happened with Cuties, a French movie released this week on Netflix. The film is about a young girl in a devoutly religious family who chafes against her upbringing and wants to join the secular world of her friends. But while that world seems to represent freedom, it comes with its own kind of constriction and danger.

In the weeks and days leading up to its release, Cuties became the subject of intense internet backlash over claims that it was sexualizing young girls. The cries to “#CancelNetflix” because of the film have even emerged offline: On Friday, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) sent a letter to Netflix that voiced concerns about the film’s content and production and asked the company to “please immediately remove this film from your platform,” following a long string of tweets and articles criticizing it. But much of the criticism against Cuties spawned from inaccurate or incomplete characterizations of the film — and the resulting narrative was that Netflix had produced a film aimed at enticing pedophiles.

(Despite what Hawley implies in his letter, Netflix did not produce Cuties; it’s an independent French production that was acquired by the streaming platform before the Sundance Film Festival in January. It’s also worth noting that Barack Obama, who does have a production deal with Netflix, is in no way associated with the film, despite what some of the backlash on Twitter has suggested.)

The story of how this thoughtful, ambitious indie film became mired in controversy is a complex one, one that says something about how we talk about things on the internet today. To untangle these knots, Vox reporters Alissa Wilkinson (who covers film) and Aja Romano (who covers web culture) sat down to talk about it.

What is Cuties actually about?

Alissa: Aja, I guess we should start out by actually talking about Cuties itself. I first saw the movie in January, prior to its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was well-received and landed filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré the festival’s directing award. Before the fest, Netflix’s acquisitions people saw it and bought the rights to distribute it on their platform.

When I saw it, I had a couple of reactions — both about the movie’s story and how it would be received.

The first was that Cuties is a pretty impressive debut film from Doucouré. The director is a French woman born and raised in Paris as the daughter of Senegalese immigrants, and so is her protagonist. While it’s not explicitly about her own experience growing up — Doucouré was born in 1985, so she wouldn’t have had access to a cellphone or the internet as a preteen, and those both factor heavily into the story — the movie is obviously rooted in a place of deep understanding.

Cuties is about an 11-year-old Senegalese Muslim girl named Amy (played by the excellent Fathia Youssouf) who is caught between two worlds. In one, there’s her strict religious family, with whom she lives in one of Paris’s poorest neighborhoods; they want to limit her Western cultural experiences while urging her to behave properly and follow their religious customs and traditions. In the other lies an experience that feels pretty familiar to Western viewers: Amy is fascinated by her classmate Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), who is the ringleader of a group of girls who dance and wear provocative outfits and call themselves “Cuties.” (Actually, they call themselves “Mignonnes,” the French title of the film, which means something like “cute and petite.”)

It’s also a challenging film to watch. Cuties often takes the girls’ perspective in order to illustrate and dissect a broader issue: the hypersexualization of young girls, often tied to images they are fed by advertising and entertainment which they turn around and recreate. I’m not always sure it is entirely successful in that aim — trying to depict something in the context of critiquing it isn’t always successful — but it’s going for something gutsy and raising an important concern about young women’s lives in an internet age, wrapped up in an engaging coming-of-age story. We are meant to be uncomfortable because the movie wants to shake us out of complacency and make us think about how the images that young people see profoundly mold and shape their view of themselves.

That’s certainly not a theme or an approach that started with Cuties — a range of movies from Celine Sciamma’s 2014 film Girlhood, another French film about Black preteen girls, to Mean Girls has taken a similar tack for similar reasons. But even back in January, before Netflix acquired the film, I remembered thinking that it would be interesting to see how people responded to this particular film in this particular moment, banked on the one side by the Me Too movement and on the other by a divided political moment that sometimes seeks to weaponize films.

But given it was a directorial debut, in French, about Senegalese Muslim girls — not the kind of movie that normally generates a lot of buzz in the American press — I thought the resulting conversation would be relatively limited, probably just the purview of people who habitually frequent art-house theaters.

Perhaps I should have seen this uproar coming, given all that’s happened in the world since January. But I didn’t anticipate Cuties kicking up a firestorm quite the way it has.

You recently watched the film for the first time, now that it’s on Netflix. What did you think?

Aja: I watched it with the controversy already in mind, so I’m sure that colored my reception of it significantly. But even so, I thought it was a very well done film and really enjoyable — which is not an easy feat to manage, given that it’s also, as you said, intensely uncomfortable at specific moments.

Cuties feels like many films of its type, where we see the world through the eyes of an adolescent main character navigating a fraught and complicated world, largely by keeping silent until they reach their pressure point. I kept thinking of Diouana, the main character of another French-Senegalese film, Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl. Although she’s a young woman in a very different social situation, both Diouana and Amy often move without comment through the restrictive roles being imposed on them as young Black women. We are left to interpret their responses through their expressions, not their words.

Amy is sometimes able to break out of these restrictions — the ones linked to her Muslim, immigrant background — by turning to dance, but where another preteen drama would probably frame dance as a form of empowerment and freedom, Cuties uses it as an agent of confusion. Here, dancing forces Amy and her band of friends to sexualize themselves before they’re really able to comprehend what that means. Doucouré confronts and discomfits you with that reality, and then perpetually reminds you that these girls are still children, playing with fantasy sexual tropes while still being far too young to handle any serious confrontation with sex itself.

I also kept thinking how vastly more complicated this type of coming-of-age film is when it’s framed through a young girl’s point of view than through that of a preteen boy. There’s nothing here of the overly romanticized view of boys’ sexual experimentation that we get from, for example, Fellini’s Amarcord, where adolescence is a ridiculous wonderland of big-breasted women waiting to usher innocent boys into maturity. Without ever actually presenting sexual content, Cuties presents sexuality and adulthood as looming, largely inescapable threats for its female characters.

So while we do see young girls twerking, the film frames dance as an insidious corrupting tool that could rob the dancers of their innocence. It’s actually quite a conservative viewpoint, despite what its detractors seem to think.

How did Cuties become a target of this kind of outrage?

Alissa: I totally agree. Cuties basically makes the case that both the traditional rules of Amy’s family and the “freedom” afforded by the internet to children who are too young to quite comprehend what they’re doing are different ways of controlling girls’ bodies. There’s good in both the beauty of chosen devotion and dearly held tradition on the one hand and the joy of dance and performance on the other hand. But they can be twisted in ways that oppress both girls and grown women, and that’s what Cuties confronts.

So all that said, how did this movie, of all movies — one that seems bent on getting across a message that its detractors would agree with — end up being such a target of outrage? Part of it certainly did have to do with the first poster that Netflix released for Cuties’s international debut, which involved an essentially contextless image of the girls as they’re dancing for the camera they’ve set up. The poster made it look like they’re dancing for us, the audience, rather than performing inside a narrative that helps direct us to see what they’re doing in a particular way. (An interesting thought experiment is to consider how many movies featuring teenagers would seem the same if you just chose some image at random from the movie to put on the poster.)

Aja: Right! My understanding is that the film generated zero controversy through its French production and Sundance debut. But then Netflix, a high-powered US company, picked up the film and unfortunately marketed it using one of its most provocative shots as its first movie poster. On the left below is the original French poster (which I believe Netflix is now using), and on the right is the Netflix poster that first generated backlash:

Two images of the Cuties posters.
Left: The original French poster. Right: Netflix’s initial poster for the international release.
BAC Films; Netflix

I’ve also seen some buzz about the film’s trailer being similarly misleading, but honestly, the trailer to me seems perfectly benign:

[embedded content]

To be fair to all of the people who are angry: There’s a lot of reason, objectively, to criticize Netflix’s marketing decisions, and even the film itself. Is it challenging? Absolutely. Does it contain frequent shots that are intentionally provocative? Absolutely. There’s one scene in the movie — when the girls film themselves dancing to Yemi Alade’s “Bum Bum” — that you can definitely at least argue is indefensibly eroticized. This scene is designed to make you feel gross and uneasy, but there is at least an ethical conversation to be had around Doucouré’s approach to filming this scene, as well as others where there are close-up shots on the dancer’s anatomy and skin-tight clothing.

However, whether or not the film succeeds in its portrayal of child agency, restrictive religion, gender roles and sexuality, and the internet’s role in raising and grooming children is not the conversation that’s being had. Instead, hysteria over the film’s marketing and the out-of-context shots of girls dancing has spread across the internet.

What’s actually driving the Cuties backlash?

Alissa: Another factor is this very specific proclivity to spark outrage over movies that most people haven’t seen, based on what one loud-enough voice claims is in the movie. I think of, for instance, the wholly invented First Man controversy of 2018 (which reached its nadir when a rumor started circulating that all of the American flags in the movie were replaced by Chinese flags in the Chinese market), or last year’s alarmist blow-up over The Hunt and its perceived anti-conservative content (which turned out not to be anti-conservative at all).

Both times, politicians got involved to voice their dissenting opinion (and looked ridiculous as a result). But the backlashes were based mostly on hearsay rather than on reasoned arguments that take into account the film’s text (or even subtext). The politicized flare-up surrounding Cuties feels like the natural continuation of what is becoming an unfortunate American tradition — and it makes it almost impossible to have a conversation about whether the movie is actually successful in its aims.

But this talk of Cuties’s supposed sexual exploitation of minors also seems to have come out of left field, especially if you aren’t aware of the way that some corners of the internet obsessively track and accuse prominent people of child sex trafficking and pedophilia, something that’s spilled into the open with the #SaveTheChildren campaign. I have been reading as much as I can about the various groups that have been pushing the pedophilia narrative, often with racist and anti-Semitic undertones, but it’s still very hard to wrap my head around. What’s going on? Who did Cuties’s perceived content provoke, and why?

Aja: A couple of things seem to be fueling a narrative that Cuties is an exploitative film made to entice pedophiles. You have grassroots activists who do earnest work to raise awareness on the internet about things like exploitation and trafficking of children and other victims — these are the types of campaigns focused on promoting legal efforts like FOSTA-SESTA, which is intended to curb internet sex trafficking, for example.

But then you also have things like the hashtag #SaveTheChildren (that has no connection to the children’s welfare nonprofit Save The Children), which may seem related to legitimate activist movements but is at least partly fueled by QAnon, a niche but growing internet community of conspiracy theorists who believe Trump’s main presidential goal is rooting out pedophiles.

QAnon is both the name of the internet community and the name of the convoluted conspiracy they ascribe to. The QAnon conspiracy combines several long-standing conspiracy elements (murky government pedophile rings, anti-Semitism, cover-ups) with a new Trump-fandom twist, wherein Trump’s White House is supposedly devoted to ferreting out the pedophiles in government. So the QAnon community, perhaps by way of aiding Trump in his alleged mission, has become a systematic internet crusade whereby people call out perceived examples of pedophiles among us.

Along comes a film like Cuties, made by a foreign production team, which the director says is explicitly based on her own childhood experimentation with the image of adult sexuality. This movie’s production seems to have been entirely divorced from conversations around whether high-powered US leaders are engaged in sex trafficking. When it debuted and received a warm response at Sundance, it was still divorced from that conversation.

Now, however, the Netflix marketing has attracted a horde of QAnon supporters to rally around this film as a specific example of some kind of higher-echelon promotion of pedophilia. So you have people who are bystanders seeing the film’s images and getting understandably upset, but you also have their emotions being manipulated by people who have a vested interest in portraying this film as somehow sinister.

Instead of discussing the content of the film, people who don’t seem to have watched it are spreading the message that the whole thing is “child porn,” created for and now being marketed directly to pedophiles. If you’ve seen Cuties, you know how absurd that supposition is — but it’s not helping that people are also spreading around clips of the film divorced from their context, similar to what happened with the initial Netflix poster.

For example, there’s one scene that’s representative of the way the girls are learning to weaponize their sexuality — when they falsely accuse an arcade security officer of molesting them in order to get out of trouble. A clip of it has been making the rounds on Twitter with the first half of the exchange removed, basically to present the scene so that it looks like the children are being wrangled by a child trafficker and that the film itself is about the subject of child molestation.

This is the kind of tactic that QAnon proponents use to stoke the emotions of bystanders and spread the conspiracy. And in the middle of that disinformation campaign, you still have the random, weird anti-Semitic accusations that Netflix and the film’s production team are a part of a vast Jewish conspiracy. (Ironic, given that the film is about Senegalese Muslims!)

All of this is preventing viewers and critics from having a meaningful conversation about this film, including its provocations and even its true flaws. Which is a shame, because I think, again, many opponents of child exploitation would side completely with the film’s takeaways.

What should we do when we encounter this kind of outrage in the future?

Alissa: I agree, and the twisty way this film’s portrayal of sexuality has become a topic on Tucker Carlson’s show is all the more confounding because, again, this is a movie that most people never would have heard of — if it wasn’t for the fact it was being distributed on Netflix. (And even then, there are thousands of foreign films on Netflix that Americans don’t talk about because, as a nation, we tend not to watch foreign films unless they’re very highly acclaimed.)

It’s hard to respond well to controversies like this. A great deal of this controversy was essentially manufactured and trumped up by bad-faith actors who do this sort of thing on a regular basis. But truly well-meaning people got swept into it because they see that children seem to be sexualized in a movie, and they have legitimate concerns about that.

What gets left out is the actual movie, and a greater issue: that we seem very willing to judge movies (and to an extent, people) based on truncated snippets of things we saw on the internet. That’s not going to get better anytime soon.

So I’ve been thinking about ways to make sure that I don’t get swept up in situations like this. One good way, which I already practice, is to withhold my judgment on a movie until I, or at least a number of reasonable critics, have seen it and had a chance to evaluate it. (Critics do not hesitate to criticize movies, that’s for sure.) Another way is to investigate the source of a rumor, particularly about a movie that nobody or almost nobody has seen. Does this account, publication, or person have a history of bad-faith claims? Are they also pushing racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise dehumanizing ideas with their claim? Then let’s hit pause before freaking out, and think about what might be behind this.

And I always am interested to hear your perspective on this, since your beat is web culture, and this is a facet of web culture. How would you advise someone to protect themselves from falling for a bad-faith moral panic, or at least to have a more grounded perspective on it?

Aja: I have certainly written a lot about conspiracy theories and bad-faith actors in my time covering the internet. Often there’s so much content and disinformation flooding the public sphere that disinformation or a de-contextualized campaign spearheaded by bad actors becomes the only thing people see. But I’m also not sure we even have a consensus any more on what is and isn’t “bad faith” and a “bad actor,” which is part of what makes this conversation really difficult.

I think one of the best things we can do is not just to be skeptical of sources, but to be skeptical of our own emotional reactions. If we learn about something on the internet that seems almost over-the-top in its ability to draw our outrage, maybe that’s a cue to think critically about how this information is being presented. It’s especially important to understand what agenda people have for pushing the claims that they do. Increasingly on the internet, things that seem purely sincere or benign on the surface are used to prop up harmful and sinister hidden messaging, or obscure or divert our attention away from a different problem altogether.

That doesn’t just apply to debates and situations that seem to have an ideological bent. For example, I think we can all agree that animal cruelty is a very bad thing and that animal abuse is outrageous. But if we let, say, Tiger King’s Carole Baskin control the narrative about Joe Exotic, we end up with a story where he’s an abusive animal cult leader — and miss the part where she may have killed her husband, which is arguably the much greater crime!

So it’s always, always good to hear and understand all perspectives about an issue before we make up our minds and form opinions. The quick, emotive tenor of modern social media doesn’t really lend itself to that slow information-gathering process. But I think in cases like these — where a director, a film, its crew and critics and supporters, all get caught in the crossfire of a totally unrelated political agenda — it’s worth taking the time to think and absorb before we lash out.

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