By Rachael Wong
Thousands of people are calling for Netflix to be cancelled over its streaming of R-rated French film Cuties, which they have condemned as child pornography and normalising paedophilia.
The hashtag #CancelNetflix was trending at No. 1 on Twitter in the US on Thursday, after Cuties premiered on 9 September. Over 600,000 people have signed a petition calling on Netflix customers to cancel their subscriptions over the film.
Cuties centres around 11-year-old Amy who "starts to rebel against her conservative family's traditions when she becomes fascinated with a free-spirited dance crew," according to the Netflix description. Amy’s rebellious behaviour is particularly fuelled by her distress at learning that her father (who is never around) is marrying his second wife and that her mother is miserable as a result.
Viewers have slammed the film for its “highly sexualised and erotic dance scenes that purposefully exploit and objectify numerous scantily clad underage girls”, including partial nudity. In one scene, Amy is shown pulling down her underwear to photograph her genitals to post on social media, and in another, her and her friends appear to be viewing and talking about ‘rape porn’.
Netflix is comfortable with this. Plenty of people will defend it. This is where our culture is at. pic.twitter.com/UlqEmXALmd— Mary Margaret Olohan (@MaryMargOlohan) September 10, 2020
If you watch 11 year olds twerk, you’re a creep.— Liz Wheeler (@Liz_Wheeler) September 10, 2020
If you taught 11 year olds to touch themselves on camera, you’re abominable.
If you defend Netflix airing this child porn, you’re enabling abuse.#CancelNetflix
Do you know how sets work? I do. I’ve directed some of the biggest stars in the world. A director on the Cuties set and a choreographer told 11 year olds to simulate sexual moves repeatedly. What they did should have them charged and registered as sex offenders. #CancelNetflix— Robby Starbuck (@robbystarbuck) September 10, 2020
In reaction to the intense backlash, Netflix has broken its silence to defend the film. “Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children,” said a Netflix spokeswoman late on Thursday. “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.”
However, the content of the film and the way it has been filmed – including gratuitous close-up shots of little girls’ crotches and buttocks – clearly sexualises children, rather than makes a stand against their sexualisation. Most alarming is the fact that someone actually instructed children to touch themselves and simulate sexual moves, assumedly with the full blessing of their parents. This is to say nothing of the 700+ little girls who were auditioned for the film. As producer and director, Robby Starbuck has noted, this number is unusually high and one can only imagine what they were told to do during auditions.
In addition to the explicit dancing, the discussion of porn and the posting of genitalia to social media, are scenes throughout the film where the girls interact with older males; lying about their ages, offering to show their breasts, twerking or undressing to get what they want. Viewed as a whole, some have expressed grave concerns that the film is a “tool for grooming young girls”.
While touted as an “award-winning film”, it is also worthwhile noting that one of the co-founders of the Sundance Film Festival at which the award was won was sentenced to six years in prison for sexually abusing a 7-year-old girl.
One thing I did appreciate about the film (whether intended or not), was its portrayal of the tension in Islam between, on the one hand, its permissive attitude towards men who wish to marry multiple wives – including child brides – and its condemnation of women’s uncovered bodies on the other. However, the juxtaposition of the film’s hypersexualisation of girls with some of conservative Islam’s regressive attitudes towards women could leave viewers with the impression that their behaviour is “progressive” or “empowering”, when in fact it does more to degrade than empower them.
Speaking out against the sexualisation of children is a praiseworthy endeavour, and the commentary about absent fathers, family dysfunction and social media as contributing factors is spot on. However, even if this was the intention of those behind the film (which is debatable), it was executed in such a way that this message was murky at best, and was both objectifying of the characters onscreen and exploitative of the little girls who acted in it.
While the entertainment industry may be trying to mainstream child sexual abuse and paedophilia (and this is nothing new), the unified backlash from the general public against the film across the political spectrum is heartening. On the other hand, the glowing reviews by mainstream media outlets including The Telegraph, are disappointing and disturbing, if not dully predictable.
What needs to happen next is for those in positions of power (particularly those in the film industry) to also condemn the film, for Netflix to remove it from its streaming platform, and for those involved in its creation to be held accountable for the sexual exploitation and abuse of children.
You can cancel your Netflix subscription here.
Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women’s Forum Australia