Its fate was sealed when the marketing began. Netflix bought “Cuties,” the feature directorial debut from the French filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré, shortly before it premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it earned Doucouré the coveted Directing Award.
The French poster for the movie showed a troupe of young girls storming a cobblestone street in Paris, shopping bags in tow, confetti exploding behind them. But the Netflix poster, released in August, told a totally different story: It showed those same young girls clad in booty shorts and crop tops, striking provocative poses.
Something seemed to have been lost in translation. And Netflix’s interpretation of the movie wasn’t much better. Its description on the streaming platform, at the time, was as follows: “Amy, 11, becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew. Hoping to join them, she starts to explore her femininity, defying her family’s traditions.”
Critics pounced immediately. Netflix hadn’t yet released the film, but based on the promotional campaign alone, consensus was that “Cuties” sexualized children and needed to be removed. A call to boycott it erupted across social media. Petitions on change.org began to circulate, and one urged users to cancel their Netflix subscriptions. It has more than 600,000 signatures to date. #CancelNetflix was trending on Twitter. The conservative American advocacy group Parents Television Council also found it objectionable.
These campaigns against the movie were bolstered by some well-known Republicans, as well as fixtures of the far right, who described the film as “child pornography” and argued it was both “morally and ethically reprehensible.” All, of course, without having actually seen it.
The point of the movie was lost in the chaos surrounding it. Really, it follows the story of an 11-year-old Senegalese girl named Amy Diop, who joins a “free-spirited dance clique” as a means of rebelling against her family’s conservative traditions. She and her two younger brothers live in a Parisian housing project, and Amy lives in relative social isolation — she no cellphone, few friends at school, and no avenues for self-expression.
As part of her research for the film, Doucouré met with hundreds of pre-teens to better understand how they perceived the idea of femininity today, and explained her findings in a six-minute segment that accompanies the film: “Our girls see that the more a woman is sexualized on social media, the more she is successful. And yeah, it’s dangerous.”
Translation: It’s much more complicated than Netflix’s marketing allowed it to appear.
But the damage had already been done. Doucouré quickly became a target. “I discovered the poster at the same time as the American public,” she told Deadline. She was being attacked on social media. She got death threats. The film started getting a wave of bad reviews on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, though it hadn’t yet been released.
The streaming giant responded to the controversy first. “‘Cuties’ is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children,” it wrote in a statement. “It’s an award-winning film and 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.”
The director herself responded, too — on multiple occasions. At a TIFF panel on Monday, she further defended her directorial debut, and explained that the impulse behind her making it was a concern over the issues she was seeing young girls around her struggle with, and a desire to express why we need to “protect our children” from those perils.
“I decided to make this film and sound an alarm... It’s bold, it’s feminist, but it’s so important and necessary to create debate and try to find solutions, for me as an artist, for politicians and parents,” she said. “It’s a real issue.”
And in a separate interview with Zora last week, the director offered more context about the backlash. “In the beginning, it was very paradoxical for me, because the film was getting great press and a great audience reaction,” she said. “Now I realize that the people who have started this controversy haven’t yet seen the film.”
Doucouré explained that the film is intended to be a critique of the very things everyone is saying it’s promoting. In fact, she wanted to explore how Amy’s character believes she can “find her freedom through that group of dancers and their hyper-sexualization. But is that really true freedom? Especially when you’re a kid? Of course not.”
Netflix’s CEO, Ted Sarandos, called Doucouré personally to apologize to her for the blunder. Some high-profile figures, like Tessa Thompson, expressed their support for the filmmaker. Netflix tweeted an apology for the “inappropriate artwork” it had initially released for the movies and admitted that it was “misleading” and “not representative of the film.”
Critics are now deciding for themselves what they make of “Cuties,” based on the movie itself and independent of the wildfire that spread, following Netflix’s missteps. Richard Brody, at the New Yorker, said it tells the story of “a girl’s outrage at, and defiance of, a patriarchal order.” A Rolling Stone critic lamented that “a sensitive portrait of growing pains that deserves to be seen” has been caught in the middle of the “culture wars.”
And Alyssa Rosenberg, of The Washington Post, opened her positive review of the film with the following: “If I had the power to issue a single dictatorial edict, it would be this: If you want to talk nonsense about a movie on the Internet, you have to prove that you’ve actually seen it.”
UPDATE: This story has been updated since it was first published with more information and context about “Cuties” from a TIFF panel with the director.
Also on HuffPost: