Cuties: How an unreleased Netflix movie sparked a frenzy of rage

Yesterday Netflix released promotional artwork and a trailer for a new film called Cuties (Mignonnes, in its original French). It is the feature-length debut by Maïmouna Doucouré, a young film-maker whose short film Mamans won a César award in 2017. The same year, her screenplay for Cuties won Sundance’s global film-making award, allowing her to develop the movie, which would go on to win the directing jury award at this year’s Sundance and get snapped up by Netflix. It’s fair to say, then, that the film was set to land on the platform with a good deal of advance hype.

Unfortunately, Netflix bungled the release. Cuties is, according to its synopsis, about Amy, an 11-year-old Senegalese Muslim, who is torn between the traditional values of her background and a group of rebellious young girls. Accordingly, the artwork selected to accompany previews of the film on Netflix, depicts Amy and other members of the gang in various twerking poses, presumably acting out some kind of routine. The picture is fairly tasteless, featuring the girls in flesh-baring tube tops and sexualised poses, which is what led to the online calls for the film’s cancellation (from people who hadn’t seen it).
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Some people who have urged for a touch of common sense. The American actor Tessa Thompson tweeted: “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.” An article by Caz Armstrong yesterday made a similar argument: “The audience is confronted by sexualised dance moves from 11-year old characters and we are forced to consider a world which encourages women and girls to act in that way.”

At time of writing, the change.org petition to remove the film from Netflix (whose caption reads: “This movie/show is disgusting as it sexualizes an ELEVEN year old for the viewing pleasure of pedophiles and also negatively influences our children! There is no need for this kind of content in that age group, especially when sex trafficking and pedophilia are so rampant! There is no excuse, this is dangerous content!”) has racked up more than 150,000 signatures. In the process, a black female first-time director has had her reputation run into the mud.

It’s worth noting that not all the reviews of Cuties, following its premiere at Sundance, were wholly positive. Amy Nicholson, writing for Variety, thought the film presented a “false choice” between its two universes and Kate Erbland in Indiewire found the film “moving and relatable” before becoming too contrived and sensational. But these are valid, considered criticisms based on the film itself.

It’s too obvious, and not quite correct, to state that the outrage machine has claimed another victim. Cuties will be released with new artwork, perhaps even with something of a publicity boost. Either way, this episode shows the damaging impact that the manipulation of words and imagery can have on the internet. As culture makes the journey online, it stands to suffer just as much as politics if people are not able to read pictures, seek information and recognise disingenuous arguments.

Netflix has now apologised for its “inappropriate artwork”, which it says was “not OK, nor was it representative of this film”. That is unlikely to satisfy many of the petitioners, who will not have looked further into this issue – but is perhaps a step at least towards setting the movie back on its previous course.

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