The fallout to the French film ‘Cuties’ may be more dramatic than the movie itself. This is the ensuing ‘culture war’ over the film – which takes aim at the oversexualisation of young girls and at religious fundamentalism – that has led hundreds of thousands of people to sign petitions and cancel Netflix subscriptions after the streaming platform released it this month.
In the US, this war has been stoked by Christian right and conspiracy theorist supporters of President Trump (yes, the same president who was accused this month by a 26th woman of sexual misconduct. He has denied wrongdoing in every case). Among this backlash’s cast of characters are Republican senators, QAnon followers and organised ultra-conservative groups that also oppose sex education, divorce, contraception and abortion.
Written and directed by French-Senegalese filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré, ‘Cuties’ follows a racially mixed group of pre-teens in Paris in the run-up to a dance contest. Main character Amy, from a Muslim Senegalese immigrant family, is portrayed as caught between contrasting stereotypes of womanhood – shy and repressed or independent and sexualised. We see her and her mother’s anguish as Amy’s father takes a second wife, as well as the disapproving boos of audience members as the girls twerk on stage.
The movie’s closing shots are of Amy jumping rope on the street with other girls – having abandoned both the dance competition and her father’s wedding. But the drama has continued, and even escalated, as the film has become a target of organised crusaders. Though the fallout’s script has been predictable – ultra-conservative movements have a long history of feigning to ‘defend’ women from predators while curtailing their autonomy.
I am normally a vocal opponent of cancel culture, but I am willing to make an exception for Netflix
The fallout has also had dramatic, ironic elements. Right-wing activists who decry ‘cancel culture’ have been at the forefront of calls to cancel Netflix subscriptions because of the film. “I am normally a vocal opponent of cancel culture, but I am willing to make an exception for Netflix,” wrote the Washington editor of the US arm of conservative magazine The Spectator.
US Republicans have even turned the ‘Cuties’ controversy into an “election prop”, notes Agence France Presse, using the movie “to appeal to conservatives while casting Democrats as soft on child abuse”. The website Slate pinpointed the “creepy [American] conservative obsession” with the French film and how it “ties in neatly with the terror of Black and especially African sexuality that lurks just beneath the moral panic around Cuties”.
Appearing to up the stakes, Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz called for justice department investigations into whether Netflix violated child porn laws in making ‘Cuties’. Shortly after its release, #CancelNetflix was trending on Twitter. It’s also become a target of the QAnon-derived #SaveTheChildren “campaign”, in which conspiracy theorists claim widespread human trafficking is being ignored by complicit left-wing journalists and politicians.
‘Cuties’ is “fueling the far right’s obsession with pedophilia,” said Rolling Stone. But while they may include outrageous characters, the far-right is not entirely alone in this war. Slate also noted “a smattering of leftist outrage” and Guardian columnist Jessa Crispin wrote, sarcastically: “It’s inspiring to see the left and the right of the US finally unite to create a bipartisan statement.”
Bizarre alliances, silencing women
This could seem like a plot twist but it’s predictable too. Indeed, right-wing ‘culture warriors’ have a history of unexpected alliances with some feminists and others on the left. We’ve seen this happen around trans rights, for example, where some women’s rights advocates have aligned with ultra-conservatives to deny trans people autonomy.
That’s not to say there haven’t been some Cuties supporters – and surprises. The French culture minister forcefully defended the film, saying that criticism of it has been based on “reductive” images that have been taken out of context. The Italian bishops' newspaper Avvenire also decried a “sabotage” campaign against Netflix and argued that the movie, “when interpreted correctly and presented well, can become an educational film”.
But the US culture warriors have inspired their counterparts overseas to launch similar campaigns against the film. CitizenGo, a Madrid-based group with ties to the far right, has pushed a petition to “cancel” the film. The anti-LGBTIQ World Congress of Families network has started anti-'Cuties’ petitions too, in Italian, French, Spanish, German, Russian and Serbian. Last week, Bolsonaro’s government in Brazil picked up the American script and also called for Netflix to be investigated for “child pornography”.
In a way, I suppose this fallout is educational, putting on display ultra-conservative hypocrisy (problems with ‘Cuties’, but not the growing number of sexual misconduct claims against Trump?) and their refusal to listen to women – in this case, the film’s director Doucouré and the characters she says she based partly on her own experiences.
Doucouré has been clear that she’s depicted the oversexualisation of young girls in order to critique and challenge it – but without erasing these girls’ experiences. She has described it as “deeply feminist film with an activist message”. Do the crusaders care what she has to say? Oh, no (they refuse to even watch the film they say is “our worst fears realised.”)
Thanks to elite, organised and internationally-connected movements against equality and democracy, the ‘Cuties’ fallout is appearing on screens everywhere. Yes, this is a star-studded fallout with high drama. It’s not over, and it’s going global. But it’s 2020 – and this predictable backlash should get two thumbs down from most viewers. We should realise their worst fears, watch ‘Cuties’ again, and listen to women (including those 26?).