A Texas grand jury has ruled in favor of charging Netflix with "promotion of lewd visual material depicting children"
On Tuesday it was announced that a grand jury in Tyler County, Texas had voted to indict Netflix Inc. for its promotion of the controversial French coming-of-age film Cuties.
While the film was critically acclaimed, receiving praise in France, as well as at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, where it received the World Cinema Directing Award, it recently became the subject of a scandal when a poster promoting the film's Netflix release was called out for sexualizing the film's young stars.
While Netflix soon replaced that poster and issued a statement noting that it was "not an accurate representation of the film," critics have argued otherwise, noting that the image of the pre-teen actors posing provocatively in revealing outfits is exactly what certain scenes in the movie depict.
Rallying behind the hashtag #CancelNetflix, advocates and politicians have been calling for Netflix to remove Cuties from their library and for users to cancel their subscription—arguing that the film caters to pedophiles. Legislators from Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard to Texas senator Ted Cruz have likened the film to illegal child abuse material, with Cruz calling for the Department of Justice to investigate Netflix and the filmmakers.
Netflix's 'Cuties' Controversy Explained www.youtube.com
Amid the controversy, the film's writer-director, Maïmouna Doucouré, has maintained her stance that the film is intended as social commentary highlighting the dangers of exposing young girls to a culture that hyper-sexualizes women, insisting that she is fighting "the same fight" as the people criticizing her.
What is Cuties?
Cuties is based on Doucouré's childhood experience adjusting to French culture as a young Senegalese refugee and on her observations at a talent show she saw in Paris, where young girls "danced in a very sexually suggestive manner" prompting her to ask herself "if these young girls understood what they were doing."
The film follows 11-year-old Amy, a Senegalese immigrant living in a poor neighborhood in Paris. Amy finds herself torn between two models of womanhood with no apparent middle ground. On one side of the equation is her traditional Muslim mother, who is seemingly helpless to prevent her husband from taking a second wife, and on the other is the titular dance troupe of brash young girls who go by Mingonnes (Cuties).
Preparing to compete with a rival dance troupe of teenage girls, the Cuties mimic the sexuallly suggestive nature of the older girls' performance style, along with sexual imagery of women they have absorbed through social media. The girls are eager to adopt more mature, sexually suggestive postures, but are innocent of the realities of sex and sexuality.
It's no doubt the case that this is a situation with a dangerous appeal for pedophiles, but is that grounds to condemn Doucouré and Netflix? If these are real pressures being applied to young girls, isn't it better to shine a light on the problem—even in dramatic, shocking fashion—than it is to ignore the problem and avoid the scandal involved?
There are certainly grounds to criticize Doucouré's approach in Cuties. While the film makes an effort to emphasize how oblivious the girls are to the nature of what they're doing—how inappropriate the whole scenario is and how it points to broader societal issues—the actors involved are still young girls being made to perform explicitly sexual dances for an adult audience.
For some, that is indefensible, no matter what measures the filmmakers took to ensure that the girls' experience was not traumatic, and regardless of the film's message. From that perspective the boycott of Netflix—including a change.org petition signed by more than 600,000 people—could make sense.
Why I Made Cuties | Maïmouna Doucouré Interview | Netflix www.youtube.com
It may be that by placing young performers in disturbingly sexualized scenes the film does more harm than good, or it's morally or ethically objectionable by its very nature. Maybe the filmmakers could have found a way to communicate the problem without ostensibly contributing to it.
Maybe Netflix deserves this pressure, and maybe the film should be deleted from their library, because maybe it is reprehensible in a way that the audience at the Sundance Film Festival was evidently blind to. Without having watched the movie (no, thanks…) that's hard to say. What we can say with certainty is that Cuties is not illegal.
The Legal Case
The Texas law under which Netflix is being indicted refers to promoting "visual material which depicts lewd exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of a clothed or partially clothed child … which appeals to the prurient interest in sex."
By this logic should parents who post images of their children in bathing suits be charged if a stranger with "prurient interests" finds those images arousing? Are we responsible for the perverse reactions of other people even if our intentions were unrelated—or directly opposed—to those perversions?
And if so—if it is illegal to present sexualized images of young girls as part of a criticism of the way our culture sexualizes young girls—then how can the prosecution in the case against Netflix present their evidence without potentially violating the same statute?
More importantly, how can the state of Texas allow numerous child beauty pageants—wherein young girls dress and dance in a fashion disturbingly similar to what is portrayed in Cuties. How can there be so much offense taken to a film that calls out a disturbing situation, without some of that attention being directed at the disturbing situation itself?
The Cuties Culture War
The answer is that Cuties serves as an ideal target in America's ongoing culture war. Conservatives in the US have long attempted to conflate the rejection of their narrow, normative views on gender and sexuality with acceptance of objectively evil behavior.
In the early 2000s this meant invoking the idea of a slippery slope leading directly from same-sex marriage to incest, bestiality, and pedophilia. In the 1980s, fears about the breakdown of traditional gender roles led to a spate of paranoia about satanic rituals being performed at daycares.
Though conservatives lost those battles, the impulses have not gone away. Today, they manifest in movements like the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that the entirety of Hollywood and the Democratic party are conspiring to traffic hundreds of thousands of children for sexual and murderous purposes. And if you don't agree, you might as well be in on it.
If you believe that people should be allowed to use a bathroom according to their gender identity, or that a person with a uterus should be allowed to decide if that uterus is going to incubate a life, there is a contingent of this country that believes you must therefore be evil. They will accuse you of not caring about the safety of young girls, or about the lives of "babies" (read: fetuses). And they will find proof of your evil anywhere they can.
So when a streaming company with close ties to both hollywood and to progressive political figures releases a European movie depicting the sexualization of young girls, they can't just call it disturbing or irresponsible; they have to pronounce it evil. According to this notion, the movie is catered directly to pedophiles and a sign of the moral decadence inherent in liberalism.
At a recent campaign event in Arizona, Donald Trump Jr. spelled out the culture-war value of the controversy with an absurd false equivalence, saying to the audience, "You know what the left is doing? They're justifying Cuties. They're justifying pedophilia."
Never mind the fact that there is no clear left-wing stance on the movie. Never mind the fact that the traditional gender roles endorsed by social conservatives infantilize and objectify women and girls as property—making them more vulnerable to abuse.
Why does the US have so many child brides? - BBC News www.youtube.com
Never mind the fact that Christian conservatives have fought to keep child marriage legal in 46 states—with 25 states setting no minimum age whatsoever, while an additional eight states allow marriage for children 15 or younger—often for the sake of "making decent women" out of minors by marrying them off to their rapists, rather than allowing them the freedom of abortion.
Never mind the fact that the sitting Repulican president of the United States has been accused of sexual assault by dozens of women, including one who was only 13 at the time. Never mind the multiple sources saying that he walked in on teenage girls changing in the dressing room of Miss Teen USA.
No, forget all that. The real enemy of young girls is the black woman who spent more than a year researching how young girls are exposed to concepts of sex and sexuality, and worked with a child psychologist while trying to convey a realistic vision of what that disturbing process looks like.
The real problem is not the existence of technology and media exposing a generation of girls to a hyper-sexualized image of womanhood during their formative years, it's the way one filmmaker chose to convey the situation.
A Sign of Things to Come
Ultimately, while there is a valuable discussion to be had regarding how to tell complicated stories about childhood without perpetuating harmful messages or hurting child actors—and while Maïmouna Doucouré may deserve some criticism for choices she made in making Cuties—much of the hysteria around the film is either misguided or disingenuous.
And the indictment of Netflix—in a county where, in the 2016 election, Donald Trump received more than five times as many votes as Hillary Clinton—is plainly just another maneuver in our nation's exhausting culture war.
Sadly, with hundreds of conservative judges added to the federal courts during Donald Trump's tenure, this kind of maneuver is likely to rise through the court systems with increasing regularity in coming years.
And if Donald Trump has his way and is able to place Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court, we may even see this sort of faux moral panic taken seriously at the highest level—all while reproductive rights are further eroded with a phony patina of female representation.
Whether Netflix removes the film or not—and no matter how many Democratic politicians cosign the pushback against the film—we should not lose sight of the fact that the people most outraged on behalf of girls and women in this case are the people trying hardest to take away their rights.