This article was originally published on August 20 and has been updated twice to include information about Cuties’ release.
Before Cuties arrived on Netflix in the United States, the French-language film from writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré, about an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant named Amy, garnered an unusual amount of attention. Although it received relatively positive reviews at Sundance earlier this year — remember when we could go to movie theaters, much less whole film festivals? — and took home the World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award, things took a turn months later when, uh — actually, here’s a tweet from our colleague, Vulture film critic Alison Willmore, that does a pretty good job of summing up what the hell happened to Cuties:
To back up, in August of 2020, Netflix started promoting the film. It used a picture of a young Senegalese Muslim character, Amy, along with the titular Cuties — the dance crew of cool girls from her middle school in Paris — in spandex dance costumes (short-shorts and metallic crop tops). The now-deleted description says Amy “becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew” and that, in an attempt to join them, she “starts to explore her femininity, defying her family’s traditions.” “Netflix WTF IS THIS,” reads a viral tweet from a thread calling out the platform for sexualizing minors. “The fact that this is a black girl lead makes this even worse,” reads another tweet in the thread. The Twitter user also posted a petition to have Cuties “removed” from Netflix. (Removed is perhaps the wrong word for an as-yet-unreleased film, but we have larger problems to address here.)
In the first week, over 40,000 people signed the petition. Now, that number is closer to 400,000. “This movie/show is disgusting as it sexualizes an ELEVEN year old for the viewing pleasure of pedophiles and also negatively influences our children,” reads the description. “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!” A different petition titled “I want Netflix to remove the new movie Cuties as it promotes child pornography” had garnered over 60,000 signatures in the same time period; it now has over 600,000.
As the film had not yet been widely released in the United States at the time these petitions were created, it seems safe to say the scores of people signing them had not actually seen the film. Or even watched the trailer. If they had, they would have seen a very different movie than the one the petitions describe: a story about family, womanhood, growing up, and the clash between Amy’s Senegalese heritage and the freedom craved by anybody who was ever an 11-year-old girl. Writer and director Daniellé Dash pointed all this out in her own viral thread in response to the Cuties uproar.
The costumes from the Netflix promo do appear briefly in the trailer, but, in context, you can see them for exactly what they are: costumes for a dance competition. The trailer also shows a scene of the girls laughing and running down the street clutching shopping bags, wearing bras and underwear over their clothing. A still from that scene was the film’s original release poster.
Netflix has since updated the promo image and description and issued an apology for the first iteration. The image for the film now shows just Amy looking over her shoulder in a pink top. (It’s cropped from the still at the top of this post.) The description no longer mentions twerking and instead describes the movie as a story of an 11-year-old girl rebelling against her family after she meets a “free-spirited dance crew.”
This hasn’t stopped people from negatively reviewing the movie — which, again, most people who aren’t film critics had almost certainly not seen before September — on platforms like IMDb. “This movie is about children twerking. I really don’t need to say anymore. It is unacceptable that they even thought this was a good idea. The active sexualization of children is all this movie is. Netflix should be ashamed of themselves,” reads one early review. “A new low for the entire cinema industry, the authors, Netflix, Sundance, parents of the actresses/dancers. And whoever claims that this is artwork should be jailed,” reads another. A number of vocal conservatives, including alt-right troll Jack Posobiec, have also weighed in on Twitter.
Doucouré told Deadline she’s been the target of serious harassment as a result of the controversy. “I received numerous attacks on my character from people who had not seen the film, who thought I was actually making a film that was apologetic about hypersexualiation of children,” she said. “I also received numerous death threats.” Netflix’s co-CEO, Ted Sarandos, called her personally to apologize. (Doucouré is currently working on a new, unnamed project for the platform.)
The Cuties uproar only intensified following its September 3 premiere. After continued backlash and accusations of pedophilia from conservative social-media figures and media outlets, Texas House of Representatives member Matt Schaefer tweeted on September 10 that he had “asked Texas Attorney General Paxton’s office to investigate” Cuties for “possible violations of child exploitation and child pornography laws.”
Furthermore, far-right media personality and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson shared an article on September 11 accusing Cuties of featuring communist propaganda in the form of hidden hammer-and-sickle imagery:
While many film critics have expressed bafflement and dismay at this conservative outrage over Cuties, certain bad-faith readings of the film and the campaign of harassment directed toward Doucouré tracks with the increased platforming of QAnon-aligned conspiracy theories in right-wing media. The main conspiracy that QAnon pushes is that there is a global cabal of pedophiles and child sex traffickers controlling world governments and mainstream media, that the Democrats are complicit, and that Donald Trump is a Decker-style savior figure attempting to bring it down. It’s an evolution/devolution of the conspiracy theory that led to Pizzagate, when Edgar Welch shot up Washington, D.C., restaurant Comet Pizza in 2016 because he believed Hillary Clinton was operating a child sex-trafficking ring out of its basement.
At this point, many people have pointed out that the sorts of junior dance teams depicted and commented upon in Paris-based Cuties have long been a part of American pop culture, in everything from Dance Moms to Toddlers & Tiaras. Alas, such an acknowledgment has done little to stymie the #CancelNetflix hashtag or the organized harassment of critics who positively reviewed the film.