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Friday, April 19, 2024

How 'Cuties' Got Caught in a Gamergate-Style Internet Clash

Even before Netflix released the French film Cuties in the United States, review sites were brimming with emotional audience judgements. The movie, which centers on a panicked Parisian preteen named Amy (Fathia Youssouf) as she joins a rebellious clique and navigates her family life, currently holds an 11 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “Absolutely shocking that this was allowed to be broadcast,” one reads. Another: “Extremely inappropriate.” One more: “The world is worse for having this film in it.”

The debut film of director Maïmouna Doucouré, Cuties is a sensitive, small-scale character study of a French-Senagalese girl—not, historically, the sort of movie that attracts that much mainstream attention in America at all, let alone intense hatred. Yet members of Congress are calling it child porn, Doucouré is receiving death threats, and conspiracy theorists obsessed with secret elite cabals of pedophiles are targeting Netflix under the pretense that the streaming service is part of a global scheme to normalize the sexualization of children. Caught in the internet's crosshairs, Cuties has become a lightning rod, but not an anomaly—it's a new front in a culture clash that's been going on for years.


Cuties is part of a growing subgenre of intimate indie movies focused on outsider girls. Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen is an obvious predecessor. In both Cuties and Thirteen, confused young female leads rebel in upsetting, age-inappropriate ways to win peer approval and avoid stressful family lives. Both treat the bonds between female friends and mothers and daughters as their primary concerns. No romances, no epic endings. Not exactly traditional box-office catnip geared to grab the masses. Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, which focuses on an East London girl named Mia, also has thematic overlap. Like Amy, Mia takes solace in hip-hop, lives in public housing, and has a single mother. Like Amy, she leaves a dance competition when she realizes it’s way too much for her. In its exploration of how social media can distort a young person’s sense of identity, Cuties recalls Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. In French film, it echoes Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, which also follows a Black French girl as she joins a mischievous clique. Thirteen did provoke some hand-wringing upon release, but for the most part, these films have been well-regarded, auteur-driven dives into the experiences of young women. When it premiered at Sundance this year, Cuties looked poised to join this canon.

Maybe it will. But first it has to navigate a backlash of unprecedented proportions, as its reputation gets dragged through some particularly fetid mud.

To be unambiguous: Cuties is not a pornographic film. Doucouré drew from her own experiences—like Amy, she’s a French-Senegalese woman who grew up in Paris—and from the stories of young girls she interviewed to create an intimate, funny, painful coming-of-age story. There is no nudity. There are no sex scenes. It does feature disturbing sequences where its young actors dance provocatively in inappropriate clothing, and it shows Amy taking a picture of her crotch and posting it to social media. These scenes are intended to horrify the viewer, and the plot hinges on Amy understanding that she’s tried to grow up too fast. And, look, France does have a history of producing some frankly gross art about young girls—but Cuties has a fundamentally moderate message. Amy rejects aspects of her traditional Islamic upbringing, but she also ultimately turns away from her misapprehension that growing up means turning yourself into a sex object. In interviews, Doucouré has been very clear on this point. “Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she’s successful. Our children imitate what they see, trying to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s dangerous.”

The casual smearing of this filmmaker is the most obscene aspect of this scandal. This is an exploratory movie, not an exploitative one. That hasn’t stopped Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) from calling on the Justice Department to launch an investigation into the production and distribution of Cuties to determine whether it violates any child pornography laws.

Controversial movies about young people aren’t new. When Larry Clark’s Kids came out in 1995, The Washington Post called it “child pornography disguised as a cautionary documentary,” which is exactly the critique of Cuties today. (The films have little else in common besides the propensity to generate scandal. Kids is a nihilistic grotesque about Manhattan teens having sex, doing drugs, and contracting incurable infections; its story is driven by two white boys. Conversely, Cuties is a tender tone poem about growing up in two cultures with a Black female protagonist.) At first glance, the fight over Cuties is breaking down along the same political lines as the Kids debate, with “liberal” voices arguing for its merits and right-wing “conservative” voices railing against it. But this isn’t the ’90s, and what’s happening here is much more layered.

One of the reasons Cuties has found itself as the center of this firestorm is due to Netflix's carelessness. When the streaming service began promoting the film earlier this summer, it displayed a new poster showing “the Cuties”—the film’s young stars—posing suggestively in their skimpy dance costumes, as though ready to perform for the viewers. The accompanying description noted that the preteen troupe in question twerked. People noticed how perverted the film looked based on these promotional materials, and outrage spread on social media. Netflix pulled the art and apologized, but the damage was done. What was intended as a critique of the hyper-sexualization of young girls was now the subject of widespread rumors that it deliberately promoted the very thing it stood against.

Netflix deserves criticism for bungling the promotion, and it’s worth noting that some conservative critics have raised valid, crucial questions about the streaming service’s marketing choices. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), for instance, sent Netflix a letter asking why it chose to market the film with a poster of the girls in sexually suggestive positions. That’s a question the company should answer. But the letter also urged Netflix to “immediately remove this film from your platform.” And by the time Hawley sent it, petitions calling for the removal of Cuties had already garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures online. The velocity and vigor of the backlash against Cuties can’t be explained by an ill-advised poster alone. And if it were simply that people hated content about children who dance in cringey, completely age-inappropriate ways, well, why didn’t Dance Moms stir a national crisis?

Cuties isn’t getting this reaction because of what it is as a piece of filmmaking. It’s a casualty of a culture war it had no part in creating.

In recent years, and particularly in recent months, the right has been vociferous in railing against “cancel culture” and arguing that the left is full of sensitive snowflakes who can’t bear to lay eyes on anything or anyone that offends them. Just this past summer, Cruz publicly lambasted another streaming service for its cautious approach to streaming curation. “STOP the censorship, you Orwellian statists!” he tweeted after the new service HBO Max temporarily removed Gone With the Wind to add some contextualizing information about the epic Civil War melodrama’s depictions of slavery. Gone With the Wind became a flashpoint, with many prominent right-wing figures arguing that HBO’s decision to pause offering it amounted to suppression. (It didn’t. The film remained available for rental and purchase on a wide variety of platforms, in a variety of formats, and was quickly added back to rotation once HBO added the bonus materials.) Cruz has frequently bemoaned cancel culture and what he perceives as big tech censorship, expressing support for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones after Jones was barred from several major social platforms. “As the poem goes, you know, first they came for Alex Jones. That does not end well,” Cruz said during a 2018 interview, alluding to the Martin Niemöller poem about the perils of ignoring Nazism. Yet the senator has come out hard against Cuties, describing it as pornography, suggesting that it is illegal, and calling for its removal.

This isn’t exclusively a cause célèbre for conservative figureheads. US Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat, called it child pornography. Christine Pelosi, the daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, also urged Netflix to remove the film. The actress Evan Rachel Wood, who starred in Thirteen, posted a series of Instagram Stories suggesting that the film was exploitative. Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter urged Netflix to “take down Cuties immediately” in a tweet. And former reality star Courtney Stodden said she was “sickened” by the film. “Turning this into an art debate about freedom of expression is ridiculous to me,” YouTuber D’Angelo Wallace said in a video with over 1.2 million views. “We have child exploitation, so I’m just going to have to say go to jail immediately, forever.” Cuties is the most vulnerable target imaginable for this type of rhetoric. It’s a feminist film by a Black immigrant director. It’s not American. The fact that Amy’s inappropriate dance visually echoes the moves from Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” video, which conservatives have been decrying for much of the summer, leaves it especially open to attack. And the charges against it—child pornography, child exploitation, pedophilia—are arguably the most universally-damning charges imaginable. To defend Cuties now is to risk appearing to endorse a list of truly heinous actions. Criticizing it leaves pundits and influencers safe among a like-minded crowd.

Supporters of the popular online conspiracy theory QAnon have also started agitating against Cuties. In one popular QAnon Facebook group, members called the film pedophilia and speculated that the Obamas were involved with Cuties because of their connection to Netflix. The primary narrative Q pushes is that a cabal of elites in Hollywood and Washington, DC are secretly controlling world affairs while engaging in pedophilia and sex trafficking. In recent months, some QAnon adherents have made a concerted effort to co-opt the hashtag campaign #SavetheChildren, which began as a good-faith effort against child trafficking, and this summer a baseless rumor that the furniture ecommerce company Wayfair was selling children online went viral because of Q fans. The backlash against Cuties plays neatly into narratives about depraved elites, and helps Q further suggest that it stands opposed to child exploitation.

While QAnon's obsession with sex trafficking narratives acted as an accelerant for this scandal, the key to understanding the Cuties fracas is another online movement altogether. In 2014, the internet clash that became known as Gamergate created a stir in the gaming world. Like a proto-QAnon, it was ideologically incoherent and loosely organized, seeping across chan boards, forums, and social platforms. Like Q, it was impossible to tell exactly how many people actually believed what they were saying and how many were trolling. According to its adherents, Gamergate was about “ethics in gaming journalism.” The movement’s primary actions, though, were coordinated campaigns of harassment, most frequently toward women who came into its orbit, and then calls for advertiser boycotts. It honed a playbook for contemporary grievance politics. For example, Intel pulled advertisements on a video game website following a flood of angry complaints online from Gamergaters who dubbed the boycott “Operation Disrespectful Nod,” an incident echoed recently when Microsoft pulled an advertisement featuring the artist Marina Abramovic after Q supporters accused her of Satanism. (Microsoft never confirmed that it removed the ad specifically because of these accusations.)

“What we have in Gamergate is a glimpse of how these skirmishes will unfold in the future—all the rhetorical weaponry and siegecraft of an internet comment section brought to bear on our culture, not just at the fringes but at the center,” Kyle Wagner wrote for Deadspin in 2014. Wagner’s argument—that Gamergate would have a lasting impact, that it would not be the last time that a coalition of right-leaning forces would seize upon a small incident and leverage the mechanics of existing online discourse and their understanding of manipulating algorithms to wage intimidation campaigns against perceived ideological enemies—was absurdly prescient. In this case, the inciting incident was Netflix bungling the Cuties promotional material. The opprobrium Cuties faces isn’t only from a coordinated campaign. Some people who hate Cuties heard that it was child porn, took that allegation at face value, and went from there. Some watched it and found its dance scenes offensive. Again, the decisions made around Netflix’s promotional efforts should be scrutinized, and Netflix bears responsibility for the negative impression those materials gave. But it is not a coincidence that this film is facing this much heat right now, including people using tactics favored by Gamergate like review bombing, online harassment, and calls for boycotts. It has arrived at exactly the wrong time, when child exploitation bogeymen are everywhere, spurred on by pro-Trump conspiracy theorists. It arrived through exactly the wrong method of distribution—Netflix, which mishandled its promotion, and which was already ripe for targeting as a big tech platform. The reason why this caught fire the way it has is because groups like QAnon helped turn a misunderstanding into a crusade.

One silver lining: Cuties is currently number seven on Netflix's list of most-watched films in the United States. People who see it may dislike it, as is the case with all films, but they will also see that it is not pornography. The controversy that has tainted its reputation may also save it.

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