If you’ve spent any time online in the last week or so, you’ve probably seen some heated discussions surrounding the controversial Netflix film Cuties. For the better part of the past week, Cuties references dominated everything from YouTube commentaries to mainstream media coverage, social media debates and even memes.
With the majority of the controversy revolved around how many perceived the film as sexualizing children or condoning pedophilia, it begs the question, “What was Netflix even thinking?” Despite this, there are still some online who defended Cuties or claimed it wasn’t accurately represented by promotion materials, in addition to those who were simply confused about the matter. So what happened here, how did it become such a prominent issue online, and how did the internet, as well as Netflix, react to this whole debacle?
Although the majority of the recent backlash stems from Netflix’s promotion of the film, it was originally debuted by director Maïmouna Doucouré under the French title Mignonnes (which translates to “Cute”) in late January earlier this year at Sundance Film Festival. Here, the film was well-received by critics and even won the Directing Award.
This early period of praise would last right up until Netflix’s promotion began hitting the public in mid-August. Originally set to be released in April, the film was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. On August 18th, Netflix, who purchased the worldwide rights to the film even before Sundance, then released the official trailer for Cuties on YouTube. Accumulating more than half a million views, 14,000 comments and 70,000 downvotes in just the first two days, it didn’t take long for the outrage to sweep across the web.
Upon release, Doucouré was interviewed by Cineuropa to discuss various aspects of the film, including the inspiration. During this, Doucouré said her reasoning behind Cuties was born from personal experiences with seeing young girls either being sexualized in public or on social media, which she highly disagreed with. “This is most of all an uncompromising portrait of an 11-year-old girl plunged in a world that imposes a series of dictates on her. It was very important not to judge these girls, but most of all to understand them, to listen to them, to give them a voice, to take into account the complexity of what they’re living through in society, and all of that in parallel with their childhood which is always there, their imaginary, their innocence.”
Originally, Netflix’s synopsis on the film read “Amy, 11, becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew. Hoping to join them, she starts to explore her femininity, defying her family’s traditions,” but shortly after the fallout began, it was altered to “Eleven-year-old Amy starts to revel against her conservative family’s traditions when she becomes fascinated with a free-spirited dance crew.” This original description, which appeared alongside a much different cover design compared to the Mignonnes version, is perhaps the root of this controversy … but we’ll discuss that in more detail later on.
The Internet Reacts
Most likely unbeknownst to her at the time of the interview’s publication, the internet was ablaze with outrage. The following days would see a massive campaign of backlash against the film, as well as Netflix and Doucouré herself.
Just one day after the trailer’s debut, a Change.org petition was started in an attempt to remove Cuties from Netflix, which garnered over 300,000 signatures in one week. The disapproval even hit sites like 4chan, where a moderator announced that any imagery taken from the film would not be allowed on the site and would result in a permanent ban. The moderator ended on the statement, “Netflix may allow this crap, 4chan does not.”
Twitter was also flooded with countless angry reactions, leading to the film becoming a trending topic on the platform. Many of the tweets simply expressed their bewilderment over Netflix’s decision to include Cuties on its platform, while others reacted with disbelief over the brand’s response to critical questions about the movie in an online chat that went viral.
The movie also hit Reddit en masse over the course of the next week, appearing in numerous discussion threads with angry rants from users and memes criticizing Cuties or Netflix for its involvement in promoting and streaming the film. Particularly on the major meme subreddits, such as /r/memes and /r/dankmemes, these communities created a throng of critical images that continued well into the weekend, with many receiving tens of thousands of upvotes each.
While the film was largely well-received by critics upon release (holding at a rating of 83 percent with 18 total reviews on Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer), Google users had already left over 3,500 reviews for Cuties on the ratings system within a week, almost entirely comprised of 1-star reviews at an average of 1.2 out of 5.
After the massive outcry online, Netflix finally responded to the controversy last Thursday, releasing a statement from the company to Metro UK that said, “This was not an accurate representation of the film so the image and description has been updated.”
That same day, Netflix also issued an apology on Twitter that included its acknowledgment of using “inappropriate artwork” that was used for the film, adding, “It was not OK, nor was it representative of this French film which won an award at Sundance. We’ve now updated the pictures and description.”
The tweet went on to rack up nearly 40,000 likes over the next six days but did little to stem the anger of many online who continued berating Netflix over the film, with many still requesting its complete removal from the platform. One such notable individual who called for its cancellation was YouTuber SomeOrdinaryGamers, whose video accumulated over a million views in less than a week.
Netflix’s Promotion and the Root of the Controversy
Stepping away to analyze the tidal wave of backwash seen over the last week, the likely root of all this controversy can be traced back directly to Netflix’s promotion of Cuties. Despite the director’s original intent, the praise from critics and the award at Sundance, Netflix’s decision to change the artwork used in promoting the movie, as well as the synopsis, was a common discussion in the aftermath that followed.
If you take a look at the French version, Mignonnes, and compare it to the American/Netflix version, Cuties, the differences are striking. Twitter users pointed this out rather quickly after the trailer’s debut, such as yeetdere, who compared the two in a tweet just one day after this debacle began.
its interesting to compare the french version of the cuties poster to the american version…
like the French version has more “kids having fun!” vibes, while the American version is just fucking…. gross.
I feel like the #Netflix marketing team has a lot to answer for. pic.twitter.com/c8QrX0EY75
— kitti (@yeetdere) August 20, 2020
These defenses over Cuties being misrepresented by promotional materials or merely being misconstrued was enough to quell the fiery, raging hearts of some online, but many remained adamant in their stance that the movie was encouraging the sexualization of minors or condoning pedophilia — regardless of the director’s intention or Netflix’s questionable promo.
Whether Netflix’s marketing team is to blame for all this or not, the public outcry so far has yet to result in the platform’s decision to actually remove the film, which is still slated to be released on September 9th. The ultimate conclusion of Netflix’s stance to move forward with the release of Cuties remains to be seen, but it’s probably not the last time we’ll see the controversial film’s appearance in flame wars online.