‘Cuties’ controversy: Does Netflix's new movie deserve the backlash?

"Cuties," the award-winning French film met with outcry for its provocative promotional poster, has arrived on Netflix. But does the movie actually deserve the backlash it received for an image of pre-teen actresses dancing in midriff-baring tops and short-shorts with their backs arched?

#CancelNetflix and #BoycottNetflix were trending on social media Thursday, a day after the film debuted on the streaming service. The Parents Television Council stood behind its earlier objections after seeing the film, with program director Melissa Henson saying the film "normalizes the sexualization of little girls" and desensitizes "millions of viewers at home by asking them to be entertained by it."

But there's more to the movie than its marketing material, which at one point described "Cuties" as the story of 11-year-old Amy, who’s “fascinated with a twerking dance crew."

When vitriolic reaction surfaced on Twitter, mostly from people who hadn't seen it, Tessa Thompson, who saw the movie at Sundance Film Festival, called it "beautiful" and with a "fresh voice at the helm."

"The film comments on the hyper-sexualization of preadolescent girls," the actress added. "Disappointed to see the current discourse."

"Hair Love" writer/director Matthew A. Cherry tweeted that the problematic image shows why directors should be involved with the way their films are marketed: "It makes no sense that directors aren’t even consulted in marketing materials for their own movies."

Negative response turned “Cuties” into the subject of a Change.org petition and a source of directed disdain. “Cuties” filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré told Deadline she “received numerous death threats” and a call from Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos.

"We're deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork," Netflix tweeted. "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.”

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So here's the ironic thing surrounding the “Cuties” controversy: The blowback against the sexualization of girls isn’t at odds with the film's perspective.

Writer/director Doucouré, who is of Senegalese descent, says in Netflix press material that she had the idea to make “Cuties” after watching a group of 11-year-olds perform dance moves onstage copied from video clips.

“I was surprised because of their age,” Doucouré says. “I met with hundreds of pre-teens who told me their stories. I needed to know how they felt about their own femininity in today’s society, and how they dealt with their self-image at a time when social media is so important.”

So what is the film ultimately about? “Cuties” is a look at one girl’s struggle to find her identity amid contrasting cultures. Amy (Fathia Youssouf), 11, moves to a housing project in Paris and is raised by a conservative mother who is quietly suffering. Amy is simultaneously exposed to the internet’s sexy dance videos and Instagram selfies, and cool girls who appear carefree and confident.

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Fathia Youssouf, left, stars as Amy and Maïmouna Gueye plays her mother.
Fathia Youssouf, left, stars as Amy and Maïmouna Gueye plays her mother.

Before long, Amy starts wearing tiny shirts (which she takes from her younger brother), putting on makeup and sticking out her bottom – which she's been teased about for its small size – while she dances. She teaches her friends to bite their fingers and move their hips the way she sees seductive women do online.

All the while, viewers are reminded of Amy’s young age. She stuffs gummy candy into her mouth, engages in pillow fights and has the face of a girl. Because she is a girl.

It's excruciating to watch Amy and the other children gyrate and pose as part of the dance group they call Cuties. It’s truly upsetting to see her wear skimpy clothes and bite her lip while staring into a phone lens. The whole movie – which includes a scene where the young actresses don the spandex outfits seen in the maligned promo image – is very hard to get through, especially by its third act. But that’s part of the point: The movie confronts the horrid reality of how accessible imagery and videos can negatively impact children.

“Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she is successful,” Doucouré says. “Children just imitate what they see, trying to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning. It is dangerous.”

Contributing: Kim Willis

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Cuties’ controversy: Is Netflix's film as inappropriate as it sounds?