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Cuties controversy: If you haven’t seen it, you don’t know what you’re talking about

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The controversy around Maïmouna Doucouré’s film Cuties has already generated enough ill temper, but allow us just one more immoderate remark: if you haven’t seen the film you literally don’t know what you’re talking about.

Unveiled at the Sundance Festival to near-universal raves, Doucouré’s movie — titled Mignonnes in its native language — concerns a pre-adolescent French-Senegalese girl who, rebelling against her socially conservative family, falls in with a dangerous crowd of dissolute schoolmates.

They talk trash. They behave abusively towards a homeless person. Most troublingly, they create a twerking dance troupe and perform sexually suggestive moves for the appalled crowd at a local talent contest.

In the normal run of things, the issues raised in such an art film would be the preserve of eggheady French publications and industry papers at festivals (though, as it happens, there was barely a whisper of discontent when Doucouré won best director at Sundance). But the film’s arrival on Netflix has opened up a typhoon of condemnation.

Appalled at what they perceive to be “child pornography”, a vast online mob caused the hashtag “#CancelNetflix” to trend on Twitter. That grassroots campaign caught the eye of politicians in the US. Ted Cruz has called upon the justice department to investigate whether the production violated any child protection legislation.

Tulsi Gubbard, recent candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, tweeted: “child porn ‘Cuties’ will certainly whet the appetite of paedophiles & help fuel the child sex trafficking trade.”

Yes, there are disturbing sequences. You may have seen them distributed online by people complaining about them being distributed online

Can these people have seen the film? Do they know what they are talking about? There are certainly questions worth asking about Cuties, but by no reasonable definition could it be classed as “child porn”. Shot in the mobile, naturalistic style of the Dardennes brothers, the film follows Amy (Fathia Youssouf) as she copes with religious parents in a rough area of Paris.

In one moving early scene, she hides beneath the bed and listens as her mother learns the pater familias has taken a second wife. Doucouré draws on her own background to explain how queasy raunch culture might promise an escape from such an oppressive homelife. Like Bend it Like Beckham and Blinded by the Light, the picture deals with the tension between traditional values, favoured by first-generation immigrants, and the secular temptations of the new country.

Unlike those films, Cuties presents the protagonist’s interest — no harmless pursuit like football or Bruce Springsteen — as a corrupting, poisonous trap. If anything, the final shot, showing a reformed Amy happily skipping rope, wags its finger a little too vigorously. There can be no doubt that Cuties is arguing against the sexualisation of children.

Yes, there are disturbing sequences. You may have seen them distributed online by people complaining about them being distributed online. The dance numbers really are squalid. The scene in which Amy photographs and posts her naked body is properly unsettling.

The camera lingers longer on the girls’ gyrations than is strictly comfortable. It is reasonable to wonder about the director’s choices, but it is not reasonable to conclude that a film so unambiguous in its intentions qualifies as child pornography. 

An absurdly irresponsible poster, depicting the girls twerking in leotards, generated a hysteria that has yet to die down.

Netflix has to take some responsibility for the kerfuffle. Nobody saw this coming when the streaming giant bought the rights to the independent French production at Sundance. If marketed discreetly with responsible imagery, the picture might have streamed quietly in the unloved corner where the company keeps its arthouse material.

But an absurdly irresponsible poster, depicting the girls twerking in leotards, generated a hysteria that has yet to die down. A petition urging that the film be “removed” quickly gathered 400,000 signatures. Another stating “I want Netflix to remove the new movie Cuties as it promotes child pornography” generated 600,000.

Given that the film had not yet arrived on Netflix, there was no way it could be removed. Given that it had not opened anywhere else in the US, we can safely assume that almost none of these people had seen the film and, thus, that almost none of them knew what they were talking about.

The controversy slotted comfortably into the online culture skirmishes that have been raging throughout the last decade or so (don’t make us explain Gamergate again). All kinds of people objected to the film they hadn’t seen, but reactionary tendencies were particularly prominent in the digital backlash. The debate also confirmed how the word “paedophilia” need only be mentioned for legions to lose any sense of reason.

It has been slung around indiscriminately at “anti-mask” protests in Dublin. The ludicrous “Pizzagate” conspiracy argued that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-sex ring operated from a chain of restaurants. The word was, with no justification, recently thrown at Green Party TD Roderic O’Gorman. Once such an allegation — however flimsy — is made, anyone refuting it finds themselves accused of supporting paedophilia. So goes the gimcrack logic.

None of which is to suggest that Cuties is above criticism. Indeed, it positively invites strong feelings. But it would be as well to watch the thing before expressing a view. Otherwise you literally won’t know what you’re talking about. 

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