Films have been ‘cancelled’ for featuring offensive content way before cancel culture began: in 1973, Stanley Kubrick declared that his film, A Clockwork Orange, should never be played again in his lifetime after the furore it caused.
Audiences have called out films which they have deemed to be offensive for decades, but typically, film-makers and distributors have fought back, claiming their work is important in an artistic sense.
The debate about what constitutes ‘good’ art has risen again after Netflix acquired the rights to Cuties, a French feature from film-maker Maïmouna Doucouré.
The film, about one young girl torn between the life of her Senegalese Muslim family and the Westernised ways of her French schoolmates, won the directing jury prize at this year’s Sundance, and has received a raft of positive reviews, scoring 88% on online review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
But the scenes of suggestive dancing have riled some viewers who have condemned the feature as child pornography. Those on the other side of the debate view the film as a nuanced criticism of the culture of child objectification - and a crucial conversation starter.
Criticism gained pace after Netflix marketed Cuties with an image of the young cast posing provocatively, rather than the using original poster, which featured them shopping. Netflix has since removed their choice of poster, and apologised for marketing the film in a way which was deemed in bad taste.
So “Cuties” was a French film that went to Sundance. Netflix gets ahold of it , re-titles it something questionable and slaps a hyper-sexual poster on it. I haven’t watched yet so I will reserve my feelings about the actual film...but the diff in the two posters says a lot. pic.twitter.com/2YkkCs05D2— Blood Moonbeam (@BloodMoonbeam) August 20, 2020
“We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Mignonnes/Cuties,” said Netflix in a tweet that included the film’s original French title.
“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.”
We're deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Mignonnes/Cuties. 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.— Netflix (@netflix) August 20, 2020
The streaming service has defended their inclusion of the film on the platform, saying it is “a social commentary against the sexualisation of young children” rather than having the intention of objectifying young girls.
Yet, furious critics have continued to make their voices heard. A Change.org petition to have the film removed from Netflix has garnered almost 360,000 signatures.
“This movie/show is disgusting as it sexualises an ELEVEN year old for the viewing pleasure of pedophiles and also negatively influences our children! 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!” reads the caption.
However, removing the film from platforms would be an unfair move, say the British Board of Film Classification, who explained to HuffPost UK why they don’t believe the film has any potential to harmfully impact viewers.
“The film addresses the effects of sexualisation in popular culture, including on young people, but this is handled sensitively within the context of a coming-of-age drama,” the spokesperson said.
They added: “Our extensive research into public opinion, and our Classification Guidelines, guides us as we seek to ensure that classification decisions reflect people’s opinions in the UK.”
Other industry voices speaking to HuffPost UK agree.
″It sounds to me like Netflix inappropriately positioned the film missing the point of what it was about,” says Julie Des, founder of the She Does Filmz organisation to celebrate female voices in film.
Julie is yet to see the film, but believes the commotion over the sexualised poster is “not necessarily a reflection on the film - and from reviews I’ve seen it’s not, it’s more a reflection of Netflix not handling the film’s content appropriately.”
The fact that this film was directed by a woman changes everything.
Cutie is the product of a female film-maker, says Julie, and therefore unlikely to reinforce negative stereotypes about women in film that are traditionally found in films made from the perspective of the male gaze.
″The fact that this film was directed by a woman changes everything in terms of perspective and intent,” adds Julie, who notes how “we’re uncomfortable with discussing girls sexuality, because the viewpoint has historically been twisted, with connotations and risks associated with it.”
Bucking that trend, Cutie offers an authentic look at the reality of life for young girls growing up with the threat of sexual exploitation, says Doctor Helen Jacey, screenwriter and CEO of Shedunnit Productions. “Netflix removed the original poster after a public outcry, but that doesn’t reflect on the filmmaker’s intensions for her work,” she says.
“The backlash to the marketing of this movie, before many of the complainers have even seen the film, does show that her subject matter is pertinent,” she adds on the divide in opinion around the film.
Helen goes so far as to say that “exploitation belongs to the exploitative viewer,” and that marketing executives risk the real message of the film being lost by using the sexualised poster. She believes executives “recognise that generic images of women are proven to sell” and forefront those over more representative images of the film as a whole.
The message from French-Senegalese film-maker Maïmouna Doucouré circles back to the toxicity of cancel culture, of people condemning things before they fully understand them. Responding to the backlash against the film in an interview with Refinery 29, she said that “ultimately, people didn’t have the right information” before they formed their opinions.
Explaining more about her inspiration for the film, she said: “At one point these young girls took the stage and danced very well. But it was also very disturbing to watch because they danced like adults, like we see in music videos. So I started wondering whether or not they were conscious of the message they were sending with this sexualised dance.”
Despite Maïmouna’s defence, the #CancelNetflix hashtag on Twitter is rife with screenshots of cancelled Netflix subscriptions. It’s unclear how many of them have actually seen the film, although the point of having the film cancelled seems to have got lost somewhat in a sea of trolls. “I personally can’t wait to watch Cuties #CancelNetflix,” one user provocatively tweeted.
The debate around outrage seems so often to be typified by opposing opinions being shouted loudly, rather than having the intention of educating audiences or changing minds.
More than anything, it’s important we see past the tone deaf marketing campaign to understand the true power of female film-makers telling their own stories, says Julie Des.
“A woman director is a shift of voice, a shift of story-telling and a shift of gaze in itself,” she reminds.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.