I did not want to write this column. Or, more accurately, I did not think that I would have to write this column. But because newly elected Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole decided to send out a terribly ill-informed tweet Saturday afternoon, here I am, wasting my weekend writing about the new French film Cuties, currently streaming on Netflix.
“I’m a dad who is deeply disturbed by this Netflix show," O’Toole tweeted. "Childhood is a time of innocence. We must do more to protect children. This show is exploitative and wrong.”
Last month, when Netflix unveiled a poster for Maïmouna Doucouré's directorial debut, which the streaming service acquired after its premiere at January’s Sundance Film Festival, the company came under heavy social-media criticism for marketing that was creepily provocative, if not outright exploitative. Featuring a cadre of preteen girls in skin-tight, midriff-baring dance outfits placed in highly suggestive poses, Netflix’s poster not unfairly sparked concerns that it was sexualizing children.
Yet one marketing mess does not mean Netflix is suddenly trafficking in child porn, which is what an increasingly vocal group of right-leaning U.S. commentators seem to suggest.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri this past Friday issued an open letter to Netflix co-chief executive officer Reed Hastings, saying that Cuties depicts “children being coached to engage in simulated sexual acts, for cameras both onscreen and off. Your decision to [stream the film] raises major questions of child safety and exploitation.”
Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted the same day that Netflix is “aggressively promoting new movie sexualizing children. Hollywood should not be celebrating & making $$ off of the sexual abuse of 11-year-old girls. This is not OK.” And then there are the denunciations from such American publications as The Daily Caller and Breitbart, which have sparked a #CancelNetflix social-media surge.
Noticing the discourse south of the border the past week, I thought to leave well enough alone. It was clear from the froth and spittle being spent on Cuties outrage that most of those who were calling for Netflix’s head had not bothered to actually watch the film. If they did, and if they spent just one minute to think about Doucouré’s cinematic intent, they would have discovered that the movie excoriates the very thing they claim it propagates.
Cuties is a nuanced, tender and powerful coming-of-age story. Focusing on a young Senegalese child named Amy (Fathia Youssouf) who is torn between her devotion to her religious family and her desire to fit in with her secular Parisian friends, Cuties is a clear indictment of the choices that contemporary society forces upon young girls. Pressured by peers and myriad outside forces to sexualize themselves far too early, Amy and her friends fall into a trap of faux self-actualization. Eventually, Amy comes to the realization that speeding up her adulthood through provocative clothing and twerking is no substitute for the bonds of family, and the innocence of childhood.
Is the film at times uncomfortable to watch? Definitely, which is how Doucouré conveys her central message. By getting under her audience’s skin, by making them question what Amy goes through on-screen, the filmmaker is asking viewers to consider their own role in what society demands of its youth. Ultimately, it comes down to a guiding philosophy of art: depiction does not equate endorsement.
For their part, Netflix quickly scrapped its truly terrible poster and offered a mea culpa, with the company’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos apologizing directly to Doucouré for so badly misadvertising her work. But marketing and the content that is being marketed are two very different things – a distinction that evades the current outrage machine.
Still, I naively assumed that the increasingly ludicrous debate was a distinctly American problem. Canadian readers didn’t need to be dragged into the muck. But then on Saturday came the tweet from O’Toole, who apparently has nothing better to do during a pandemic than stoke a culture war with misleading embers.
I am willing to eat my hat, live-streamed on this very website, if O’Toole has actually spent the 96 minutes it takes to watch Cuties. If he has, then his tweet suggests that he has spent exactly zero seconds thinking about it – or, worse yet, that perhaps he does not retain the capacity to think critically about anything. (Given the fact that he twice refers to Cuties as a “show” and not a movie only emboldens my hat-eating gambit.)
Either way, O’Toole’s decision to latch onto the issue reveals a disturbing vision of what he thinks the Conservative Party of 2020 should be spending its time on. It is a false controversy, spread by either ignorance or willful manipulation, helped along in certain U.S. corners by the QAnon conspiracy movement, a subculture so mired in stupidity that I won’t waste another sentence on it in this column.
As of this writing, O’Toole’s tweet has more than 700 retweets and 2,000 favourites. I shudder to think how far its faux outrage might spread come Monday morning.
But just as I’m arguing that you shouldn’t listen to O’Toole, I’ll also admit that you don’t have to listen to me, either. Queue up Cuties on Netflix, and think for yourself.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.