But after controversial ads for the film showed off some of those dance uniforms, a horde of mostly conservative voices — from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) to Fox Nation host Tammy Bruce — have attacked the movie, claiming it promotes an overly sexual view of young girls and even pedophilia.
To those critics, Doucouré offered a simple challenge on Thursday: Watch the movie first.
“I’m eager to see their reaction when they realize that we’re both on the same side of this fight against young children’s hypersexualization,” Doucouré, who wrote and directed “Cuties,” told the online publication Zora.
“It’s an award-winning film and a powerful story about the pressure young girls face on social media and from society more generally growing up,” the streaming company said Thursday. “We’d encourage anyone who cares about these important issues to watch the movie.”
Like the film’s 11-year-old protagonist, Doucouré was raised by a family of Senegalese immigrants in Paris and grew up struggling to balance between mainstream French culture and her Muslim parents’ more traditional values of femininity.
“I put my heart into this film because this is my story,” she told Variety, calling the character of Amy her “alter ego” and noting that she, too, “had all of these questions also about how to become a woman.”
The film, known as “Mignonnes” in French, sees the 11-year-old become obsessed with — and then join — a “free-spirited dance clique” called “the Cuties” as a way to rebel against her family’s beliefs. While researching and writing the film, Doucouré said she interviewed hundreds of preteens about how they understood questions of gender and sexuality.
“Our girls see that the more a woman is sexualized on social media, the more she’s successful,” she said in a behind-the-scenes segment. “Yeah, it’s dangerous.”
The film instantly received rave reviews upon its premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, winning Doucouré the world cinema dramatic directing award and drawing seemingly little blowback.
Yet last month, when Netflix released promotional material for “Cuties,” it looked nothing like the French poster that had been previously used to advertise the film. Instead, the company used a still from a scene in which Amy and the titular “Cuties” perform in spandex short shorts and sparkly crop tops.
An accompanying description of the plot listed on Netflix said the 11-year-old protagonist “becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew,” according to Vulture, and “starts to explore her femininity, defying her family’s traditions.”
Seemingly overnight, social media in the United States exploded with rage. Tens of thousands of people signed a petition against the film, rated “TV-MA” for language, as a mob on Twitter accused the film of encouraging the hypersexualization of young children.
Doucouré, who had not seen the poster before its release, received death threats, she told Deadline. A Netflix executive called her to apologize over the ad, and the company issued a mea culpa for “inappropriate artwork” that it said did not fairly reflect the movie, which had otherwise received largely positive reviews.
But following the film’s release on Wednesday, the backlash only seemed to grow stronger. Conservative commentators circulated a clip of Amy and the “Cuties” performing in their spandex outfits, while others pounced on parental guidance noting that there is a scene in which one girl’s underwear is exposed. At one point, #CancelNetflix was trending on social media.
On Thursday, Texas state Rep. Matt Schaefer (R) said he asked the state’s attorney general to investigate the movie for potential violations of child exploitation and child pornography laws. And some backlash came in from the political left as well, with Democratic political strategist Christine Pelosi calling on Netflix to apologize.
Melissa Henson of the conservative Parents Television Council said in a statement to Variety on Thursday that Netflix was “desensitizing millions of viewers at home by asking them to be entertained by it.”
“Although there is a danger that little girls will be attracted to this film, the far greater risk is the way this film normalizes the sexualization of little girls,” Henson added.
But amid all the criticism, Netflix and Doucouré were defiant.
“For me, what counts the most is my film. I can express myself and therefore take care of myself through my art. Cinema not only heals me, but it can change the world,” Doucouré told Zora. “With this film, I wanted to give these young children a voice while protecting them. I also wanted to create a mirror for adults to look at ourselves and see where we have gone wrong with this problem.”