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An award-winning film about a girl of Senegalese heritage growing up in a Paris suburb has become a target of vocal conservatives and Republican politicians who seized on a misleading Netflix poster to accuse it of sexualising pre-teen girls — which is precisely what the movie denounces.

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The backlash against Mignonnes, or Cuties, started before it had even been released because of a Netflix poster that went viral for its provocative depiction of the films young female actors. The spotlight has only intensified since the film became available on the streaming platform last week, exposing it to politicised outrage from members of Congress and others online calling for subscribers to #CancelNetflix.

At the heart of the controversy is the idea that the independent film by French-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré is dangerously sexualising pre-teen girls, which, ironically, is what the movie itself denounces. The campaign, which has led to subscribers cancelling their Netflix accounts in record numbers, is riddled with inaccuracies due in large part to the fact that the films critics clearly have not seen it.

"Cuties" is the US title of a French film "Mignonnes" which won an award at Sundance. A Black Senegalese French woman made the movie to examine the hyper sexualization of young girls and why it is wrong.

Here is the Netflix version of the poster compared to the original. pic.twitter.com/ixlHyycKpX

— Heroic Girls – #MoreThanCute (@HeroicGirls) September 11, 2020

Written and directed by Doucouré, Cuties is about an 11-year-old girl of Senegalese descent named Amy (Fathia Youssouf) who lives in an impoverished Paris suburb with her observant Muslim family. She becomes fascinated with a clique of rebellious girls at her middle school who choreograph dance routines and wear crop tops and heels. They talk about Kim Kardashian and diets, practise “twerking” and giggle about boys and sex-related things that they dont yet understand.

Netflix acquired Cuties after it was favourably reviewed at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won an award for its direction. A French-language film with no stars from a first-time director, it is the kind of work that could easily have gone under the radar in the US. But because Netflixs promotional materials caught the attention of the internet and even led to an apology from the streaming giant, Cuties was thrust onto the national stage.

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. Weve now updated the pictures and description.

— Netflix (@netflix) August 20, 2020

Last week, Republicans senators Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton called on the Department of Justice to investigate the films production and distribution. In a letter to Attorney General William Barr, Cruz asked that they, “determine whether Netflix, its executives, or the individuals involved in the filming and production of Cuties violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography".

In an interview on the Fox News Channel, Cruz elaborated that Netflix is “making money by selling the sexual exploitation of young kids". He and others have made it a sticking point that Netflix has a production deal with former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, although neither have any association with Cuties.

Electoral leverage

While the initial reaction to Cuties was to attack Netflix, Republican activists have since charged that the social drama is a by-product of an overly liberal culture that promotes paedophilia. They have used the animosity towards the film as a way of accusing Democrats of not doing anything about child abuse, using the Cuties row as political leverage in the battle to re-elect Republican President Donald Trump.

Following @netflixs disturbing promotion of “Cuties,” I sent a letter calling on @TheJusticeDept to investigate whether Netflix, its executives, or the filmmakers violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography. pic.twitter.com/P7wLXixU6X

— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) September 12, 2020

On Monday, Trump's son Donald Jr. asked in a tweet why Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Trump ally, is "essentially the only mainstream Democrat who was willing to come out against the normalisation of pedophelia and the sexualisation of our children? The rest seem to be rushing to the defense of Cuties."

And just as the furore exploded online, Republican activists propelled the hashtag "pedoBiden" on Twitter to smear Joe Biden, Trump's Democratic presidential rival, posting pictures of him with young women. The US president himself retweeted a post with that hashtag on Tuesday, with the White House offering no justification.

Trump's campaign, which is lagging behind Biden in the polls, has made a concerted push to woo suburban women voters, claiming Democrats threaten their families and communities. One particular driver of the "Cuties" furore is the QAnon network, whose mostly pro-Trump followers subscribe to baseless theories involving organized rings of Satanists who kidnap and abuse children.

The controversy over Cuties echoes the viral "pizzagate" conspiracy theory of 2016, which was driven by Trump supporters who alleged that his rival Hillary Clinton and other Democrats were part of a child kidnapping ring operating from the basement of a Washington pizzeria. That almost ended in tragedy when a man who believed the story invaded the restaurant with an assault rifle and shot off several rounds – but ultimately did not hurt anyone.

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