WARNING: This story contains artwork that some may find disturbing. Discretion is advised.
The original artwork showed the girls dressed in cheerleader outfits while posing provocatively on a brightly lit stage.
“Amy, 11, becomes fascinated with a twerking dance crew,” the description reads. “Hoping to join them, she starts to explore her femininity, defying her family’s traditions.”
Screenshots of the original image and description spread rapidly on social media Thursday, triggering intense outrage and criticism of Netflix, which owns the film’s distribution rights in several countries.
“Netflix must stop sexually exploiting children for the sake of entertainment, period,” the Parents Television Council, a U.S.-based advocacy group, said in a statement. “The only motivation of those who would produce such a film as Cuties is to sexualize children and to fuel the appetites of those who would feed on the sexualization of children.”
More than 160,000 people signed one petition to remove the film from Netflix altogether, calling it “disgusting” because it “sexualizes an ELEVEN-year-old for the viewing pleasure of pedophiles and also negatively influences our children!”
A similar petition against the film has collected more than 40,000 signatures.
The petition creators do not claim to have seen the film, which debuted to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January and in France on Wednesday. It’s slated to debut as a Mature-rated film for English audiences on Netflix Sept. 9.
Netflix changed the offending artwork on Thursday amid the backlash but did not pull the film from its planned release date.
“We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Mignonnes/Cuties,” the streaming service said, using the film’s French and English titles. “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.”
The backlash appears to have forced director Maïmouna Doucouré, an award-winning French-Senegalese filmmaker, off social media. Her Twitter account, which Netflix tagged in its apology, appears to have been deleted, and her Instagram page has been set to private. Her Facebook page is also offline.
The film itself has an 82 per cent rating based on critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. However, well over a thousand people have given the film a one-star review on Google, which does not separate critics from other users.
“Everyone is free to have an opinion on filmmakers or films. But NOTHING justifies the harassment of Maïmouna Doucouré,” tweeted Marlene Schiappa, a centrist politician in the French government.
“(She) is the target, precisely for the subject that she questions lucidly in Mignonnes/Cuties. Freedom of creation is for everyone!”
Many have blamed the social media outrage on Netflix for bungling the film’s marketing and potentially torpedoing Doucouré’s career.
“#CUTIES is a beautiful film. It gutted me at @sundancefest,” actor Tessa Thompson tweeted. “It introduces a fresh voice at the helm. She’s a French Senegalese Black woman mining her experience. The film comments on the hyper-sexualization of preadolescent girls. Disappointed to see the current discourse.”
Thompson added that she was “disappointed” by how the film was marketed.
“I understand the response of everybody,” she wrote. “But it doesn’t speak to the film I saw.”
Doucouré has said she blended her Senegalese immigrant experience with the pre-teen dancing phenomenon, which she first witnessed in public a few years ago. She says she was taken aback when she saw 11-year-olds twerking at a block party in France, so she investigated the trend for over a year before putting together her film.
“I was rather shocked and I wondered if they were aware of the image of sexual availability that they were projecting,” Doucouré told Cineuropa.
She added that the film is meant to critique the sexualization of young girls, especially in an age of social media.
“What the film shows is that at 11 you’re still a child and therefore you can’t consent,” she told Paris March in a separate interview. “Mignonnes is a cry of alarm. And still, there are things that I did not dare to film.”