Netflix faces criminal charges for film with girls

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A Texas grand jury has indicted Netflix for its promotion of the film “Cuties,” whose suggestive depiction of young female actors “normalizes the sexualization of little girls,” according to critics.

The independent French film that debuted on the popular streaming service in September has sparked a firestorm in Washington and beyond as pre-teen girls in the movie are shown performing dance moves similar to those seen inside adult entertainment venues.

»FROM SEPTEMBER: Netflix film ‘Cuties’ ‘normalizes sexualization of little girls,’ critics say

The indictment makes no specific mention of the company’s executives, according to a report by The Texas Tribune. Also, no jail time comes with criminal convictions of a company, according to the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.

The charge handed down late last month in Tyler County — promoting lewd visual material depicting a child — is a felony punishable by a fine of up to $20,000, the Tribune reported. The fine could increase to twice that amount if a court later finds the media giant benefited financially from the crime.

Thomas Leatherbury, director of the First Amendment clinic at Southern Methodist University, called the indictment an “unusual test case” and said it was “clearly filed to make a point,” the Tribune reported.

Lucas Babin, the Tyler County district attorney, issued a written statement Tuesday, saying the charge pertained to the promotion of the film in his jurisdiction and that Texas Rangers delivered a court summons to Netflix last week.

“After hearing about the movie Cuties and watching it, I knew there was probable cause to believe it was criminal,” Babin said in the statement. “If such material is distributed on a grand scale, isn’t the need to prosecute more, not less?”

Netflix has not commented on the charges, which claim it knowingly published material that “depicts the lewd exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of a clothed or partially clothed child who was younger than 18 years of age at the time the visual material was created, which appeals to the prurient interest in sex.”

Previously Netflix defended the film as a “social commentary against the sexualization of young children” and attributed the rampant inaccuracies to the fact that some critics had not seen the film, The Associated Press reported.

“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 — and we’d encourage anyone who cares about these important issues to watch the movie,” a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement at the time.

“Mignonnes” — the production’s French title — is a coming-of-age tale about an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant named Amy who lives in an impoverished Paris suburb under the close eye of her Muslim family.

The girl falls into a clique of rebellious young girls at her middle school who choreograph dance routines and dress in crop tops and heels. In between “twerking,” the girls talk on a range of topics, from Kim Kardashian and fad diets to boys and sex, which they don’t yet fully understand.

The foreign language film first raised eyebrows in August, when Netflix began promoting it with a movie poster that featured several scantily clad girls. As criticism mounted against the marketing materials, Netflix issued an apology and removed the posters.

“We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Mignonnes/Cuties,” Netflix tweeted at the time. “It was not OK, nor was it representative of this French film which won an award at Sundance.”

Next was an immediate uproar in Washington upon its release in the United States last month, with Republican and Democratic lawmakers claiming the movie sexualizes and exploits young children.

Adding to the controversy were false rumors that the movie features child nudity, which is not true, according to The Associated Press, although there is a minute-long scene with close-ups of girls dancing suggestively, The Washington Post reported.

Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas have asked the Justice Department to investigate the film’s production and distribution, while U.S. Rep. Brian Babin publicly denounced the film along with a group of more than 30 House GOP lawmakers.

In Cruz’s letter to Attorney General William Barr in September, he urged the nation’s top law enforcement officer to “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 with Fox News Channel, Cruz explained his opposition to the film, arguing that Netflix is “making money by selling the sexual exploitation of young kids.” Cruz and others have also pointed to the production deal between Netflix and former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, although neither has any association with the film “Cuties.”

Other prominent names have also launched a full-scale campaign against the production.

Congressman Ken Buck of Colorado also tweeted that he and Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona also want the Justice Department to investigate.

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican, also sent a letter to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings asking for the film to be removed from the platform while he awaits answers about how the film was made and marketed.

Criticism for the film was also rampant among Democrats.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard went on Twitter and flatly called the film “child porn” and included a photo of the recalled poster saying it would “certainly whet the appetite of pedophiles & help fuel the child sex trafficking trade.”

“Netflix, you are now complicit,” Gabbard said.

Melissa Henson, program director for the Parents Television Council, said the film “normalizes the sexualization of little girls,” and more than 640,000 accounts have signed a Change.org petition calling on users to cancel their Netflix accounts over the film.

Some film critics have also weighed in on the controversy and highlighted the merits of the film.

“It would have been easy for (Maimouna) Doucouré to use a broad brush to paint the different extremes of Amy’s experience (‘stifling tradition bad, dancing good’), but she’s not exactly making ‘Footloose’ here,” New York Magazine film critic Bilge Ebiri wrote. “'Cuties' is not a blunt screed or a finger-wagging cautionary tale in either direction — which is one reason why anyone watching the film looking for clear messages about right and wrong is bound to be disappointed, maybe even outraged.”

Doucouré was inspired to make the film partly because she observed some 11-year-old girls dancing “like we’re used to seeing in video clips” at a gathering in Paris and wanted to investigate why such young girls were mimicking such adult behavior.

“Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she is successful. Children just imitate what they see, trying to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning,” Doucouré said. “It is dangerous.”

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