Few films of the past decade have been so widely excoriated — and so widely misunderstood — as Cuties, an award-winning French film currently streaming on Netflix. Directed by French-Senegalese filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré, Cuties is a poignant, if raw, coming-of-age story about an 11-year-old Muslim girl who joins a dance troupe. The film contains depictions of scantily-clad adolescent girls dancing in a sexualized fashion, prompting uproar even though Doucouré maintained it was intended to serve as a critique of female hyper-sexualization. Netflix marketing materials, which featured the film’s stars in provocative actions, were accused of being both misleading and of inappropriately sexualizing young girls. (Netflix later issued an apology and removed the poster.)
Following the release of Cuties, critics on the right immediately pounced on the film, criticizing Netflix’s marketing materials for sexualizing preteen girls and even sending the director death threats. On Tuesday, however — just when the uproar over Cuties had started to die down — a Texas grand jury indicted Netflix on charges of lewd visual material depicting a child. In the state of Texas, a corporation can be fined $20,000 or more if found guilty of this offense.
“After hearing about the movie Cuties and watching it, I knew there was probable cause to believe it was criminal under Section 43.262 of the Texas Penal Code. The legislators of this state believe promoting certain lewd material of children has destructive consequences,” Lucas Babin, the district attorney for Tyler County, Texas (pop. 21,000), said in a press release. “If such material is distributed on a grand scale, isn’t the need to prosecute more, not less?”
In response to the indictment, Netflix told Rolling Stone, “Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children. This charge is without merit and we stand by the film.”
The context behind the indictment — including a hyper-charged political climate during an election year in which Cuties has improbably become the center of a cultural maelstrom — is also worth noting. Former federal prosecutor Duncan Levin dismisses the idea that the indictment means much of anything, citing the adage that a grand jury is likely to bring an indictment against a ham sandwich, if the prosecutor so wishes. “I view this case more as a culture wars attack on a sexualized film than a law enforcement issue,” he says.
As Rolling Stone previously reported, for months, far-right extremists such as believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory have been propagating the idea that large Hollywood companies were promoting pedophilia and child trafficking, a claim that has increasingly gone mainstream. Immediately following the release of Cuties, right-wing Texas politicians have been aggressively lobbying Attorney General William Barr to investigate Cuties. Last month, for instance, Sen. Ted Cruz called for the Department of Justice to investigate Netflix and the film to see if they violated any federal laws regarding the production and distribution of child pornography. So too has Rep. Brian Babin, a Republican state rep who tweeted that the film “clearly meets the U.S. legal definition of child pornography” — and who also happens to be the father of Tyler County DA Lucas Babin.
There’s perhaps more to Babin than meets the eye. A former model who most famously appeared in Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” video, as well as the movie School of Rock, Babin, who did not respond to requests for comment, is a Republican DA in a heavily Republican county. In this context, bringing an indictment against Netflix for distributing a film that has become demonized by the right is “legal theater,” says Levin, who is now managing partner at legal firm Tucker Levin .
Levin says that he sees the case as “very close to frivolous.” In order to prove that Netflix promoted lewd visual material depicting a child, they would have to prove, among other things, that Cuties lacks serious artistic value, which would be hard to apply to a film that won a directing award at Sundance. “The director has said that she made the film to show the dangers of encouraging girls to be more sexualized. It has received serious artistic accolades,” he says. “The prosecutors are bringing a case that does not even meet the definition of the crime.”
If the goal of Babin’s indictment was simply to re-invigorate the debate around Cuties and affirm right-wing talking points about the film, however, it has been successful. Outlets from People to CNN to the New York Times have covered the indictment, largely uncritically, drawing renewed attention to a controversy that had been gradually dying down. Even if the indictment against Netflix is more likely than not to go nowhere, the fact that Cuties has once again entered the discourse indicates that its import to the right-wing as a talking point far outweighs its actual cultural relevance.