Ethics & Public Policy Center

Critics of Cuties Aren’t Conspiracy Theorists

Published in National Review Online on September 15, 2020

Since streaming platform Netflix released the movie Cuties, the Internet has been abuzz with controversy. Shortly after the movie came out, the hashtag #CancelNetflix began trending on social media, as critics objected to its overt sexual content involving girls as young as eleven — in other words, children.

In response to the public outcry and subsequent boycott campaign, Netflix ignored the substantive criticisms of the movie’s content, insisting that it is “a powerful story about the pressure young girls face on social media and from society more generally growing up” and “a social commentary against the sexualization of young children.”

The trouble with that argument, of course, is that the film itself sexualizes young children, which is problematic regardless of the movie’s intended message. At the Daily Caller, Mary Margaret Olohan has chronicled all of the explicit content in Cuties, including young girls watching pornography, discussing oral sex, taking and sharing nude pictures of themselves, and learning how to strip dance.

That it isn’t immediately obvious to everyone why this might provoke a backlash is a helpful explanation of how such a movie would be produced in the first place and why one of the world’s most popular streaming platforms continues proudly hosting it.

Worse than Netflix’s halfhearted effort to brush the controversy under the rug has been the left-wing response to the entirely legitimate — indeed, necessary — criticism of Cuties. Instead of conceding that there are harmful elements in the movie or even acknowledging the validity of the public criticism, media outlets and journalists have embarked on a counter-attack.

Again and again, writers have conflated the eminently reasonable backlash over Cuties with QAnon, a group of far right-wing Internet conspiracy theorists who indulge in far-fetched and unsubstantiated rumors about, among other things, child sex-trafficking rings.

“Much of the criticism against Cuties spawned from inaccurate or incomplete characterizations of the film — and the resulting narrative was that Netflix had produced a film aimed at enticing pedophiles,” wrote Alissa Wilkinson and Aja Romano at Vox. They went on to dismiss the controversy as having been fueled by false information supposedly peddled by QAnon.

Similar “explainers” popped up at left-wing sites such as The Verge, BuzzFeed, and Slate, all insisting that Cuties itself was entirely unobjectionable and claiming that the movie had been the victim of a right-wing campaign to spread conspiracy theories about pedophilia.

When Texas senator Ted Cruz, Missouri senator Josh Hawley, and Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard shared their own criticisms of Cuties on social media, they were met with derision from an odd coalition of progressives and libertarians, some of whom accused the politicians of “going full QAnon.”

For all of their emphasis on the importance of seeing the entire movie in order to understand it, the valiant defenders of Cuties show markedly little willingness to engage in a debate over its content. Instead, rather than addressing the controversy on its own terms or acknowledging the compelling arguments against sexualizing young children, nearly all of the defense has amounted to some version of, “Conspiracy theorists are attacking Cuties; if you hate Cuties, you’re a conspiracy theorist, too.”

Needless to say, this isn’t an intellectually honest argument, nor has it done anything to calm the outrage over the movie. If anything, it’s made matters worse, as understandable objections have been brushed aside in favor of claims that the Cuties controversy exists at “the toxic intersection of QAnon delusion and right-wing moral panic” — as if only conspiracy mongers or puritanical, repressed conservatives would have any qualms about depicting eleven-year-old girls in blatantly sexual ways.

The countless angry parents, for instance, who have canceled their Netflix subscriptions in the last week didn’t do so because fringe websites told them they should. They canceled Netflix because they can see — as can anyone free of the self-induced blindness of hyper-partisanship — that content bordering on soft-core pornography and involving children doesn’t belong on our streaming platforms or our television screens.

It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to have a problem with that.

Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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