Netflix Tries to Skirt a ‘Culture War’

(Image credit: Netflix)

Netflix is no stranger to controversy. If you want to take on the mantle of Hollywood’s new premium distribution outlet, you have to be prepared to take some punches. But while the company has developed a knack for rising above the fray and skirting controversy, it’s increasingly being drawn into the quagmire of a hyper-partisan U.S. election cycle.

According to research firm YipitData, Netflix’s churn rate spiked in mid-September to eight times the average daily rate in August due to the recent controversy over the French film Cuties (Mignonnes).

7Park Data also noted the spike in cancelations in mid-September. Using a different baseline comparison, the research firm saw cancellations surge five times higher in the week of Sept. 18 compared to the churn rate of Jan. 1, 2019. 

Last week, Wells Fargo analyst Steven Cahall cut his estimate for the streaming company’s Q3 subscriber growth in half, to 2.5 million worldwide, because of the controversy. 

While Cahall admitted that the cancellations likely won’t last long, he reported that “our churn analysis does imply some meaningful pressure." He reported that churn rates may have jumped “as much as 8X over its usual extremely low rate of 3.5 to 4%.”

Also read: Facebook Calls ‘Fake News’ on Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’

Cuties, directed by Maïmouna Doucouré, tells the story of a young French-Senegalese girl named Amy, who joins a hip-hop dance troupe and finds herself torn between the traditional values of her Muslim upbringing and Western sexualization of pre-adolescent girls. The coming-of-age drama premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in January earning Doucouré a directing award before it was picked up by Netflix and scheduled for release in September. Doucouré explained that the movie incorporated elements of her own upbringing as Amy comes to terms with two distinct modes of femininity – one dictated by traditional values, the other by Western pop culture.

All told, it was not the type of film that would be expected to move the needle much for the streaming giant. It was certainly intended as a niche film targeting a decidedly artsy crowd. The controversy erupted when Netflix released the North American poster for the film, which depicted the young dancers in scanty outfits and provocative poses. 

Doucouré said that she hadn’t seen the poster before it was released and that it was not representative of the film. Netflix quickly apologized and replaced the poster with a much more innocent image of the girls on a shopping trip in Paris.

Also read: Republicans Ask DOJ to Prosecute Netflix Over 'Cuties'

But it had already caught the attention of a new generation of Alt-Right conspiracy theorists under the banner QAnon. And the film fit perfectly with their narrative—that Hollywood is in cahoots with a deep-state cabal of Democrats and Satanic pedophiles who are secretly trying to undermine President Donald Trump. It’s kind of an extension of Pizzagate with a few new bells and whistles tacked on.

The loosely aligned group promoted the hashtag #CancelNetflix, which trended on Twitter alongside #SaveTheChildren. It’s worth noting that #SaveTheChildren started out as a legitimate movement to raise awareness about child sex trafficking, but it’s since been co-opted by QAnon, which accuses Democrats and the Hollywood elite of eating babies, drinking their blood and using their adrenaline glands to get high, among other things. Some even claim that medical masks are designed to make it harder for children to cry for help when they’re being abducted.  

The FBI has labelled QAnon a domestic terrorism threat, and Doucouré reports that she has been receiving numerous death threats. Meanwhile, a recent Daily Kos/Civiqs poll found that 56% of Republicans believe that QAnon is mostly or partly true compared to 4% of Democrats.

Perennial conspiracy theorist Alex Jones spoke out about the film on his InfoWars podcast, saying: “This is Hollywood injecting its poison into everybody.”

A little over a week ago, 34 House Republicans signed a letter urging Attorney General William Barr to charge Netflix executives with distributing child pornography.

A Netflix spokesperson responded: “Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children. 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.”

Hollywood and the media have long been punching bags for the right-wing pundits and talking heads who accuse the industry of having a liberal bias and see the entertainment industry as a battleground in a broad “culture war.” 

But art is supposed to be provocative. It’s supposed to make us think, and sometimes, confront some very uncomfortable realities. 

On the other hand, just as the internet gives an obscure French film the chance to reach a global audience, it also gives extremists and fringe groups the ability to amplify their voice on the world stage.

The proverbial “elephant in the room” that seems to be driving a lot of their ire is the fact that in 2018, Netflix signed a production deal with the ultimate boogeyman for right-wing conspiracy theorists, former President Barak Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. 

Shortly after the release of Cuties, Fox News contributor Rachel Campos-Duffy co-authored an article for The Federalist with her daughter Evita Duffy titled, Michelle Obama Is Complicit in Netflix Child Porn Film ‘Cuties’.

Although the film had nothing to do with the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions, other conservative pundits and radio talk show hosts have been calling on the former President and First Lady to use their “influence” to convince Netflix to drop the film.

It’s now part of a well-worn script. Obama-bashing (or Clinton-bashing) “appeals to the base,” and in this world of fake news and alternative facts, any connection, no matter how tenuous, is enough to establish guilt by association. 

In another recent controversy, a group of five Republican senators sent a letter to Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos calling on the company to abandon plans to adapt the popular Chinese science-fiction novel The Three-Body Problem for TV after old quotes from the author, Liu Cixin, resurfaced, which seem to defend the Chinese government's mass internment of roughly a million Uyghur Muslims.

Although President Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 this summer, which aims to punish China for its treatment of the country’s Muslim minority, the sincerity of Republican outrage is questionable. According to former national security adviser John Bolton's memoir, The Room Where It Happened, in private meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump told Xi to go ahead with building “re-education” camps to house the Uyghur, and said that it was “exactly the right thing to do." 

The smear campaign echoes a recent controversy that hit Disney when it released its big-budget live-action remake of Mulan theatrically in China, only to see it fizzle, in part because audiences boycotted the film because it was shot in the Westernmost region of Xinjiang, home to the country’s massive re-education camps. In addition, the film's credits thank the Turpan Public Security Bureau, which has been listed by the U.S. government as an organization involved in "human rights violations and abuses" in the region. 

However, Disney was compelled to cooperate with Chinese authorities to get the film made and distributed in the lucrative Chinese market. Netflix is still banned in China.

The company firmly, but politely responded to the Senators’ letter stressing that it does not operate in China, that it does not agree with Cixin’s comments and that Cixin will not be involved with the series adaptation. In fact, Game of Thrones show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will helm the project.

Netflix has faced controversies before and proven adept at dealing with them—from the depiction of suicide in 13 Reasons Why, to the weird sexual drama 365 Days about a Mafioso who kidnaps a woman for a year in the hopes that she will fall in love with him. Earlier this year, PETA objected to the popular documentary series Tiger King on the grounds that it glossed over the treatment of animals.

In Turkey, where the streaming company is required to comply with strict social media and broadcasting laws introduced last year, Netflix has already removed Cuties and recently canceled production of the Turkish original If Only after regulators objected to having a gay central character in the script.

But this is probably the first time the company has faced a concerted political campaign in its home market. 

With the election just about a month away, much of the fervor can be expected to die down and blow over, but the teflon media tech company could face a lingering perception problem in certain circles as it’s now seen as being in “cahoots” with Hollywood, whatever that means. 

Scott Lehane

Freelancer Scott Lehane has been covering the film and TV industry for almost 30 years from his base in southern Ontario, near Toronto. Along with several Future plc-owned publications, he has written extensively for Below the Line, CinemaEditor, Animation World, Film & Video and DTV Business in the U.S., as well as The IBC Daily, Showreel and British Cinematographer in the U.K. and Encore and Broadcast Engineering News in Australia, to name few. He currently edits Future’s Next TV, B+C and Multichannel News daily SmartBriefs. He spends his free time in the metaverse, waiting for everyone else to show up.