Netflix, amid a backlash over the sexualised portrayal of children in recently released drama Cuties, wants critics to watch the movie, saying it makes a statement about pressures girls face in conforming to societal role models of female sexuality.
The movie centres on Amy, an 11-year-old Senegalese girl living in Paris who joins a "free-spirited dance clique" (called "the Cuties") to rebel against what she perceives as her family's oppressive mores.
After its September 9 release on Netflix, Cuties has elicited outrage for showing the girls performing highly sexualised dance routines and depicting the characters in other sexual situations.
The backlash has included an online petition calling on Netflix customers to cancel their subscription over Cuties and other "disturbing" content about kids on the service.
"Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualisation of young children," a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement to Variety.
"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."
Cuties premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where writer-director Maimouna Doucoure won the world cinema dramatic directing award.
In a six-minute segment accompanying the film on Netflix, Doucoure says that in performing research for the film - her feature directorial debut - she met with hundreds of pre-teens to understand how they perceived their femininity in today's society.
"Our girls see that the more a woman is sexualised on social media, the more she's successful," she says in "Why I Made Cuties." "And yeah, it's dangerous."
Amy, the film's protagonist, is "navigating between two models of femininity," Doucoure says - one represented by her Muslim mother's traditional beliefs, and the other by the "cuties" dance squad.
Amy believes she can "find her freedom through that group of dancers and their hyper-sexualisation.
But is that really true freedom? Especially when you're a kid? Of course not." Doucoure, born and raised in Paris in a Senegalese family, adds, "I put my heart into this film because this is my story."
According to the conservative American advocacy group the Parents Television Council, which said it reviewed the film, Cuties is objectionable because of its overt sexualisation of the child characters.
That eclipses its implicit message about the dangers of social media and how sexual images in popular culture negatively affect kids.
The PTC says that in addition to the girls' sexualised dance routines and costumes, one scene shows Amy pulling down her underwear to photograph her genitals to post online. In another scene, she tries to seduce a man, who is a family member, to get out of trouble for stealing his mobile phone.
PTC program director Melissa Henson said Netflix was "desensitising millions of viewers at home by asking them to be entertained by it."
Australian Associated Press