Several GOP leaders are calling on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate and take legal action against Netflix for its promotion of the “Cuties” film. The film has been denounced for its “sexualization of children.” I have seen the clip of the most controversial scene of young girls dancing which I found deeply disturbing and offensive. However, there is no criminal act alleged of child abuse. What is left is a strong and widely shared revulsion with the film, but that should not be an invitation for governmental action. The threat to free speech of such action is considerable, including the return to a long and detestable period of film censorship in the this country.
The film is focused on 11-year-old Amy, who joins other underage girls in a school dance group called “the cuties.” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was among various members who denounced Netflix and called for Attorney General Bill Barr to take action.
Republicans were not alone in their criticism. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) declared “@netflix child porn “Cuties” will certainly whet the appetite of pedophiles & help fuel the child sex trafficking trade. 1 in 4 victims of trafficking are children. It happened to my friend’s 13 year old daughter. Netflix, you are now complicit. #CancelNetflix.”
Conservatives have often objected to the “cancel culture” of the left but this is an instance where the same inclination appears to be coming from the right. The government should not be in the business of policing cultural values or sensibilities. There was a time when film review boards were common in major cities. This authority to edit and ban films was upheld in one of the worst first amendment cases out of the Supreme Court in 1915 in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio where the Court held that films were commercial speech not protected by the first amendment. The Court entirely ignored the important role of films as a form of expression, including speech on political, economic and social issues:
“… the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit … not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.”
It took decades to reverse that ridiculous view in 1952 in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson.
The problem with such boards is captured in the view of the “Cuties” film by Washington Post Post culture writer Alyssa Rosenberg who heralded the film for showing “liberated” girls. However, Rosenberg panned the film “Joker” for forcing viewers “to choose between provocation and prudishness.” She insisted “the choice isn’t close: I’d rather be a prude than someone whose definition of freedom is hurting vulnerable people and calling it courage,”
Rosenberg’s nuanced distinctions between the films captures the problem with film review board or government regulation. The view of such films is heavily inundated with subjectivity. A standard barring “the sexualization of children” could result in banning everything from Romeo and Juliet to Taxi Driver. The solution is not to go see “Cuties.” The solution is to denounce “Cuties.” The solution is not to ban or investigate “Cuties.”