Censorship of Cuties (2020)

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) ran a crusade to have CUTIES (2020) banned.

They proved unsuccessful, and instead, the content warning of the Netflix MA15+ rating was twice reduced on review.


Cuties

Directed by Maïmouna Doucouré / 2020 / France / IMDb

The CUTIES controversy began when Netflix decided to use a trailer and promotional poster that showed the four characters posing in their dance outfits.

Cuties (2020) - Netflix poster 1
Poster – Original

On 20 August they apologised and replaced it with an image of them celebrating.

Cuties (2020) - Netflix poster 2
Poster – Replacement

In Australia, it was awarded an MA15+ (Strong themes, coarse language) by the Netflix Classification Tool on 8 September. This triggered the ACL to begin a campaign to have it banned.

September 08, 2020
Netflix are promoting a movie that is coming 9 September, CUTIES, about an 11 year old (Muslim) girl exploring her sexuality – she’s eleven!

The trailer shows girls in sexual poses, twerking in crop tops and hot pants. What sort of audience wants to watch an 11-year-old twerking and exploring her femininity? Please contact Netflix and demand that they draw the line at sexualising children in this way, by exploiting little 11, 12, 13-year-old girls.

This didn’t just sneak past Netflix. Decisions were made. People with power decided to use little prepubescent girls, like sex objects, to sell their product.

Objectification of women’s bodies is wrong. Objectification of eleven-year-old girls is diabolical.

Contact Netflix Australia and call on them to protect our children and withdraw this movie from the lineup.

– Netflix movie ‘Cuties’ promotes 11-year-old twerking and exploring her femininity
– Wendy Francis, Australian Christian Lobby

It was added to Netflix Australia on 9 September.

MA15+ confirmed

When a complaint is made concerning a Netflix Classification Tool rating, it automatically triggers an assessment by the Classification Board.

CUTIES was the subject of such a review, but was confirmed as MA15+, with the consumer advice reduced from ‘Strong themes, coarse language’ to just ‘Strong themes’.

Their extended classification information described,
Strong impact: themes
Moderate impact: violence, language, drug use, nudity, sex

Freedom of Information (FOI)

Some information below comes from FOI No. CRB 22-001 which released documents related to the classification.

The 114-page PDF was made available in April 2022 by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. For unknown reasons, it is missing from their online disclosure log.

The 19-documents have minor redactions and contain two submissions from the ACL, e-mails and final reports. Also included are the classifier’s handwritten notes and e-mail correspondence, where they work on a draft version of the below Netflix check report.

See our ‘Protest’ page for information on how you can make an FOI request.

Netflix check decision report

September 17, 2020
Title: Cuties
Running time: 96 MINUTES
Netflix Certificate ID: 290533
Cobra File Number: T20/3136
Netflix Certification date: 8 September 2020
Netflix Classification: MA 15+
Netflix Consumer Advice: Strong Themes, Coarse Language
Reason for check: Public Complaints and Social Commentary
Viewing date: 16/09/2020
Check Classification: MA15+
Check Consumer Advice: Strong themes
Report date: 17/09/2020

SYNOPSIS

CUTIES is a French dramatic film in which an 11-year old girl joins a dance group at her school and finds herself torn between her new friends and her family’s traditional values. The film reflects on sexualisation in popular culture and how it can mislead young people.

REASONS FOR DECISION

In making this decision, the Classification Board (the Board) has applied the ‘Classification (Publications, Films and Films) Act 1995’ (the Classification Act), the ‘National Classification Code (the Code), the Guidelines for the Classification of Films 2012’ (the Guidelines), and the ‘Classification (Approved Classification Tools) (Application for Revocation of Classification) Determination 2015’ (the Determination); and has had regard to the provisions contained in the ‘Classification (Publications, Films and Films) (Global Rating Tool) Approval 2014’ (the Tool Approval).

The Board may make a decision pursuant to subsections 22CH(1) and 22CH(4) of the Classification Act concerning a previous decision made by the operation of an “approved classification tool” pursuant to section 22CF of the Classification Act.

Pursuant to paragraph 22CH(1)(b) of the Classification Act, the Board may revoke a decision made under section 22CF, if it is of the opinion that had the film been classified otherwise than by section 22CF, the Board would have:

(i) given the film a different classification; or
(ii) determined different consumer advice for the film.

The Board has decided to exercise its powers under subsection 22CH(1) on its own initiative.

Pursuant to section 22CF, the Netflix tool had classified the film MA 15+ with consumer advice of
Strong Themes, Coarse Language on 8 September 2020.

In the Board’s view this film warrants an MA 15+ classification as, in accordance with item 4 of the films table of the Code, it is unsuitable for viewing by persons under 15.

Pursuant to the Guidelines, this film is classified MA 15+ as the impact of the classifiable elements is strong. Material classified MA 15+ is considered unsuitable for persons under 15 years of age. It is a legally restricted category.

The classifiable element is themes that are strong in viewing impact.

The examples described below do not represent an exhaustive list of the content that caused the film to be classified MA 15+. The times given are approximations.

THEMES

The film contains strong themes that are justified by context. The narrative focuses on an 11 year old Senegalese girt who is being raised in a conservative Muslim household in France. She strives to ingratiate herself with a group of girls, at her new school, who emulate the adult behaviours and imagery that they are exposed to through popular culture, specifically content and imagery that they access online. The girls, who have formed a dance group, ‘Cuties’, are frequently depicted practicing dance routines in the build-up to a local dance competition as they mimic provocative moves and choreography that they have seen online.

At 59 minutes, the girls practice a dance routine on an outdoor set of stairs. They are dressed in cut-off shorts and crop-tops with some wearing bright make-up. The scene begins as if it is being filmed on a phone, and even though the perspective shifts to conventional filming, the sequence is clearly intended to represent a direct-to-camera, selfie-style approach. As they dance, all the girls look directly into the camera with several of them holding their finger to their lips in a provocative manner while winding their fingers through their hair. The choreography includes thrusting of hips and gyrating dance moves with numerous dose-up shots that pan across the lower half of the girls’ clothed bodies. A close-up shot of a phone shows their video clip has been uploaded and is receiving a lot of attention, indicated by a stream of emojis and hearts on-screen. Throughout the scene, the camera moves between the imitated provocative movements and the girls’ faces, which acts as a reinforcement of their age. Further, their motivation is demonstrated to be garnering online admiration.

At 67 minutes, Amy’s cousin takes his phone back from Amy, despite her protestations that she needs it. Amy hesitates for a moment before undoing the zip of her jacket slowly, maintaining eye contact with him. She appears apprehensive as she slides the jacket off, revealing a tight-fitting top, before undoing the fly on her jeans. Her cousin says, “What are you doing?” as she moves to slide her jeans down. Her cousin shoves her backwards and she lands against the door behind her as he yells, “What is wrong with you?” He begins to walk away and she lunges at him, grabbing his arm and yelling at him to give the phone back. They struggle briefly before she bites his wrist and he releases the phone. Amy locks herself in the bathroom and sits leaning against the bath as her cousin bangs on the door. She holds the phone to her chest before lowering her jeans and underwear down around her knees and ankles. The camera views Amy in a tight mid-shot of her upper body as she unlocks the phone and moves her knees apart. She holds the phone in both hands and angles it downwards before a flash of light is seen as it is implied that she takes a photo of her genitals below screen. No nudity is depicted. She opens an application and selects a button which reads, “Publier”, or “Publish” in English. A tick mark appears, indicating that the photo has been uploaded, implicitly to a photo-sharing social media platform. She quickly throws the phone into the hallway before relocking the door as her cousin yells, “This is bullshit.” She sits on the bathroom floor and hugs her knees before the scene cuts.

At 69 minutes, the consequences of her actions are depicted through several scenes. In class, Amy walks between the students’ desks when a boy slaps her on the bottom. The teacher tells him to go to the principal’s office and he protests, “But she’s the one putting up nude photos of herself online.” Amy confronts him, telling him to shut up, while he replies that she is a slut. The teacher yells at them both before Amy grabs a pen and implicitly stabs it through the boy’s hand. No injury detail is depicted. The scene cuts to Amy being slapped by her mother, who yells, “What are you playing at? Where do you come from? Who are you? Aminata! You lie to me! You steal from me! You attack your classmates and act like a whore! What do you do in the neighbourhood? The things I have heard! What are you playing at? You want to humiliate me, your mother?” She slaps Amy on her torso and legs before hitting her with a sandal. Amy’s aunt intervenes and sends Amy’s mother to calm down. In the following scene, Amy is viewed standing in a singlet top and underwear in her house as her mother and aunt appear to perform a ritual that involves Amy being splashed with water. She stands with her arms spread wide shaking before she sinks to her knees and her body jerks and convulses feverishly on the floor as her mother and aunt continue to flick water at her. After several seconds, her shaking subsides and she stands up. Later, when Amy goes to meet her friends, they are hostile and refuse to rehearse for their dance contest. Amy asks why and Jess snaps, “Because of your stupid photo, we’ve got a bad reputation now. Frankly, you’ve gone too far.” Coumba says that her mother would have sent her back to their village if she had done what Amy did. Amy says, “Who cares? We’ll show them we are real women.” Coumba says Amy’s photo has prompted people to ask the other girls to pose in a similar way. She continues, “We are not stripping. We are not you.” Amy says that what matters is that they win the contest. She begins to dance but the other girls refuse. She pulls them to their feet and demands they rehearse but they walk away and leave Amy alone.

At 83 minutes, the Cuties dance-group, dressed in matching dance costumes consisting of croptops and shorts, are introduced on stage to perform their dance routine for a panel of judges and an audience. Initially the crowd cheers, however, as the girls’ choreographed routine continues, it incorporates more sexualised dance moves including gyration and twerking with accompanying arm movements and facial expressions such as winking and sticking their tongues out. Close-up and panning shots bring focus to the lower half of the girls’ bodies as they perform these provocative moves that emulate those dance moves that they have seen online. The audience is depicted jeering, with some people extending their arms out in a thumbs-down gesture at the stage. Female audience members are depicted watching with disapproval and gesturing towards each other in outrage at the dance-routine. As the girls dance on stage, a close-up shot of audience members depicts an outraged woman placing a hand over a young girl’s eyes while a man in front of her watches the dance approvingly. In a close-up shot, Amy is viewed grinning as she dances until she sees pieces of golden confetti falling in-front of her, causing her expression to change visibly. In a long-shot, the Cuties continue their dance-routine as Amy appears frozen in shock. The camera zooms in on Amy who begins to breathe heavily with tears forming in her eyes as an audio track of a traditional African song overtakes the dance-music track the Cuties are performing to. Crying, Amy runs off the stage, leaving the dance contest upon realising that she should be attending a family event. Throughout the scene, the facial expressions of the girls oscillate between imitated sexualised expressions, wide-eyed glances at each other, pride in demonstrating their mastery of the routine and confusion at the crowd’s reaction. This emphasises their lack of understanding of the content which they are imitating.

According to the Act, the Board must consider: the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults; the literary, artistic or educational merit of a film; the general character of the film; and the persons or class of persons to whom it is published. In addition, the Guidelines state that context is crucial when determining whether content is justifiable by context and that social issues in particular may require a mature or adult perspective.

This film deals with themes in a manner which is, at times, confronting, including sexualisation in modern culture and, specifically, its impacts on early adolescents. The Board is of the opinion that the filmmaker’s intent is to hold the situation up for examination by the viewer and to provoke discussion of these topics. The depictions of the characters as they emulate adult behaviour is presented frankly, however, the characters’ accompanying naiveté demonstrates how their behaviour has been shaped by the media and culture which surrounds them. This is highlighted through the conflict between Amy’s conservative upbringing and the challenges she faces when attempting to integrate with her peers and the wider world which influences them. In the opinion of the Board, given the confronting treatment of the thematic content, it imparts an impact that is strong and therefore, a classification of MA 15+ and consumer advice of strong themes is appropriate. The Board notes that MA 15+ is a legally restricted category and the material classified as such is considered unsuitable for persons under 15 years of age.

COMPARATIVE CLASSIFICATION MATRIX

Themes: MA15+ – Netflix & Audit
Violence: PG – Netflix
Violence: M – Audit
Sex: M – Netflix & Audit
Language: M – Netflix & Audit
Drug Use: M – Netflix & Audit
Nudity: M – Netflix & Audit

OTHER MATTERS CONSIDERED OR NOTED

Given the reasons above, the Board is of the opinion that had the film been classified otherwise than because of the operation of section 22CF, the Board would have classified the film MA 15+ but would not have determined consumer advice of Strong Themes, Coarse Language and instead would have determined different consumer advice of strong themes, as the Board is of the opinion that this consumer advice is more appropriate given the content of the film.

The Board has exercised its power pursuant to subsection 22CH(1) of the Classification Act to revoke the classification decision made pursuant to section 22CF, and pursuant to subsection 22CH(4) has made this classification decision. In accordance with subsection 22CH(7) of the Classification Act, the revocation of the classification made by the Netflix tool takes effect immediately before this decision to classify the film . The classification matrix is to be updated.

The Board notes that the film contains violence, sex, language and nudity that can be accommodated within a lower classification.

The Board notes that Netflix classified language at a moderate level but elected to create additional consumer advice for this element. Given there are a limited number of uses of ‘fuck’in the film’s 96 minute duration, the Board agrees that the coarse language should be classified M, however, additional consumer advice is not required.

The Board further notes that Netflix accommodated the depictions of violence at the PG level. In the opinion of the Board, given that the film includes a scene where Amy uses an improvised weapon to stab a boy through his hand, violence imparts an impact which is moderate and therefore warrants an M classification.

DECISION

This film is classified MA 15+ with consumer advice of strong themes.

– Classification Board report

Crusading Christians

September 20, 2020
The Australian Christian Lobby is appalled by an Australian Government Classification Board determination late this week that the Netflix film ‘CUTIES’ warrants only an MA15+ ‘Strong Themes’ label. The film includes an 11-year-old child uploading an image of her genitals to a social media platform.

“The ACL calls upon the Communications Minister to intervene immediately,” ACL chief political officer Dan Flynn said. “When a film grooms young girls to perform provocative dance routines and depicts the uploading of child pornography, surely that is the moment for the Australian Classification Board to ‘Refuse Classification’ and ban the film.”

“The filmmakers and promoters have been cunning in depicting the film as a social commentary. Elements of the film have a sexualised element that will gratify some of the most depraved people.

“From the titling of the film to its marketing, ‘CUTIES’ goes beyond a commentary to be a promotion of child sexualisation and increasing the risk of child exploitation and paedophile predatory behaviour. In this ‘TikTok’ age where girls will film themselves doing short dance routines to earn popularity, ‘CUTIES’ is an awful step in the wrong direction.

“It is in the public interest that the Federal Government act immediately to ban this film.”

– Classification Board turns blind eye to paedophile grooming film ‘Cuties’
– Dan Flynn, Australian Christian Lobby

Won’t somebody please think of the children?

October 07, 2020
Last week a Texan grand jury indictment was served on Netflix. It alleges criminal content in the film, namely the “lewd exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of a clothed or partially clothed child which appeals to the prurient interest in sex…”

This film is now streaming on Netflix in Australia.

“Under the Commonwealth Criminal Code, we consider that it is likely that these highly sexualised, close-up elements of the film constitute ‘child abuse material’ and have requested the Federal Police Commissioner to investigate,” ACL spokesperson for Women and Children Wendy Francis said.

“Australian parents are understandably irate that the Classification Board did not Refuse Classification for a film about 11-year-old girls who perform explicit sexualised acts and provocative dance routines. The film includes a girl, apparently 12 or 13 years old, uploading an image of her private parts to a social media platform.

“Why have a classification system at all if it does not filter out child abuse material? The Australian Classification Board did not address the issue of potential child abuse material in its decision on 17 September.

“The ball is in the court of Minister Fletcher to appeal the decision to the Classification Review Board, asking that the Board take into account potential child abuse material.”

– Minister Fletcher’s intervention needed on potential child abuse material on Netflix
– Wendy Francis, Australian Christian Lobby

Having secured a meeting with Paul Fletcher (Liberal), Wendy Francis then appeared on THE BOLT REPORT on Sky News to outline her demands.

October 13, 2020
AB: Joining me is Wendy Francis from the Australian Christian Lobby, which has been pushing the Morrison government to appeal that decision. Wendy, can I just ask you first, have you seen the film? Because just from that trailer, I’m thinking I don’t see anything that needs banning.

WF: No the trailer was very mild; I was surprised as I watched it, Andrew. Yes, I have seen the movie, unfortunately, and the movie is extremely grotesque in the girls acting out sexual acts. They open their crotches wide during an incredibly sexualized dance routine, they rub their crotches, they simulate rough sex on the on the ground, but it’s not just even the dance routine. The dance routine is what most people talk about and it certainly does play into the hands of anybody who likes that sort of thing, It’s horrendous.

The movie includes scenes such as the main character; we are talking about 12 to 14 year old girls. We need to make sure that when we know what we are talking about, we are not talking about adults acting as young girls. We are talking about 12 to 14 year old girls. One of the scenes, the little girl locks herself in her bathroom, she removes her jeans, she then removes her underpants and this is a very protracted scene, It’s awful to watch. She puts her phone in between her legs, she takes a picture of her genitals and then she uploads it. When she gets to school the next day, it’s all the rage about what she’s done.

We are seeing a global outrage about this movie and people are saying, look, it’s a matter of choice, and what we’re saying is this is not a matter of choice. If we are talking about adults, acting in an adult movie and then the rating is MA15+ or R-rated, then yes, adults can choose whether or not to watch it. But when we’re talking about children being sexualized, when we’re talking about children being trained and taught how to actually simulate rough sex, then that’s not about choice. Australians don’t have a choice to watch or even transmit child abuse material and our concern is that this actually is child abuse material. If we look at what child abuse material is actually classified as, I find it hard to have anybody watch the movie and say that it is not child abuse material.

AB: And look, you make a very powerful argument, I guess the difference is with Netflix, isn’t that classification ratings mean nothing because any kid at home can go and watch it if they’ve got Netflix at home. What’s your argument about, obviously, you don’t like it, doesn’t it sound like I would like it, but why should other people be banned from seeing it?

WF: It’s because it’s the children. So, we believe that this has actually contravened Australian law. Yesterday, The Australian newspaper, the front page was all about child abuse material. We’re seeing something like 157 cases; I think a month of people being arrested with child abuse material. Most of that material, inappropriate images, sexualised images of children and so we’ve got Peter Dutton and we’ve got our Australian Federal Police saying that this is out of control when we can’t cope with it at the moment, especially during COVID. It’s on a sharp increase and at the same time, we’re allowing a movie that if you actually took the stills from the movie and had them on your computer that could be a criminal offence. The stills from those movies are enough to be a criminal offence. They’re what the Australian Federal Police and Peter Dutton are saying, that we’ve got to actually stamp out. Netflix itself had had the original poster actually pulled. They pulled it and they apologised because it was inappropriate artwork, but it was actually a still from the movie. These girls are being exploited, they are young girls and we just can’t put up with it.

AB: Now, Wendy, what luck have you had in getting the government to agree to appeal the decision to let it be shown?

WF: So today I had a meeting with the communications minister, Paul Fletcher, was actually a very encouraging meeting. He didn’t come out and say that he would actually move to ban it, but he certainly listened. He wasn’t discouraging in any way and what he’s encouraged me to do is to with ACL, have a review, ask the Classification Board for a review of their decision and so that’s what we will do. We have to have that in by the end of this week and we’re going to ask the Classification Board to review their decision.

The terrible thing, Andrew, is that the Classification Board looked at the sexualisation side of this movie, but they did not in any way look at whether it actually could have broken the law. They were not looking in terms of the law they were looking at in the terms of explicit sexual material and in that sexual material, they classified it as MA15+. But they have not taken into account that it’s actually a 12 year old children who are being coached to act out simulated rough sex. This is actually diabolical and it’s a line way too far that we can’t afford to cross here in Australia.

– Wendy Francis interviewed by Andrew Bolt
Video @ YouTube

Ban this filth!

On October 16, the ACL submitted a 32-page application for review.

It called for an RC rating based on it being ‘child abuse’ material. They also attempted to link it to the 2013 refusal of BARNENS Ö (1980).

Campaign success

A week after her meeting with Paul Fletcher (Liberal), the ACL was allowed the right to have the decision reviewed.

October 21, 2020
The Classification Review Board has received an application to review the classification of the film, CUTIES.

The Classification Review Board will meet on Friday 23 October 2020 to consider the application. The decision and reasons will later be published on www.classification.gov.au.

If an individual or organisation wishes to apply for standing as an interested party to this review, please write to the Convenor of the Review Board. The names of interested parties will be disclosed in the Review Board’s final decision report, unless requested otherwise.

The closing date to lodge your application for standing as an interested party and any submissions is 22 October 2020. Please note that the Review Board can only consider submissions about the film (CUTIES) itself and not any other matters relating to film classification policy or issues generally.

Submissions should be emailed to crb@classification.gov.au or sent to:

The Convenor, Classification Review Board, Locked Bag 3, Haymarket NSW 1240

The Classification Review Board is an independent merits review body. It makes a fresh classification decision upon receipt of an application for review. The Classification Review Board decision takes the place of the original decision made by the Classification Board.

– Classification review announced for the film Cuties
– Classification Review Board

On the same day, they had further good news with the Minister agreeing to waive the $10,000 application fee. This was done on the basis that they were an entity registered under the ‘Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission Act 2012’.

Netflix tool under the spotlight

On October 22, the ACL made an 11-page supplementary submission to the review. Nine of these pages were ‘suggestive’ screenshots, mainly from the ‘dancing on the stairs’ and ‘last dance’ sequences.

Meanwhile, CUTIES was being discussed in senate estimates.

Anne Urquhart (Labor) did not explicitly mention the film. However, her line of questioning regarding revoked decisions and less consumer advice refer to the Netflix Classification Tool awarding an MA15+ (Strong themes, coarse language) and the Classification Board reducing it to MA15+ (Strong themes).

October 22, 2020
Senator URQUHART: The government supported the introduction of the Netflix Classification Tool in November 2016. In November 2019 the Classification Board issued a media release headed, ‘Australia leading the way with Netflix on classification’. It states:

‘Australia is now … a world leader across the on-demand streaming television sector, with a Netflix Tool that assesses content and generates a rating and consumer advice for Australian viewers.’

Can you tell me how the tool has performed and when it comes to making decisions that are broadly consistent with Australian community standards and classification decisions made by the Classification Board?

Ms Sullivan: In terms of how the tool has performed, in the 2018-19 year there was a monitoring program which found that the tool generated either the same rating or one rating higher than the board in 94 per cent of instances. That’s how it performed. Sorry, what was the second part of the question?

Senator URQUHART: Basically, how has it performed when it comes to making decisions that are broadly consistent with Australian community standards and classification decisions?

Ms Sullivan: Based on the sampling, that was in 94 per cent of instances. That’s how it has performed. In the 2019-20 financial year the Netflix tool made 1,525 decisions. Of those, there were16 complaints, and of those where it was checked by the Classification Board only five resulted in changes.

Senator URQUHART: What happens when the tool doesn’t quite get it right? Is there any way the board can step in?

Ms Sullivan: Yes. I will refer to my assistant secretary of the classification branch to make sure it is right.

Senator URQUHART: So there is a way the board can step in?

Ms Sullivan: There is.

Senator URQUHART: Has the board had to amend or revoke any decisions made by the Netflix tool?

Mr O’Neill: The Netflix tools have existed for a number of years. When there is a public complaint made in relation to one of the titles that automatically triggers an assessment by the board. We have our partners at the Classification Board online, and I’ll refer to them to outline their process. That’s part of the public confidence piece and part of the key performance indicators that Netflix must meet in relation to having the tool rolled out for an Australian audience. To answer your question, once a complaint is received that automatically triggers an assessment by the board, who may choose to revoke the original Netflix decision.

Senator URQUHART: Has the board had to amend or revoke any decisions?

Mr O’Neill: They have, yes. They are outlined in the pilot report that was finalised once government authorised the ongoing use of the tool, and also the monitoring program that concluded last year. They’re both available publicly on the classification website.

Senator URQUHART: Has the board ever revoked a decision of the tool where the tool provides more information than the board?

Mr O’Neill: I think that question is probably best answered by the acting director of the Classification Board.

Senator URQUHART: Are they here? Sorry, on the screen; apologies.

Ms Ryan: Whenever a review or a check of a Netflix decision is done the board will classify it using the act, the National Classification Code and the guidelines, and we will come up with the appropriate classification decision and consumer advice. That’s how the system operates. That may be a higher classification, it may be a lower classification or it may be the same classification. It will depend on the circumstances.

Senator URQUHART: How then is that decision revoked?

Ms Ryan: That’s an administrative process.

Senator URQUHART: Apologies. I will put the question again because I didn’t quite catch it. Has the board ever revoked a decision of the tool where the tool provides more information than the board? I think I understand you said yes; is that correct?

Ms Ryan: That could be the case. It’s not about more information; it’s about the appropriate classification and consumer advice for that particular product.

Senator URQUHART: Has the board ever revoked a decision where that has happened?

Ms Ryan: I would say that, yes, we have revoked decisions. We have revoked decisions where the classification may have gone a classification level higher, which would result in different consumer advice, because the consumer advice relates to the impact level of the elements that caused it to go to that particular classification. So, by necessity, if you go up a classification or down a classification then the consumer advice will generally change.

Senator URQUHART: Why does the board revoke accurate classification decisions solely on the basis of minor differences in consumer advice where the Netflix tool actually provides more information?

Ms Ryan: I don’t think that it’s a matter of the board choosing to revoke. I think that if the classification that the board comes up with is different, that necessitates a revocation. We may find differences in the impact of the lower level elements so that would result in a change to the matrix. You may not even see a change in the consumer advice. You may not see a change in the overall classification category. But there may be changes required at the lower level impact of the element.

Senator URQUHART: What is the board’s view on what amount of consumer advice should be provided to Australian consumers?

Ms Ryan: The way that the board approaches consumer advice is that, I guess, the most impactful element at the classification level will get consumer advice. For instance, if a product is being classified M and the M level impact is for coarse language, it would go M with consumer advice of ‘coarse language’. If it’s M for multiple elements then that would also be included in the consumer advice for instance, M level themes and violence and coarse language, for instance.

Senator URQUHART: Say a film is MA15+ due to the existence of multiple classifiable elements, isn’t this what consumers actually want to know? Some people might be okay with drug use but not violence, for example.

Ms Ryan: Absolutely. Consumer advice I guess how it’s been constructed, how it’s been designed and how it’s traditionally been used is given for the elements that are at the overall classification level. If you had themes that were MA, you would have MA15+ for a classification with consumer advice of ‘strong theme’. You might have coarse language at a lower level. You might have drug use at an M level. Those don’t go into the consumer advice for that product. That’s the structure of how it works.

Senator URQUHART: But why not give them the information to choose or know what to expect, to know why that film has the classification that it does?

Ms Ryan: I think that’s what we do. We provide consumer advice that aligns with the overall classification category, and then on our website, on the National Classification Database, people are able to look up what the lower-level elements were for that particular product if they choose to do so.

Senator URQUHART: I’m being asked to wrap up. Isn’t it desirable to allow some flexibility in the system so that perhaps there can be choice for consumers in the range and choice of services when it comes to provision of classification information across different services?

Ms Ryan: I’m not sure that I understand the question.

Senator URQUHART: Is there enough flexibility in the system so that people can understand a choice in the range and choice of services when there’s a provision of classification across different services?

Ms Ryan: The board is responsible only for classifying the material that’s submitted to it for films, computer games and submittable publications. If we’re talking about across different services television, for instance it is captured under a different act. The Netflix tool obviously is an approved tool, and that is allowed to provide classification decisions, but otherwise it should be a board decision. So, the board decisions apply across the films, computer games and submittable publications.

– Anne Urquhart (Labor)
– Pauline Sullivan, First Assistant Secretary, Content
– Aaron O’Neill, Assistant Secretary, Classification
– Sally Ryan, Acting Director, Classification Board
– Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
– Senate estimates, Parliament of Australia

Next up was David Van (Liberal) who continued the line of questioning about complaints and the Netflix Classification Tool.

October 22, 2020
Senator VAN: In the context of classification, how would the department characterise its relationship with Netflix?

Ms Ryan: That’s probably a question for the department.

Mr O’Neill: Since Netflix unilaterally approached government to seek approval for the use of its tool, we found the relationship with Netflix to be sound and very comprehensive. Netflix have been responsive over the past few years to complaints, feedback and improvements, where the tool could continue to be refined. We, as a branch, meet with Netflix on a monthly basis. Ms Ryan and I are looking at increasing that trilateral engagement between the branch, the board and Netflix with that mentality of constant improvement of the tool. Netflix has been an organisation that’s been very responsive to any concerns or issues that we’ve seen through customer complaints or media commentary, or just our general observations of how the tool’s performing.

Senator VAN: Great, thank you for that answer. How was the Netflix classification tool developed?

Mr O’Neill: The Netflix tool uses a range of tagging technology. It is intellectual property owned by Netflix. That tagging technology links to each of the classifiable elements that form the basis of a classification rating and associated consumer advice. Back in 2018, the department undertook a range of training with Netflix so it could comprehensively understand the code, the guidelines, the classifiable elements and other broader elements of how classification decisions are made.

Senator VAN: How do you measure the accuracy of the tool?

Mr O’Neill: There are two components to it. First is the Netflix tool generating the same ratings as the board would. Second is the associated consumer advice, which touches on those six classifiable elements in line, again, with board decisions. If I could just add to that, the monitoring report and the pilot report that I referenced earlier give a factual analysis and comparison between what the Netflix tool’s assessed and what the board have assessed, and that provides some further insights into how that breakdown is recorded.

Senator VAN: How many complaints have been received about the decisions that are made by the Netflix tool?

Mr O’Neill: Last financial year, we received 16 complaints of 1,525 total decisions made.

Senator VAN: Are the decisions made by the tool checked by the Classification Board?

Mr O’Neill: Just touching on my earlier response, when we receive any complaint from a member of the public, that will automatically trigger a check by the Classification Board. So our branch would facilitate that content and we would line up a time for the board to undertake that assessment. Ms Ryan may want to add to that, but that’s just one of the checks and balances we have in place to make sure we’re meeting any consumer concerns around Netflix decisions.

Senator VAN: How many times in the 2019-20 year did the classification review board need to review a decision made by the Classification Board?

Mr O’Neill: In that financial year, there were no reviews undertaken by the classification review board for any film, game or publication titles.

– David Van (Liberal)
– Aaron O’Neill, Assistant Secretary, Classification
– Sally Ryan, Acting Director, Classification Board
– Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
– Senate estimates, Parliament of Australia

The final speaker, Alex Antic (Liberal), said his office had received complaints about CUTIES.

Under questioning, Sally Ryan (Acting Director, Classification Board) answered that she had also responded to several objections. These were presumably a result of the campaign organised by the ACL.

October 22, 2020
Senator ANTIC: I’m interested in exploring a different title that’s received a classification.

It’s a Netflix film called CUTIES. It was given in September, I believe an MA 15+ classification, with strong themes. This film depicts an 11-year-old girl, and other girls, in a highly sexualised context. It has been described as being a ‘lewd exhibition’. I understand a little bit about the classification process, but I’m interested in learning a little bit more about how it is possible that this film has been given any form of classification in circumstances where it sails so close to the wind in respect of being child abuse material for the purposes of the Criminal Code. Are you able to give me a little bit of background in relation to that?

Ms Ryan: I guess I’d preface it by saying the film was classified by the Netflix tool in the first instance, on 8 September 2020. The board, in response to complaints that were received, checked that decision and agreed with the original classification by the Netflix tool. The board’s decision on the film CUTIES is currently the subject of a review by the Classification Review Board. Therefore it’s probably not appropriate for me to comment on the specifics of that decision at this time. I’d be happy to provide you with a copy of the board’s decision report, which outlines the reasons for the decision, on notice. I just don’t want to be seen to be influencing the outcome of any review at this point in time.

Senator ANTIC: That would be good. Can I ask you this question, though, which I don’t think will prejudice anything from that point of view: how many complaints have you received in relation to that film?

Ms Ryan: From the board, I have responded to 22 complaints. I understand that the department has received a number of other complaints about the film. That’s probably a question better addressed by the department.

Senator ANTIC: I think we’ll leave that there, in that case. That’s good news.

CHAIR: The department is here, if you

Senator ANTIC: This question’s in relation to how many complaints the department’s received in addition to those received by the board.

Mr O’Neill: Certainly. Exact numbers I cannot provide. We have a range of individual complaints, and then we have campaigns, in which volumes of people complain collectively about the one issue. I’ll give you the exact number of complaints as soon as possible.

Senator ANTIC: That would be good, because my office has received complaints regarding the film and I’ve, of course, responded to those, so it would be good to know those numbers. I understand that the film is actually the subject of an indictment in the state of Texas in the United States as a result of sailing so close to the wind, so I think this is very encouraging news.

– Alex Antic (Liberal)
– Aaron O’Neill, Assistant Secretary, Classification
– Sally Ryan, Acting Director, Classification Board
– Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
– Senate estimates, Parliament of Australia

MA15+ confirmed again

The following day, the Review Board met and agreed the MA15+ (Strong themes) rating was correct.

In addition, they reduced the level of the extended classification information to,
Strong impact: themes
Moderate impact: language, nudity, sex
Mild impact: violence
None: drug use

Previously, the Classification Board had found both the violence and drug use to be ‘moderate impact’.

October 23, 2020
A three-member panel of the Classification Review Board has unanimously determined that the film, CUTIES, is classified MA 15+ (Mature Accompanied) with the consumer advice ‘strong themes’.

In the Classification Review Board’s opinion, CUTIES warrants an MA 15+ classification because the themes can be accommodated within context. The other classifiable elements can be accommodated at lower classifications.

It is the view of the Classification Review Board that depiction of how young people can be influenced by the internet and social media today to their possible detriment is real.

It is for the above reasons, that the Classification Review Board has decided CUTIES warrants an MA15+ classification no higher than ‘strong’.

Films classified MA 15+ are considered unsuitable for persons under 15 years of age. It is a legally restricted category. Consumer advice is additional information about the main content of a film which is intended to help consumers decide if they want to view this type of material.

The Classification Review Board convened today in response to an application to review the decision made by the Classification Board on 17 September 2020, to classify CUTIES MA 15+ with the consumer advice ‘Strong themes’.

In reviewing the classification, the Classification Review Board worked within the framework of the ‘National Classification Scheme’, applying the provisions of the ‘Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, the National Classification Code and the Guidelines for the Classification of Films 2012’. This is the same framework used by the Classification Board.

The Classification Review Board is an independent merits review body. It makes a fresh classification decision upon receipt of an application for review. This Classification Review Board decision takes the place of the original decision made by the Classification Board.

The Classification Review Board’s reasons for this decision will appear on the Classification website when finalised.

– Cuties classified MA 15+
– Classification Review Board

October 23, 2020
Members
Sue Knowles (Convenor)
Peter Price AM (Deputy Convenor)
Margaret Clancy

Applicant
Australian Christian Lobby

Interested parties
Janet Matthews, Registered Psychologist

Business
To review the Classification Board’s decision to classify the film CUTIES, MA 15+ (Mature Accompanied) with the consumer advice ‘Strong themes’.

Decision and reasons for decision

1. Decision

The Classification Review Board (the Review Board) unanimously classified the film MA 15+, with the consumer advice ‘strong themes’.

2. Legislative provisions

The Classification (Publications, Film and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth) (the Classification Act) governs the classification of films and the review of classification decisions.

The Review Board

Part 5 of the Classification Act outlines the provisions relevant to the Review Board and its procedures.

Section 42 of the Classification Act sets out the persons who may apply for review of a decision:

a) the Minister

b) the applicant for classification of the film, or the likely classification of the film under section 33

c) the publisher of the film, or

d) a person aggrieved by the decision.

Section 43 sets out the conditions regarding the manner and form of applications for review, including time limits. Under section 44, the Review Board must deal with an application for review in the same way that the Classification Board deals with an application for classification of a film.

Classification of films under the Classification Act

Section 9, subject to section 9A, provides that films are to be classified in accordance with the National Classification Code (the Code) and the classification guidelines. Section 9A states that a film that advocates the doing of a terrorist act must be classified RC.

Section 11 of the Classification Act requires that the matters to be taken into account in making a decision on the classification of a film include the:

a) standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults, and

b) literary, artistic or educational merit (if any) of the film, and

c) general character of the film, including whether it is of a medical, legal or scientific character, and

d) persons or class of persons to or amongst whom it is published or is intended or likely to be published.

The National Classification Code

Relevantly, the Films Table of the National Classification Code (the Code) provides that:

Films (except RC films, X 18+ films and R 18+ films) that depict, express or otherwise deal with sex, violence or coarse language in such a manner as to be unsuitable for viewing by persons under 15 are to be classified MA 15+, and

The Code also sets out various principles to which classification decisions should give effect, as far as possible:

a) adults should be able to read, hear, see and play what they want

b) minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them

c) everyone should be protected from exposure to unsolicited material that they find offensive

d) the need to take account of community concerns about:

(i) depictions that condone or incite violence, particularly sexual violence and,

(ii) the portrayal of persons in a demeaning manner.

The Guidelines

Three essential principles underlie the use of the ‘Guidelines for the Classification of Films 2012 (the Guidelines)’, determined under section 12 of the Classification Act, the:

• importance of context

• assessment of impact, and

• the six classifiable elements—themes, violence, sex, language, drug use and nudity.

3. Procedure

Three members of the Review Board met on 23 October 2020, in response to the receipt of an application from the Australian Christian Lobby on 16 October 2020, to conduct the review of the film, CUTIES, which had previously been classified MA 15+ (Mature Accompanied) with consumer advice of ‘Strong themes’ by the Classification Board. The Review Board determined that the application was a valid application.

The Review Board was provided a written submission from the Applicant.

The Review Board viewed the film.

The Review Board was provided a written comment from Janet Matthews, Registered Psychologist

The Review Board heard an oral submission from the Applicant.

The Review Board then considered the matter.

4. Evidence and other material taken into account

In reaching its decision, the Review Board had regard to the following:

(i) Australian Christian Lobby application for review

(ii) Australian Christian Lobby written and oral submissions

(iii) a written comment received from Janet Matthews, Registered Psychologist

(iv) the film, CUTIES

(v) Australian Christian Lobby provided various screenshots taken from the movie

(vi) the relevant provisions in the Classification Act, the Code and the Guidelines, and

(vii) the Classification Board’s report.

5. Synopsis

CUTIES is a French film about a young pre-teen Senegalese-French girl (Amy) from an immigrant traditional religious background who is on the social fringe looking for acceptance from the secular group her own age and looking to integrate into society The movie depicts her desires and ultimate realisation of what is important in life – her family.

Amy is heavily influenced by dance scenes she has seen being done by her school peers (CUTIES) and searches the internet (on a smartphone she has stolen) to find, what she believes, are similar dance moves to practice. She is also influenced by her friend (Angelica) who she sees twerking with the group. Amy is also questioning her role in the family, her boredom with religion and her aunt’s strict religious values being imposed on her.

The CUTIES practice dance moves for a competition while incorporating some sexually suggestive dance moves in the choreography. They are all heavily influenced by the internet and social media for validation and the number of ‘likes’.

Amy is shunned at school after posting online a photo of her genitals (not seen in the movie) and removed from the dance group. However, Amy’s desire to be part of the competition leads her to pushing one of the girls (Yasmine) into the river so she can replace her in the competition.

The sexually suggestive dance at the competition is met with wide disapproval from the audience. This leads Amy to think of her mother who is about to attend the wedding of her polygamous husband. Amy leaves the competition in tears mid-performance to return home.

Amy’s aunt chastises her upon her return for her skimpy outfit and attitudes.

Amy does not attend her father’s wedding, removes her skimpy dance clothing, puts on jeans and top, and goes outside to happily skip with other children in the street.

6. Findings on material questions of fact

The Review Board found that the film contains aspects or scenes of importance under various classifiable elements:

(a) Themes—The treatment of strong themes should be justified by context

The impact of this element is no higher than strong and can be accommodated at the MA15+ classification level.

All other elements can be accommodated at a lower classification category.

7. Reasons for the decision

While there is frequent suggestive and, at times, sexually suggestive dancing by pre-teen and teen dancers it can be justified in context at the MA15+ classification.

The Review Board was of the view that while a number of the images of young girls dancing and behaving in a sexually suggestive manner, there were no images of any girl naked or partially undressed. The movie also demonstrated the influence the internet and social media has on young susceptible teens who are striving to get as many ‘likes’ on social media as possible while not necessarily having the maturity or understanding of the implications of their behavior.

The strong traditional family values and discipline given to Amy eventually pulls her back to the family and her childhood.

8. Summary

The Review Board unanimously classified CUTIES at the MA 15+ classification with the consumer advice of ‘strong themes’.

– Classification Review Board report

Fighting on

Having failed to get CUTIES banned, the ACL now called for an Australian Federal Police investigation.

October 26, 2020
The sexually explicit dance movie CUTIES, with actresses aged 12 to 14, was cleared for adult entertainment by the Classification Review Board on Friday 23 October, classifying it as MA15+.

“This Netflix film sexually exploits children as young as 12 years old with a sustained focus on their sexual parts in extended explicit dance scenes that simulate sex,” ACL spokesperson Wendy Francis said. “The Classification Review Board’s decision on Friday understated the dancing as ‘sexually suggestive’.”

“In making submissions to the Board on Friday, ACL made it clear that these sexual poses fit the definition of ‘child abuse material’ under section 473.1 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code. Child abuse material includes depicting a person under 18 who is engaged in a sexual pose or sexual activity in a way that a reasonable person would regard as being, in all the circumstances, offensive.

“Even if the Board could not declare that a crime had occurred, we emphasised that Australia’s Classification Guidelines prescribe that classification should be refused for ‘depictions of child sexual abuse or any other exploitative or offensive descriptions or depictions involving a person who is, or appears to be, a child under 18’.

“No storyline or alleged commentary against the sexual exploitation of children can justify the actual sexual exploitation of children involved in these camera shoots.

“The children in this film have been sexualised for mass entertainment. The highly sexualised scenes, in particular the last extended dance scene, constitute sexual exploitation of children. Such scenes should not be filmed or distributed. If this film had emerged from the dark web, or in another context, it would immediately be recognised as child abuse material”, Mrs Francis said.

Janet Matthews, Registered Psychologist, in an opinion provided to the Board, stated:

“It is a film purporting to be an exposé of the sexualisation of young girls while in fact sexually exploiting young girls to achieve this purported end. Meanwhile it provides salacious fodder for pedophiles. In my professional view it is a production that masquerades as an exposé but in fact it exploits its young and vulnerable cast to their developmental detriment. It normalises and desensitises society to the sexualisation of pubescent girls. In my opinion it is an exercise in cynicism which blatantly ignores the harm it will cause to society for purely commercial purposes.”

ACL calls on Peter Dutton, Minister for Home Affairs and the Australian Federal Police to intervene and conduct a criminal investigation of this film relating to ‘child abuse material’ under the Commonwealth Criminal Code.

– Classification Review Board fails to protect children from abuse in ‘Cuties’ ruling
– Wendy Francis, Australian Christian Lobby

A very unsuccessful campaign

Instead of achieving a ban, the ACL was instead responsible for the consumer advice and extended classification information being twice downgraded.

The Netflix Classification Tool is often too cautious, so it was not surprising to see ‘Strong themes, coarse language’ be modified to ‘Strong themes’ by the Classification Board.

Next, the Classification Review Board reduced the violence from moderate to mild and the drug use from moderate to none.

Complaining Christians

September 15, 2021
The Board received 31 complaints about the classification of films, 26 of which related to the film, CUTIES.

– Classification Board
– Annual Report, 2020–2021

September 10, 2021
One complaint was about CUTIES, with the complainant expressing concern that CUTIES should have been classified higher than MA 15+.

– Classification Review Board
– Annual Report, 2020–2021

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