Netflix has removed a promotional image which showed girls posing in skimpy outfits in a new film called Cuties.
The poster for the French drama, along with a trailer, has sparked online disapproval and a petition calling for Netflix to drop it.
The award-winning drama follows an 11-year-old who joins a dance group. Its maker says it is meant to tackle the issue of sexualisation of young girls.
Netflix said the photo “was not an accurate representation of the film”.
The image, together with the movie’s name and suggestive dance sequences, have triggered an online outrage. A petition claiming it “sexualizes an ELEVEN-year-old for the viewing pleasure of paedophiles” has attracted 25,000 signatures in less than 24 hours.
But director Maimouna Doucouré has explained that the story aims to highlight how social media pushes girls to mimic sexualised imagery without fully understanding what lies behind it or the dangers involved.
She has said she decided to explore the topic after being shocked at seeing a group of girls aged around 11 dancing in a sensual way in revealing clothes.
“I saw that some very young girls were followed by 400,000 people on social media and I tried to understand why,” she told CineEuropa.
“There were no particular reasons, besides the fact that they had posted sexy or at least revealing pictures: that is what had brought them this ‘fame.’
“Today, the sexier and the more objectified a woman is, the more value she has in the eyes of social media. And when you’re 11, you don’t really understand all these mechanisms, but you tend to mimic, to do the same thing as others in order to get a similar result.
“I think it is urgent that we talk about it, that a debate be had on the subject.”
Cuties follows 11-year-old Amy, from Senegal, who is torn between her family’s traditional, conservative lifestyle, and the escape offered by free-spirited neighbour Angelica and her dance gang.
It earned Franco-Senegalese film-maker Doucouré the world cinema dramatic directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
It has just been released in French cinemas under its original name Mignonnes.
It is not a Netflix original and will arrive on the platform next month. Many people on social media have criticised the depictions.
After the promotional poster sparked controversy online, Netflix told BBC News: “This was not an accurate representation of the film so the image and description has been updated.”
Reviews from film critics at Sundance were broadly receptive.
‘Captivating but shaky’
The Hollywood Reporter called the film “captivating but structurally shaky”, and said it portrayed a “critical view of a culture that steers impressionable young girls toward the hypersexualization of their bodies”.
Screen Daily said “the sight of twerking pre-teen bodies is explicitly designed to shock mature audiences into a contemplation of today’s destruction of innocence”.
The site also pointed out that Doucouré had created “outrageous musical montages involving close-up crotch shots of pouting pre-teens”.
It added: “Doucouré seems to want to provoke censure, but fails precisely because she’s trying so hard. Ultimately, that’s the fate that also befalls Amy as she learns the perils of the internet and the limits of the selfie.”
More recently in France, Le Monde compared the moment of Amy’s transformation with “when Olivia Newton-John entered the scene at the end of Grease transformed into a sex bomb, in front of a stunned John Travolta”.
Its critic wrote: “The film-maker skilfully refrains from passing judgment on the very explicit sexualization of the dances. During the outdoor dance competition where the Mignonnes perform, explosively, the camera limits itself to filming the faces of the spectators and the jury, where a multitude of reactions can be read.”
Doucouré’s other awards include the inaugural Academy Gold Fellowship Award for Women, given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body behind the Oscars, last year. According to Variety, the accolade came with a $22,000 (£16,600) grant to help finish Cuties.