The controversial French film "Cuties", accused of sexualizing little girls, has been pulled into the US election fray with Republicans using the movie to appeal to conservatives while casting Democrats as soft on child abuse.
Statements by Republican lawmakers and an online campaign have tapped into concern over child sexual molestation, making the film political leverage in the battle to re-elect Republican President Donald Trump.
While the initial reaction to "Cuties" was to attack Netflix, which launched the film online last week, Republican activists are now charging that the social drama is a by-product of an overly liberal culture -- and that it promotes pedophilia.
Republican lawmakers have called for a federal investigation into the film.
Senator Ted Cruz told Attorney General Bill Barr in a letter that the film is "likely" to encourage pedophiles.
"The film routinely fetishizes and sexualizes these pre-adolescent girls as they perform dances simulating sexual conduct in revealing clothing," said Cruz.
He said that the Justice Department should determine if the French filmmakers or Netflix "violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography."
In a separate letter to Barr, Republican Congressman Ken Buck said the film normalizes "sexual abuse and exploitation of children by pedophiles" and raises alarms that the filmmakers "exploited" young girls who appear in it.
The film, called "Mignonnes" in French, portrays a young, rebellious French Senegalese girl who joins a pre-teen hip-hop dance group that is pushed into performing suggestive dances.
The story ultimately becomes a critique of the over-sexualization of young girls, and earned director Maimouna Doucoure an award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
- Debate about sexualization -
In an op-ed in the Washington Post on Wednesday, Doucoure rejected the charges of abusing girls, and said her film was about the objectification of women and children, and the pressure pre-teen girls feel to be pretty and sexy.
"This film is my own story," the Senagalese-French filmmaker wrote, which she said she made "to start a debate about the sexualization of children in society today".
The initial campaign against "Cuties" called for conservatives to close their Netflix accounts.
Variety, the Hollywood journal, reported Tuesday that cancellations had soared eight times their normal levels as a result.
But Republicans have used the animosity towards the film as a way of accusing Democrats of not doing anything about child abuse.
Trump's son Donald Jr. asked in a tweet Monday why Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Trump ally, is "essentially the only mainstream Democrat who was willing to come out against the normalization of pedophelia and the sexualization of our children? The rest seem to be rushing to the defense of Cuties."
And just as the furor exploded online, Republican activists propelled the hashtag "pedoBiden" on Twitter on Monday to falsely smear Joe Biden, Trump's Democratic presidential rival, posting pictures of him with young women.
Trump himself retweeted a post with that hashtag on Tuesday, with the White House offering no justification.
- Echoes of 'Pizzagate' -
The attention appeared designed to fire up a base of conservative voters, particularly women interested in child welfare issues, as Trump struggles behind Biden in polls.
Trump's campaign has made a concerted push to woo suburban women voters, claiming Democrats threaten their families and communities.
One particular driver of the "Cuties" furor is the QAnon network, whose mostly pro-Trump followers subscribe to baseless theories involving organized rings of Satanists who in kidnap and abuse children.
According to Travis View, who researches QAnon, women in the network are particularly active in organizing "Save Our Children" rallies that reference child abuse fears.
"Save Our Children rallies are actually QAnon rallies and if the organizers say otherwise, they are lying," View wrote on Twitter Monday.
The controversy over "Cuties" echoes the viral "pizzagate" conspiracy theory of 2016, which was driven by Trump supporters who alleged that his rival Hillary Clinton and other Democrats were part of a child kidnapping ring operating from the basement of a Washington pizzeria.
That almost ended in tragedy when a man who believed the story invaded the restaurant with an assault rifle and shot off several rounds -- but ultimately did not hurt anyone.
"Cuties is not child porn. It's commentary AGAINST sexualizing young girls," noted Evan Shapiro, an assistant professor of business at New York University.