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The Parenting Internet Is up in Arms About a Movie Critics Say “Grooms” Children for Sexual Abuse

They have a point.

Will Arnett’s character in Show Dogs gives a dog a bath.
Will Arnett in Show Dogs. Riverstone Pictures

Update, May 23, 2018: The production company responsible for Show Dogs announced Wednesday that it has decided to immediately recut the movie, responding to unflattering coverage and pushback from activist groups. Global Road Entertainment said it would remove the two scenes in which the dog protagonist learns to overcome his discomfort with having his genitals fondled. The edited version will be available to theaters starting this weekend.

Original post: There’s a corner of the parenting internet that seems to revel in finding danger in the everyday: “heinous, disgusting” new Snapchat features, the perils of personalized backpacks, kindly neighbors who are really sex predators. So I was skeptical when a blog post alleging that a new children’s movie was “grooming” kids for abuse started making the rounds on Facebook. I was even more skeptical when the complaint then took off on conservative news websites including Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, which connected the problematic scene to Hollywood’s historic failure to protect child actors from abusers. It just seemed unlikely that a PG-rated movie about talking dogs is, as the original post put it, “meant to groom children to be open to having people touch their privates, even though they don’t want it.”

Then I saw Show Dogs.

To be clear, the movie is not actual propaganda for child abuse. The most disturbing theme is basically limited to two scenes, and it is almost certainly the result of lazy writing rather than a stealth pro-abuse propaganda campaign. But still: It’s gross!

The plot follows Max, a New York police dog voiced by Ludacris, as he teams up with Frank, an FBI agent played by Will Arnett, to track down an animal smuggling ring operating behind the scenes at a fancy dog show in Las Vegas. Dogs crack wise. A tiger zip-lines through an indoor mall. There’s a Lady and the Tramp moment with a hot dog—all the subtlety and hilarity you’d expect from the director of The Smurfs.

The troubling scene comes more than an hour into the movie, when Max is preparing to compete for Best in Show in order to get closer to the smuggling ring. There’s a training montage in which he slurps an icky green smoothie and practices his moves, under the tutelage of Frank and a papillon named Philippe (voiced by Stanley Tucci), who is a veteran of the dog-show circuit. “Don’t get mad at me, but they’re going to do this,” Frank says as he reaches for Max’s hindquarters, preparing him for the physical exam element of the competition. Understandably, Max lashes out.

So far, it’s still not much more than a tacky gag pitched at the same 9-year-olds who would have howled when Max farted in the bathtub in the first act. (I’m guessing; the theater I watched the movie in was completely empty.) But then it starts to get darker. “Focus on not reacting,” Philippe advises Max. “Inspection of the private parts is the hardest part of being a show dog.” He tells the newcomer that the trick is to “go to your happy place” when the judges are performing the survey.

At the finals, the suspenseful music rises as Max mounts the podium where a stranger will grab his genitals. The stakes are high. If Max can endure the groping, he has a chance to bust the smuggling ring. If he fails, a baby panda will never see her mother again (literally). The judge’s hands sweep in slow motion to his backside while Max hears Philippe’s wise counsel: “Focus on not reacting.” Max then goes to a trippy “happy place” that includes fireworks, fire hydrants, the collie he has a crush on, all set to “The Time of My Life. When it’s over, he bursts back to reality, and LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” cuts into the soundtrack. “You did it!” Frank cheers. “I went to my happy place,” Max replies.

The scene is unsettling on several levels. First, this is a children’s movie in which the protagonist’s success depends on withstanding a stranger touching his genitals even though it makes him uncomfortable. Sure, he’s a dog, but he’s an anthropomorphized dog; in fact, in an earlier scene, Frank rescues him from having to mate with a dog he’s not attracted to. This is icky for its own reasons, but at least it establishes Max’s right to bodily autonomy in the Show Dogs universe. The movie’s solution to Max’s discomfort with the inspection is not to empower him to escape it somehow; it’s to have him learn to check out mentally while he endures it, and to make no outward sign of his humiliation. It is not paranoid to say that this is a bad message for kids.

The movie’s production company, Global Road Entertainment, released a statement Tuesday afternoon addressing the controversy. “The dog show judging in this film is depicted completely accurately as done at shows around the world; and was performed by professional and highly respected dog show judges,” the statement reads. “Global Road Entertainment and the filmmakers are saddened and apologize to any parent who feels the scene sends a message other than a comedic moment in the film, with no hidden or ulterior meaning, but respect their right to react to any piece of content.”

There is another small scene in Show Dogs that looks strange in the context of the movie’s confused approach to consent. Philippe goes to visit his former trainer, who is at the competition with a new dog. They had a falling out years ago when the trainer injected Philippe with illegal substances, which left Philippe disgraced and alone. When Philippe sees his owner again before the show, he shares the blame, saying that he would have resisted if he had been stronger. To me, the scene was almost more disturbing than Max’s inspection, because it wasn’t played for laughs: It was a straightforwardly tender reconciliation between an abuser and his victim.