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Netflix's most controversial movies and TV shows

Netflix has rapidly become a ubiquitous part of nearly all of our lives, with its incredibly deep, constantly shifting streaming catalog of movies and television series. Usually, the phrase "there's something for everyone" is mere hyperbole — but not in the case of Netflix, which quite literally has something for you whether you're a fan of extreme horror, an actual toddler, or anything in between.

Of course, with such an extensive selection, there's bound to be some content that's a bit problematic. Whether it's the material itself, the situation surrounding its production, or moments that could be seen as inappropriate, Netflix has put up a surprising amount of material that's drawn controversy for one reason or another. From arthouse films to mainstream theatrical releases to the company's own rapidly expanding library of original movies and series, here's a look at some of the most controversial viewing experiences Netflix has to offer. 

13 Reasons Why

The Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why debuted in 2017, and immediately became a lightning rod for controversy. The story picks up after the suicide of high schooler Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who left behind a series of cassette tapes meant for specific people in her life, detailing the reasons for her decision. Through the use of flashbacks, the season depicts disturbing instances of sexual assault, bullying, and — in a scene that some observers found to be irresponsible and potentially dangerous for impressionable teens — Hannah's graphic suicide.

Despite its seemingly self-contained premise, the series was picked up for another season, and its release brought a fresh round of controversy in 2018. Its more problematic scenes include an explicit depiction of a young man's sexual assault by another man, an incident which nearly prompts a school shooting. Creator Brian Yorkey defended the scene as necessary to sparking dialogue, while Netflix CEO Reed Hastings took a decidedly less compromising "if you don't like it, you don't have to watch it" stance. To its credit, Netflix added warnings before every episode and a launched a companion series, Behind the Reasons, to encourage discussions of the issues the show presents — none of which have stopped some from labeling it mere exploitation. Despite season 2 slipping considerably in the critical acclaim department, the series was renewed for a third season.

Big Mouth

Netflix has generally fared quite well with its original animated offerings, with titles like BoJack Horseman and F is for Family soaking up critical claim despite (or perhaps because of) their adult themes and humor. But with Big Mouth, they took a considerable risk. An examination of puberty and teen sex, the show leans heavily on vulgarity and gross-out humor — and while some critics have found it to be sharp, funny and engaging, others have deemed its utter commitment to nastiness a bridge too far.

The criticism ranges from supposed confusion over whether the show is aimed at children (it's obviously not, which creator Nick Kroll has spelled out more than once) to its alleged "liberal agenda" and sideways references to homosexuality and pedophilia. The series has also managed to draw fire from the other end of the political spectrum for one addition to its stellar voice ensemble: Jenny Slate, a white actress cast as the voice of a black character. But despite all of the brouhaha, the first season was a significant hit with viewers — which means, of course, that it was renewed for season 2.

The Push

Netflix original special The Push stars U.K. mentalist Derren Brown, who wowed viewers with a viral video in which he demonstrated the seeming ability to literally put thoughts into peoples' heads. Brown slipped a series of key words into a casual conversation in order to convince actor Simon Pegg he had always wanted a red BMX bike as a child, a completely fabricated notion — but in The Push, he enlists the help of over 70 actors to attempt to put a very different kind of idea into the mind of an unsuspecting mark.

The actors guide an ordinary man named Chris through a series of increasingly bizarre situations, gauging his reactions up until the culminating event — in which the man must decide, under intense pressure, whether to push another man (also, of course, an actor) to his death from the top of a tall building. Obviously, the idea is not to get Chris to follow through with murder, but to try to convince him to — a prospect which some have noted walks a very fine line between bizarre prank and psychological torture. For his part, Brown has dismissed this notion, saying that "It's amazing how malleable people become. We think we've got these values and morals that we could never transgress, but all that goes out the window." Here's hoping Brown knows the minds of his subjects as well as he thinks.

Blue is the Warmest Color

The 2013 French drama Blue Is the Warmest Color, based on the graphic novel of the same name, is an acclaimed film. It won the Palme d'Or at that year's Cannes Film Festival, despite drawing early controversy for its shockingly graphic, seven-minute long lesbian sex scene, and the performances of lead actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux have been widely praised. But the comments of the actresses themselves concerning the film's production, and director Abdellatif Kechiche's reaction to them, have added to the controversy.

In a Daily Beast interview, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux were unanimous in praising Kechiche as a genius while calling the experience of making the film "horrible" and insisting that neither of them would work with him again. "You can see that we were really suffering," said Exarchopoulos. "With the fight scene, it was horrible. She was hitting me so many times, and [Kechiche] was screaming, 'Hit her! Hit her again!'" To which Seydoux responded, "In America, we'd all be in jail." At a Los Angeles press event four days later, Kechiche took his stars to task for their comments, leaving Seydoux in tears, and later threatened to take them to court. The film is undeniably brilliant, but it's tough not to see its more demanding scenes in a new light. 

Love

Gaspar Noe seems to live to provoke controversy. The mind behind such famously challenging cinematic experiments as Enter the Void and the brutal rape-revenge drama Irreversible, Noe used his 2015 film Love to tell the fairly simple story of the birth, life and death of a romantic relationship — and being who he is, Noe chose to tell his story in a fashion that's anything but simple. The film plays fast and loose with chronology, but that's par for the course for Noe; Love's controversy stemmed from the fact that, in order to really get us inside the heads and lives of his characters, he chose to include unsimulated sex scenes and shoot the film in 3D.

In case you're wondering, yes, this means that there is one… shall we say, explosive shot that takes full advantage of the 3D format, a supremely silly moment in what is otherwise a rather serious and grounded film. At Cannes, Noe defended his decisions, saying, "we're not doing anything that's perverse. We're not doing anything strange. Everything in the film, all the sex, it seems natural, to me at least." Critics generally agreed that the film was underwhelming, self-indulgent and strangely un-erotic — but even so, it's without a doubt the closest thing you'll find to hardcore porn on Netflix.

Nymphomaniac

Professional provocateur Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac arrived in two feature-length volumes, both of which are available for streaming. The story of a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg and, as a teen, Stacy Martin) who recounts her extremely damaging sexual history to a seemingly sympathetic older man (Stellan Skarsgard) after a brutal beating, Nymphomaniac is not so much titillating as it is psychologically uncomfortable to watch.

Of course, it's the sex scenes that stirred up the most controversy, causing the film to banned in Turkey, Romania (a ban which was eventually reversed), and parts of the Middle East. But if it's eroticism you're looking for, you won't find it here; the films constitute a brutal portrait of how its main character's compulsions inevitably ruin her life and the lives of nearly everyone she comes into contact with, and there's no redemption to be found in its jaw-dropping ending. Despite the controversy, the first volume also gained a great deal of attention for an absolutely soul-shattering performance by Uma Thurman as a betrayed wife and mother of three children, an extended cameo which must be seen to be believed.

White Girl

Writer/director Elizabeth Wood leaned on a couple of very specific influences for her 2016 indie film White Girl: writer Harmony Korine and director Larry Clark's 1995 provocation Kids, and her own past as a hard-partying girl from the Midwest attending college in New York. More than a few comparisons have been made between her film and Clark's work, and the films even share a producer in Christine Vachon — but White Girl is slightly more concerned with matters of power and control, particularly in the way fresh-faced protagonist Leah (Morgan Saylor, Homeland) finds her grasp on both slipping as she delves deeper into a lifestyle of illicit drugs and casual sex.

After the film's debut at Sundance, it was savaged by Variety in a review which basically accused Wood of playing to the exploitation crowd in order to shoulder her way into Hollywood. Of course, Kids — which is today considered a highly influential work — received its share of similar criticism upon its release. In a Vogue interview, Wood responded to such appraisals succinctly: "It's interesting to me that sexuality upsets people more than talking about race, or privilege, or gender."

Atypical

Building a wacky sitcom around a main character with high-functioning autism is nothing if not tricky, and the Netflix original series Atypical manages to have its heart in the right place while seemingly hitting every stumbling block along the way. It can be forgiven for failing to put together a complete and accurate picture of the condition, as there are far too many variations along the spectrum for one character to embody them all — but some have taken the show to task for attempting to play up the condition for laughs, while failing to be insightful…or funny.

The comedy focuses on teenager Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist, It Follows) and his family, and many reviewers — including several on the autism spectrum themselves — have slapped the show with labels ranging from "stereotypical" to "offensive." Even a game supporting cast including veteran actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapaport as Sam's put-upon parents can't paper over what has been seen as troublesome writing, which has drawn all the more attention for the fact that creator Robia Rashid and her team failed to consult any actual autistic people in bringing their endeavor to the screen. But the series seems to have found its fans among viewers, as Netflix has announced that it will return for a second season; perhaps with a little course-correction, it can become the shining example of mainstream representation that the autism community was hoping for.

The Paperboy

2012's The Paperboy is the kind of quirky, tonally challenged film that might have come and gone in limited release with few having noticed, despite the presence of bankable stars Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, and Zac Efron. The melodramatic thriller was simply kind of a mess despite stylish direction by Lee Daniels (a writer and producer on the hit series Empire), and its failure to secure a wide release may have rendered it all but invisible to the moviegoing public if not for one blindingly weird scene.

This would be the sequence in which Kidman's character attempts to alleviate a jellyfish sting suffered by Efron's character by — there's no delicate way to put this — urinating on him. (Pro tip: this doesn't work.) Although it's arguably not even the film's most disturbing scene — bizarre prison sex between Kidman and John Cusack may very well take that prize — it's just not every day that a Hollywood release presents us with images of major movie stars peeing on each other, and the scene was pretty much all anyone could talk about leading up to the film's release. To his partial credit, Daniels had an idea this might be the case, and considered cutting it altogether — but in an interview with GQ, he revealed that Kidman insisted that since he'd made her shoot it, it had to stay. 

Step Sisters

Dear White People has been a solid hit for Netflix, and the streaming giant's acquisition of Step Sisters — a topical exploration of race on college campuses from that series' writer Chuck Hayward along with Master of None scribe Lena Waithe — seemed like a no-brainer. But the movie's central premise (a black college senior is tasked with teaching a bunch of disgraced white sorority sisters to step) sparked controversy before it even debuted, and it hasn't abated. 

The film's creators (who, notably, are both black) have taken issue with its being pigeonholed as a "cultural appropriation comedy," with Waithe pointing out that it has a high degree of self-awareness and that "culture is meant to be appreciated and explored by everyone." Of course, many critics have also panned the film for the more conventional crimes of awkward plotting, recycled tropes and dull dialogue, alongside the misdemeanors of "eye-rolling tone deafness" and "performative wokeness." But at a time when race relations are among the hottest of topics in the United States, it seems unlikely that anyone involved in the production could have failed to foresee the flap that it would cause; even before its pickup by Netflix, star Megalyn Echikunwoke admitted to CBS News that "it's definitely meant to be provocative. It might be offensive to some people."