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Is Netflix’s Teen Prostitution Drama ‘Baby’ Obscene or Just Risqué?

Netflix is no stranger to risqué fare. From the body-shaming conversation surrounding Insatiable to 13 Reasons Why‘s depiction of suicide, you don’t have to scroll far before you find a controversial project on the streaming service. But Netflix’s most recent addition is by far one of its most scandalous in a while. The Italian drama Baby has been denounced by the the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) for allegedly promoting underage sex trafficking. But is Baby worth the outrage it’s provoked or is the petition against the series an overreaction?

Netflix’s second Italian original, Baby follows a group of young, dumb, and rebellious teenagers stumbling through life. It’s a fairly typical coming-of-age drama save for the fact that two of the show’s teens start to casually and then seriously become involved in a prostitution ring. The six-episode series is loosely based on a viral news story from 2014. Two teenage girls were caught engaging in part-time prostitution to buy designer clothes and expensive devices. The scandal led to the arrest of five people, including one of the mothers of these teenage girls.

Before it even premiered Andrea De Sica and Anna Negri’s take on the story was plagued by controversy. Shortly after Netflix announced the series at the beginning of this year 55 members of NCOSE joined together to send a letter to the company. The letter worried that Baby would glamorize underage sex trafficking and that the series “normalizes child sexual abuse and the sex trafficking of minors as ‘prostitution.’”For its part, Netflix has emphasized the project’s emotional authenticity rather than its controversial framing. The series has even been described as “edgy” by another Netflix VP, Erik Barmack.

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The reality of Baby rests somewhere in the middle of these two conflicting views. Baby doesn’t go out of its way to glamorize underage sex work by a long shot. Though there night club scenes abound, the moments showing actual sex work are dark and sad. But the series also doesn’t seem very interested in condemning the illegal practice it shows. Rather the child sex trafficking ring at the center of this story is rarely anything more than a plot device, similar to how Gossip Girl would use Serena’s former drug problem. Considering the horrifying weight behind this particular plot-driving scandal, Baby‘s lack of a sharp condemnation is unsettling.

Though all of Baby is clearly building to the rebellious and underage Ludo (Alice Pagani) selling her body for money, the series doesn’t spell out its point until the end of the third episode. That’s when the shifty club owner Fiore (Paolo Calabresi) offers to introduce the teenager to some of his “friends.” Ludo doesn’t hesitate for long before time him up on his offer, and to Baby‘s credit, the show doesn’t make sex work look fun. Light-hearted shopping trips are sandwiched in between skeevy back-office meetups with dentists and drunk, handsy men.

But that’s the most effort Baby makes to emphasize that what’s happening is illegal. Ludo and her close friend Chiara (Benedetta Porcaroli) rarely if ever dwell on the larger implications of what they’re doing. If anything the pair happily embrace their new roles as the victims of statutory rape, telling one another in hushed moments about how it quells the wild urges inside of them. The adults around them are only too happy to capitalize on their interest. It’s frighteningly easy to forget that these sexual transactions aren’t happening between willing adult parties. They’re happening between adults and children.

And that’s the problem. Baby is so focused on unravelling the motivations of these girls it forgets to highlight why exactly what they’re doing is illegal. Much like a darker version of Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, the series seems far more interested in focusing on the motivations of its privileged protagonists. What kind of teenagers become involved in a sex ring not for money but for fun? But the answer to that question is never interesting or nuanced enough to justify the risks of normalizing this behavior in the first place. With a lack of concrete condemnation for the adults involved in Ludo and Chiara’s monetized sex abuse, the series feels like an unfulfilling exploration of what-if with a disturbingly dark message: These girls wanted it.

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Ultimately Baby‘s major problem is that it’s shockingly uninterested in the reason it’s making headlines. It’s far more concerned with the trappings of typical teen dramas — love triangles, betrayed friends, pot deals gone wrong. It just also happens to be about two young women being groomed for a child sex trafficking ring. It’s the casual and depth-free equalization of these plot points that makes Baby frustrating and worth becoming outraged about.

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