Show Dogs, a new family comedy about a police hound who goes undercover to infiltrate a dog show, has come in for criticism over a scene which some feel sends a troubling message to impressionable audiences.
In a statement on Tuesday, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) says a scene in which Max (voiced by the actor-rapper Ludacris) is instructed to put his discomfort over genital groping to one side and instead “go to a zen place” sends “a troubling message that grooms children for sexual abuse”.
The movie concerns the case of a stolen baby panda, which leads Max, a talking Rottweiler, to team up with human FBI agent played by Will Arnett. Their covert mission means Max learns what it takes to be a dog show champion, by way of pedicures, Botox, waxing and tolerating the judges checking his genitals.
Dawn Hawkins, the executive director of the NCOSE, said her organisation objects to “multiple scenes where a dog character must have its private parts inspected, in the course of which the dog is uncomfortable and wants to stop but is told to go to a ‘zen place’.
“The dog is rewarded with advancing to the final round of the dog show after passing this barrier. Disturbingly, these are similar tactics child abusers use when grooming children: telling them to pretend they are somewhere else and that they will get a reward for withstanding their discomfort.
“Children’s movies must be held to a higher standard, and must teach children bodily autonomy, the ability to say ‘no’ and safety – not confusing messages endorsing unwanted genital touching.”
The organisation has asked Global Road Entertainment, which co-produced and co-financed the film with Riverstone Pictures, to halt the film’s release until it can be recut.
But Global Road has defended the film by saying such touching is common practice in dog shows. “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,” they said in a statement to CNN.
“Global Road Entertainment and the film-makers are saddened and apologise 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.”
In a statement released on Wednesday, the British Board of Film Classification appeared to concur with Global. “[T]he scenes in question are entirely innocent and non-sexual and occur within the clear context of preparation for and judging in a dog show,” they wrote. “We regard the comments made about the film as suggesting ‘grooming’ as a misinterpretation of the scenes in question.”
In the UK, Show Dogs carries a Parental Guidance rating for “mild bad language, rude humour and violence”. In the US, it carries the same rating.
Max Botkin, one of the film’s chief writers, denies penning the scene in question, saying that his original script was “heavily rewritten by 13 other writers”, 12 of whom are uncredited.
Botkin was not a part of the rewrite process and “didn’t get to see the film until it was in its final stage of completion, and had zero say in creative choices the second I signed away the rights to my work”.In a statement he wrote: “I absolutely condemn any suggestion or act of non-consensual touching in any form, as well as disassociation as a coping mechanism for abuse of any kind. I understand and empathise with the parents’ and groups’ concerns regarding the message the movie may impart.”
Concerned bodies have taken to Twitter to express their scepticism about the scene.
Notices in the mainstream US media have so far been less outraged. In a review for Variety, Nick Schager said found the film age-appropriate, writing: “Max’s transformation necessitates getting his rear end waxed and learning to stay completely still when his private parts are inspected.
“Along with a blast of canine flatulence, those bits are aimed squarely at preschool viewers who still think bathroom and crotch jokes are the apex of hilarity.” Meanwhile, the New York Times’s critic bemoaned the gendered stereotyping, but did not mention the scene in question.
London’s Daily Telegraph critic Tim Robey said he went into Tuesday’s press screening aware of the controversy. “Even so, it’s just so bizarre when the dog goes to this zen place in the sky, frolicking around with his owner among the stars, oblivious to this hand on his balls – like any good dog should be.”
The Guardian’s reviewer, Mike McCahill, wrote that he found the focus surprising but not especially troubling: “No film in motion picture history can ever have made more fuss about the state of one canine’s anus.”