Discover more from Ideas Beyond Borders
Geopolitical Barbie: A Doll's Unexpected Drama
Barbie has become an international box office sensation. But some countries are banning the film amid controversies over sex and the South China Sea.
The critically acclaimed Barbie movie smashed all expectations upon release, roaring its way to over $1.2 billion worldwide, becoming Warner Bros. second-highest grossing film (after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II) and confidently winning the "Barbenheimer" battle against Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer. The highest opening weekend gross by a female director (Oscar nominee Greta Gerwig), Barbie has elevated the profiles of its already-megastars Margot Robbie (Barbie) and Ryan Gosling (Ken). Though the film is wowing audiences around the globe thanks to its humor, spectacle, and insightful commentary on gender, some countries aren't too pleased.
The initial controversy over Barbie was because of geopolitical tensions involving China, the Philippines, and Vietnam (yes, you read that correctly), banning the film for a supposed depiction of disputed territory in the South China Sea (that's a story for another time). On August 9th, Lebanon's Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada proposed a total ban of the film ahead of its planned August 31st release because it "[promotes] homosexuality and transsexuality … supports rejecting a father's guardianship, undermines and ridicules the role of the mother, and questions the necessity of marriage and having a family". The ban awaits approval from the country's General Security Agency. Lebanon's ban is perplexing, given the country's liberal attitudes towards the LGBTQ community, but not altogether surprising given the continued presence of Hezbollah (who backs Minister Mortada) and other fundamentalist groups.
Later the same day, Kuwait's Ministry of Information announced a similar Barbie ban to protect "public ethics and social traditions" as they assert the film "promulgates ideas and beliefs that are alien to Kuwaiti society and public order." There's no specification beyond that, but the simultaneous ban of the Australian horror film Talk to Me, which stars a non-binary/trans masculine actor, suggests the ban may be due to Barbie's inclusion of transgender actress Hari Nef, at least in part. On August 15th, Algeria also announced a ban (the film had already been out for three weeks at that point) because the film "promotes homosexuality and other Western deviances."
The actual content of Barbie makes the stated reasoning for the bans seem like a bit of a stretch. Aside from Nef, whose character is not specified to be cisgender or trans, the film does feature several LGBTQ performers, notably former Saturday Night Live star Kate McKinnon. Aside from a brief shot of two men ogling Gosling's Ken on Venice Beach, there's no explicit portrayal or discussion of anything LGBTQ-related (unless censors were perturbed by the unorthodox masculinity of Ken's special "buddy" Allan). The Barbies and Kens don't even know what sex is (a source of much humor), but every "long-term, long-distance, low-commitment, casual girlfriend/boyfriend" pairing appears to be straight, and the only relationship depicted in the real world is a heterosexual marriage.
As for the idea that the film "supports rejecting a father's guardianship, undermines and ridicules the role of the mother, and questions the necessity of marriage and having a family,"... well, maybe. There's one quip about kids taking out their anger on their fathers, and the only confirmed father character, while awkward, is shown to be caring and attentive, making a sincere effort (however painfully) to learn Spanish for his wife and daughter. Ruth Handler, who created the original Barbie doll in 1959, features heavily; much emphasis is placed on the hope she wished to inspire in her own daughter by inspiring her to imagine women in just about any profession possible. Perhaps the idea that women can and should aspire to achieve their dreams outside the domestic sphere unnerves those who adhere to more traditional values.
The film also depicts the original matriarchal society of Barbie Land as perfect (for the Barbies, at least). In contrast, the patriarchal society of the Kens is crass, sexist, and utterly incompetent at anything unrelated to horses, trucks, or mansplaining. If one is seriously vested in a patriarchal society, which many countries in the Middle East are, this can be interpreted negatively, but the film goes out of its way to demonstrate that the original matriarchy left the Kens sidelined and that men need to have positive identities (outside of their relationship with women). The film isn't simply saying, "women rule, men drool," but, for better or worse, it's not embracing orthodox notions of masculinity.
Curiously missing in the censorship discussion is the patriarch of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. The decision to allow Barbie in Saudi Arabia when it's struck a chord with some of its neighbors is excellent, though slightly curious. When the efforts by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to liberalize Saudi society are considered, it makes more sense. The Sauds set the benchmark for conservative religious culture in the region for decades until 2015, when the Crown Prince began making his mark on the Saudi government and culture, becoming the de facto ruler over his father and instituting a series of policies collectively known as Vision 2030. He's been controversial thus far (on the one hand, he's involved with assassinating journalists like Jamal Khashoggi, on the other, he's helping to put on monster truck rallies). His oil diversification plans may not be going so well, but under his tutelage, women can drive and have more freedom to travel without a male guardian. A Saudi-backed professional golf circuit, LIV, recently merged with the PGA tour, and the domestic soccer league now boasts international superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar. In 2018, movie theaters opened for the first time since 1983.
Barbie features a trans actress, yet Spiderman: Across the Spider-Verse was banned in Saudi Arabia for featuring a trans pride flag in the background of a scene. Why? At least some of the answers can be found in the following video; seeing women driving cars by themselves, wearing bright, decadent outfits, singing to Western music, drinking Pepsi, and watching Ryan Gosling smile on a big screen. What other movie could inspire this specific population in such a way that highlights these particular reforms? Maybe it's not so benevolent on the part of the Crown Prince, but people don't generally like to go back to regressive censorship once the genie's out of the bottle.
All of IBB’s programs are supported by our valued donors. To receive new posts and support our work, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Paid subscriptions go directly towards funding our Innovation Hub.
This article was written by Jack Gillespie.