From controversy in Vietnam and the Philippines surrounding a cartoon rendering of the South China Sea to sparking conversations about feminism in China, Greta Gerwig’s 2023 Barbie movie is making waves across the Indo-Pacific.
Despite Mattel’s relatively limited presence in Asia, the newly released Barbie movie has had a surprisingly notable impact in various countries across the Indo-Pacific region. While there has been robust press coverage surrounding the film’s Nine-Dash Line claim controversy, there have been a large array of reactions to the movie, from Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. providing his own commentary on the film, to Barbie actress Margot Robbie being warmly received at the Seoul premiere of the film.
The Barbie movie’s products and promotions have ranged from in-line skates to witty posters to short-term stays. In 2021, Greta Gerwig was officially confirmed to direct the Barbie movie, seemingly the last role to be chosen before the decade-old project could finally be completed; that same year, in Malaysia, the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur opened an entire floor of Barbie-themed rooms, giving interested guests an opportunity to stay in pink, "Barbie-fied suites." These 14 rooms are joined by other hotels jumping on the excitement surrounding the film, but it remains MATTEL’s most extensive hotel collaboration.
South Korea had the distinction of being the only Indo-Pacific nation that was visited on Barbie’s brief, global press tour this summer, as well as coinciding with Margot Robbie’s birthday. While Ryan Gosling, who played Ken, was not present at the premiere, he engaged with Seoul in his own way. As a way of paying homage to BTS’ Jimin for wearing Gosling’s cowboy look from the film earlier (and perhaps better), Gosling gave his character’s guitar, his “prized possession,” to the singer. After shaking the Internet, Jimin responded with gratitude—and was promptly teased for it by his fellow BTS members.
Despite the excitement surrounding the Barbie movie’s premiere in Malaysia and South Korea, the film has not been without controversy in other Indo-Pacific countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Outrage sparked due to a hand-drawn map in the film appearing to resemble China’s Nine-Dash Claim, which is oft-used by China to stake its territorial claims over the majority of the South China Sea. In spite of a 2016 international tribunal at The Hauge ruling against China’s claim, tensions persist.
However, the film ultimately premiered without cuts and was granted a PG rating by the Movie & Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) in the Philippines. The Board determined that the map is “cartoonish” and does not represent China’s claims. The controversy was so great that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. weighed in and dismissed the debate, stating, “It’s a work of fiction.”
While the Board had approved the Barbie movie’s premiere, it also issued a stern warning to future depictions of the South China Sea: “The Board sternly warns all filmmakers, producers, and distributors that it will not hesitate to sanction and/or ban films that exhibit the ‘nine-dash line’ for being contrary to the law.”
Many Filipino fans were relieved to view the film, with droves of fans attending the movie decked out in pink. One fan, Martina Santiago exclaimed, “I am excited because at first, it wasn’t supposed to be shown here, so I was nervous because I was so excited to see it.” Filipino viewers also noticed Filipino American actress Ana Cruz Kayne donned a traditional Filipiniana in the film where she portrayed a Supreme Court Justice Barbie.
The cast also boasted other talented Asian American actors like Simu Liu, who plays one of the Kens, and Ritu Arya, who plays a news reporter Barbie. Asian American viewers celebrated the representation, with author Nancy Wang Yuen tweeting, “I grew up playing with a blond Barbie and even had a Ken doll. Never did I imagine them Asian.”
However, the film has not escaped the Indo-Pacific unscathed and is banned in Vietnam due to the Nine-Dash Line claim controversy. The ban was issued by Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism’s Cinema Department, which criticized its supposed use of “the illicit ‘nine-dash line’ that China uses to illegally claim its sovereignty over most of the East Vietnam Sea.”
The controversial Nine-Dash Line is a U-shaped area that encompasses more than 80% of the South China Sea and originates from a map released by China’s government after World War II. The Barbie movie is not the first film to be banned from Vietnam due to alleged depictions of the Nine-Dash Line, with movies like “Uncharted” and “Abominable” being pulled by censors earlier.
Outside of the realm of geopolitics, the Barbie movie has sparked conversations surrounding feminism in China and has even served as a litmus test for women in their romantic relationships and their partners’ views of women. On the Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu, one user suggested that women can discern their partners’ values based on their reaction to the film.
The user wrote that a man who has a vehemently negative reaction to the film and its female director is “stingy” and “a toxic chauvinist,” whereas a man who understands the message of the film is “likely a normal guy with normal values and stable emotions.” Several posts on the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo reported instances of men walking out of the theater and vocally disagreeing with the movie’s values, according to Sixth Tone and the China Project.
Nonetheless, the film has struck a chord with women in China. On the popular Chinese movie-review site Douban, several users praised the film for its female perspective. In one comment with over 20,000 likes, a user wrote, “You know, Chinese women don’t get many chances to see a high-quality, female-focused movie in the cinema.” The relative success of the Barbie movie in the insular Chinese movie market reflects a growing demand for representation of the female gaze in films.
From catching the attention of international superstar and K-Pop idol Jimin, to becoming embroiled in Southeast Asian geopolitics, to sparking necessary debates surrounding feminism and female representation in China, the American-made Barbie movie is having a perceptible impact on pop culture across Asia. The film also serves as important representation for Asian Americans due to its historically diverse cast. Afterall, it’s Barbie’s world and we’re all living in it!
Bea Millan-Windorski is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a rising senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison majoring in History and International Security with certificates in Southeast Asian Studies and Political Science.
Sarah Pratt is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a graduate student at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, where she is focusing on Comparative & Regional Studies and Human Security & Humanitarian Affairs.