For weeks leading up to the global release of the highly anticipated Barbie movie, images of the doll’s idyllic world were plastered across social media feeds, billboards, and television screens around the world. The movie’s ad campaign and trailers drummed up excitement surrounding the film’s release worldwide, but they also sparked controversy.
Vietnam made headlines in July when it announced it would ban screenings of the Barbie movie. The ban stemmed from a drawing of a world map in the film that authorities in Vietnam said depicted the “nine-dash line,” which is a feature on some Chinese maps indicating the disputed territorial claims of China in the South China Sea. Vietnam believes that the nine-dash line violates its sovereignty.
Warner Brothers Film Group said in a statement that the map is a “child-like crayon drawing” and is “not meant to make any type of statement,” according to Variety.
We asked SIS professor Patrick Thaddeus Jackson about the statement Vietnam attempted to make by banning screenings of Barbie. Jackson, who researches the intersection of pop culture and international relations, also discussed broader reasons why countries use big pop culture moments to draw attention to their own politics.
- What statement is Vietnam making by banning screenings of Barbie?
- In total, the child-like world map in the film was only on screen for a matter of seconds—short enough that many viewers may not have even noticed the map if they were not actively looking for it. A short clip of the map featured in a trailer of the Barbie movie was what initially sparked ire from Vietnamese authorities, who quickly claimed that the map depicted the nine-dash line.
- The Philippines’ film review board also weighed whether or not to ban screenings of Barbie due to the map, but ultimately concluded that the map was “cartoonish” and did not depict the nine-dash line, according to CNBC.
- Jackson said the fact that Vietnam has paid this level of scrutiny to the movie underscores a lesson he often teaches his students: “Anything can become political if someone wants to make it political.”
- “I think what Vietnam is trying to say here is any depiction of the South China Sea that even appears to support the Chinese claim to that entire area—the thing they call the nine-dash line on certain Chinese maps—anything that even goes in that direction should be opposed on principle,” Jackson said.
- Why do countries use pop culture moments to make statements?
- Vietnam’s decision to ban screenings of Barbie is at least the third time in the last four years it has banned films over similar maps. According to Reuters, Vietnamese authorities banned DreamWorks’ film Abominable in 2019 and Sony’s Unchartered in 2022.
- Jackson said Vietnam’s action is the “mirror image” of the kind of policies China has when it comes to Taiwan, noting that Chinese authorities lodge official complaints whenever there are representations of Taiwan being an independent country.
- “There are a number of cases in international relations where people do this,” he said. “It is always about trying to control the narrative—and trying to control the narrative in such hyper-meticulous detail that you would even go after a background shot in the Barbie movie.”
- He later added: “I would say that states in some way always have a vested ontological interest in the narrative, by which I mean a narrative is essential to the very existence of the actor. Because states and other political entities are like this—they kind of exist in stories—then one of the things that the entity has to do is protect the narrative and put out the narrative that it wants about its boundaries, its responsibilities, and its role in the broader community.”
- What are some other examples of when countries have used pop culture moments or elements to draw attention to their own politics?
- The actions countries take to control the narrative can manifest in several ways, Jackson explained. For example, there are known historical ties between Hollywood and the US government, particularly when it comes to depictions of the US military. Jackson noted that the film Top Gun and its sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, were created in heavy collaboration with the US military.
- There are also many instances in which countries will utilize “soft power” initiatives to promote narratives. For example, Jackson said that Japan heavily promotes and supports “Japanimation conventions” and anime events, “which are somewhat underwritten and supported by the Japanese government.” As a result, Japan is promoting itself as an “entity in this particular pop culture space.”
- “There’s this general background of countries using these representational spaces as ways of promoting narratives about what it is that they are doing,” said Jackson.
- He also noted examples of countries using films to tell revisionist history, such as films, novels, and even museums that downplay Nazi complicity during World War II. Jackson pointed specifically to the House of Terror museum in Budapest, Hungary, which has been criticized by some for downplaying the atrocities of Hungarian Nazis against Jews, according to the NYT.
- Do the themes and social commentary in the Barbie movie reflect something important about this particular moment in human history?
- Jackson said the Barbie movie reflects two important things about the present moment: nostalgia continues to sell, and the social space exists to critique gender roles.
- Jackson explained that Barbie taps into the “nostalgia reservoir” in both its presentation of Barbieland and the repeated references to discontinued Barbie products throughout the film.
- “You needed that whole [Barbie] universe to draw on and be able to pull on those nostalgic strings, and that continues to sell really well,” Jackson said. “I think that says something interesting about the unsettled character of our current times—that we want to take refuge in nostalgia.”
- The Barbie movie also offers a critique of gender roles through the way the film is constructed, Jackson noted.
- “The very clever way that Gerwig has constructed the film—where you get the shots of Ken—are very much like the shots of the woman in the background in a male-centered film,” Jackson said. “It’s just a beautifully disorienting visual experience because we've been trained to expect that male characters will show up at certain times and do certain things, and here we don’t have that. We have Ken just being Ken, and the film—even when he tries to take over Barbieland—doesn’t let him take center stage, which is absolutely fascinating.”
- The fact that the film has been such a success and has many A-list celebrities in the cast indicates an interesting “social space for the critique of gender roles,” which did not exist in the same way even half a century ago, Jackson explained.
- “Something has kind of shifted that now we can entertain these things, and that we can entertain a certain ambiguity about them, where it’s like, ‘here are these gender roles, and yes, we’re going to critique them, we’re going to kind of invert them a little bit, but the end of the plot is not a clear affirmation of one or the other’.”