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No Barbie Girl in Vietnam's World


A screenshot of the "Barbie" movie trailer shows the map that resulted in Vietnam banning the movie.
A screenshot of the "Barbie" movie trailer shows the map that resulted in Vietnam banning the movie.

Two very different films are set to come out on July 21. One is about the development of the world’s first nuclear weapons. The other is about Barbie.

Which one has proved to be contentious on the global stage? Surprisingly, it's not the Oppenheimer biopic.

Instead, the much-anticipated “Barbie” has stoked controversy in both Vietnam and the Philippines this week, with the former banning it outright and the latter considering a similar move.

Over the years, Barbie manufacturer Mattel has come under fire for producing dolls that aren’t diverse and that some have said promote unrealistic body standards.

But now the brand has inadvertently strayed into geopolitical quarrels with the movie’s inclusion of Beijing’s controversial nine-dash line on a map.

Vietnamese officials this week banned screenings of the film because it shows a map with the disputed Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. Manila is considering following suit.

The nine-dash line depicts Beijing’s contested claims to parts of the South China Sea. Vietnam, as well as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan all dispute the line.

An international tribunal at the Hague ruled in 2016 that the nine-dash line was invalid, but Beijing has not recognized the decision.

Free expression experts say such bans won’t solve the territorial dispute and may help strengthen domestic censorship systems in the process. To others, the entire situation is being blown out of proportion.

For years, questions have been raised over the extent to which American studios acquiesce to Beijing. And for Hollywood, the Chinese market, standing at 1.4 billion people, is lucrative.

Vietnam and the Philippines have previously banned movies for including the nine-dash line, including Sony’s 2022 movie Uncharted, DreamWorks’ 2019 movie Abominable. Vietnam also banned the 2018 Australian TV series Pine Gap, and the Philippines censored select episodes.

Hanoi’s “Barbie” ban shows that “censors have started to be more sensitive about information on territorial disputes between Vietnam and China,” said Trinh Huu Long, the founder of the journalism and research group Legal Initiatives for Vietnam.

“The censors will even be praised for overreacting to the unclear map, by both their superiors and the public, because anti-China sentiment runs deep into the country’s political culture,” added Long, who grew up in Vietnam but now lives in Taiwan.

Still, some China experts think the Barbie movie’s alleged inclusion of the nine-dash line is not a pressing concern for either country.

“I don’t expect this to be more than a really incidental sort of thing,” said Rui Zhong, a China expert at the Wilson Center. “I don’t think either foreign ministry is losing sleep over the Barbie movie.

“The map has some waves drawn in the ocean and a sun over Africa, so I don’t really know the larger-scale geographical accuracy or implications,” Zhong told VOA. “I seriously doubt this is a film that will extensively wade into East or Southeast Asian politics.”

China has so far been ignoring international law and building man-made islands in the South China Sea to help buttress its disputed sovereignty claims.

But outright bans on films that may legitimize those claims still aren’t the best solution, according to Michael Caster, who covers Asia at the free expression group Article 19.

“Maps are political, and borders often bear historical wounds, but rather than ensuring free and open discussion, the knee jerk response to censor seldom supports historical or transitional justice,” Caster told VOA.

The film studio Warner Bros., for its part, has defended the Barbie movie’s map, which depicts eight dashes.

“The map in Barbie Land is a whimsical, child-like crayon drawing,” Warner Bros. said Friday. “The doodles depict Barbie’s make-believe journey from Barbie Land to the real world. It was not intended to make any type of statement.”

For Long, the concern over Vietnam’s “Barbie” ban is that these sorts of prohibitions — related more to sovereignty and less to political dissent — ultimately make it easier for Hanoi to ban materials that actually might be critical of the government.

“The government is surely using legitimate nationalist reasoning to strengthen its entire censorship system,” Long said.