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How Hollywood appeases China, explained by the Barbie movie

Vietnam banned Barbie over a map featuring the nine-dash line. Here’s why that matters.

a line of men and one blonde woman on a pink, sparkly set
Barbie and Kens in Barbieland.
Warner Bros.

This surely wasn’t the kind of publicity that Greta Gerwig’s Barbie was hoping for. The long-awaited film adaptation of the Mattel doll made headlines when, two weeks before its July 21 theatrical debut, it was banned in, of all places, Vietnam. And not because of any explicit violence or plastic nudity, but for violating the country’s territorial sovereignty.

The controversy concerns a map of the “real world” that appears when Margot Robbie’s Barbie is told she must leave Barbieland and enter the real world after her perfectly arched feet have inexplicably turned flat. Shown for only a split second, the map looks as if it were drawn by a child — one who likes bright colors and has failed geography class. Among a mess of shapes and scribbles, one oddly specific detail stood out to reviewers from Vietnam’s National Film Evaluation Council: a dotted, U-shaped trail crossing into the ocean from what’s supposed to be China.

As far as the council is concerned, this is no ordinary doodle, but a clear and deliberate representation of the so-called nine-dash line: a maritime boundary demarcating Beijing’s contested ownership of the South China Sea. The line has been featured on Chinese maps since the 1940s and, despite being rejected by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2016, is still used today to justify the expansion of China’s naval presence in the region, its construction of artificial islands, and its intimidation of foreign fishermen.

Barbie (Margot Robbie) in front of a map including the Nine-dash line.
Barbie (Margot Robbie) in front of a map including the nine-dash line.
Warner Bros.

“To the Chinese, the nine-dash line signifies their legitimate claims to the South China Sea,” Peter Zinoman, a professor of history and Southeast Asian studies at UC Berkeley and author of The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862-1940, tells Vox. “To the Vietnamese, it symbolizes a brazen act of imperialist bullying that elevates Chinese national interest over an older shared set of interests of socialist brotherhood.” For this reason, Barbie will not be screening in Vietnamese theaters.

To some extent, however, the damage has already been done. “As if the balancing act of stoking and restraining domestic nationalism wasn’t hard enough,” NYU professor and historian of modern Vietnam Kevin Li tells Vox, “pressure from an outside voice actively calling the government’s legitimacy into question on territorial grounds complicates things further. The Republic of Vietnam had, after all, fought the Chinese for [the South China Sea] during the last years of the Vietnam War. In my view, banning [Barbie] was a no-brainer.”

The film has also raised security concerns in Washington, where politicians doubt the Warner Bros. Film Group’s assertion that the map’s resemblance to the nine-dash line was purely accidental. “While it may just be a Barbie map in a Barbie world,” Mike Gallagher, a Republican representative of Wisconsin leading the House’s China committee, told Politico, “the fact that a cartoonish, crayon-scribbled map seems to go out of its way to depict the PRC’s unlawful territorial claims illustrates the pressure that Hollywood is under to please CCP censors.”

It’s no secret that American studios cater to China and its $4.6 billion film industry — they have been doing so for over two decades, at times to great success. However, the nature of their partnership is changing. The way it used to work, Wall Street Journal reporter Erich Schwartzel tells Vox, “Hollywood producers would bend over backward to appeal to Chinese audiences. If they thought casting a Chinese actor in a small role or filming certain scenes in China would help sell tickets there, they would do that.” Think Disney adding a panda character to the Chinese release of Zootopia, or Transformers 4: Age of Extinction being partially set in Hong Kong and starring Li Bingbing and Han Geng in addition to a host of extras selected through a Chinese reality show.

“That kind of reverse engineering has died down,” adds Schwartzel, who wrote a book on the subject titled Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy. “Now, it’s more about not including anything in your movie that risks angering the state.” This explains why Doctor Strange changed the ethnicity of the Ancient One, a spiritual leader living in a mountainous monastery, from Tibetan to Caucasian, why Bohemian Rhapsody removed all references to Freddie Mercury being gay, and why Top Gun: Maverick originally removed the Taiwanese flag from Pete Mitchell’s flight jacket. (It reappeared after protests from fans and the departure of investor Tencent; as a result, the film never played in China.)

Still, there is an important difference between, say, turning a film’s antagonist from Chinese to North Korean, as was done in the 2012 Red Dawn remake, and displaying a map that recognizes Beijing’s highly disputed control over the vast majority of the South China Sea. As the theatrical world shrinks, the CCP’s control over Chinese society tightens, and the cooling of US-China relationship complicates international business relations, we might soon end up in a reality where — in addition to removing content that offends Beijing —Hollywood will “go out of its way,” as Gallagher had put it, to insert content affirming the party’s worldview.

This, many believe, was the case for Barbie. “The producers of the movie clearly hope it will be a blockbuster,” Hue-Tam Ho Tai, professor of Sino-Vietnamese history at Harvard University, tells Vox. “Aiming for the PRC market, they are ready to accept the PRC’s view of geography. Disinformation works by repetition.” It’s worth noting Barbie has already been approved to screen in China, and that manufacturer Mattel has a vested interest in selling its dolls there.

Of course, affirming the CCP worldview comes at a cost. Barbie isn’t the first film to reference the nine-dash line, nor is it the first to be banned in Southeast Asia for doing so. Before surfacing in Barbieland, the line could be discovered in scenes from DreamWorks’ animated family film Abominable, Sony’s live-action adaptation of the video game series Uncharted starring Tom Holland, and an Australian spy drama streaming on Netflix called Pine Gap. Earlier this year, Vietnam even blacklisted John Wick: Chapter 4 for starring Donnie Yen, who is a vocal supporter of CCP policies. (John Wick was briefly available in China but has since been pulled from its platforms alongside other movies with Keanu Reeves after the actor attended a Tibet-related concert.)

Soon, Hollywood will also be facing resistance from the US government, which up until this point has remained largely offscreen. Alarmed by Beijing’s influence over American entertainment, the Pentagon recently announced in a Defense Department document that it will no longer share its bases, ships, and equipment with productions that allow Beijing “to censor the content of the project in a material manner to advance the national interest of the People’s Republic of China.”

Schwartzel suggests it is economic incentive, not political pressure, that could ultimately push Hollywood out of China altogether. As time goes by, breaking into the country’s film market has only gotten more difficult. This is partly due to censorship, but also because of cultural barriers. “Chinese audiences were always much savvier than Hollywood believed them to be,” he says. “A panda in Zootopia is nice, but it is not the real reason people are going to see it.” The same applies to casting Chinese actors in small, forgettable roles, which in China are mockingly referred to as “flower vases.”

Then there’s competition from Chinese cinema, which has grown incredibly sophisticated over the past decade or so. In 2011, Transformers: Dark of the Moon was the highest-grossing film in China. Ten years later, in 2021, it was The Battle at Lake Changjin, a historical action epic about the People’s Volunteer Army’s unlikely victory over the US Armed Forces in a major battle during the Korean War. Commissioned by the PRC’s Central Propaganda Department, it brought in an estimated $903 million against an impressive $200 million budget — numbers Hollywood can only dream of at the moment.

While the past and present prevalence of Chinese propaganda in American entertainment poses a significant danger for Americans, who may not always recognize it when it’s in front of them, the situation is even worse for countries not powerful enough to confront China head-on.

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