The three-minute trailer is the closest I’ll ever get to watching the new live-action “Barbie” movie, which is set for release across the world on July 21. I only watched it — I swear — just to see the map that’s triggered angry reactions from politicians across the world.
The map appears just for a brief second. But just long enough for Ted Cruz to accuse the film of “pushing Chinese propaganda.”
Why Is the Barbie Movie Controversial?
At around one minute into the “Barbie” trailer, a “world map” appears. The major continents and land masses are separated. The design is playful — like it was drawn with Crayola markers. This is not real cartography. After all, it’s a movie about Barbie. About as make-believe as you can get.
But the film’s producers, nonetheless, seemed to make sure to include some reality in the map. China’s reality, that is.
The map behind Barbie, played by the Australian actress Margot Robbie, depicts off the eastern coast of Asia what closely resembles the “nine-dash line” — what China sees as its official maritime boundary in the South China Sea. There are actually only eight dashes in this part of the Barbie map. Together, they look more like the number two than the actual U-shaped nine-dash line. But the resemblance and location were close enough to the real thing to get a lot of people outside China angry.
What’s Wrong With the Nine-Dash Line?
The maritime territory China claims as its own in the South China Sea is also claimed by its neighbors. In 2016, an international tribunal concurred with them, rejecting China’s nine-dash line.
Still, Beijing has moved forward with creating facts on the ground and cementing its military control. It’s built artificial islands in the Paracel and Spratly islands and deployed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems to defend them.
So you can see why China’s smaller neighbors were angered. The “Barbie” film has been banned in Vietnam — a Communist country that, as many Americans remember, fiercely defends its sovereignty. Philippine senators have called for the film to be banned as well or at least include a disclaimer that the line is “a figment of China’s imagination.”
But censors in the Philippines concur with Warner Brothers that the doodles merely “depict Barbie’s make-believe journey from Barbie Land to the ‘real world.’”
The Power of the Chinese Consumer Party
While the doodles aren’t an exact depiction of the nine-dash line, they’re close enough. At the very least, they show that the sensitivities of China’s smaller neighbors weren’t a priority for Warner Brothers. And Hollywood studios for years have acquiesced to Beijing, depicting the nine-dash line in films like “Unchartered.”
So why do American corporations care so much about what the sensitivities of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?
The obvious answer is that China is a one-party state that doesn’t allow its public to interact with content that challenges official policies and doctrine. It’s either Xi’s way or the highway. The CCP wouldn’t allow the film to be shown otherwise.
But China was also a one-party censorship state in the 1970s. The difference between then and now isn’t who rules China, but the people of China.
In 1978, 97.5 percent of rural China lived below the poverty line. By 2019, Chinese officials claim, that figure fell to 0.6 percent of the rural population.
Data from Beijing is often suspect. But the trajectory is clear. China has made remarkable gains against extreme poverty. And while it isn’t a high-income country — at least on a per capita basis, it is home to, by some estimates, a staggering middle class of 700 million. That’s around 40 percent of the world’s middle class.
For American and other foreign corporations, the CCP is the gatekeeper to China’s middle class. Obeying its command is the price of admission into the gigantic Chinese consumer market.
That goes not just for Hollywood, but also for the sports and luxury industries. (China is home to the world’s largest luxury goods market.)
So the Barbie controversy isn’t just about the censorship reach of the CCP. It’s also about the power of the Chinese consumer, sought after by Westerners selling wares and flicks. As a commenter on the Chinese social media site Weibo said, “Barbie knows which film market is bigger.”
And that’s why Hollywood, the NBA, and others will speak out on “woke” causes at home, but remain silent about social injustice toward Uyghur Muslims and others in China.
Hollywood’s bottom line is its bottom line.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.