NATHANIEL SCHOSSAU WRITES – A scene in Greta Gerwig’s highly anticipated “Barbie” movie, set for release July 21 and starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, has caused controversy over—of all things!— a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. The reason: Vietnam and China both claim a particular part of the South China Sea as their own, but a brief scene in the Barbie film uses a map that favors the Chinese point of view, so Vietnam banned the film July 3rd.

Image extracted from Barbie Movie

The director general of the Vietnam Cinema Department, Vi Kien Thanh, explained that the National Film Evaluation Council did so for presenting what it sees as a geographically incorrect territorial picture of the South China Sea. In addition, the state newspaper Vietnam Plus claimed that the film violated Vietnamese sovereignty.

Upset Barbie fans in Vietnam, though, have suggested censoring the brief map scene. They want to see the movie. Yet when Vietnamese students were asked about the issue, they overwhelmingly responded in support of their country’s government: China cannot bully all of Asia and Hollywood into acceptance of, or even by offering exposure to, China’s view of the territorial dispute.

There’s history to all of this, of course. China has been aggressively adding to its military capability, especially to the Navy and the Coast Guard, thereby strengthening Beijing’s motivation to claim more territory in the South China Sea. 

What’s more, China isn’t just invading the claimed territories of less powerful countries such as Vietnam. It also ventured into Japan’s waters for over 80 hours, from March 30-April 2nd of this year. All this, despite the fact that in 2016 the United Nations disputes resolution tribunal in The Hague ruled against China’s territorial claims. China does not recognize the ruling.

Were the entertainment executives behind the Barbie moving wading into political waters? Most likely not. A spokesperson from Warner Studios described the map presentation shown in the film as “a coincidence.” But this is not the first time American movies and television shows have been banned from Vietnam for using the nine-dash line. “Uncharted” (2022) and “Abominable” (2019) were also similarly banned. 

Certainly, China is a bigger market than Vietnam. From a financial perspective it would make sense to want to appease the large market. But the counterargument, of course, is that China’s human rights violations are all too often ignored for financial gain. The question remains: Is this the case with the mystery of the muddled map? Or was the Barbie movie supposed to be all fun and games…with one curiously, perhaps even mistakenly, controversial scene? 


Edited by executive editor Ella Kelleher.

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