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Why ‘Barbie’ became a sleepover hit in China

BEIJING – There were many reasons to think that the movie “Barbie” was struggling to find an audience in China. An American movie where Chinese moviegoers’ interest in Hollywood movies and government approval has plummeted. When women’s rights and political representation take a step back in China, she is widely described as a feminist.

But not only was the movie screened in China, it became a dormant hit precisely because of its unconventional nature in the Chinese movie landscape.

“There aren’t many films in China that have some flavor of feminism or about women’s independence,” said 36-year-old Mina Li, who went alone to a screening in Beijing on the advice of several female friends. “So they thought it was worth seeing.”

Despite limited access – the Greta Gerwig-directed film made up only 2.4% of screenings in China on its opening day – “Barbie” was quickly widely discussed on Chinese social media, at one point even making its Chinese version on Weibo. peaked in searches. It has an 8.3 rating, higher than any other live-action feature currently showing on X. Movie ratings site Douban, formerly known as Twitter. Theaters competed to add shows, and the number nearly quadrupled in the first week.

While “Barbie” wasn’t as hotly anticipated in the United States, where drinks were running low in some movie theaters, it did launch its own mini-craze in some Chinese circles, with moviegoers posting photos of themselves dressed in pink or pink. Shiny souvenir tickets are shown. On Wednesday, the film made $28 million in China – less than the new “Mission Impossible” but more than the latest “Indiana Jones.” Sales of American films are generally declining in China, in part due to strict controls on the number of foreign films allowed each year.

Mia Tan, a college student in Beijing, spotted “Barbie” with two of her friends in an array of festive outfits, including a peach skirt and pink accent tops. In a scene where Ken dolls realize that it’s their nature to be a boy, he joked that the characters looked like their fellow students in their majors.

“The movie was great,” Tan said. “He used simple dialogue and an exaggerated plot to teach the audience about objective reality. Honestly, I think it’s the only way for women to understand what kind of environment they’re in and for men to understand how privileged they are.”

The debate about women’s empowerment initiated by “Barbie” is in some ways a rare bright spot for Chinese feminists. In recent years, authorities have arrested feminist activists, urged women to embrace traditional gender roles, and dismissed high-profile sexual harassment cases. State media have suggested that feminism is part of the West’s plan to weaken China, and social media companies block insults by men but allow offensive comments about women.

Some social media comments downplayed “Barbie” for inciting gender conflict, and moviegoers shared stories of men leaving movie theaters. (Conservatives in the United States similarly swore against the film.)

At the same time, public awareness of women’s rights is increasing. Despite censorship, online discussions on issues like violence against women have blossomed. While many of China’s best films in recent years have been head-to-head war or action films, a few women-directed films dealing with topics such as complex family relationships have also attracted large audiences.

Jia Tan, professor of cultural studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has proven that the Chinese government is determined to block feminists from organizing and meeting rather than largely halting gender equality debates.

Even some Chinese state media gave cautious tribute to the film’s themes. One said that “Barbie” “encourages reflection on the status and portrayal of women”. Another quoted a film critic as saying that it’s normal for the topic of gender to cause disagreements, but “Barbie” is actually about the dangers of being nice to men or women.

In a sign of how expectations of Chinese women have changed, some of the most popular and critical online reviews of “Barbie” came from women who said they didn’t go far enough. Some said they hoped a Western movie would be more insightful on women’s rights than a Chinese movie, but still find it upends traditional beauty standards or focuses too much on Ken. Others said they felt compelled to give the movie a higher rating than it deserved because they expected the men to translate the movie.

Vicky Chan, a 27-year-old tech worker in Shenzhen, said she thinks mainstream conversations about feminism in China are still in the early stages, focusing on superficial differences between men and women rather than structural issues. He said the film’s criticism of patriarchy was ultimately kind—and that’s probably why it got such widespread approval in China, he said in an interview. (Chan gave the movie two stars in Douban.)

An ongoing vigilance towards feminism and its consequences was evident in the recent showing of “Barbie” in Beijing; Many viewers here, men and women, told a reporter that they saw the film as a film that advocated equal rights, not women’s rights. Anti-feminists in China slandered the movement as favoring women over men.

The Chinese subtitles for “Barbie” translated “feminism” as “nu xing zhu yi” or literally “women-ism” rather than “nu quan zhu yi” or “women’s rights-ism”. While both are often translated as “feminism”, the latter is seen as more political.

Wang Pengfei, a university student from Jiangsu province, also made this distinction. He loved “Barbie” so much that he wanted to take it to his mother, feeling that the film would appreciate his summit talk about the double standards imposed on women.

But Wang also said she was concerned about what she calls extreme feminist rhetoric, women declaring that they don’t need men. She said she liked the movie because it didn’t go as far as some other movies do.

“If Chinese women are going to be truly independent,” he said, “it won’t be because of movie gimmicks.”

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