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Beijing law student Feifei enjoyed the Barbie movie so much she went to see it twice this week, each time wearing a bright-pink baseball cap.
Greta Gerwig’s Hollywood blockbuster — which tackles feminism, the patriarchy and fragile masculinity — touched and inspired her, said the 24-year-old, who asked to identified only by a nickname.
“I grew up living under pressure to be good at everything,” Feifei said. “But this movie made me realise that I don’t have to prove myself.”
Cinemas across China have increased showings of Barbie, which analysts say stands out among the patriotic and male-led action fare that dominates the Chinese box office, one of the world’s biggest film markets. The number of Barbie showings jumped from 9,673 on July 21, the first day of release, to about 36,000 on July 27, according to data from Chinese ticketing platform Maoyan.
Barbie — which had grossed more than $495mn worldwide as of Friday according to IMDb — has generated more than Rmb135mn ($19mn) in China so far, data from Maoyan showed. While that is less than half of the Rmb312mn grossed by Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, which hit the screens a week earlier, it has already exceeded the Rmb106mn made in China by Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
“There hasn’t been anything this big which has such an enormous commercial appeal that is so explicitly feminist in China,” said Leta Hong Fincher, an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University with a focus on gender issues and feminism in China. “This movie really just flew under the radar of [Chinese] censors.”
The world’s second-largest economy generated box office revenue of $3.7bn in the first half of 2023, compared with $4.5bn in the US during the same period. Yet only two of China’s 10 highest-grossing films came from Hollywood last year, as Beijing is pushing for the release of more domestic titles. One of the most popular recent Chinese films, The Battle at Lake Changjin about the Korean War, has been derided by some critics as propaganda.
Hollywood filmmakers keen for a Chinese showing often have to negotiate censors. In the case of Barbie, some critics have accused it of appeasing China by depicting a map they say appears to feature the “nine-dash line” that Beijing uses for sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
“Barbie the doll is a global icon that is familiar to Chinese consumers. My own American daughter bought her first Barbie on a vacation in China,” said Ying Zhu, author of Hollywood in China: Behind the Scenes of the World’s Largest Movie Market and a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Film.
“The feminism of Barbie is highly palatable and not subversive . . . There is nothing in this movie that might upset any government that has engaged in crackdowns on gender equity movements, including the PRC.”
Barbie’s popularity in China also reflected how its younger generation were now “much more aware of how sexist and misogynistic society is”, added Columbia’s Hong Fincher, who is also the author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.
As a result of China’s one-child policy, scrapped in 2016 after more than three decades, many parents favour boys over girls, leading to sex-selective abortions across the country. Few women are installed in powerful political positions, with the country’s top seven leadership posts composed of all men including Xi Jinping. Traditional gender roles “are seen as being very politically important for the Communist party,” Hong Fincher said.
The film also resonates with China’s LGBT+ community. Diaoxian, a 29-year-old playwright in Beijing who identifies as a gay man, said the Barbie movie gave him a “valid reason” to publicly wear a pink shirt in the cinema.
He bought the shirt a few years ago “but never had the guts” to put it on outdoors. “Patriarchy is affecting everyone and suppressing everyone, no matter you are a man or woman,” said Diaoxian, who asked to be identified by his pen name.
Siqi Zhang, a 25-year-old marketing specialist in Shenzhen who went to see Barbie this week with seven female colleagues, said she recommended the film “to every girl friend of mine”. “It leaves women feeling empowered,” she said.