Warner Bros has described a map that appears in its coming Barbie movie as a “child-like crayon drawing” with no intended meaning, after Vietnam said it would ban the film after claiming the map depicted the disputed South China Sea.
The Barbie movie provoked controversy in both Vietnam and the Philippines over its inclusion of the map that apparently features China’s “nine-dash line”. The line marks China’s claim to much of the South China Sea – a demarcation opposed by Vietnam and other south-east Asian countries and which was repudiated by an international tribunal in The Hague in 2016.
Warner Bros defended the map and suggested in a statement published by Reuters that it carried no significant meaning. “The map in Barbie Land is a whimsical, child-like crayon drawing,” the studio said. “The doodles depict Barbie’s make-believe journey from Barbie Land to the real world. It was not intended to make any type of statement.”
Barbie was due to be released in Vietnam on 21 July, according to local media, which reported that its screenings would no longer go ahead, and that posters advertising the film had been removed from movie distributors’ websites.
Some senators in the Philippines have called for Barbie to be banned, or for a form of disclaimer to be added to counter the map. The film is currently being considered by the Philippines’ Movie and Television Review and Classification Board.
“The movie Barbie is fiction, and so is the nine-dash line,” said senator Risa Hontiveros. “At the minimum, our cinemas should include an explicit disclaimer that the nine-dash line is a figment of China’s imagination.”
On Thursday it was reported that Vietnam’s authorities would also inspect the website of K-pop group Blackpink’s tour operator, after it was alleged it featured a map that displayed the “nine-dash line”, which runs close to Vietnam’s coast and includes much of what Vietnam considers its continental shelf.
Vietnam and the Philippines have frequently banned films and TV dramas over their depictions of the South China Sea. In 2021 Australian spy drama Pine Gap was banned in Vietnam, while two episodes were removed in the Philippines. The DreamWorks’s animated film Abominable was also pulled from cinemas in both countries in 2019, as was the action movie Uncharted last year.
The Philippines and Vietnam are both on the frontlines of the dispute over the South China Sea, a resource rich and strategically important waterway and one of the busiest trading routes in the world.
The Philippine Coast Guard and representatives of the fishing community have frequently complained about harassment by Chinese vessels. Earlier this year the Philippine president, Ferdinand Marcos, summoned the Chinese ambassador to express serious concern after a Chinese coastguard ship was accused of directing a “military-grade laser light” at a Philippine ship.
A group that represents Philippine fisherfolk said it was less bothered about the Barbie movie, and called for other forms of government action to protect the Philippines’ rights in the sea.
“The Marcos administration would appear much tougher if it directly confronts China every time the latter causes an untoward incident in our territorial waters, rather than picking on a fictional film,” Pamalakaya’s chair, Fernando Hicap, told local media this week.
China is sensitive about portrayals of its territorial claims and has pressured companies, including hotel groups and airlines, to list Taiwan – a democratic and self-governing island – as part of China.
The freedom of expression group PEN America has previously raised concerns that Hollywood studios, keen to access the lucrative Chinese market, have changed or censored aspects of their films in an “effort to avoid antagonising Chinese officials”.