Why Vietnam banned the 'Barbie' movie over China's controversial '9-dash line' map

Weeks before its global release, the highly anticipated film finds itself embroiled in a controversy involving Asian geopolitics.

Barbie, wearing a blue dress with a white collar, stands in front of a world map showing the disconnected shapes of different geographical areas.
A still from the forthcoming movie “Barbie,” starring Margot Robbie. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
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Between the hot pink mansion in Malibu up for rent and the plain magenta billboards popping up all over, Greta Gerwig’s movie “Barbie,” based on the famous Mattel toy company doll, is seemingly being promoted across the world. But just weeks before its global release later this month, it appears that not everyone will have the opportunity to see the film.

Film regulators in the Philippines are now threatening to join Vietnam in banning the Warner Bros. movie countrywide, over a scene depicting a map of Southeast Asia that includes the so-called nine-dash line, which has long been contested.

What is the ‘9-dash line,’ and why is it controversial?

The nine-dash line is an imaginary U-shaped line or “cow’s tongue,” usually rendered on a map with nine dashes, that indicates China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. China has asserted since the late 1940s that it has rights over the demarcated area, but Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all say the claim violates their sovereignty.

An infographic titled: South China Sea a hotbed of sovereignty disputes between China and other coastal countries in the area.
Omar Zaghloul/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Various official and unofficial Chinese maps depict the nine-dash line running close to the coast of Vietnam, deep into the South China Sea near Malaysia and back up and around the Philippines, enclosing the Spratly Islands.

Scholars claim that China has never explicitly articulated what the nine-dash line means, which has left it open to interpretation. Beyond assumptions of sovereignty, no coordinates for islands or baselines have been provided to diplomats or maritime lawyers, as is required under international law.

As recently as 2016 an international court ruled against China’s nine-dash-line claim, and no clear ways for its implementation have been proposed. China rejected the ruling, even building vast military installations in recent years on previously uninhabited islands in the region.

A central issue in the dispute is Vietnam and China's long-standing territorial claims over a stretch of the South China Sea that is potentially energy-rich. For many people, maps often arouse nationalist sensitivities, as has been highlighted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Some critics say the map’s inclusion in the film signals how much Hollywood relies on its Chinese audiences. Blockbuster movies can often fetch hundreds of millions — if not a billion — dollars at the box office there, as movie producers turn a blind eye to Beijing’s human rights abuses for the sake of making money.

A young man gazes at a poster showing five animated characters in red body suits and black masks.
A poster for Pixar's movie "The Incredibles" in Beijing in 2005. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Why was the 'Barbie' movie banned in Vietnam?

The National Film Evaluation Council in Vietnam decided to ban the film on Monday, after saying that a map in the movie depicting the nine-dash line represents a violation of Vietnamese sovereignty.

“We do not grant license for the American movie ‘Barbie’ to release in Vietnam, because it contains the offending image of the nine-dash line,” Vi Kien Thanh, head of the country’s Cinema Department, told the state-run Tuoi Tre newspaper.

Are any other countries banning the movie?

The Philippines is currently deliberating whether to release “Barbie.” A Philippine senator, Francis Tolentino, said the movie should be banned because it “denigrates Philippine sovereignty,” while another suggested that a disclaimer be incorporated.

“The movie is fiction, and so is the nine-dash line,” Philippine Sen. Risa Hontiveros said Tuesday. “At the minimum, our cinemas should include an explicit disclaimer that the nine-dash line is a figment of China’s imagination.”

Ryan Gosling, in pink jacket, and Margot Robbie in a pink check bra with bare midriff pose on the red carpet.
Actors Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie at a Warner Bros. red carpet for "Barbie" in Las Vegas on April 25. (Bridget Bennett/AFP via Getty Images)

Is ‘Barbie’ the first movie to be banned over the 9-dash line?

No, this isn’t the first time a movie has been banned over this controversy. The Vietnamese and Philippine governments blocked Sony's action movie "Unchartered" last year because of it. And in 2019, the Philippines and Malaysia stopped domestic distribution of DreamWorks' animated film "Abominable" after producers declined to remove a scene featuring the nine-dash line. In Vietnam, the movie had been out a week before it was pulled.

In 2021, Netflix stripped select episodes of an Australian spy drama, "Pine Gap," from the streaming service in the Philippines as a result of scenes involving the nine-dash line, while officials in Vietnam had the drama pulled altogether.