In recent years, China’s box office has been dominated by homegrown movies often with a nationalist lean, such as patriotic war epics. But this weekend, a different type of film captured national attention – one that’s decidedly American and bubblegum pink.
“Barbie” has earned close to 86 million yuan (about $11.9 million) in China since its release on Friday, according to Chinese ticket-selling platform Maoyan – putting it in third place among all movies nationwide.
While that figure is small compared to the runaway success of “Barbie” in the United States – it raked in $155 million domestically over the weekend – it could still grow as social media discussion about the movie picks up momentum. On Saturday, it was briefly the top trending topic on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo, garnering more than 630 million views.
“Barbie” was distributed by Warner Bros., owned by CNN’s parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.
On Douban, a popular Chinese movie review site, the movie currently scored 8.6 out of 10, with nearly half of all viewers giving it full marks. The comment section, too, includes glowing praise for the movie’s themes of womanhood and feminism, and its deft handling by director Greta Gerwig, also known for “Lady Bird” and “Little Women.”
Several reviewers called the film a breath of fresh air, comparing it to some Chinese movies still rife with outdated gender roles and the skewed male gaze.
“You know, Chinese women don’t get many chances to see a high-quality, female-focused movie in the cinema,” read one comment with more than 20,000 likes.
Another top comment compared “Barbie” to another recent Chinese release, “Lost in the Stars,” which had previously received criticism for its portrayal of gender stereotypes. “Lost in the Stars” showed “fake feminism under the male gaze,” while “Barbie” represents “feminism from the diverse perspectives of real female directors,” the comment read, with more than 18,000 likes.
Others reflected on the realities Chinese women face, with one remarking dryly that, unlike the US, China doesn’t even pretend not to be a patriarchy.
However, some also accused “Barbie” of only performing surface-level feminism, pointing out that the titular character’s doll-perfect figure could further perpetuate existing beauty norms. “There isn’t any new thinking about feminism, the movie is just an expression of old thoughts,” one person wrote on Douban.
Feminist movements in China have faced numerous setbacks over the years due to censorship and an ongoing crackdown on activism. But it has also remained resilient; several # MeToo-related controversies and sexual assault allegations have triggered waves of heated online debate, with women and supporters decrying China’s entrenched gender inequality and patriarchal society.
“Barbie,” it seems, inadvertently sated a thirst for better female representation and gender equality on screen – to even the surprise of Chinese cinemas and organizers.
On Friday, its premiere day, “Barbie” screenings made up just 2.4% of all movie screenings, according to Maoyan, perhaps reflecting low expectations for audience appetite; by comparison, the Chinese film “Advancing of ZQ” made up 36.8% of all screenings.
But public interest surged. The movie recorded a 21.6% seating rate on Friday, meaning cinema screenings were 21.6% full – a high figure given most movies only see a rate of several percentage points. By Monday, cinemas had increased the number of screenings allocated to “Barbie” to make up 8.7% of all movie screenings, according to Maoyan.
The film’s success is all the more notable given the mounting challenges for US films to break into the Chinese movie market – the world’s second-biggest, briefly holding the top spot during the Covid pandemic.
China’s box office has become more insular and more heavily regulated in recent years. All films publicly screened in China need a permit from regulators, with authorities clamping down on what they perceive to be inappropriate.
Though Hollywood has long tried to appease Chinese censors, many film studios have begun to rethink this trade-off, some deciding to keep in scenes that could irk censors – meaning many US blockbusters have disappeared from Chinese cinemas.
For instance, seven of Marvel’s recent movies did not show in China – meaning no Marvel films were released in the country for four years until this February when China allowed the release of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”