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Barbie hits China’s movie market: Has the wind of feminism blown to China?

By: Jie Shao

A man was explaining the history of Mattel and Warner Bros. to his girlfriend before the movie started Then, after it began, he explained every punchline in a voice slightly louder than a whisper. When the Barbies fake ignorance so the Kens feel good about themselves as they “teach” the women, the guy suddenly stopped like he choked on something and remained silence until the movie ended.

This was the experience of a female audience member when she watched Barbie. Her post about it got many likes on Little Red Book, a Chinese social media app. Watching Barbie has become a social event in China, and many girls take their boyfriends to watch it as a test of the guys’ view on feminism. As of July 25, Barbie’s Chinese gross was 100 million yuan, a number that has continued to grow. At first, the movie played on only two percent of all Chinese screens, but since it has done so well its placement rate was increased to ten percent after one week. Most of the success is attributed to female ticket buyers. Globally, Barbie has drawn an audience that is majority women (65%). In China, that number is 79%.

Barbie dolls were never too popular in China. Mattel opened a Barbie flagship store in Shanghai in 2009, but closed it after only two years due to unsatisfactory sales numbers. Some argue that the reason for the failure is that Chinese parents tend to buy educational toys that challenge your brain, rather than toys that exist purely to bring joy. With few Barbie doll fans and the fact that most audience members are unfamiliar with many western cultural references, the movie started out in China with a low box office projection of 68 million Yuan. Already, it has grossed 169 million yuan. Its unexpected success stems from something that is universal to all women around the world: the movie’s feminist core, and its deep yet fun description of the predicament women are living in.

The success of this movie has invited criticism, though. Xin Shang, a business magazine, asks if feminism has become a business. It warns that the price of Barbie tickets is just another form of the “pink tax,” a reference to the fact that “pink” merchandise costs and earns more than products that are targeted to men. However, many critics support the film. While some people are afraid that this movie is too feminist, others worry that it is not feminist enough. Most such critics focus on the end of the movie, when Barbies take their power back by making Kens jealous, instead of using their power or intelligence.

The collision of these opinions only contributes to the movie’s success. More and more people are going to the cinema just to show their support and appreciation for a movie that takes women’s side. The success of this movie is already a certainty; whether it will truly help to spread the seeds of feminism remains to be seen. But at least we all learn something by watching it, just like the gentleman from the beginning of this article.

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