The new Barbie movie has been banned in Vietnam. Let’s discuss why it has been banned, how the movie is related to one of the most sensitive geopolitical issues in Asia, and what it tells us about Hollywood’s relationship with China!

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  • Blockbuster (n) – a book or film that is very successful.
    • The movie studio has not had a blockbuster in years.
  • Offensive (adj) – causing someone to be upset or to have hurt feelings.
    • The politician resigned due to his offensive comments.
  • Dispute (n) – an argument or disagreement, especially an official one between two countries with a common border.
    • The border dispute has been going on for nearly 50 years.
  • Sovereignty (n) – the power of a country to control its own government.
    • Talks are being held about who should have sovereignty over the island.
  • Claim (n) – A claim is a statement saying that you have a right to something.
    • The country’s claim to the island is not widely accepted.
  • Demarcation (n) – a border or a rule that shows the limits of something or how things are divided.
    • The river serves as the line of demarcation between the two counties.
  • Infringement (n) – an action that breaks a rule, law, etc.
    • Even minor infringements of the law will be severely punished.
  • Sensitive (adj) – A sensitive subject, situation, etc. needs to be dealt with carefully in order to avoid upsetting people.
    • The stolen car contained military documents described as very sensitive.

The Barbie Movie

The Barbie Movie is sure to be one of the biggest blockbuster movies of the year. Starring hugely popular actors like Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, and directed by the award-winning director Greta Gerwig, the movie has been highly promoted across all media.

For those of you who don’t know, the movie is the first live-action barbie movie inspired by the fashion doll called Barbie. Barbies have been described as the world’s most popular doll and one of the most well-known children’s toys of all time.

In fact, Barbies revolutionised the toy industry – they popularised the trend of accessories for your toys and dolls. Rather than simply buying a doll for a child, you could by clothes, houses, cars, and more to customise your Barbie.

Given the immense popularity of the toy and all the promotion the movie is getting, it is sure to be massive summer hit! Barbie will be released in most countries later this month.

Most countries. Not all countries… most.

Vietnam’s National Film Evaluation Council, after reviewing the Barbie movie, found one scene so offensive and controversial that they have banned the entire film!

And this is the perfect opportunity to talk about a topic I’ve considered writing about for nearly 2 years – known in English as the South China Sea Dispute.

Let’s take a deeper a look at the controversy behind the Barbie movie, how it relates to one of the world’s most contentious debates, and how Hollywood has tried to balance this difficult situation in recent history.


Tom’s Disclaimer

Before we move on to the rest of the episode, I do need to give a slight disclaimer. Every time I discuss a controversial topic, some people tend to get offended. And the South China Sea dispute is almost certainly going to be a sensitive topic for some of you guys listening.

As always, I try to approach all topics fairly and critically. And while I am not necessarily an expert in this situation, I do have a master’s degree in the Politics of Asia from a global top 25 politics graduate school in which I studied and researched the South China Sea dispute – so I guess I’m more qualified to talk about the topic than a lot of people!

Ok… so why did Vietnam ban the Barbie movie?

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Why Was Barbie Banned in Vietnam?

One scene in the movie features the character “Barbie” being told than she must leave “Barbieland” and travel to the “real world.” During this scene, a child-like drawing of a world map appears for less than a second on the screen.

The map is by no means an accurate representation of the real world – it is a mess of odd shapes and strange lines. However, in one part of the map a U-shaped dotted line crosses out into the ocean and returns back to the same land. 

Most people would have missed this detail. Or even if you did notice it, you would just assume it is a meaningless line in an already meaningless map.

But according to the Vietnamese Film Reviewers, it did have a meaning. It was a representation of the Nine-Dashed Line one of the key aspects of the South China Sea dispute. Let me explain a little further.

Nine-Dashed Line and the South China Sea Dispute

The South China Sea dispute is a complex and long-standing territorial disagreement involving multiple countries in Southeast Asia. The main disagreement is the sovereignty (or ownership) over various islands, reefs, and waters in the South China Sea. This dispute involves overlapping territorial claims by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

The Nine-Dashed Line is a demarcation line used by China on its official maps to highlight its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The line consists of nine dashes that enclose a significant portion of the sea, covering areas that are also claimed by other countries in the region. China’s claim based on the Nine-Dashed Line encompasses numerous islands, reefs, and shoals, including the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.

The nine-dash line has been used on Chinese maps since the 1940s but is highly controversial and relatively vague.

The Republic of China, the government of China before the Communist party took control, first drew lines on maps in the 1940s to indicate their claims to the islands and waters of the South China Sea. Yet these lines were not specific or clearly defined – which has led to massive arguments, disputes, and confusion in the region.


China’s claims are based on their version of history. They claim that ancient Chinese documents and maps show that Chinese fishermen and traders were operating in the South China Sea long ago, and therefore the region should be owned and controlled by China. Other countries in the region, however, have their own (often more legitimate) claims to islands and waters.

These conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea are rooted in historical, geographical, and geopolitical factors. Some countries in the region assert their claims based on historical evidence, such as ancient maps and records, while others rely on their location.

The presence of valuable natural resources, including oil and gas reserves, confuses the situation. China has also used its territorial claims to justify the construction of artificial islands and military bases in the area.

Importantly, while China strongly believes in the Nine-Dashed Line… no one else does. Other countries and international observers argue that the line and China’s claims are inconsistent with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

UNCLOS is a legal framework for determining rights and boundaries in the oceans, including exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and continental shelves. A tribunal ruling in a case brought by the Philippines against China in 2016 found that China’s Nine-Dashed Line claim had no legal basis under UNCLOS. However, China rejected the ruling, maintaining its position based on historical rights.

The South China Sea dispute is a highly sensitive and politically charged issue that has implications for regional stability, trade routes, and resource exploitation. Efforts to address the dispute have included diplomatic negotiations, dialogue mechanisms, and arbitration proceedings. However, finding an acceptable solution remains a significant challenge.

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Why is Vietnam So Offended by Maps Featuring the Nine-Dashed Line?

To Vietnam and many Vietnamese people, as well as others in Southeast Asia, the nine-dashed line is deeply offensive. And Vietnam has a history of being really strict with depictions of maps in movies.

The animated movie Abominable and the action movie Uncharted have been banned in the country in recent years due to the map. And John Wick 4 was also “unofficially” banned in Vietnam due to starring actor Donnie Yen who has publicly spoken about the South China Sea dispute.

For Vietnam, the inclusion of the Nine-Dashed Line in maps can be seen as elevating China’s claims over Vietnam’s claims. It also raises concerns about China’s intentions and its potential to exert control over areas that Vietnam believes are rightfully theirs.

Vietnam has a long history of inhabiting and using the islands and waters in the region, and they view the Nine-Dashed Line as an infringement on their traditional fishing grounds and access to valuable marine resources.

As a result of these concerns, Vietnam is particularly cautious about maps that feature the Nine-Dashed Line.

Hollywood and China

So, now Vietnam has banned the Barbie movie, what is the Hollywood studio going to do? Well… Nothing.

The Warner Bros. Film Group has said that any resemblance to the nine-dash line is completely accidental. It is a fictional map full of lines, shapes, and colours. But it is not the first time that a Hollywood movie has seemingly gone out of its way to appeal to the Chinese government.

Hollywood studios want the Chinese market. China’s massive population is a massive market for movies and can make studios an incredible amount of money. Initially, Hollywood producers would make efforts to appeal to Chinese audiences by including elements like Chinese actors in minor roles or filming certain scenes in China. However, as the Chinese government’s control over its society has tightened and the US-China relationship has become more complicated, Hollywood’s approach has shifted.


Rather than actively trying to appeal to Chinese audiences, Hollywood now focuses on avoiding content that may anger the Chinese government or challenge their viewpoints. How do they do this? Well… there are lots of examples.

One method is to alter a character’s ethnicity or personality to ensure approval for screening in China. For example, the film “Doctor Strange” changed the ethnicity of a character from Tibetan to Caucasian, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” removed references to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality. These modifications are made to avoid displeasing the Chinese government, as they can lead to a film being banned in China and harming its profitability.

The desire to access the Chinese market has led Hollywood studios to accept the Chinese government’s view of certain issues, such as geography and territorial claims. However, films that reference sensitive topics like the nine-dash line have faced bans in Southeast Asia and resistance from the US government.

As time goes on, the economic desire to work with China is becoming more challenging due to increased censorship and cultural barriers. Chinese cinema has also grown more sophisticated, offering competition to Hollywood’s films. Chinese-made films have seen significant success, both domestically and internationally, presenting a challenge to Hollywood’s dominance in the global film industry.

Despite the financial allure of the Chinese market, there are concerns about the influence of Chinese propaganda in American entertainment, which may not always be recognized by audiences. This issue is of particular concern for countries that lack the power to confront China’s narrative on the global stage.

As the Chinese film industry continues to grow and geopolitical tensions persist, Hollywood faces challenges in balancing its commercial interests with artistic freedom and geopolitical considerations.

Final Thought

Why has Vietnam banned the Barbie movie? A map. A short clip of a map that may reference the controversial nine-dashed line.

Despite the ban in Vietnam, the Barbie movie is set to be a major summer blockbuster hit. However, the ban does highlight the sensitivity of the South China Sea dispute and how Hollywood’s desire to appease the Chinese market can lead to compromising artistic freedom and geopolitical considerations.

As Chinese cinema grows in sophistication and tensions continue, Hollywood faces challenges in navigating its relationship with China while remaining true to its global audience.

What do you think? Are you planning on watching the Barbie movie? Does your country have any territorial disputes?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

One thought on “251. Why Has Vietnam Banned the Barbie Movie? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. I am from China, and the Barbie movie has been available in my subscription for a while, but I have no interest in it, maybe just because of the name. Haha.

    Speaking of Hollywood, I guess it’s just an accident, they probably could use a map without the “nine-dash line” to be neutral…

    In terms of geopolitics, it is always complicated to be true or false. I know, everyone has their standpoints. We’d better connect our thinking with human history, not just the history of particular areas and their claims. The world’s history and China’s modern history educated me, power and strength are the only truth in our human rationale, it will not change easily.

    The upside is that this dispute is between Governments in this region, it won’t influence the global audience. 😄

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