The ‘Barbie’ movie’s Arab world rollout hits a snag

The plan for the “Barbie” movie’s debut across the Arab world was to go big. Anticipating a deluge of moviegoers, promoters prepped pink popcorn boxes, pink slushy drinks, a human-sized Barbie-toy box and even pink abayas for female fans in Saudi Arabia.

Then came the delays.

“We were told we had to postpone opening, but no one knew why,” said Anis Tabet, a Beirut-based film critic and promoter.

The movie, which opened globally in July and has raked in $1.34 billion at the box office, was the latest targeted by the region’s censors. There was no official reason given for delays, but many speculated they were so cuts could be negotiated. “Barbie” opened in August in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain. (Any alterations were not immediately apparent, and Warner Bros. had no comment about the delays.)

But the movie has been banned in Kuwait and Oman and pulled from theaters after a brief run in Algeria. It’s still unclear whether it will show in Qatar or Lebanon.

If one of the primary marks of today’s movies and politics is the culture wars over identity and orientation, Barbieland is a major battlefield. In the U.S., right-wing figures accuse “Barbie” of being “woke” and anti-man, while others insist it doesn’t go far enough on the feminist front.

The Arab world too has joined the frenzy of hot takes — including national censorship boards, whose decisions on whether films can run often serve as bellwethers for how liberal or conservative a country has become.

Movies have long been chopped up to excise explicit scenes, sometimes including kissing, or on political or religious grounds. Some Arab countries refused to screen “Wonder Woman” or any other movie featuring the Israeli actress Gal Gadot, and in 2018, Christian groups got the horror movie “The Nun” banned in Lebanon.

But in the case of “Barbie,” the main snag was concern over LGBTQ+ messaging. (The film’s cast includes one transgender actress and several gay members, but has no explicit LGBTQ+ content.)

“In the U.S., cultural appropriation — whether the little mermaid is a Black girl or white girl — is a big topic. Here they’re less interested in that,” said Ignace Lahoud, chief executive of Majid Al Futtaim Leisure, Entertainment & Cinemas, “Barbie’s” regional distributor and also an exhibitor.

“In the last couple of years, most of the issues with censorship have been related to LGBTQ references.”

This summer, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” was banned in all Arab countries except Tunisia over a three-second clip showing a poster in the background with the words “Protect Trans Kids.” Last year, it was Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear” for a same-sex kiss, along with “Doctor Strange 2,” which was banned in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan over one character having two mothers. Before that, it was “The Eternals,” a Marvel movie featuring a gay superhero raising a child with his husband. Much of that content was proscribed from streaming on Disney+ in the region.

Signs with a pink "B" against a blue backdrop line the upper floor of a shopping mall

Shoppers pass ads promoting the movie “Barbie” at a Dubai shopping center.

(Giuseppe Cacace/ AFP via Getty Images)

But whereas those films elicited little discussion, the arrival of “Barbie” coincides with a spike of anti-gay fervor that has been galvanizing politicians and commentators across the Middle East the last few weeks.

“‘Barbie’ has become part of a broader game. It’s not about the movie, but about LGBTQ, trans and gender fluidity,” said Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, a Beirut-based rights organization.

One of the more surprising broadsides came from Lebanon, traditionally the region’s most liberal nation. (Beirut had its first Pride parade in 2017.)

The country’s minister of culture, Mohammad Mortada, called on the censorship board to block “Barbie” because he said it “promotes sexual deviance and transsexuality,” employing a slur to refer to gay people. Mortada — affiliated with the Lebanese militant group and Shiite political party Hezbollah, which the U.S. deems a terrorist organization — also said the movie “challenged traditional gender norms, while also criticizing the concept of male guardianship and ridiculing the role of mothers.”

Though they spurred widespread derision, the minister’s comments added to a rare, ecumenical consensus among Lebanon’s famously fractious political class.

Last week, a group of Christian vigilantes calling themselves Jnoud El Rab, or the Soldiers of God, attacked an LGBTQ-friendly club in Beirut when it held a drag show. Last month, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah characterized homosexuality as “perversion” and a threat to the country. A figure from an anti-Hezbollah political bloc recently called for a law criminalizing “the promotion of homosexuality.” The minister of education went so far as to ban the game Snakes & Ladders from summer school activities because the board’s colors looked like a Pride flag.

Elsewhere in the region it was much the same. In Iraq, lawmakers in August required all media outlets, phone and internet companies in the country to replace the word “homosexuality” with “sexual deviance.” They are also considering a bill that would punish same-sex relations with life in prison or death, “imitating women” with three years in prison and “promoting homosexuality” with at least seven.

Even in countries where “Barbie” was shown, politicians pushed authorities to revoke its permissions. One Jordanian lawmaker wanted it banned because it supported “wrong ideas like homosexuality and feminism.” In Bahrain, Hassan Husseini, an Islamic preacher with millions of followers on social media, castigated the movie for “revolting against the idea of marriage and motherhood” and its depiction of men “without manhood.” Others said the film peddled “Western deviances” such as undermining traditional gender norms.

Amid all the vociferous opinions, some just want a chance to see for themselves.

“I can’t imagine ‘Barbie’ is promoting all that. And so what if it does? All over the Arab world we have this patriarchal, conservative society. It just feels so silly. It’s a movie. Who cares?” said Julianna Aoun, a 32-year-old postdoctoral student in the U.K. who is home in Beirut for the summer.

“I’d like to see it here in Lebanon. There’s a symbolism in that,” she said.

Ibrahim Khatib, 21, said such bans were pointless with piracy and streaming making everything available anyway. Besides, the grand majority of those castigating “Barbie” hadn’t seen it, he said, adding that he would like to.

“If this film plays, they say it’s against our traditions. It’s obviously not a threat, but this is how they think,” he said. “Either way, this film won’t change society.”

On the other hand, Sandra, a 34-year-old Beirut resident, doesn’t believe a movie about a plastic toy should have messages involving sexuality. Though she hasn’t seen the movie, she agreed with the PG-15 rating the movie received in Saudi Arabia.

“It doesn’t have to be highlighted and exaggerated,” said Sandra, who asked that her last name not be used, fearing backlash at her job. “If I saw a heterosexual couple kissing in the middle of a cafe, I would think, ‘get a room.’ This is the same. The time will come when kids have to think of that.”

In a nod to the region’s shifting dynamics, one prominent Egyptian commentator noted that Kuwaitis were now driving to Bahrain to watch the movie — when a few years back it would have been the other way round.

That the movie opened in Riyadh before Beirut, many pointed out, seemed both a comment on how Lebanon’s successive crises destroyed the tolerance that once marked it as the Arab world’s artistic lodestar, and the rapid-fire changes that transformed Saudi Arabia from a country where cinemas didn’t exist less than a decade ago to the Middle East’s biggest box office market.

The increased scrutiny of LGBTQ+-related content comes at an awkward time for the Middle East’s nascent cinema industry, especially when the blockbusters that drive a large portion of exhibitors’ revenue are banned.

Studios have become less willing to cut up a film to cater to local sensitivities, said David Hancock, a film and cinema analyst at London-based Omdia.

“Now filmmakers have more power. They’ve done this more and more where they say they won’t make changes,” he said. “If you start to demand changes in every film, and there are 130 films released annually by the majors, then changing every film for every country amounts to a lot of work.”

It falls to distributors to act as the link between censorship boards and studios, aiming to find solutions that allow them to showcase the movie while not changing its integrity, Lahoud said.

“Sometimes you get into a position where it’s the director who doesn’t want to change a line. Sometimes it’s not even a line, just a visual reference or a scene. Sometimes it’s just a matter of translation,” he said.

“It’s not a binary situation. Often we get refusal. Go back. Negotiate. And we end up getting the movies passed.”

Some of that reluctance is born of fears of provoking a backlash. That’s what happened to “Top Gun: Maverick.” When the movie’s trailer released in 2019, a Taiwan flag on Tom Cruise’s jacket had been scrubbed out, presumably to allow it to be screened in China. But after accusations of pandering to Beijing, which views Taiwan as its territory, the flag was restored in the movie. “Maverick” didn’t end up playing in China, the world’s biggest movie box office with $7.3 billion in revenue in 2021 — but it still did spectacularly well in theaters. Paramount did not respond to a request for comment.

Though “Barbie’s” momentum has been waning more than five weeks after its global opening, Tabet, the film critic and promoter, and other exhibitors were still eager for the film to open in remaining regional markets.

In Lebanon, it had been cleared to premiere Thursday. But as the day approached, word came to exhibitors that the film’s release would probably be postponed in Lebanon by at least another week. It also wouldn’t be opening in any of the other last regional markets.

“We still don’t know if it’s going to open tomorrow in Beirut. Nothing is clear,” an employee at Grand Cinemas, one of several exhibitors operating in the region, said Wednesday. She declined to give her name because she was not authorized to speak to the media.

For now, many of the pink popcorn boxes and human-sized Barbie-toy boxes will remain in storage.

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