Feminist Label Fears Lead to Barbie Movie Flop in South Korea

South Korea's box office shuns Barbie movie, reveals deeper issues.

by Nouman Rasool
Feminist Label Fears Lead to Barbie Movie Flop in South Korea

In a striking demonstration of the tension surrounding feminism in South Korea, the new Barbie movie has met with a disappointing reception at the box office. This comes at a time when feminist themes are still considered taboo in the nation's deeply patriarchal society.

Since its local release on July 19, Barbie has sold just over 460,000 tickets, according to the Korean Film Council, claiming only an 8% share of total box office revenue in the opening weekend and a mere 3.9% in the second.

In contrast, other foreign films like Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One and Pixar's Elemental have sold 3.6 million and 5.8 million tickets respectively. Women's rights activist Haein Shim attributes Barbie's underperformance to its feminist humor, suggesting that South Korean women may be hesitant to attend the movie for fear of being labeled feminists.

"The word 'feminism' has become a dirty word to a lot of individuals in Korea," Shim explains, underscoring how many are uncomfortable confronting the nation's deeply ingrained patriarchal values. The figures are indeed unsettling.

South Korea ranks lowest among OECD countries for gender pay equality and consistently falls at the bottom of the Economist's Glass Ceiling Index. Furthermore, women often face societal pressures to abandon their careers after childbirth, and the criminal justice system appears lenient towards s*x crimes against women.

President Yoon Suk Yeol, who disavowed the label of feminist during his campaign, has even blamed feminism for the country's declining birthrate, asserting that South Korea suffers from "no structural gender discrimination." Film critic Youn Sung-Eun recognizes that while South Koreans might agree on gender equality in principle, some conservative factions strongly oppose what they perceive as "radical feminism." Such sentiments may have contributed to the reluctance of audiences to embrace a movie like Barbie with its pronounced gender equality themes.

Local marketing for Barbie also caused a stir. Early posters omitted the original empowering slogans, "Barbie is everything" and "He's just Ken," which led to criticism for allegedly undermining the film's feminist message.

Warner Brothers Korea later claimed this move was not intentional.

Feminism Viewed as Negative

The perception of feminism in South Korea as a negative concept, particularly in male-dominated online communities, has been growing.

According to a 2019 survey, over 62% of men in their 20s don't view feminism as a gender equality movement, while nearly 79% see it as promoting "female supremacy." Local film critic Jason Bechervaise believes the underperformance of Barbie in South Korea is consistent with the challenges faced by other female-driven films in the region.

He highlights the success of the locally produced Smugglers, a female-led crime action film, but emphasizes that Korea is a unique market where some foreign films underperform, reflecting cultural disconnects. The mixed reception of Barbie across Asia, including a ban in Vietnam over a disputed territorial depiction and increased screenings in China, illustrates the complex cultural landscapes that films navigate today.

But the case of South Korea serves as a particularly vivid snapshot of the ongoing struggle for gender equality and the enduring stigmatization of feminism in the country.