Banned in Kuwait, ‘Barbie’ sparks delight, and anger, in Saudi Arabia
By Vivian Nereim
On Friday night, Mohammed al-Sayed donned a pale pink shirt and denim overalls to join a friend at a movie theater in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, where the men settled in to watch a film about a doll on a mission to dismantle the patriarchy.
Similar scenes played out across the conservative Islamic kingdom last weekend, as women painted their nails pink, tied pink bows in their hair and draped pink floor-length abayas over their shoulders for the regional debut of the movie “Barbie.” While critics across the Middle East have called for the film to be banned for undermining traditional gender norms, many Saudis ignored them.
They watched as the movie imagined a matriarchal society of Barbie dolls where men are eye candy. They laughed when a male character asked, “I’m a man with no power; does that make me a woman?” They snapped their fingers in delight as a mother delivered a monologue about the strictures of stereotypical femininity. Then, they emerged from the darkened theaters to contemplate what it all meant.
“The message is that you are enough — whatever you are,” said al-Sayed, 21, echoing the Ken doll’s revelation.
“We saw ourselves,” said al-Sayed’s friend, Nawaf al-Dossary, 20, wearing a matching pink shirt.
Watching Barbie’s search for identity and meaning, al-Sayed said he was reminded of the fraught period when he started college and wasn’t sure of his place in the world. He said he believed that the movie had important lessons for men as well as women.
“I felt like my mom should see the film,” he said.
“All of our families — all families,” al-Dossary said, laughing.
That this was happening in Saudi Arabia — one of the most male-dominated countries in the world — was mind-boggling to many in the Middle East. When “Barbie” opened Thursday in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, it arrived suddenly and overwhelmingly. Moviegoers rushed to prepare Barbie-pink outfits. Some theaters scheduled more than 15 showings a day.
A snide headline in the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat declared that Saudi cinemas had become “havens for Gulf citizens escaping from harsh restrictions” — a twist in a country whose people once had to drive to Bahrain to watch movies.
Eight years ago, there were no movie theaters in the Saudi kingdom, let alone any showing films about patriarchy. Women were barred from driving. The religious police roamed the streets, enforcing gender segregation and shouting at women to cover up from head to toe in black.
Since he rose to power, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 37, has done away with many of those restrictions while simultaneously increasing political repression, imprisoning conservative religious clerics, leftist activists, critical business owners and members of his own family.
Even now, despite sweeping social changes, Saudi Arabia remains a state built around patriarchy. By law, the kingdom’s ruler must be a male member of the royal family, and while several women have ascended to high-ranking positions, all of Crown Prince Mohammed’s Cabinet members and closest advisers are men. Saudi women may be pouring into the workforce and traveling to outer space, but they still need approval from a male guardian to marry. And gay and transgender Saudis face deep-seated discrimination, and sometimes arrest.
So as word spread through the kingdom that “Barbie” would debut on a delayed schedule — a sign that government censors were most likely deliberating over it — many Saudis thought the movie would be banned, or at least heavily censored. Bolstering their expectations was the fact that neighboring Kuwait banned the film last week.
Lebanon’s culture minister, Muhammad Al-Murtada, also called for the film to be banned, saying that it violated local values by “promoting homosexuality” and “raising doubts about the necessity of marriage and building a family.” It is unclear if the government will follow his recommendation.
Even in Arab nations that have allowed the film to be shown, it has faced intense criticism. Bahraini preacher Hassan al-Husseini shared a video with 1 million Instagram followers calling the movie a Trojan horse for “corrupt agendas.”
Many Arab critics of the movie expressed views similar to those of some American politicians and right-wing figures who have castigated the film as anti-male. The tussle in the Middle East over the movie illustrates how battles that sometimes echo the so-called U.S. culture wars are playing out on a different landscape.
The animated film “Lightyear,” which showed two female characters kissing, was banned in several countries in the region last year. And six Gulf Arab countries issued an unusual statement last year demanding that Netflix remove content that violates “Islamic and societal values and principles,” threatening to take legal action.
In Kuwait, religious conservatives have become more vocal in recent years, Gulf analysts say, broadcasting views that many Saudis would be hesitant to express in public now, fearing repercussions from the government.
“Banning the movie ‘Barbie’ fits into a larger tilt to the right that’s increasingly felt in Kuwait,” said Bader Al-Saif, an assistant professor of history at Kuwait University. “Islamist and conservative forces in Kuwait are relishing in these culture wars to prove their ascendancy.”
Some Kuwaitis expressed astonishment that they would have to travel to the Saudi kingdom to watch the movie. Many pointed out the irony that Kuwait and Lebanon, despite objecting to the film, had long provided greater freedom of expression than many other Arab countries.
Streaming out of movie theaters in Riyadh, people who watched “Barbie” seemed to leave with their own understanding.
Yara Mohammed, 26, said that she had enjoyed the movie, dismissing the Kuwaiti ban as “drama.”
“Even if kids saw it, it’s so normal,” she said.