Who's really scared of "Barbie"?

As Lebanon and Kuwait move to ban the summer blockbuster starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, many would-be viewers are left wondering what's truly behind the censorship.

Who's really scared of "Barbie"?

Lebanon’s culture minister recently banned the summer blockbuster "Barbie" from cinemas, but the news has left many scratching their heads over the real reason, which seems to be muddied by his statement.

The minister, Mohammed Mortada, says only that after “scrutiny”, it became clear that "Barbie" is this and that. It’s unclear what “scrutiny” he’s referring to, nor how his decision was reached.

Did a censorship committee watch the film and come up with a particular recommendation? Or did the minister act as the censor?

In either case, the statement features no mention of actually watching "Barbie", perhaps in a bid to side-step the awkward question, “Why can you watch the film and draw your own conclusions, but deny the general public the same courtesy?”

In Kuwait, the Ministry of Information’s cinema censorship committee was behind the ban. In a similar vein, the Kuwaiti decision doesn’t refer to watching the film. However, it does offer some clarity regarding the process, stating that the committee “usually orders censoring of scenes that run counter to public ethics” before approving a film.

In the case of "Barbie", however, a comprehensive ban was put into place. According to the statement, the film – which stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken, respectively – carries “alien concepts, messages or unacceptable behaviour,” therefore necessitating a total barring of screenings.

In essence, the head of the Kuwaiti committee offers the same basic sentiments that the Lebanese minister does. But whereas he leans more toward broad generalisations, Mortada is more specific.

“The movie contradicts values of faith and morality... promotes sexual deviance [...] and supports the rejection of a father’s guardianship,” his statement reads.

In both countries, the main concern seems to have little to do with Barbie herself (or even the other Barbies), but rather the image in which the male, Ken, is portrayed.

The main concern for censorship seems to have little to do with Barbie herself, but rather the image in which the male, Ken, is portrayed. Ken is Barbie's man – it's his reason to exist.

Ken is Barbie's man – it's his reason to exist. The phrase "he's just Ken" was popularised during the marketing of the film. At the end of the movie, Ken explicitly tells Barbie: "I just don't know who I am without you."

"You're Ken!" she says, adding, "But it's Barbie AND Ken, there is no just Ken!"

In a society whose culture, customs, and values underlines men's superiority over women, the words coming out of Ken's mouth are seen as outrageous.

For the "decadent" West to take things as far as imagining a world ruled by women while men play the role that women are "supposed to" play in the real world is an abomination.

Preserving the patriarchy

The fact that the Lebanese Minister's statement doesn't shy away from expressing its disapproval of this so-called "rejection of a father's guardianship" is not surprising when you consider how patriarchal the Lebanese society is.

All of Lebanon's religious sects, political parties, and authorities are headed by men – and not just any men, but "macho" men.

Men who have served as militia and war leaders. Men who have wielded real weapons. Men who have raised their fists and promised to make their adversaries and enemies suffer.

Ultimately, they are men who will square their shoulders to anyone who "dares" stand up to them.

But these are also the same men who wouldn't lift a finger when mothers are deprived of seeing their children. Even worse, they're often behind these tragic outcomes. Religious leaders would do anything to protect fathers and preserve the patriarchy.

According to officials of the two countries, Ken's subordination to Barbie disrupts the social system as it stands.

The Lebanese minister's statement denounces this explicitly with mentions of "sexual deviance" and "homosexuality".

There is no representation of homosexuality whatsoever in "Barbie", but the censor's apparent conclusion is that the agenda the film serves must be aligned with an agenda of homosexuality.

As a result, the censorship seems to be based on an interpretation of the film, without bothering to validate said interpretation with concrete evidence.

The censorship seems to be based on an interpretation of the film, without bothering to validate said interpretation with concrete evidence.

What censorship authorities in Lebanon and Kuwait don't seem to realise is that most viewers who are interested in the movie have already found ways to watch it. Not only that, but these bans could have very well spiked interest in people who weren't even invested in watching the film in the first place.

No cultural product – especially a television show or film – is out of reach today.

"Protecting society" and "safeguarding values and morals" are, therefore, nothing but futile pretences. What censors are really trying to protect is not society, or even the state or authority, but the image of that state or authority.

They're not worried about the young generations, the youth, or the general public's sensibilities. They simply fear tarnishing their own image. They fear that giving the green light to "Barbie" will be interpreted by those who "dare" stand up to them as an endorsement of the concessions that the film supposedly calls for.

Burning the future

While the Kuwaiti decision is likely motivated by pressure from conservative religious forces, the Lebanese censor (who used the term "faith" instead of "religion", for maximum effect) seems to be driven by a purely patriarchal sentiment that has ruled Lebanon's society for decades.

On 10 May 1933 in Berlin, Joseph Goebbels, the "Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda" (the official name of the Minister of Information) called on 40,000 university students to take part in book burnings.

"The man of the future in Germany is not a man of books, but a man of character," he told the youth, who went on to burn 25,000 books by Einstein, Freud, Hemingway, and hundreds of other intellectuals and writers.

The Nazi minister believed he was building a superior empire capable of ruling the world. But a few years later, the same youth he emboldened would discover that by burning those books, they were practically burning their future.

The Lebanese minister won't have to worry about that, at least. He and the entity he represents have already burned the future of a generation whom this ban supposedly "protects".

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