‘Barbie’ Is a Sleeper Hit in China

There were plenty of reasons to think the “Barbie” movie might have a hard time finding an audience in China. It’s an American film, when Chinese moviegoers’ interest in, and government approval of, Hollywood movies is falling. It’s been widely described as feminist, when women’s rights and political representation in China are backsliding.

But not only did the film screen in China — it has been something of a sleeper hit, precisely because of its unusual nature in the Chinese movie landscape.

“There aren’t many movies about women’s independence, or that have some flavors of feminism, in China,” said Mina Li, 36, who went alone to a recent screening in Beijing after several female friends recommended it. “So they thought it was worth seeing.”

Despite limited availability — the film, directed by Greta Gerwig, made up only 2.4 percent of screenings in China on its opening day — “Barbie” has quickly become widely discussed on Chinese social media, at one point even topping searches on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. It has an 8.3 rating on the movie rating site Douban, higher than any other currently showing live-action feature. Theaters have raced to add showings, with the number nearly quadrupling in the first week.

Though not nearly as hotly anticipated as in the United States, where it left some movie theaters running low on refreshments, “Barbie” has set off its own mini-mania in some Chinese circles, with moviegoers posting photos of themselves decked out in pink or showing off glossy souvenir tickets. As of Wednesday, the movie had earned $28 million in China — less than the new “Mission Impossible,” but more than the latest “Indiana Jones.” American movies’ hauls have been declining in general in China, in part because of strict controls on the number of foreign films allowed each year.

Mia Tan, a Beijing college student, saw “Barbie” with two friends, in an array of festive attire that included a peach-colored skirt and pink-accented tops. During a scene in which the Ken dolls realized that being male was its own qualification, she joked that the characters sounded like fellow students in their major.

“The movie was great,” Ms. Tan said. “It used straightforward dialogue and an exaggerated plot to tell the audience about objective reality. Honestly, I think this is the only way to make women realize what kind of environment they’re in, and to make men realize how much privilege they’ve had.”

The discussion about women’s empowerment that “Barbie” has set off is in some ways a rare bright spot for Chinese feminists. In recent years, the authorities have arrested feminist activists, urged women to embrace traditional gender roles and rejected high-profile sexual harassment lawsuits. State media has suggested that feminism is part of a Western plot to weaken China, and social media companies block insults of men but allow offensive comments about women.

Some social media comments have disparaged “Barbie” as inciting conflict between the sexes, and moviegoers have shared stories of men walking out of theaters. (In the United States, conservatives have similarly railed against the movie.)

At the same time, public awareness of women’s rights has been growing. Online discussions about topics such as violence against women have blossomed, despite censorship. While many of China’s top movies in recent years have been chest-thumping war or action movies, a few female-directed movies, about themes like complicated family relationships, have also drawn huge audiences.

And the Chinese government has proved most intent on preventing feminists from organizing and gathering, rather than stopping discussions of gender equality writ large, said Jia Tan, a professor of cultural studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Even some Chinese state media outlets have offered cautious praise of the movie’s themes. One said that “Barbie” “encourages contemplation of the status and portrayal of women.” Another quoted a film critic as saying it was normal that the topic of gender would stir disagreement, but that “Barbie” was actually about the perils of either men or women being treated with favor.

In a sign of how Chinese women’s expectations have shifted, some of the most popular — and critical — online reviews of “Barbie” came from women who said it hadn’t gone far enough. Some said they had hoped a Western movie would be more insightful about women’s rights than a Chinese one could be, but found it still exalted conventional beauty standards or focused too much on Ken. Others said they felt compelled to give the movie a higher rating than it deserved because they expected men to pan it.

Vicky Chan, a 27-year-old tech worker in Shenzhen, said she thought mainstream conversations about feminism in China were still in their early stages, focusing on surface-level differences between men and women rather than structural problems. The movie’s critique of patriarchy was ultimately gentle, she said — and that was probably why it had gotten such wide approval in China, she said in an interview. (Ms. Chan gave the movie two stars on Douban.)

Some lingering wariness of feminism and its implications was evident at the recent Beijing showing of “Barbie,” where several audience members — male and female — told a reporter that they saw the movie as promoting equal rights, not women’s rights. Opponents of feminism in China have tarred the movement as pitching women above men.

The Chinese subtitles for “Barbie” translated “feminism” as “nu xing zhu yi,” or literally “women-ism,” rather than “nu quan zhu yi,” or “women’s rights-ism.” While both are generally translated as “feminism,” the latter is seen as more politically charged.

Wang Pengfei, a college student from Jiangsu Province, also drew that distinction. He had liked “Barbie” so much that he wanted to take his mother to see it, feeling she would appreciate the movie’s climactic speech about the double standards imposed on women.

But Mr. Wang also said he was alarmed by what he called extreme feminist rhetoric, with women declaring that they didn’t need men. He liked the movie, he said, because it hadn’t gone as far as some other films did.

“If Chinese women are really going to become independent,” he said, “it won’t be because of movie gimmicks.”

Vivian Wang reported from Beijing, and Siyi Zhao from Seoul.