The box-office hit Barbie has been gaining significant popularity in North America; however, it has been analyzed that its box-office performance in Korea is relatively low compared to other countries due to negative sentiments toward feminism.
On August 2, the Guardian reported that a fear of being labeled a feminist in Korea may be causing Barbie to underperform in Korea’s box office.
According to the Korea Box-Office Information System (KOBIS), the movie, released on July 19, has recorded a cumulative audience of about 460,000. In comparison, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, which premiered on June 14, has sold over 3.6 million tickets, and Pixar‘s Elemental has sold more than 5.8 million.
Regarding this situation, women’s rights activist Shim Hae In said in an interview with the Guardian that feminist humor is still taboo in Korea, as the culture is deeply rooted in patriarchy.
I think Barbie undoubtedly highlights the fact that a women-centred film with feminist humour is still regarded as a taboo subject. Women might be hesitant to go watch the film. The fear of being labelled as a feminist in South Korea is real. The word ‘feminism’ has become a dirty word to a lot of individuals in Korea, and people are unwilling to recognise – and are uncomfortable confronting – the deeply rooted patriarchy that has driven society for so long.
— Shim Hae In
According to the Guardian, Korea is still very patriarchal and ranks low in gender equality among advanced countries, with the worst gender pay gap among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, and continuously ranked last on the Economist‘s Glass Ceiling Index—which measures how equally women are treated at work. Korea ranked 29th out of 29 surveyed countries in March this year and has remained at the bottom for 11 consecutive years.
The South Korean president also may play a role in the patriarchal culture in Korea.
Yoon Suk Yeol, now the country’s president, disavowed the label of feminist when he was running for office. He has previously suggested feminism was to blame for the country’s birthrate, currently the world’s lowest, and stated that South Korea has ‘no structural gender discrimination.’
— The Guardian
Film critic Youn Sung Eun contributed to the topic by stating that Koreans may agree on gender equality in principle, but some portions are perceived as “radical feminism” due to their conservative society.
In this context, Greta Gerwig’s gender equality education is not very appealing… Since Barbie is intended to be an entertaining movie, presenting such sensitive themes prominently might not resonate well.
— Youn Sung Eun
The Guardian also mentioned that over the past few years, feminism has become associated with radical behavior and negative connotations, particularly in Korean male-dominated online communities.
Jason Bechervaise, a film critic in the Korean film industry, said that he was not surprised by the underperformance of Barbie in Korea. However, he also said that a Korean movie with a female-centered cast and plotline is doing well in Korea.
Some female-driven films have struggled locally, and anti-feminists will undoubtedly attack such films, but I don’t see this as the only reason Barbie is not performing here. In fact, the locally produced Smugglers, which features a big female cast, is topping the local box office.
— Jason Bechervaise
Smugglers is a crime action film starring actors Kim Hye Soo, Go Min Si, and Jo In Sung, about freediving women who start smuggling after losing their jobs.
Jason Bechervaise also added that “Korea is a unique market” where films like Elemental do very well while others do the opposite—and it may be different from what films are popular overseas. For example, Star Wars is popular in America but not as much in Korea.
Earlier this year, before the release of Barbie, Warner Bros. Korea was under fire for removing the female-empowering quote on the movie poster. Whereas the original versions had “Barbie is everything” and “He’s just Ken” written on the posters, the Korean posters omitted the quotes, which brought up the topic of Korea’s “fragile masculinity.”