While Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has been a massive global box office success, surpassing $1 billion in ticket sales in just two weeks, the film has surprisingly underperformed in South Korea. According to the Korean Film Council, Barbie only managed an eighth-place opening weekend finish from August 4-6, earning just $273,414. In contrast, advance ticket sales for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, opening in Korea on August 15, were over 30 times higher at 35.8 per cent. Some observers attribute Barbie’s lacklustre Korean debut to cultural differences, especially regarding the film’s feminist themes, which may not have resonated with local audiences.
Since its release on July 19, Barbie has sold 518,172 tickets in South Korea, according to the Korean Film Council, for a total gross of $3.8 million. This pales compared to Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, which sold 3.8 million tickets after opening just a week prior.
Warner Bros. anticipated challenges for Barbie in Korea and across Asia, where the film has underperformed relative to other regions. However, after a weak $8.2 million opening, Barbie found an audience in China once Chinese feminists advocated seeing the film as a counter to prevalent male-centric action movies. After three weekends, Barbie surpassed $30 million in China, giving Warner Bros. hope for success in Japan where it opens on August 11.
But Barbie’s empowering feminist themes seem to have sparked discomfort in Korea, where gender disparity and anti-feminist backlash run deep. Kang Yu-jeong, a professor at Kangnam University, notes “Given how gender has been politicized and polarizing in Korea recently, young people seem easily exhausted by gender discussions.” She adds, “It’s such a sensitive topic that the younger generation, the film’s target, wants to avoid it completely.” This is despite Korea ranking 99th out of 146 countries in gender equality.
The polarizing gender debate in South Korea was highlighted during the 2022 election, when conservative candidate Yoon Suk-you campaigned on abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, claiming it promoted discrimination against men. With military service mandates and a tough job market facing younger men, the backlash against feminism has grown.
Kang observes, “The political parties exploited the gender divide, targeting twenty-somethings.”
Some posit Barbie’s feminist themes weren’t emphasized enough locally, despite global praise for the marketing campaign. Kang says “The marketers seemed overly cautious about feminism. So even potentially interested audiences didn’t grasp the film’s message. It was ambiguous.”
On the significant portal Naver, gendered reviews expressed shock at the feminist ideas. One user wrote, “if you’re a guy, skip this, it’s uncomfortable and feels like an educational film.” Another added, “You don’t go to the movies to be preached at.” Male reviews averaged 5.99 out of 10, while women gave it 9.27, exemplifying the polarization.
However, some believe Barbie’s poor performance stems from cultural irrelevance since she is not an iconic figure in Korea.
Journalist Moon So-Young says, “Star Wars also struggled here because it’s not part of our culture. We didn’t play with Barbie growing up. Lego is familiar but not Barbie. Today’s kids don’t play with Barbie either. So there’s no real Barbie fanbase in Korea.”
Film critic Min Yong-joon concurs, adding the humour may not translate: “Barbie is not embedded in Korean culture like in the US. Her story and journey won’t resonate here. The jokes based on Barbie’s cultural significance were likely lost on Korean audiences.”
While gender issues contributed, Barbie’s lack of cultural cachet in Korea appears the primary reason for the film’s underperformance there.
Min adds, “The jokes about Ken’s Western outfits and imaginary horses didn’t translate. Barbie has a distinctly American context, and the kitschy references didn’t communicate here.”
In general, Korean films with female leads struggle, but there are exceptions. The recent hit Smugglers, about women caught in a smuggling scheme, has sold an impressive 3.5 million tickets since its July 26 release.
Producer Kang Hye-Jung says, “We didn’t weigh the risks of female leads, as the story required female sea divers. I don’t understand Hollywood’s Barbie craze, since she was never a toy here. Nowadays people are far more selective about movies. There’s no such thing as a surefire hit anymore.”
While Barbie didn’t connect culturally in Korea, the success of Smugglers shows Korean audiences will support films with strong female-driven stories. Barbie’s struggles illustrate the importance of cultural relevance, even for globally dominant brands.