‘Barbie’ in Crosshairs of Growing Censorship in Lebanon

Lebanon is considering banning the “Barbie” movie because the culture minister said the film “promotes homosexuality” and contradicts religious values, in a move that some experts say underscores the poor state of free speech and gay rights in the country and throughout the Middle East. 

Mohammad Mortada, Lebanon’s culture minister, moved to ban “Barbie” Wednesday, saying it was discovered to “promote homosexuality and sexual transformation” and “contradicts values of faith and morality” by disparaging the significance of the family unit.

Kuwait soon followed suit, with the state news agency, KUNA, reporting Thursday that the government had banned “Barbie” and the supernatural horror film “Talk to Me” in order to protect “public ethics and social traditions.”

Experts on human rights and free speech in Lebanon said the potential “Barbie” ban is a symptom of Beirut’s broader efforts to degrade free expression and LGBTQ rights in the country.

“It’s ridiculous and deadly serious at the same time,” said Justin Shilad, an expert on press freedom in the Middle East for the advocacy group PEN America.

Shilad said it may seem almost comical for Lebanon to consider banning Barbie, which brings to life the iconic child’s doll and follows her on her journey of self-discovery after an identity crisis. But, he said, it comes within the context of government officials increasingly restricting free speech, targeting critical journalists and amplifying anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

“It speaks to this increasing willingness of all different power centers in Lebanon to crack down on dissent, crack down on those who are different, to increasingly ostracize an already marginalized community as part of this overall move to increasingly crack down on free expression,” Shilad told VOA from New York.

Based on Mortada’s move, Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi then asked the general security’s censorship committee — which falls under the interior ministry and is usually responsible for censorship decisions — to review the film and give its recommendation.

Meanwhile in Kuwait, Undersecretary of the Ministry for Press and Publication Lafy Al-Subei’e said both “Barbie” and “Talk to Me” were banned because they “promulgate ideas and beliefs that are alien to Kuwaiti society and public order.”

The bans in Lebanon and Kuwait underscore the prevalence of censorship throughout the region as well, according to Shilad.

“It also speaks to a larger trend in Lebanon, where free expression and the free exchange of ideas is increasingly becoming contested,” Shilad said. “This is also indicative of a larger regionwide phenomenon.”

Shilad believes Kuwait’s reasoning about banning the films was intentionally vague.

“It’s this very vague nod to stability, or moral or cultural values,” Shilad said. “And the reason why it’s so vague and so ill-defined is because under that umbrella, you can crack down on a broad range of speech and suppress a broad range of expression.”

Kuwait’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

In response to a request for comment, Lebanon’s Washington embassy directed VOA to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, which did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

This isn’t the first time the film has proven surprisingly controversial on the global stage. In early July, the Vietnamese government banned the film due to its perceived inclusion of Beijing’s controversial nine-dash line in a map. 

Lebanon was once held up as a relatively safe haven for the LGBTQ community in the Middle East. In 2017, it became the first Arab country to host a gay pride week.

In 2018, a court ruled that same-sex conduct is not illegal, but since that decision, the situation for the country’s LGBTQ community has grown more and more worrisome. For example, last year, Lebanon’s Interior Ministry banned any events aimed at “promoting sexual perversion,” referencing gatherings of LGBTQ people.

“Politicians are increasingly targeting vulnerable populations, such as LGBT[Q] people in Lebanon,” said Ramzi Kaiss, who researches Lebanon at Human Rights Watch.

Kaiss and Shilad think Lebanese lawmakers are ramping up their use of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric to distract the public’s attention from more pressing issues — like the struggling economy, government corruption and the status of the investigation into the devastating 2020 Port of Beirut explosion.

“Instead, they’re busy cracking down on freedom of expression and LGBT[Q] rights and banning the Barbie movie,” Kaiss told VOA from Beirut. “I think it’s outrageous that this is the main priority for the government, while there is a range of other actions that need to be taken.”

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