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Lebanon to ban ‘Barbie’ for ‘promoting homosexuality’

13/08/2023

.…”Festive, cosmopolitan and somewhat Westernised, the Lebanese capital Beirut is still seen by some as the “Paris of the Middle East”

The Ministry of Culture in Lebanon may ban “Barbie” after it accused the film of “promoting homosexuality” on Wednesday. Lebanon, normally perceived as relatively open and free in the Middle East, has seen its ruling elites unite around hardcore conservative values. 

Australian actress Margot Robbie poses on the pink carpet upon arrival for the European premiere of "Barbie" in central London, United Kingdom on July 12, 2023.
Australian actress Margot Robbie poses on the pink carpet upon arrival for the European premiere of “Barbie” in central London, United Kingdom on July 12, 2023. © Justin Tallis, AFP

For some who have seen Greta Gerwig’s film the character Barbie aspires to a world of peace and love. 

In Lebanon, however, this American comedy is fueling tensions, for ‘promoting homosexuality and sexual transformation” and “contradicting values of faith and morality” .

Although the film is showing in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the heroine, played by Australian actress Margot Robbie, could be banned from the generally liberal Lebanon.

The release of “Barbie” in the Middle East was initially planned for August 31, but was recently brought forward to August 10, seemingly indicating that any censorship issues had been resolved. Films are often delayed in the region to allow time for production companies to censor them or gather committees to review them.

But the day before the planned release, Lebanese Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada announced that he had asked for the film to be banned, saying the film “promotes homosexuality and sexual transformation” and “contradicts values of faith and morality” by diminishing the importance of the family unit. Mortada is backed by the powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah, whose head Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah recently gave a speech that made reference to Islamic texts calling for same-sex relations to be punished by death.

Following Mortada’s announcement, Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi asked the General Security’s Censorship Committee, which falls under the Interior Ministry and is traditionally responsible for censorship decisions, to review the film.

Kuwait has already banned “Barbie” outright, saying that the film promotes “ideas and beliefs that are alien to Kuwaiti society and public order”, according to a statement published by the state-run KUNA news agency. 

According to L’Orient Today, the Film Censorship Committee in Lebanon saw no reason to ban the film on Friday. The final decision regarding Lebanon’s screening of Barbie rests with the General Security.

Barbie passed the billion-dollar mark at the global box office on July 21.  

‘He must not have seen the film’

Canadian actor Ryan Gosling has been widely praised for his comic portrayal of Ken, whose over-the-top masculinity is consistently mocked throughout the film. Gerwig’s comedy portrays a world run by women, reversing the roles of patriarchal society. And it concludes with an egalitarian message: let’s stop thinking of ourselves as “Ken” or “Barbie” and embrace the individuals we really are.

Although the cast of “Barbie” includes Kate McKinnon, who is a lesbian, and transgender actor Hari Nef, the movie does not contain any explicit references to homosexuality or transsexuality.

“He must not have seen the film,” says Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, an association that aims to “promote democratic culture” in Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East. “These comments come in the midst of a violent homophobic campaign launched a few weeks ago by the leader of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah. A similar movement had been previously promoted by extremist Christian groups.”

Lebanon’s political elite has been heavily targeting the LGBT community since Pride Month in June.

Nasrallah stated in July that, according to Islamic law, all gay people “should be killed” and called for a boycott of all rainbow-themed products.

Representatives from the country’s various Christian communities also widely reject homosexuality, which is condemned in both the Bible and the Koran.

Under pressure from religious dignitaries, the country has cancelled events organised by its LGBT community on several occasions in recent years.

The children’s animated feature film “Buzz Lightyear”, which features a lesbian couple, was banned last year.

‘Spiritual reasons, political manoeuvring’

When he announced his intention to ban the release of “Barbie”, Mortada brought up an informal ministerial meeting held on Tuesday at the summer residence of Bechara al-Rahi, head of the Maronite Church, an Eastern rite church that recognises the authority of the Roman Catholic Church while maintaining its own form of worship.

“Ideas that run counter to the divine order and the principles shared by all Lebanese people must be combatted,” said both the Maronite al-Rahi and Nasrallah at the end of the meeting.

Political divisions run deep between Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim communities. The practice of proportionately reserving key government posts for representatives from the country’s different religious communities since 1989 has frequently led to deadlocks in decision-making.

However, “the Lebanese authorities are very happy to agree when it comes to sharing homophobic positions, or more generally to oppose any civil law concerning marriage, inheritance, child custody or divorce”, says Mhanna.

Religious institutions often serve as a relay between political parties and Lebanese society. “They are very often exploited by the parties in power, which invoke spiritual reasons to disguise obvious political maneuvering,” he says.

A society more open than its rulers?

Compared to most countries in the region, Lebanon is a multi-faith society that is relatively open when it comes to moral issues. Prohibited in most of the Arab world, the 2022 Marvel film “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”, which features a lesbian couple, was screened there. Festive, cosmopolitan and somewhat Westernised, the Lebanese capital Beirut is still seen by some as the “Paris of the Middle East”.

But Mhanna points out that the parties represented in Parliament reflect a somewhat conservative society.

“Nevertheless, I don’t think that the Lebanese people – including the more traditional ones – have a real problem with ‘Barbie’. They are not focused on moral issues, instead they are very worried about economic collapse, the justice system and the Lebanese state.”

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Weakened by endemic political instability, the country is facing the most serious economic crisis in its history, marked by hyperinflation, the falling value of its currency and banking restrictions. Social tensions are being exacerbated by the lack of basic services such as water and electricity.

The lack of a thorough investigation and resulting justice in the wake of the explosion at the Port of Beirut in August 2020 has added to the discontent. Furthermore, evidence of negligence and corruption involving the authorities resulted in a lack prosecutions.

In light of this crisis, the authorities are bringing up moral issues, says Mhanna.

This article has been translated from the original in French

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