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Maps, Geopolitics and Pop Culture: Understanding the Controversy in Vietnam Involving Blackpink and Barbie

The South China Sea has rattled not one but several nations of East and Southeast Asia and their allies for centuries. However things got severe when China started using eleven dashed lines marking its sovereignty over the South China Sea in its version of world maps from the year 1947. These eleven lines were reduced to nine in 1952 as a result of China’s warming ties with Vietnam. Yet the clashes over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the years 1974 and 1988 again led to beef between the two nations that are still reflected in today’s world. The latest and most striking example of this would be the subsequent banning of the Hollywood film Barbie and temporary halt put on the first ever Blackpink concert in Hanoi. While it’s fascinating to see a film on dolls and a pop phenomenon girl group getting embroiled in a case of maps out of everything, it is also worth noting how maps stand at the roundabout of international relations, politics, pop culture and national sentiments.


The “Nine-Dash Line” is a notion used by China to define its claimed territorial boundaries in the South China Sea. This implies that all the islands and shoals within this U-shaped boundary formed by those nine lines belong to China. The idea is based on ancient maps and papers showing Chinese sovereignty. This includes the Paracel, Spratly, and Scarborough Shoals, which are the main causes of the disputes between China and so many Southeast Asian nations because they are connected to them and inevitably give China access to their natural resources. All the shipping routes and fishing grounds are also lost to one nation. An example of this dispute would be when more than 70 Vietnamese soldiers were killed when the Chinese captured the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974. This is supported by the most recent incident when the Philippines said that Chinese ships began beaming lasers at Filipino boats at the beginning of 2023 in an effort to momentarily blind the crew.

The ambiguous nature of China’s Nine Dash Line concept has further fueled conflicts and tensions in this part of Asia. China just ruthlessly covers all of the sea as a part of it, something that the international communities have always criticized. A tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rendered a decision in favor of the Philippines in a case challenging China’s maritime rights in the South China Sea in 2016. The tribunal determined that China’s claims based on the Nine-Dash Line were not legally supported by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international treaty that governs maritime rights and borders.

For Vietnam, it is only absolutely logical to be so sensitive about anything that seems to  support China’s ideas of authority. A history of colonialism, fear of war and continuous territorial disputes together constitute a large portion of Vietnam’s modern day national identity which in turn is reflected in the way it responds to something as harmless as global pop culture.


When the trailer for Barbie was out on streaming platforms, no one would have stopped to zoom into a map to check its accuracy midway that looked like something doodled by a child with chalks and crayons (as the Warner Bros. studio claims). However those eight lines on that map were noticed by the Vietnam’s National Council for Film Appraisal and Classification which called for the film to be banned on July 3. Even if the movie is imaginary, it can’t be denied that maps, which are political, are used in an entertaining manner.

In a world where fans and fandoms can rule out even governments, standing against your own favorites in solidarity with your nation can be a huge loss for the artist in question.

BLINKS, the name given to Blackpink’s fanbase, also supported their nation by opposing the concert. When the group’s promoter, iME, displayed a map with the nine lines on their website, it raised controversy on whether or not they were in favor of China. This might have been something massive for both parties. Blackpink’s tour may have brought in money for a country like Vietnam that doesn’t see many foreign concerts and for Blackpink, they could’ve gained the trust of the people they never interacted with in person before.

What’s all this fuss about using a map randomly one may ask. But it’s much more than that. This one map with lines denotes a bias amongst the producers, a sense of dislike towards a region, ridiculing someone’s rights and security and disloyalty towards the masses. For the least what a film or a show or an artist could do is be neutral and mention a statement at the beginning of the film or the website about the map being a fictional or not an accurate representation. Media is for all but maps are for setting boundaries. When the two are mixed, they give rise to a situation like that of Vietnam’s.

It will be incorrect to say that Vietnam’s unrest started overnight. The very minimum that may be used to bolster the assertion are instances of earlier motion pictures and television programs that were banned from the country for using disputed maps in similar settings. Previous releases with similar fate include movies like Tom Holland’s Uncharted and the cartoon film Abominable in 2022 and 2019, respectively. Pine Gap on Netflix was banned too in 2021.


It is well known that since a long time, American films and shows have been appealing to Chinese audiences as a lot of the scenes are customized to suit the Chinese interests. As China proves to be a big market for these pop culture products, it makes sense for the makers to create content in accordance with the Chinese government’s policies. However groups like Blackpink that come from nations like Korea that has its own tiffs with China, markets like Vietnam and rest of Southeast Asia should be their biggest targets as they alone amass a huge fan following of these groups.

However the movie Barbie was released eventually with significant cuts and Blackpink did hold a concert in Hanoi, the South China Sea dispute remains far from getting over.

Peter Zinoman, a professor at UC Berkeley, said in an interview with Vox that “”To the Chinese, the nine-dash line signifies their legitimate claims to the South China Sea,” and “To the Vietnamese, it symbolizes a brazen act of imperialist bullying that elevates Chinese national interest over an older shared set of interests of socialist brotherhood.”

In a layman’s vernacular, maps are the most practical tools for understanding global politics. Moreover, movies and OTT programs provide a way to connect with an audience that would not otherwise be reachable. As a result, it is crucial that the maps are not portrayed in an irresponsible manner, especially in pop culture.

Is it acceptable to brush off the subject of the Nine Dash Line by dismissing its depiction in movies and television shows as merely “works of fiction” or should there be a much larger discussion on it since it not only stirs up one’s national sentiments but also calls into question the justifications for disputing maritime sovereignty?