There are two Fridas, and pop culture wants only one: the celebrity. Beautiful, colorful, celebrated for the suffering she “overcame,” Frida the celebrity presides over a nebulous empire. Her iconic face has been plastered on all kinds of products, including nail polishes, phone covers, fridge magnets and, now, Barbie dolls.
The Frida fashioned by pop culture has become so detached from the real Frida that perhaps Mattel did not expect blowback for depicting the artist with groomed eyebrows and lighter eyes and without her wheelchair. Frida, the queer, disabled artist, with her radical and revolutionary politics, painted from pain; Mattel’s version of Kahlo sanitizes her body and her history into an easily digestible, able-bodied, pretty sameness. This is Frida the celebrity, but it’s certainly not Frida the artist.
Mattel has defended itself from critiques on legal grounds: It says it purchased the rights to Kahlo’s name from the Frida Kahlo Corp., which claims the rights to her name. (Who profits from these rights is unclear; Kahlo’s grandniece, Mara Romeo, has been locked in a legal battle with the Frida Kahlo Corp. and has been trying to dissolve it for years through Panamanian courts.) But legality isn’t the only debate here. Romeo’s daughter, Mara de Anda Romeo, pointed out how little the doll resembles Kahlo. “You don’t turn a doll into Frida Kahlo by putting flowers in its hair and giving it a colorful dress,” she told the Telegraph. “It doesn’t have a real Mexican costume. It doesn’t have a unibrow.” The family reportedly is not demanding money from Mattel but a redesign. As the family’s attorney said, “The doll should have to match what the artist really was.”
Salma Hayek, who played Kahlo in a film about her life that she also produced, disapproved of the entire notion of the artist as a Barbie doll. “#FridaKahlo never tried to be or look like anyone else,” she wrote on Instagram. “She celebrated her own uniqueness. How could they turn her into a Barbie.”
The move comes as Mattel struggles to maintain its relevance and financial viability — by altering Barbie’s brand to envelop feminism, the toy company is hoping to utilize feminist visuals. You can now own a hijabi Barbie and a President Barbie. But the Barbie body is a simplified, smooth, mostly pale ideal of femininity. That does not automatically translate into feminism, and it certainly doesn’t square with Kahlo’s ideas about the body.
Kahlo subverted ideas about the female nude and womanhood. Her radical representations of bodies, as Tina Kinsella described it in her essay “Colonising Kahlo,” “strip away the comfort of the feminine sphere” and are “subversive, uncontained, dynamic and visceral … unregulated-broken, mutilated, bleeding, and leaking.” Her facial hair — both in real life and depicted in her self-portraiture — was intentionally political. The effects of Mattel’s Barbie on body image have been studied and documented. Even the newer “Curvy Barbie” has a disproportionately tiny waist. Kahlo’s artistic interventions against the dominant ideal of femininity and her depictions of bodily pain are diametrically opposed to the depictions of femininity peddled by Mattel.
Artists are often resurrected after their death, even sometimes against their will — as we saw with the NFL hologram debacle regarding Prince’s image. Droit moral, a French term for “moral rights,” are the personal rights a creator has to their work and image. Kahlo is not here to speak to what she wanted — she died before Barbie was even created — and she did not leave such instructions.
Kahlo’s popularity in visual culture has been on the rise for a few decades, riding feminist waves, and she is apparently “having a moment.” Kahlo appeared several times in Pixar’s “Coco” last year. San Francisco, where Kahlo and Diego Rivera remarried, is naming a street, once named after an anti-immigrant mayor, in her honor. A Harvard professor commissioned her students to go out into the world and find Frida Kahlo to catalogue her image’s proliferation. She has had her face slapped on so many objects alien to her real-life persona — including a U.S. postal stamp.
The Frida Kahlo brand comes at a cost. British Prime Minister Theresa May recently sported a Frida bracelet, perhaps to telegraph her feminism. “The popular perception of Kahlo is so distant from who she was as a political person, as a member of the avant-garde,” Latin American scholar Adriana Zavala said to Artsy, in reference to May’s co-optation of the image while her party politics are against the welfare state. Kahlo “has been hollowed out to serve as a proxy for whatever cause might benefit from slapping her face on it,” JP Brammer writes for Into. For Mattel, Kahlo is a “convenient way to satisfy the need for Latinx representation in a line of toys.”
Shortly before her death in 1954, Kahlo painted “Marxism Will Give Health to the Ill,” a vision of herself standing up without her crutches, bolstered by hands extending from Karl Marx. A third hand chokes an Uncle Sam figure. She thought that Americans were boring, lacking in sensibility and good taste, and that they all had faces “like unbaked rolls.” She was a fervent communist. In our devouring of Kahlo, we forget that she never wanted to be devoured, to be sold in this way, even if she happened to create self-portraits that lent themselves to convenient branding.
Kahlo’s position as a brand has not undermined her high-culture value: Her paintings sell for millions. Her cachet endures and evolves. Kahlo’s celebrity introduces new audiences to her work every day, and if she were to know her sheer influence on visual culture, she might have liked it. But if an exchange of money for a plastic doll must happen for this “democratization” of culture, color me skeptical. Kahlo can’t be divorced from her pain or her politics. Even if Mattel has the law on its side, it doesn’t mean the company is right — and we do not need to participate in the name of watered-down feminism. We can choose which Frida to honor.
Aditi Natasha Kini is an essayist and multimedia artist based in Brooklyn.