The Existential Horror of Frida Kahlo Barbie

PHOTO COURTESY | WIKI COMMONS
Frida Kahlo’s recent appearance as a Barbie doll has people upset over what Mattel left out.

In 1954, famed Mexican artist and intellectual Frida Kahlo created one of her final masterpieces entitled “Marxism Will Give Health to The Sick,” which features a pair of crutches, a back brace and herself, shirtless and glorious in the loving arms of Karl Marx, holding a red book and strangling Uncle Sam. Later that year, after a lifetime dedicated to political activism and challenging Western beauty ideals through her art, she died in what was likely a suicide and was buried in a Communist flag. Sixty years later, Mattel has made her the new face of Barbie.

The doll comes as part of a series of Barbies modeled after female historical figures, Mattel’s Inspiring Women collection. The dolls, which feature the likenesses of legendary aviator Amelia Earhart, mathematician Katherine Johnson and Kahlo, were released together to coincide with National Women’s Day. However, rather than being hailed as the feminist publicity stunt Mattel likely wanted, the Frida doll, in particular, has drawn criticism from fans, historians, activists and the family of Frida Kahlo herself. As a lifelong fan of Frida Kahlo’s work, I was both disappointed and intrigued. I really wanted to like the Frida doll, and I wanted to feel good about the fact that little girls would have somebody badass like her to add to their collection. However, we can’t have nice things.

Common complaints cite the fact that the doll doesn’t look like her and features none of her visible disabilities and iconic heavy monobrow and facial hair. Additionally, there are ideological concerns with whether or not Frida herself would have wanted this, which seem strange at first — why wouldn’t anyone want to be a cool feminist role model for young girls? But upon further examination, the tone deafness and ideological disconnect involved in Mattel’s decision are glaringly obvious.

With a little web searching, it becomes clear that while some may not see the doll as a major social issue, what Mattel did was at least distasteful and possibly illegal. Before getting into the many ethical and political disconnects between the late Kahlo and corporate giants like Mattel, we should establish the most important thing, which is that Mattel never consulted with Frida’s family about the doll, despite the fact her estate is still very much up and running and her living niece, Mara de Anda Romeo, owns the rights to her likeness. Rather, the toy giant claims to have consulted with Frida Kahlo Corp, which owns the rights to her name as a brand. It is unclear who profits from the sales, but her family has been locked in a legal battle with the company for years to buy back their ancestor’s name, which frankly has a certain degree of Black Mirror-esque dystopian horror to it.

The family states that had Mattel consulted with them, they would have rejected the design as the doll’s features appear whitewashed and her clothing is not an accurate representation of the elaborate Indigenous Mexican clothing championed by Frida. Romeo said, “I would have liked the doll to have traits more like Frida’s, not this doll with light-colored eyes.” With this, we can conjecture that Frida, an avid critic of colonialism who championed her dark features and cultural heritage in hundreds of self-portraits, likely would have been unhappy as well.

Perhaps the doll’s biggest failure of all is its total erasure of Frida’s numerous physical disabilities. She was stricken by polio as a child and resultantly had several surgical scars, a stunted leg and spina bifida that caused her health troubles until her death in 1954. Additionally, she was injured in a railway accident as a teenager that left her unable to work and resultantly made use of a back brace, crutches and a wheelchair throughout her life. Yet somehow, Barbie Frida has a perfect figure, stands entirely upright and her wheelchair and brace are mysteriously absent. While all of these were devastating for the real Frida, they are essential to understanding her life and her art and I feel that Mattel missed out on a great opportunity for representation here.

Next, we are drawn to more ideologically based concerns. Would Frida, a lifelong member of the Communist party who deliberately challenged Western beauty ideals and societal norms in her work, want to be the face of a solidly corporate beauty icon like Barbie? Of course not. This poor Barbie has some existential problems. We are left to ask ourselves, how did this happen? Why do we continually make this poor woman roll in her grave? I feel the answer has been long in the making. Frida’s likeness is everywhere — coffee mugs, tote bags, beer bottles, yoga pants and pretty much anything else you could think of, most of which are manufactured illegally and without her family’s consent. Her face has become almost as much of a meaningless symbol of general youthful revolt as that of Bob Marley or Che Guevara, which is sad because all of those people were so much more than that. After her death, the media even coined the term “Fridamania” to describe the sudden fervor around her life and work.

And I definitely get it — as a young art student, the thing that was so enchanting to me about Frida was a radical vulnerability in her life and work that made it immediately easy to latch on to and project oneself into her work. In an art history class filled with page after page of old men prattling about Functionalism versus Expressionism or what have you, the openness of Frida’s work, which unapologetically depicts aspects of her own life and those around her such as immigration, disability, suicide, marital infidelity and abortion is practically unparalleled among the canonical artistic masters.

Her tastefully hairy features and signature bright red lip stare straight at us, a welcome take on femininity amid pages of faceless sirens painted by old men. There is no convoluted symbolism here. In many of her portraits she is literally naked and bleeding before us, the contents of her body and mind sprawled around her like so many household trinkets.

But it is easy to use these stories to make her into a version of what we want her to be — Frida the Communist, Frida the bisexual, Frida the depressive, Frida the battered woman, when really she was none of these things and all of them at once. We manage to whitewash her and gloss over her radical left ideals and deep commitment to defining a post-revolutionary Mexican identity, and thereby can once again gloss over the deep history of radical leftism and identity politics that were integral to so many of the world’s great progressive thinkers. Like Bob Marley, John Lennon, Mahatma Gandhi and so many others, we have molded her into an easily digestible neoliberal fantasy of herself. This is especially tragic considering her work is so heartbreaking in its desire to be seen and understood — she doesn’t care if you accept her, but she wants to make damn sure that you see her in all of her bloody glory. Which Mattel has failed at.

We have turned her into Frida Kahlo, style icon and a Barbie doll. While a step in the right direction for the future of children’s toys, Mattel and society as a whole have failed Frida. We can fix it. As depicted in one of her most famous works, there are Two Fridas. And we picked the wrong one. Up until now, we have been in love with Frida the style icon and celebrity, but we now have the knowledge needed to learn about the inspiring, deeply nuanced and radical woman that she really was.

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