Her portrait adorns socks, purses, T-shirts, jewelry and even a distasteful tequila line. Now, the latest tarnish on the legacy of Frida Kahlo comes in the form of a Barbie doll.
Last week, Mattel released the controversial new doll bearing the late artist’s name and likeness as part of their “Inspiring Women” collection. Setting aside the claims from Kahlo’s family that the corporation doesn’t have the rights to use her image, the Frida doll does not represent the woman Kahlo was or the values she held.
Kahlo is an inspiration but it’s difficult to believe that Mattel truly has an interest in empowering young girls given their long history of belittling them. It is expected that the Frida doll has the typical extremely unrealistic body proportions of a Barbie. But, Mattel went even further in changing Kahlo’s appearance by minimizing her iconic unibrow and completely omitting her upper lip hair.
Kahlo’s embrace of her natural facial hair is emblematic of her defiance against the status quo. Her independent spirit and unwillingness to relent to the oppressive standards of others are central tenets of how she lived her life. This subversion of western beauty ideals that she embodied also explains why so many women have been inspired by her.
As actress Salma Hayek, who portrayed Kahlo in the Academy Award-nominated biopic “Frida,” stated in an Instagram post, “Frida Kahlo never tried to be or look like anyone else. She celebrated her uniqueness. How could they turn her into a Barbie?”
Mattel altered her image to make it more palatable for the masses, something Kahlo never would have done. In doing so, they’ve both sent a message out that there was something wrong with how she naturally looked and also effectively ignored one of the reasons Kahlo is worthy of being included in groups of “Inspiring Women” in the first place. A Barbie with her true appearance may have inspired young girls to be unapologetically themselves as she was. Instead, Mattel’s weak attempts at feminism still encourage them to comply with outdated and unreasonable physical standards.
The Frida Barbie also further commodifies Kahlo’s legacy and reduces her to a cheap trend. In a sea of material goods profiting off of her image, few are aware that Kahlo was a member of the Mexican Communist Party and fervently against consumerism. Attempts to honor her through sold merchandise contradict the beliefs she held.
She was a proud Mexican woman who detested colonialism and wasn’t very fond of American culture and how it’s dominated by capitalism. She was even quoted as saying, “I don’t like the gringos at all,” after a visit to San Francisco. Mattel, an American company whose corporate leadership consists entirely of white people, has joined the succession of companies exploiting her image with little acknowledgment of her convictions.
Yes, her image is striking and beautiful but beyond Kahlo’s portraits lies a complex, intelligent, strong woman. Reducing her to only a face ignores the deeper meanings in her artwork. The popularity of her image has risen greatly but attempts to truly understand what she stood for have stagnated. Her legacy should be built upon more than existing as a trend for consumers. She deserves far more than to be commodified by the very capitalist institutions she scorned.