Commodifying Kahlo

A whitewashed, unibrow-less Frida hits toy stores

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Illustration by Ania Webb

Interested in purchasing Frida Kahlo? For almost $30, you can, along with 18 other historical and contemporary “inspiring women” who have fit into Mattel’s latest “Role Models” Barbie line.

Shortly after International Women’s Day on March 8, the multinational, $8.5 billion toy corporation released a doll version of the 20th-century Mexican painter famous for her Marxist leanings and representation of mixed-race and queer identity. Her cohort of “Inspiring Women”  includes the aviator Amelia Earhart, mathematician Katherine Johnson and fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.

Members of the Frida Kahlo Foundation expressed that Mattel did not obtain the rights to base a doll on her, while the latter expresses they did. Additionally, Kahlo’s grand-niece, who parted with the Frida Kahlo Corporation in 2001, is threatening to sue Mattel for copyright infringement, an accusation Mattel denies, saying they have the rights to her name and image.

Mattel’s move to develop Barbie beyond her Eurocentric origins and into ideological advancements is generally positive. However, marketing Kahlo’s radical, anti-capitalist values through Barbie is a looming hypocrisy. Not only does it dilute Kahlo’s substantial thinking, it appropriates Kahlo’s Mexican culture by reaping the benefits that in no way contribute to the principles that Kahlo’s art fights for.

Actress Salma Hayek, who played the artist in the 2002 film “Frida,” wrote on Instagram that “#fridakahlo never tried to look like anyone else. She celebrated her uniqueness. How could they turn her into a Barbie?”

Barbie has a blatantly oppressive history when it comes to female objectification and cultural misrepresentation in the mainstream. These include proportions 35 pounds underweight, a 1997 “Oreo” themed line for the racial pairing of Black and white dolls and a disabled Barbie whose wheelchair failed to enter the Barbie Dream House in 1997, raising body dysmorphic, racist and ableist ideals.

Kahlo’s painting career began while she was in a full body cast healing from a nearly fatal bus accident that caused her to be impaled through her pelvis, fracturing her spine and severely injuring her uterus. She used her vivid self portraits to express the levels of physical and psychological pain she endured, including surreal depictions of herself in the form of a deer and tree roots. She explored her tumultuous marriage with the muralist Diego Rivera and her inability to have children.

Amid the surrealism, she also proudly featured her unibrow and upper-lip hair, embracing her indigenous features. However, Mattel placed a unibrow-less, thin and white-washed Kahlo in the line’s “Role Models” series.

The website states that according to a 2018 online survey the company conducted in the U.S., “86 percent of moms surveyed are worried about the kind of role models their daughters are exposed to. That’s why Barbie continues to showcase examples of inspirational women.” Instead of creating sources of inspiration, Mattel commodified famous women’s achievements.

The concept of role modeling elicits inspiration as a performative cast. Trans actress and activist Laverne Cox suggested shifting the term to “possibility models” to draw influence from others without compromising personal identity. Kahlo as a possibility model is important, but to see her influence stripped by Mattel is going against her artistic and personal values. It is dangerous for children to learn about Kahlo’s femininity in the context of a misappropriated Barbie doll.

Shedding light on Mexican cultural influence and placing queer and Latinx representation into Barbie seems like positive representation during the U.S.’s current contentious border discourse. But Mattel is making Kahlo fit Barbie, not the other way around.

“Fridamania,” the trendy idolization and commodification of the Mexican painter, is nothing new. Her acrylic, flower or monkey adorned self-portraits are splashed on canvas totes and cotton t-shirts, and are the inspiration for haute couture fashion runways. Placing her into the body of a Barbie puts her problematic iconography on another level for how it destroys her anti-capitalist narrative.

Mattel is selling female inspiration while morphing their authentic bodies to tell a simplified understanding of her contributions, which is damaging to how our cultures understand historical attributions of women. Approximately 94,500,000 Barbies are sold every year. This pushes Kahlo’s call for independent forward thinking into a misunderstood facade under commercialized terms.

Toys are important elements of child development, and if presenting a model for future possibilities includes valuing a woman’s ideological contributions for a stick-thin Frida, then this discredits the actually “inspiring” contributions she has left behind. Children should not be raised with the idea that their culture, ideology, sexuality and beauty can be bought.

If Mattel is “committed to shining a light on empowering role models past and present in an effort to inspire more girls,” like their advertising campaign states, then it would be wise to at least represent the Inspirational Women’s Series dolls true to their authentic bodies.

As long as cultural representations continue to evolve under capitalist ideology, the principle inspiration for young women is devoting their lives to self-expression only to have it sold.

Amancai Biraben is a fourth-year studying literature. She wrote this column to discuss how artistic expression is dismantled through commercial structures