Kahlo Kapitalism

In recent years it has become trendy to be “woke”, and don’t think companies haven’t noticed. This has led to a visible increase in social awareness being used as a marketing tool: Skittles doing a Pride campaign, Starbucks’ racial bias training, “Girl Power” t-shirts being sold at retailers known to use sweatshops. A recognisable mascot of this new wave of commodified feminism is 20thcentury revolutionary artist Frida Kahlo. Whilst paying homage to the painter and cultural icon doesn’t pose a problem in itself, her principles and message may be challenged in the process.

Frida was a communist and anti-imperialist who did not half-ass her beliefs. There isn’t much room for interpretation about whether she’d approve of her face being slapped onto an Urban Outfitters or Forever 21 t-shirt. I mean… this is the woman who had an affair with Trotsky. The woman whose last painting before she died was a self-portrait with Stalin. The woman who adorned one of her medical corsets with a hammer and sickle. Among this and countless Marxist or Communist motifs in her artwork, it’s clear that if she could see how her legendary status and revolutionary spirit has been commodified, she’d be seething mad. 

Aside from the dissonance between her political beliefs and her face being used for profit, there is also the issue of her being “watered down” in the commodification process. For an example let us turn to the Frida Barbie doll controversy of last year. It is a poor tribute to the artist because (apart from the fact that it costs £36 and was released by Mattel, a billion-dollar company) it subscribes to the Euro-centric beauty standards which she so adamantly tried to dismantle. The doll’s face is devoid of Frida’s characteristic upper lip hair and thick unibrow, which she not only refused to pluck but even accentuated with an eyebrow pencil in the shade “Ebony”. 

What’s more, the doll’s skin tone does not stray very many (if any) shades from the original Barbie doll, not doing much to stay true to the indigenous Mexican heritage she was so proud of. I do acknowledge the sentiment in shaping the minds of the new generation with role models of more “substance”, but in that case it should at least be done properly. Kahlo would have particularly resented this form of white-washing since she was known to have disliked white people (“gringos”), in particular white Americans. She dubbed the USA Gringolandia and notably said, “I don’t like gringos at all. They’re very boring, and they’ve all got faces like unbaked rolls.”

Of course, I wouldn’t have expected the Frida Barbie doll to showcase her physical ailments, but the fact remains that in our sphere of cultural consciousness, her struggles with disability are often ignored. Aged 18, Kahlo was in a tram accident which forever hindered her mobility and left her with a lifetime of chronic pain, drug dependence and countless surgeries. Despite how heavily her explorations of identity, sexuality and disability featured in her artwork, many people think that the most radical thing about her was her unibrow. 

Sure, she was a feminist, but she was also a communist with a capital C, and she’d either be nauseous or extremely amused at Conservative PM Theresa May donning a bracelet with her face on it in the name of “GIRL POWER!” The irony is lost on Theresa that austerity has led to worse living standards in the UK for disabled people, ethnic minorities and women, something which Frida would spit at. This demonstrates exactly why it’s so distasteful to support the superficial, sanitised version of Frida: reducing her to a feminist, unshaven style icon makes her more palatable to the masses but buries the causes and people she originally stood for. That is, people of colour, the LGBT community and those with disabilities. Picking out the parts of her persona that make us feel radical and empowered whilst tossing to the side the aspects that make us more uncomfortable (such as her hatred of imperialism, capitalism and white people) censors her in a way which she refused to censor herself whilst she was alive, undermining the very reason why she is such an icon now. 

However, part of me believes that although she would have been horrified at her face being used to funnel dollars into the pockets of CEOs, she might have had a soft spot for the Frida Kahlo accessories. Now, I don’t suggest that you go buy Frida merchandise from a billion-dollar company, but handmade jewellery featuring the famous painter’s face would honour her in a way I believe she’d appreciate. She herself had a penchant for fashion and jewellery. Don’t get me wrong, she detested trends, but her self-expression extended from her paintings to her attire. Even if she had nowhere in particular to go, she would dress up as if the bright fabrics and shiny jewellery were an extension of herself. In fact they sort of were, since she was known to dress in materials and silhouettes which showcased indigenous Mexico, with native jewellery that harkened to a time of pre-Columbian America. When French fashion was en vogue in her country, she dressed in traditional Enagua skirts, Huipil blouses, Tehuana dresses, Rebozo scarves. 

Not only was her dress sense an exhibition of national pride and a political statement in post-revolutionary Mexico, it was also a sort of armour. It reflected her troubled relationship with her body: as a result of polio aged 6 her left leg was thinner and shorter than her right, which was concealed by the long, floaty skirts she is famous for. The tram accident, too, had an effect on her dress, since thereafter she had to wear steel corsets or full-torso casts to support her spine. She embraced this by painting on many of the medical devices, mixing functionality with aesthetic appeal. Her dress sense demonstrates a deep understanding of the power of image and choreography of one’s appearance. So, yes, she was a style icon, but her accolades do not stop there.

Written by Anastasia Vartanian


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