Frida Barbie and "Broken Column" by Frida Kahlo (1944)
Yesterday Mattel Corporation announced a new collection of Barbies to commemorate International Women's Day. The "Inspiring Women" include Frida Kahlo, Catherine Johnson, and Amelia Earhart. The new Barbies have garnered a lot of attention and Frida, in particular, has drawn both positive and negative reactions. Under the #FridaBarbie hashtag, tweets range from " *En serio, esta noticia me ha hecho EL DÍA!" [Seriously, this made MY DAY!] to "Me pregunto, ¿la #FridaBarbie viene con corsé y sin pierna?" [I ask myself, will #FridaBarbie come with a brace and without a leg?] Mattel [@Barbie] sent out tweets like this: "In honor of #InternationalWomensDay, we are committed to shining a light on empowering female role models past and present in an effort to inspire more girls." Meanwhile, the media heightened their hype by reporting "These incredible women who made history are being made into Barbie dolls" [Buzzfeed]; "@Barbie is launching 14 dolls in the likeness of modern-day role models and we are absolutely here for it!" [New York News] and "Chloe Kim and other female legends will be made into Barbie dolls."[Time] The Sheroes (contemporary, living women) who were also released yesterday, including Chloe Kim, Patty Jenkins, and Nicola Adams expressed pride that Barbie dolls had been issued to honor them.
If women like Kim, Jenkins, and Adams feel honored, that's great. My concern is with Frida Barbie. Although some tweeters have exclaimed that Frida would be excited, I don't think so. And it is this appropriation and simplification that concerns me.
In the mid-1970s as an undergraduate student at UT Austin, I was thrilled when a Frida Kahlo exhibit came to campus. I visited it over and over because the images were so striking and intimate and personal. Her painting of experiencing a miscarriage in 1932 at the Henry Ford Hospital in Chicago drew me in as did the 1938-1939 "What the Water Gave Me." Although I was young-- perhaps 21-- I felt like I understood the suffering and loss she painted in "Henry Ford Hospital." My mama had experienced nine miscarriages between 1929-1952 and the painting connected me with her stories of loss and suffering. When I saw the image of Frida in the hospital bed, I thought of her. "What the Water Gave Me" reminded me of bath time when I was little but also of all the experiences a woman goes through in her life. The images that hold so much meaning floated in the water around her feet. That is the Frida whose art I fell in love with. I don't think she was much of an icon then... or at least I don't remember her image as the object of so much consumerism.
I have to confess that I have Frida earrings and bags and a kitschy little painting of her. I'm not above being a consumer of the iconic Frida. But the iconic Frida is separate from the artist Frida. I worry that her becoming a Barbie takes it to a whole new level. Or perhaps reduces her to a new low.
"Henry Ford Hospital" (1932) and "What the Water Gave Me" (1938-39) by Frida Kahlo.
As a girl, I loved Barbie and had several that my best friend Janet and I would play with. It was great fun playing "grownup" vicariously through my dolls. Frida has so much more to teach us than Barbie, however. She was original-- proudly wearing her unibrow (not highlighted in her Barbie persona) bigotito and wearing whatever suited her at the time. She painted herself in the most vulnerable of situations. She was also representative of so many women who suffered physical hardships, lost babies, and lived in tumultuous relationships. It is this combination of unique and collective that I want young girls to understand. We are complex human beings. We can suffer and keep going.
Barbie Frida is already selling for close to $100 on eBay. She sells for under $30 from Mattel. The official Barbie website proclaims (in all capitals), "WHEN A GIRL PLAYS WITH BARBIE SHE IMAGINES EVERYTHING SHE CAN BECOME." When I looked more closely, however, the Frida doll was labeled "For the adult collector." So maybe the hype about inspiring girls really is all hype. Maybe the Barbie Frida is just something else to add to our earring, bag, kitschy painting collection. I don't know. I just want us to remember her as a real woman and not just the commercialized shadow of a person she has become.