Frida Kahlo, from Communist Icon to Consumerist Brand - How Did We Get Here? 🎨✨
a deep-dive into feminism, Fridamania & capitalism - welcome to 'The Slush Pile'!
Every few years, less often than I’d like, I’ll travel down to Mexico to visit my extended family in Cuautla for fun and catching up, and inevitably request a pit stop visit to La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s historic blue house in Coyoacán just a short drive away. One of the most iconic and influential Mexican artists of the 20th century, Frida captivated a young Sofía’s attention with only her signature singular eyebrow, colorful dresses, and bright flowers braided into her hair, which is the way I think most people see her.
But the more I learn about Frida—her physical disabilities, her bisexuality, her radical activism, the stories behind her most famous pieces, her whole life outside of loving husband and fellow painter Diego Rivera— the more I grow in admiration for this woman I’ve always wanted to know.
Certainly, she wasn’t perfect. Her signature look, which incorporated Indigenous dress designs from the Tehuana people and celebrated her cross-cultural roots, nevertheless played into the accepted but harmful and mythologized view of Indigenous communities across Mexico, who were forced to assimilate and not given the same liberties to honor their heritage. Her mestiza identity, proximity to whiteness, and nationalist overtones in her work are not to be overlooked lightly and leave behind a complicated legacy for us all.
And yet there’s something off about the way Frida’s been remembered since her death in 1954. Despite the fact that she was very publically anti-capitalist, held socialist views, and supported communist and anti-fascist movements during her life, I can’t visit her own house without being shepherded to the gift shop, where every product is emblazoned with her likeness and is a more popular attraction than the museum (which in itself is a capitalist enterprise).
Tourist traps, bookshops, and clothing stores both here and in Mexico have whole displays dedicated to marketing and selling this sanitized, superficial, corporate, consumerist-friendly version of her image. She’s become such a widespread commodity, in fact, that the craze to purchase anything made in her likeness is now known as “Fridamania.”
From my recent visit to Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, CA.
And it doesn’t stop at brick-and-mortar institutions, either. Search “Frida Kahlo merch” on Amazon, Etsy, Google, and you’ll find millions of results: clothing, puzzles, jewelry, posters, stickers, mirrors, religious candles, flower crowns, cardboard book biographies about her life, cheap replications of her paintings. You can even buy a Barbie doll dressed in Frida’s Tehuana dress, shawl, and flowers—but without her darker eyes, bold unibrow, mustache, and larger hips.
Not to mention that her pieces are heavily coveted and priced in the art world. Last month, the last self-portrait she painted before her death ‘Diego y Yo’ sold for $34.9 million at an auction in New York, becoming the most expensive work by a Latin American artist in history.
But who benefits from these exploitations of Frida’s image? Since 2005, it’s largely been a tug of war between the Mexican government, The Frida Kahlo Corporation, Frida’s niece Isolda Pinedo Kahlo, and Isolda’s daughter Mara de Anda Romeo. While it would be best to keep the profits within Frida’s family, the demanding, fast-paced nature of consumerism (which worsened after the invention of the Internet) makes Frida’s likeness and where it’s being sold impossible to control. Everyone wants to cash in on an image that is easily identifiable but disrespectful to the woman they’re exploiting.
Plus, have you ever noticed that her skin tone always changes? When it ranges from pale to the stereotypical mestize brown all within a single display, it’s obvious that as iconic as she is, no one can agree on what she really looks like. It no doubt has a lot to do with colorism, who she’s being marketed to, and what kind of message the seller wants to send. Yet I don’t think there will ever be a time when Frida’s face, regardless of its color, doesn’t sell.
I don’t say this to call out anyone who’s bought into these practices. But I do think it’s a larger indication of the public’s need to make dead icons and political movements their brand, and capitalism’s natural tendency to profit off that demand.
In Frida’s case, not only is she being made into a marketing tactic towards the Latinx community, the LGBTQIA+ community, and art fanatics but she’s also become the face of capitalism’s version of feminism, which turned the historical, radical movement for equal rights into a marketable, consumer-friendly brand you can print on a t-shirt.
Believe me, I’m the first to celebrate and uplift powerful women. But seeing Frida sandwiched between a “Girls Can Do Anything” mug and a 20-piece set of “Little Feminists” magnets isn’t the empowering statement corporations think it is, nor is buying it the radical action consumers believe it to be. We know it’s all to turn a movement into a trend and make a profit from (most likely) unethically-made products - so why are we still so willing to let ourselves be bought?
Obviously, this is a problem much larger than Frida Kahlo and even more than feminism. What about the time the Jenners sold shirts with their faces superimposed over deceased rock and rap icons? Or all the recent discourse over the commercialization of the Black Lives Matter movement? Who profits from these exchanges and ventures? How does it really benefit anyone, aside from financially?
Personally, I just can’t help but wonder what Frida would think if she knew her image was being reproduced and exploited by a system and its practices, both of which she fought against her whole life. There’s something to be said for finding empowerment and community through what we purchase and advertise AND for trivializing and exploiting those images. I think all of us, myself included, are still struggling to understand the difference.
notes from the writer’s desk ✍️
my favorite pub’d pieces from this month:
Thanks to Broadway, Stephen Sondheim's Legacy Will Outlive Us All, Unpublished Magazine
I was featured in this USAToday article written by fellow WriteGirl alum Pamela Avila about Amanda Gorman’s just-released poetry collection, Call Us What We Carry
BONUS! I just released my DEBUT mini poetry chapbook STREAMING SERVICE: golden shovels made for tv, complete with 10 poems and a themed Spotify playlist with every purchase. Order your copy (digital and/or physical) here!
other stories i’m loving 📖
Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman
S4 of “Bob’s Burgers” on Hulu
currently listening to:
My “Your Top Songs 2021” Spotify playlist
West Side Story (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), 2021
Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves, 2018