The Mancunion

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Frida Kahlo and the rebel commodity

Does consumer capitalism and modern feminism appropriate its icons wrongly? Madeleine Jones casts a critical eye over the use of Frida Kahlo merely as a fashionable image

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“I’m an unconditional ally of the Communist Revolutionary Movement.” These were words that Frida Kahlo wrote in her diary in 1952.

This is the same Frida Kahlo whose face and art is being used on blogs, magazine covers, social media, and all kinds of products by people—mostly Western women and girls—admiring her for being ‘cool’ and a ‘feminist icon’. This, however, is all taking place while the same people are largely unaware of her political beliefs, and ultimately falling into huge hypocrisy.

The fact of the matter is that she was indeed a communist, and this was integral to her life, art, and actions. Today, it is unlikely that she would approve of her image being romanticised, exoticised, commercialised, and marketed. Items like notebooks, badges, pillow cases, mugs, jewellery, bags, phone cases, T-shirts, purses, and other commodities with her face on are sold in their masses. Buying these would simply be an act of blind capitalism and giving money to the kinds of people Kahlo would have considered to be her enemies.

During her life, she dictated her birth date as 10th of July 1910, the day the Mexican Revolution began, despite being born on 7th July 1907. She wanted her birth and life to be indelibly bound to the revolution she felt so strongly for—she referred to said revolution as “the one true thing to live for.” She attended rallies—though not as many as she wanted to, due to injuries from a bus crash aged 18—to overthrow Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship, and later for the Communist Movement.

According to her diary entries, Frida herself was very interested in the idea of world revolution, and stood in alliance to other struggles in Russia, China, India, Poland and Czechoslovakia. She also wrote that “Mexicans and negroes are subjugated for now by capitalist countries, above all North America,” clearly establishing her anti-colonialist position. She also produced a considerable amount of art related to her political beliefs. It is no coincidence that the paintings of hers that circulate the internet, and, on products, are self-portraits that look typically aesthetically pleasing. Instances that, rarely, have anything overtly political visible.

White, middle-class feminists will talk about how inspirational she was and is because she didn’t remove her facial hair, was the founder of the ‘selfie’, and had such a difficult life. They will also hasten to add that she was a feminist, so of course we can blog about how amazing her aesthetic is and buy products with her face on without much acknowledgement of what her political ideology was.

What I find particularly frustrating is white feminists praising her for her dark facial hair and thinking that it’s aesthetically cool because it is so far removed from what they possess. For women with darker hair and for non-white women, it is often a different story when it comes to body hair, due to white, Eurocentric standards of beauty. It is very easy for white feminists to romanticise something that they have never experienced.

White, middle-class feminism is not feminism—it is not about holistic equality. It is about self-indulgent, middle-class, colonialist capitalism. The selling, superficial praise, and misrepresented iconography of Frida Kahlo in the West epitomises all of this. It is an act of consumer capitalism, not feminism, to take a subversive figure, de-politicise them, and turn them into profit-making commodities for a market that will swallow up anything presented as edgy or radical.

Frida’s political beliefs were a huge part of her life and what she did, so appreciating her art means recognising her politics—they go hand in hand. Sure, her position as a feminist of her time and place is important, but there’s more to her definition of equality than many middle-class white leftists probably think about. She is not simply a cult figure representing soul-searching female identity. She possibly wouldn’t even have spent as much time on her aesthetic if she was able to manoeuvre herself more than her injuries allowed her to.

If you consider yourself a fan, supporter, even a comrade of Frida Kahlo, then don’t buy products with her face on, and don’t put images of her online if you are simply presenting how cool and fashionable she was.

She is, of course, not the only one. I could have written an article just like this on other revolutionaries, too. We have all seen T-shirts with Che Guevara’s face on. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. has been commodified for a wholesale market. There are dolls of him sold to children, which audio-play a recorded part of his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. This might not sound so bad. The issue is that Western powers focus on that speech so as to portray it in a way that fails to acknowledge the power structures and colonialist history of institutional racism that prefigure Luther King Jr. stepping up to the podium to speak.

Any revolutionaries with profitable potential are picked up, especially ones who are not Western or are not white, since it’s easier to use their ‘otherness’ as a selling point. Anything they did or said, that encourages people to think critically, is stripped of its significance and turned into a fashionable item.

The message I want to put across is to think about what you’re buying. What is it? How was it made? What does it mean? Economic power is everything; now, put your money where your mouth is.