You might know Frida Kahlo as the Mexican artist who was groundbreaking for her surrealist work, her openness around taboo topics like disability, stillbirth, female autonomy, and bisexuality, her socialist politics, her traditional dress sense, or just for her frankly beautiful paintings. But let’s be honest, this is 2017, and you probably know Frida, or 2017’s version of Frida at least, for her eyebrows, and for being the new synonym for wokeness for white girls.
A 17-year old Frida Kahlo poses for a family photo wearing a traditional gentleman’s 3-piece suit, 1924 pic.twitter.com/CqYNbnWF1W
— History Lovers Club (@historylvrsclub) October 6, 2017
Somewhere over the past 63 years, Frida Kahlo’s reputation has become murky. She’s no longer seen as an artist – or even best known for that (admittedly iconic) Salma Hayek 2002 biopic – she’s a face on a nail-polish, she’s a last minute Halloween costume, she’s a way to *look* cultured and sophisticated and interested, without knowing anything about her. She’s a pop culture pawn.
Nowhere better was this summed up than last Wednesday at the UK’s Conservative Party Conference. When Tory Prime Minster Theresa May took to the stage for her laughably bad closing speech, she was wearing a Frida Kahlo bracelet around her wrist. If she was using it as a talisman, it was an odd one. Theresa May who voted against the lowering of the age of consent for LGBT people, whose position of cutting welfare payments have directly impacted disabled people. She is, in short, nothing like Frida Kahlo, but the choice to wear a bracelet with her face on it was a calculated – albeit dumb – one. She was trying to look woke, to look cultured, to look cool, and Frida Kahlo is, after all, nothing more than a template for those things, unfortunately.
Can I just point out that Theresa May is wearing a bracelet of Frida Kahlo, a member of the Communist party who LITERALLY DATED TROTSKY pic.twitter.com/CR13geaO7n
— Hannah Jane Parkinson (@ladyhaja) October 4, 2017
— Ash Sarkar (@AyoCaesar) October 4, 2017
But “Fridamania”, as it was termed all the way back in 2014 by the New York Times, is not a new phenomena. An article published in the same year talked about how her transformation from Mexican artist to cult figure and popular saint is seen by some to have cheapened her iconic work, that some people cringed while speaking to rabid so-called Frida fans, that her uber relevance had sadly become transformed into tacky collectibles, so called “Fridabilia”.
Thanks to an influx of tribute tattoos, she probably appears on the flash tatts wall of half your local shops. She was immortalised in a halloween costume by Beyonce, and her style of clothes, hair and make-up became, like sugar skull face paint, a way for white girls to slide into (and appropriate) Mexicana culture. She’s become a Tumblr-ready face, or worse, a Snapchat filter.
Remember when the snapchat Frida Kahlo's filter made Frida Kahlo's look paler lol
— ?Eme?Flores? (@devoted_pupa) April 26, 2017
It makes sense that more and more women are idolising Frida – her before her time independence and progressive views are easy to identify with and her reputation as a figure to look up to, particularly as a woman of colour, is deserved and important. It’s the Fridabilia, the listicles trying to sell you handbags, phones, make-up bags, leggings, pillows, t-shirts, fake-nails, aprons and even light switch covers with her instantly recognisable face on – without even a hint of irony – that’s the weird part. Buy Frida! Look cultured! Look Woke! It seems to say.
Frida Kahlo, who was a staunch communist, has been so whitewashed that the UK's right-wing PM wore a bracelet of her.
This is the real Frida pic.twitter.com/PJfeax4j0O
— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) October 5, 2017
Elise Bell, an Art History student and co-creator of Tabloid Art History, a genius Twitter account which compares high art masterpieces to pop culture, well, masterpieces, agrees with me that Frida has become a sad mascot for the trope of the ‘basic white girl’. She told me: “I myself have an uneasy relationship with Frida Kahlo and how she’s become embedded in pop culture.
“She’s been commodified, turned into an icon and a marketable icon at that, which negates her core beliefs and artistic practice. I mean she was a disabled, queer communist – I doubt that Theresa May or white girls who dress up as her for parties truly understand how radical that was at the time and also how difficult her life was
For Elise, Fridamania and Fridabilia are prime examples of how female artists are commodified and undermined. “Her artwork deserves just as much attention as her fucking brows (which are great)”, she says. “And yet that’s completely disregarded.”
Look, none of this is to say that Frida Kahlo can’t be your favourite artist. It’s not even saying that you can’t call yourself a “basic white girl du jour” with pride – after all, the “basic bitch” tag is one that’s often imbued with casual misogyny. But it is saying, I guess, that if you do want to class yourself as a basic white girl Frida Kahlo fan, then do it with some responsibility. Love her work, buy her trinkets, but accept that Frida herself would have fucking hated it.
Frida – who was literally a Communist – probably wouldn’t appreciate the dollar being used to commodify her image and work. Frida Kahlo doe not want to be a Barbie doll. And she probably wouldn’t appreciate you flaunting her image, at Halloween, during Dia De Los Muertos, or any other time of the year, as a signifier for being woke or cultured.