White Feminists Are Depoliticizing Frida Kahlo, And It's a Disservice To Her Legacy.
For at least the past three decades, Frida Kahlo altered the cultural fabric of America.
Her embrace of indigenous Mexican aesthetics, defiance of patriarchal gender norms, and uncompromising autonomy resonates with activists, artists, fashionistas, students, and most notably — young white feminists. Instead of such public worship, Frida Kahlo became more than
a painter — she transfigured into an icon. Upper-middle class white feminists, fed up with patriarchy within their class, latched to Frida as a symbol of their rebellion. These privileged
white women who cling to Kahlo's work, to the point of suffocation, are precisely the demographic she was most critical of. Such suffocation of Frida blatantly ignores the radical political and social context
of her life and work and disregards the very complexities that made the artist's work so impactful.
Black feminist bell hooks, in a conversation with Mexican artist and curator Amalia-Mesa Bains in Homegrown, once confessed her deep suspicion of white feminist's attachment to Frida. "I don't know about you, but initially, I was not excited when everybody was getting on the Frida Kahlo bandwagon. I felt that my mentor figure, who'd inspired me tremendously, was now ‘open to the public.' And I'd ‘earned' my relationship to Frida Kahlo; I had studied her life and work. But I encounter many dewy-eyed, young white feminists who worship her but don't have any interest in that kind of work; they're not interested in paying homage to her because they don't understand her value." Bains agreed, adding,
"The white world engages in an embrace, but it's like the ‘embrace of death.'"
When white women write or celebrate Frida, rarely is it in regards to her thick, radically crafted political and social ideologies. After the Mexican artist ventured to the United States and Europe, her travels prompted her harsh critiques of the exploitation of capitalism and tragedy of white supremacy. "I don't like the gringos at all. They're very boring, and they've all got faces like unbaked rolls." Frida certainly made no secret of her fervent dedication to leftist intellectualism, as she frequently studied Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, and Karl Marx, framing their pictures on her bedroom walls. She also refused to let disability or sickness alter her commitment to activism, as she participated in a demonstration against the United States invasion of Honduras eleven days before her passing. Her insistence on her July 6th birth certificate is changed to July 7th, the official date of the Mexican Revolution, demonstrated the depth of her revolutionary politic. So why is it that the unapologetically anti-American and anti-capitalist revolutionary depth of her artistry is routinely glossed over by young white feminists?
"They're not interested
in paying homage to
her because they don't understand her value."
White feminists frequently fetishize Frida to the point of erasing vital aspects of the Mexican artist's life work. In refusing to see the richness of all aspects of her life, they subjugate her radical artistry through a colonial gaze. "Within cultural imperialism, unaware white folks learn that they don't have to study Frida Kahlo to ‘claim' her. Through the trope of cultural imperialism, they can impose intimacy," hooks continues. "But it is the familiarity of the colonizer, where you can push yourself close through violation. It's an aggressive desire, rooted in envy. Many people are laying claim to these women of color, who occupy complex personalities and simplifying them. They are claiming them in ways which deny
Without a proper understanding of Frida's life passions, the context of her art cannot be respected. White feminists articulate her as a tragic and exotic figure in which her work can quickly be packaged and emotionally relatable to them. Kahlo's paintings, as stated by Canadian art professor, Janice Helland, was "bloody, brutal, and overtly political." The colonial gaze perpetuated by white women denies Frida's work of having any further depth, except to satisfy their own emotional needs and limited understandings of her as a Mexican artist. It is necessary for white women who claim to love Frida Kahlo to understand how their whiteness affords them access to political, social, and economic power in American and European society. They must actively investigate their relationship with whiteness regarding gender, capitalism, and colonial violence. Most importantly, they must examine their relationships with women of color and their tendency to project their desires onto our bodies without understanding who we are as an artist, political, and social beings.
Frida's legacy desires more than superficial fetishization. It requires revolutionary consciousness willing to destroy the colonial gaze that keeps her in service of white women's desires.