A new line of Barbies released this week to honor International Women’s Day was meant to recast popular images of female role models.
But one of those newly unveiled dolls — that of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo — has kick-started a dispute over who gets to use her image in the first place.
In interviews with Mexican media outlets, as well as the BBC, Kahlo’s great-grandniece insists she is the sole owner of the rights to Kahlo’s image. That contradicts the stance of the Florida-based Frida Kahlo Corp., which says it bought the rights to Kahlo’s image from another relative 13 years ago. The corporation worked on the new doll with Mattel, whose brands include Barbie, Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price.
“We’re talking about a woman that was so ahead of her time and transcended the generations, and we will do anything to bring that message to the world,” said Beatriz Alvarado, a spokeswoman for the Frida Kahlo Corp. “The collaboration with Barbie was in that sense.”
A family statement given to the BBC said that Kahlo’s great-grandniece, Mara de Anda Romeo, was the “sole owner of the rights of the image.” The family has also called for a more authentic redesign of the doll.
In a pivot away from Barbie’s iconic, bleach-blond roots, the company has marketed new dolls under the hashtag #MoreRoleModels, including those modeled after film director Ava DuVernay and ballerina Misty Copeland. While many embraced the nod to a Latina painter who often explored issues of race and gender in her work, others questioned what Kahlo — a communist and feminist — would have thought about being immortalized in Barbie plastic.
Alvarado said the Frida Kahlo Corp. bought the rights to Kahlo’s image from Kahlo’s niece, Isolda Pinedo Kahlo, in 2005, and that other family members had long been aware of the deal. Alvarado declined to comment on how much the deal cost the corporation, which licenses rights to products including tequila and Converse shoes to educate the public on Kahlo’s story.
Dressed in a billowing blue, red and black dress with a fringe shawl and floral headpiece, the Frida Kahlo Barbie sells for $29.99. But Kahlo’s signature facial hair, critics quickly noted, was missing from her stick-thin incarnation.
“The Frida Kahlo Barbie doesn’t have a unibrow and in a shocking turn of events Barbie wants to add feminism to its brand while still aggressively adhering to western beauty standards,” wrote one Twitter user.
“I can’t help but feel that it would’ve been even more impactful to see the artist depicted in a way that was more true to herself — not to mention her own self-portraits,” wrote an editor at Teen Vogue.
In a statement, Mattel said the company worked in close partnership with, and secured permission from, the Frida Kahlo Corp. to create the doll.
The Frida Kahlo Barbie went on sale along with two other historical doll figures: Katherine Johnson, a pioneering African American mathematician whose calculations for NASA helped drive the first American-manned venture into space; and Amelia Earhart, the first female aviator to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.
Other Barbies unveiled this week and modeled off modeled off contemporary female figures are one-of-a-kind and not available for purchase. They include Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim, Australian conservationist Bindi Irwin and American filmmaker Patty Jenkins. A champion windsurfer, a chef and a journalist also joined the roster of new dolls.
The doll “is a very important reminder than I can be anything I want to be, that I can be my own muse,” Alvarado said.
Whether the actual Frida Kahlo would have found her muse in Barbie form will never be known. She died five years before the first Barbie appeared on shelves in 1959.
That Barbie didn’t have facial hair, either.