Feminist Hero Friday: Frida Kahlo

By Michelle Kiang 

We all know Frida, we all love Frida. Her art, her tenacity, her love, and her spirit have inspired me and many other young artists to trust our emotions wholly and completely in ways we are rarely encouraged to trust our emotional and vulnerable selves. 

Frida was an artist, an intellectual,  an icon, and as Elena Ruiz-Williams puts it in this nuanced and loving essay, an ancestor who was fiercely political, and therefore resistant of many systems of dominance… the ultimate disabled femme of color who didn’t give a fuck.”

Frida Kahlo’s image has become a feminist icon in a way that Frida, a known communist, would probably abhor if she were alive today. Her image is readily produced, marketed, sold, and consumed as social capital – side note, watch this video on buying “feminist stuff” - and in doing so she, the fierce artist, loses her complexity.

Part of this complexity, and part of recognizing an icon’s humanity, is recognizing the ways in which their actions may have been oppressive in their contexts. There are many threads online and posts by individuals on Frida Kahlo’s cultural appropriation of indigenous cultures, and the way her class, skin color, and family background gave her access and the ability to capitalize from the indigenous cultures and lifestyles that were not her own. Contextualizing our heroes just as flawed as they are inspiring is necessary for our own liberation and empowerment.

I am writing this FHF both to celebrate Frida Kahlo as an absolute force on the world and to begin conversations on humanizing our heroes.  Elena Ruiz-Williams writes:

“loving and honoring somebody, even an ancestor, doesn’t mean that we cannot or should not critically examine them and their lives. if anything, love means that we confront, embrace, but acknowledge the complexities of the whole person. (see: bell hooks.) and so with that, i feel we should start talking more about Frida and her appropriation of indigenous cultures.”

It would be a dishonor to revere Frida without analyzing her complexity, she was so complex, so revolutionary, and so deeply in touch with her humanity, that analyzing and critiquing is a necessary act to look at our own lives and who we want to be. Frida Kahlo, whose contributions to art will go unmatched, will never cease to amaze me.

Laia Garcia writes in Rookie:

“She transcended everything—her time (the first half of the 20th century, not exactly a time of great opportunities for women anywhere), cultural norms (her work dealt explicitly with taboo subjects such as abortion, miscarriage, gender inequalities, and the personal and sexual lives of women), feminine beauty ideals (not only did she not remove her unibrow or faint mustache, she was known to darken them with a black pencil), and her own physical limitations (she had polio as a child and was severely injured in a bus accident as a teenager). In an oppressive and repressive political and social climate, she was an outspoken leftist, a feminist, and a fighter for equality. Her life was bound by strictures of all kinds, but those limitations seem, paradoxically, to have granted her the freedom to live exactly how she wanted.”