Frida Kahlo Barbie no more feminist than previous versions

Ysabela Golden

Growing up, I watched a lot of feminists get very angry about Barbies. Most of them were from TV shows or movies—sympathetic but satirized versions of the real-life women who were probably more angry about pay gaps and workplace harassment than the measurements of a doll’s waistline. Some of them were teachers trying to break sexism down into something childish enough for their students to understand. A few were the authors of clickbait articles, sharing the same picture of a “real life” Barbie with her doll’s exaggerated toy-like proportions, pitying the girls who were surely starving themselves between plastic surgeries because their childhood toys had tricked them into thinking that this caricature was the ideal female body.

I probably would have been able to get upset with them if I’d ever met a girl who played with Barbies the way they seemed to think we did. The girl picking out the perfect outfit for her doll, brushing its blonde hair and wishing she could be so pretty and fashionable. That’s the advertisement that apparently got parents to buy Barbies for their daughters (and, in retrospect, probably why parents are so terrified of Barbies coming into contact with their sons). Meanwhile, my favorite Barbie growing up was a repurposed Sharpay Evans who ruled over my brother’s action figures with a cruel and iron fist. My best friend, who had the biggest Barbie collection out of anyone I knew, ran a sort of “Hunger Games” competition where doll fought against doll for the privilege of having her Webkinz as pets. 

So, when I see Barbie’s new “Inspiring Women” collection, I know from a logical standpoint that any Frida Kahlo that ends up in the hands of an actual child (instead of an adult collector) is probably going to end up laughing maniacally over a defeated “Monster High” doll instead of inspiring reflection on her “contributions to society and her respective field.” Somehow, it doesn’t quite deliver the prepackaged empowerment Barbie is trying to sell. Instead, I was surprised to discover, it made me angry. “Lisa Simpson vs. Malibu Stacy” angry. “Clickbait article with Photoshopped supermodels” angry. 

Once upon a time, Barbie marketed their toys as dainty fashion models who loved beach trips, because that’s what parents wanted to buy. Kids today get Barbies marketed as cool, empowered career women, because that’s what parents want to buy. When criticisms of their depressingly diluted eyebrow-waxed Kahlo reached corporate ears, Barbie released a statement saying that their doll “conserves the essence of Barbie” and “the legacy of Frida Kahlo.” But the essence of Barbie is marketability. It’s whatever is going to move the most product, whether that’s curvy dolls, short dolls, or dolls that look like director Ava DuVernay. 

The legacy of Kahlo, however, is furious anti-consumerism. There’s no way that a person could simultaneously appreciate her life’s work and sell her image as a promotional item. One of her most iconic paintings, the 1933 My Dress Hangs There,” is a vicious criticism of the superficiality, waste and destructive decay of American capitalism. It depicts crowds of workers towered over by the burning smokestacks of industry, plastered with advertisements and overflowing with trash. Kahlo’s dress hangs over the scene in contrast, a witness to the decay. What would she say, making this painting, if she knew that years later her dress would be copied and pasted onto a plastic toy and packaged up for sale? That her name would be bought and sold to pad the wallets of the very people she was criticizing? Maybe she wouldn’t be surprised; “My Dress Hangs There” isn’t a particularly optimistic piece, after all. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised either. 

I’m still unconvinced that Barbie is a misogynistic corporate machine responsible for ruining the self-esteem of girls across the U.S., but it’s no longer because I think criticisms of the company are short-sighted and irrational. It’s because I realize the criticisms I heard growing up are missing the point. Calling the Barbie I grew up with “misogynistic” is about as accurate as calling the Barbie we have now “feminist.” If your concern in going either way is which makes you the most money, then you can’t really be either.