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In a few short decades, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo has gone from obscurity to pop-culture icon. Forever 21 and Zahra have sold clothes with her self-portraits. But a recent lawsuit to stop the sale of a Barbie doll in Frida Kahlo's likeness raises new questions about whether the commercialization of Frida Kahlo honors or betrays her independent spirit. From Mexico City, Emily Green reports.
EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: Fridamania (ph) is on full display in her Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacan.
T-shirts, dolls, notebooks, magnets, dresses and hats with her image on it.
Pedro Hernandez runs one of the booths. He says everything with Frida's image sells quickly.
PEDRO HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
GREEN: Hernandez says Frida gear is an important source of income. But he doesn't actually know about her.
HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
GREEN: He says, "she must be important, because if not, she wouldn't be famous." Frita's self-portraits depicting her lifelong struggle with pain, but also her fortitude, turned her into an iconic figure. But has she become too famous, too commercialized? The toymaker Mattel launched the Frida Kahlo Barbie as part of its Inspiring Women series. But some of Frida's descendants say the doll betrays Frida's very essence by eliminating her signature unibrow, lightening her eyes and thinning her hips. Rebecca Tushnet teaches intellectual property law at Harvard University.
REBECCA TUSHNET: The question really is, who controls how people are interpreted? And when can you be made into a cultural icon?
GREEN: She says courts in the U.S. have increasingly allowed celebrities to control the commercialization of their images. But when the celebrity is dead, the question of who owns those rights can be murky. In Frida's case, the rights to her image are claimed by the Panama-based Frida Kahlo Corporation.
TUSHNET: There is something fundamentally disturbing about publicity rights, to the extent that they are held by entities that may have no real relationship to the celebrity.
GREEN: The Frida Kahlo Corporation says it bought the rights to Frida's image in 2005 from the painter's niece, Isolda, who then became one of its shareholders until her death in 2007. It has since sold Frida's image far and wide, including on a high-end tequila. Beatriz Alvarado is the corporation's spokeswoman.
BEATRIZ ALVARADO: It's an honor to have a piece of Frida Kahlo that will inspire you day to day.
GREEN: Alvarado says the Frida Barbie doll will ensure that her story lives on. And, she adds, the Barbie does have a unibrow. It's just very faint.
ALVARADO: The idea is to bring Frida to new generations that they're just 6 to 10 years old, and to share and spread that we should be our own muse.
GREEN: But the daughter of Frida's niece, Isolda, claims she owns the sole rights to Frida's image, not the corporation her mother helped create. She declined to comment for this story. In April, a judge in Mexico sided with her and blocked the sale of the Frida Barbie in Mexico. The ruling doesn't extend to the U.S. Barbie or not, the question of whether Fridamania honors or devalues the painter sparks strong feelings. David Martin Del Campo wrote a biography of Frida.
DAVID MARTIN DEL CAMPO: (Speaking Spanish).
GREEN: He says Frida was a militant, anticapitalist, communist and feminist. And what they celebrate now are the superficial aspects of her and the way she dressed. Even so, Martin Del Campo says Frida sought publicity while she was alive.
MARTIN DEL CAMPO: (Speaking Spanish).
GREEN: And, he says, she would probably like that her legacy lives on after her death. And her artwork is now more appreciated and more celebrated. As for those of you in the U.S., for now, you can buy a Frida Kahlo Barbie doll in the Wal-Mart near you. For NPR News, I'm Emily Green in Mexico City.