Madonna and Frida Kahlo are both timeless icons, feminists, artists, and revolutionaries in fields that were dominated by men. They are women who built themselves from scratch and were never too afraid to speak their minds. They are also artists who created transcendental works of art. One was a Mexican painter who was proud of her roots, heritage, her ups and downs in life, and found in painting and writing a way to express herself. The other is an American performer who also found inspiration in her working-class roots and became an artist who demands attention through her self-expression in music, acting, and writing; a woman who reinvented an entire industry in order to create new paradigms to open doors for those to come.
Madonna has publicly stated how she’s admired Frida Kahlo since she was a child. She has even bought a few paintings by the artist, claiming that the craft and themes in Frida’s art are what make her feel so fascinated by the Mexican painter. The “Bedtime Story” video has lots if imagery inspired by the surrealist movement and it is filled with references to the work of Frida and other female Mexican painters. Madonna has also borrowed some of Frida’s imagery about color, flowers, animals, death, and textures in her live performances, like in her “Dress you up” number on the Rebel Heart Tour (though she tends to confuse Mexican and Spanish culture sometimes). For instance, in this performance, one of her female dancers wears the traditional veil for the Tehuana costume, like in one of Frida’s most famous self-portraits.
Frida’s outfits, an inspiration for many artists, are being exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and, on the opening night, Salma Hayek, who portrayed Frida in the 2002 movie, stated how the painter was her own inspiration: “I paint myself because I spend so much time alone and I am the subject I know best.” Frida took a stand on what a woman should look like and be through her work and persona. She went against Western standards of beauty and femininity: androgynous, Mexican indigenous, subversive, political, smart, opinionated, and true to herself. A feminist icon.
Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Monkey (1940). The artwork belongs to Madonna’s art collection.
Madonna may have followed and felt inspired by that path of genuineness. The Detroit-born singer made a persona of herself: she was against the fashion, musical, and cultural standards of the early 1980s, and thirty years after Frida’s death, against the same standards of femininity and womanhood. However, she took a different approach. She explored her sexuality to the fullest. She spoke out against and broke, little by little, taboos about this topic. Then, she owned it and made a career from it.
In contrast to Frida, Madonna was not considered a feminist until the early 21st century because she “objectified” herself. Back when she started, no one understood that she was actually embracing that part of womanhood that was forbidden, either by the conservative or feminist sectors of society. She was inviting women to enjoy and own their sexuality, and she rejected any ideas that women should not be sexual. In other words, she showed that women can be smart, opinionated, revolutionary, and still enjoy her sexuality.
Madonna might not be the greatest musician of all time, just like Frida was not the greatest painter either. Yet, their masterpieces are their personas themselves. They became role models of liberty and freedom of speech: women who are unapologetically genuine, who openly expressed their desires, fantasies, struggles, and their needs without caring what society might think.
We celebrate these women. And I can’t help but wonder, how much have we learned from them? How much have we moved forward?
Frida died young at age 47. She was immortalized as a young woman forever, and her artistic persona became a legend. Madonna just turned 60, and, in contrast to Frida, she has been forced to experience yet another form of sexism: ageism. The American singer has had to put up with the cruel scrutiny of the media and the music industry. She has been called an old hag, irrelevant, a try-hard, and grandma, among other nonsense. As their audience, we have reduced both women to devices of feminist consumerism. We have reduced them to mere iconography that celebrates what they represent, but that, ironically, still annihilates the women they are. We have shut them up. We put the female revolutionary on a pedestal, but we reduce the woman to a body, a body that has an expiration date.
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