Dead Women Walking: On May's Frida Kahlo Bracelet

Theresa May's Frida Kahlo Bracelet was more than an intriguing or misguided sartorial choice; it was another example of the worrying way we treat the faces of deceased female icons like Monroe, Winehouse and Princess Diana

Feature by Kate Pasola | 17 Oct 2017

Imagine for a second you can paint. Really fucking fantastically paint. Imagine your works are potent enough to form part of a post-revolutionary movement that reforms the identity of a nation. Imagine your body, battered in your early life by polio, is broken again by the cruelly uninspired circumstances of a traffic accident. Imagine you persevere, bed-bound, as an artist who chooses your own flesh as a subject. Completely in control, you commit images of your body to technicolour essays that scream uncompromising sentiments on gender, on the colonisation of places and bodies, on fairness, on race, on yourself. Your self-portraits are the vehicle you use to control the world’s perception of you, your paintbrush the steering wheel.

Then imagine 63 years after your death, when you can no longer paint nor scream, your masterpieces are shrunk to thumbnails and printed on to a bracelet. On 4 October 2017, that bracelet ends up on the wrist of a ruinous politician who, tasked with leading a fractured country, splintered it even further. She’s nightmarish, and she addresses a room of despicable people about her despicable actions. Suffering a coughing fit, she balls her hand into a fist and splutters. At that moment, the world gets a lingering look at your self-portraits – six or seven of them in a ring around her wrist.

We still don’t know why Theresa May chose to emblazon her right arm with Frida Kahlo’s face at the 2017 Conservative Party Conference. “She clearly has an interest in clothing and jewellery, and her style is used as part of her public identity – at times perhaps to appeal to a broader audience than her politics,” says Alison Slater, a Lecturer in Design History at Manchester School of Art. Slater posited that May perhaps wore the bracelet to signal strength, or perhaps simply due to an appreciation of Kahlo’s paintings and the design. After all, Kahlo’s image is currently the zest of zeitgeist: think Beyoncé’s meso-American pregnancy shoot; think eyebrow trends; think the V&A’s upcoming Kahlo retrospective. Despite her rich, traumatic, hotly political and contradiction-riddled life, Kahlo’s death has transformed her face and aesthetic into a convenient marker of cultural awareness, artsiness and non-committal feminism.

“One would think that May or her team of advisers would have some awareness of how what we wear is read and how a wider audience might interpret an item,” Slater continues. Though some have suggested manipulation tactics or fantasised about May’s intentions to destroy the party from the inside, Slater remains unconvinced. “For a party that has spent so much time emphasising Corbyn’s and McDonnell's socialist views as a potential threat to stability, it is highly unlikely that a Conservative PM would decide to wear something that she (or her team) thought may be read by some as a symbol or representation of communist ideology.”

Though we don’t know May’s motive, we do know that Kahlo wasn’t alive to consent nor condemn. “It’s suggested that the bracelet was bought at the Tate after the Kahlo 2005 exhibition,” Slater says. “While later versions are available online, it’s likely the Tate version was (to some degree) endorsed by the Frida Kahlo Corporation.” But would Kahlo herself have approved of such an endorsement – especially if she’d known into whose hands the bracelet might fall?

If the reactions of other artists dragged into the 2017 Tory circle-jerk are anything to go by – perhaps not. Take Calvin Harris, who tweeted some 12.5 million followers to denounce the Conservatives’ use of his song at the conference, claiming, “I do not support nor condone happy songs being played at such a sad event.” Likewise, Florence Welch proclaimed to her own fans that the hugely ironic inclusion of her track You Got the Love was unapproved, asking the party to “refrain from using our music in future”.

But using the images and art of the deceased is a unique circumstance as the subjects have no agency to respond. It’s a behaviour prevalent across the media, advertising, and the entertainment industry. Take the late Hugh Hefner, who bought early nudes taken of Marilyn Monroe when she was a struggling actor and used them, without consent nor compensation on the cover of the first issue of Playboy. And that was while she was alive. Now, he continues to exploit her from the grave after buying the burial plot next to her dead body, telling CBS Los Angeles, “It has a completion notion to it. I will be spending the rest of my eternity with Marilyn.”

Take also Mitch Winehouse, who continues to benefit financially from opportunistic creative endeavours linked to Amy’s name: books with unseen handwritten notes, fundraising events for The Amy Winehouse Foundation (which he founded), even, according to The Sun, plans for a West End Musical about her life. Or there’s Princess Diana, whose personal life trickles across the public consciousness in lucrative documentaries and films, creating the illusion that we understand and own the rights to her image and personal history. “In a world of Kardashians” – women are told in meme after patronising meme haunted by her smiling face – “be a Diana.” Even the teary face of the Virgin Mary isn’t free from this phenomenon.

Slater is also fascinated by the use of deceased icons, mentioning their use in perfume and chocolate adverts, where original and remastered footage is combined, “blurring the line between past, reality and fiction”. She mentions the likes of Chanel No. 5’s 2013 advert ‘featuring’ Marilyn Monroe, and Dior J’Adore (2011) which starred a forcibly revived versions of Monroe, Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich. “Interestingly all were shown at the peak of their glamour,” note Slater. “While Monroe died young, and therefore she remains associated with the youthful image beloved by the fashion media, other stars have grown old... Perhaps the most fascinating example I’ve come across are the Galaxy chocolate adverts featuring Audrey Hepburn. They have nothing to do with the product, but sell an image of both a woman, and by extension her films... again at the peak of her career.”

She suggests that there are several things at play when it comes to media and capitalist obsession with the faces of the deceased. “A recognisable face for any brand is an essential marketing tool. A glamorous one who is associated with a luxury lifestyle is even better. But secondly, the celebrity world is fickle and fluid... It only takes one image or one story for a celebrity to fall from grace. I wonder if playing into the former identities of people whose lives are closed offers a security to a brand image?”

According to Slater, it’s also a question of how well equipped those left behind are to take control of a dead relative’s image. “Kensington Palace certainly wouldn’t allow Diana’s image to be used in a way that they deemed unfit or inappropriate, so perhaps it’s also about money and whether one’s estate can afford to maintain your image after death?”

It’s important to point out that this issue plays into another, wider debate about consent. If there’s anything recent allegations made towards Harvey Weinstein has taught us, it’s that Hollywood still has lessons to learn about waiting to hear the word ‘yes’. Disempowered women can’t say ‘no’. Dead women can’t say ‘no’. But an absence of no does equate to a yes.

But it’s the cultural cryogenesis described by Slater that feels the most insidious and infuriating. Of course, the faces of dead men are also frequently iconised – just look at Elvis, Che Guevara and Bob Marley – but the deadness of women seems particularly convenient for those seeking to profit. Female celebrities – who were complex and autonomous when alive – are diluted and recontextualised for the gain of the industries that, some might argue, made room for their deaths. Where it’s difficult to divorce Marley from his music, religion, attitudes and advocacy of marijuana, Guevara from his status as Marxist revolutionary, and Presley from his middle-aged bloating and lengthening sideburns, the women in question are often frozen in time.

Because of this, maybe Theresa May mistakenly assumed we’d be too busy admiring Frida’s flower-crown to recall everything she stood for. In a landscape of identity politics and distraction tactics, it’s not expected that we’ll consider context and histories. But the public’s reaction to May’s bracelet is perhaps a testament to the worth of not only art itself, but the importance of the self-portrait. As mentioned by Slater, she “perhaps retains the most control in the portrayal of herself than the other women discussed here”. Though Kahlo herself can no longer scream, her art still does.