How Mattel Found Itself In a Barbie Dispute With Frida Kahlo’s Family

March 9, 2018, 11:19 AM UTC

Mattel is not having the best couple of days. Not only did its stock fall by as much as 6.1% after retailer Toys ‘R’ Us announced a potential liquidation of its U.S. operations, but the toy firm has also found itself in a dispute with relatives of Frida Kahlo, the legendary Mexican painter.

Mattel (MAT), which has been greatly diversifying its Barbie range in recent years, earlier this week announced a series of dolls representing good role models for girls. Frida Kahlo is one of them, alongside the likes of aviator Amelia Earhart and Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins.

The toy firm unveiled its Kahlo Barbie after striking a deal with the Panama-based Frida Kahlo Corporation, which got the rights to Kahlo’s image from one of her nieces, Isolda Pinedo Kahlo, more than a decade ago.

After Pinedo Kahlo set up the Frida Kahlo Corporation alongside a firm called Casablanca Distributors, the company started selling a variety of merchandise bearing Kahlo’s likeness. The merchandise has not always been terribly appropriate—examples include tequila selling at up to $100 a bottle (Kahlo was an alcoholic and pain killer addict, due to chronic pain stemming from childhood polio and a streetcar accident in her teens); and a prepaid Frida Kahlo Mastercard (she was also a lifelong communist).

Other members of the family have long been against this commercialization of the distinctive, uni-browed Kahlo image. Last year they accused the Corporation of a breach of contract that AFP now reports (details were held back at the time) was the result of the Corporation “failing to inform Kahlo’s relatives about the uses of her image.” This breach, they say, nullifies the Corporation’s right to continue licensing the image.

The family has now threatened Mattel with “necessary measures” over their use of her image without the “proper authorization.” They say Kahlo’s great-niece, Mara Romeo, is the “sole owner of the rights of the image of the illustrious Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.”

According to AFP, Romeo is also taking issue with Mattel’s styling of the painter. “I would have liked the doll to have traits more like Frida’s, not this doll with light-colored eyes,” she said.

“The Frida Kahlo Corporation actively participated in the process of designing the doll, Mattel has its permission and a legal contract that grants it the rights to make a doll of the great Frida Kahlo,” Mattel said in a statement quoted by The New York Times.