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The Miscarriage of Frida Kahlo

The Miscarriage of Frida Kahlo

To say that Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is one of the world’s most recognizable artists is an understatement. In recent decades, the Mexican artist has been transformed into a pop culture icon and face of a movement critics have coined “Fridamania.” Julie Taymor’s 2002 biopic Frida, starring Salma Hayek and adapted from Hayden Herrera’s 1983 biography of the artist, has certainly played a major role in cementing Kahlo’s legacy and calling attention to the conditions in which she worked. Most importantly, Frida is a film that takes seriously Kahlo’s lifelong experiences with disability and the ways in which her experiences with trauma and chronic pain informed her art. The biopic does not shy away from presenting the painful procedures and rehabilitation she repeatedly underwent, for Kahlo not only contracted polio as a child but she also sustained serious pelvic and vaginal wounds as a teenager in a trolley accident in her native Coyoacán, Mexico City. These injuries would later cause Kahlo severe reproductive issues. Frida positions the artist’s 1932 miscarriage as a result of this prior trauma, thus linking disability and reproductive health in ways that have been largely neglected by critics and scholars.

Scholars and Kahlo enthusiasts have long debated the extent to which the artist wanted children: while many have argued she was agonized by her inability to bear children, others, such as Martha Zamora and Margaret Lindauer, point to examples of her writing that suggest she was not fixated on this pursuit.[1] Lindauer best describes how readings of Kahlo’s life that emphasize the desperation of her maternal desires “correspon[d] to a social, symbolic significance of motherhood in Mexico.”[2] As a biopic, Frida provides its own answer to the question of motherhood. Never in the scenes prior to the revelation of her pregnancy does Salma Hayek’s Frida explicitly express a longing for children. After she tells her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, that she is pregnant during a conversation about her latest doctor’s appointment regarding her chronic pain and her recurring need for surgery, he immediately asks “Can your body take it?”[3] She is initially nonchalant but does confirm Rivera’s fears: her doctor is not optimistic. Regardless of how difficult– and likely impossible– the pregnancy would be, she does confirm at this moment that she wants the baby. “I do” is the extent of her expression; this moment is neither verbally nor gesturally impassioned. Though understated, the conversation confirms that she accepts whatever it is her body in its present condition can provide. Through its framing of the pregnancy, then, Frida depicts the state of the artist’s reproductive health as an extension of her disability.

Painting by Frida Kahlo is a self portrait in which her body appears split open, she is covered in needles, and her throat / esophagus peek through a banded top.
Frida Kahlo, “The Broken Column.” (Yuan Tuan/Flickr)

Despite the fact that Kahlo previously had an abortion due to medical complications (due, in some accounts, to “poor pelvic formation” and in others, the fetus’s position), the Detroit pregnancy is the only one depicted in the biopic, and abortion, despite her known bodily limitations, is not presented as an option.[4] Film Frida’s pregnancy is apolitical. But according to Celia Stahr’s account in Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist, Kahlo’s fears regarding her health, not to mention Rivera’s pattern of fatherly negligence towards his previous children, led her to believe that aborting this pregnancy was “the most reasonable cause of action.”[5] Furthermore, her fears for the health and safety of her unborn child were only compounded by the panic she and the world experienced at the news of the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby that same year. Abortion was, indeed, illegal in the United States, but she attempted to induce a miscarriage via a doctor-prescribed concoction anyway. This attempt failed, but she later miscarried after changing her mind to proceed with the pregnancy and was hospitalized, not too dissimilarly from the film’s depiction of the event.

Regardless of her ambivalence towards becoming a mother, Kahlo’s physical and emotional trauma was visually realized on screen, not unlike the film’s earlier graphic depiction of the trolley accident and its aftermath. For the filmmakers, it was not enough to grapple with the sensitivity of the artist’s impaired reproductive health through the couple’s dialogue or other gestures. Immediately after the couple’s decision to proceed with whatever hope they can muster, she suffers a life-threatening miscarriage in the next scene. Her body simply could not handle it, and she is forced to watch her child “come out in pieces.”[6] This scene is one of the most understudied aspects of the film.

What is pivotal about the framing of the miscarriage scene in Frida is that viewers experience the loss through Rivera’s, rather than Kahlo’s, eyes. Together, Rivera and the viewers discover a bloodied, bedbound Frida; together, we watch the disoriented artist stagger out of her hospital room, in shock of what she has watched her body expel. And together we study Henry Ford Hospital, the painting she produced depicting her hemorrhaging body in front of Detroit’s industrial horizon. Painting, in the film as in reality, provided an outlet for Kahlo to grapple with her inability to carry a child to term. Linda Layne has suggested that “when a pregnancy ends without a live birth, there are no rites to reincorporate the woman. . . [many] feel trapped in a liminal social position.”[7] Hayek’s Frida, however, is reincorporated as both a woman and a creator through the act of painting. Yet the acts of witnessing through Rivera’s perspective testify to how Kahlo’s body and her art are so often perceived as inseparable from her marital life.[8] This exact dynamic underpins the quick progressing scenes in which her pregnancy is revealed and she subsequently miscarries.

What the film and its dramatization of Kahlo’s pregnancy loss reveal is that Americans especially have made– and continue to make– Frida Kahlo’s disabled body public business. What does the invitation to watch the dramatization of her miscarriage on film, much less the audience’s often passive acceptance of it through Rivera’s gaze, say about us as both producers and consumers of Fridamania? The ethics of the biopic genre, especially in terms of the recreation and monetization of another person’s trauma, is a different and much knottier conversation. In the meantime, I invite audiences and scholars alike to consider how films like Frida can simultaneously take disability seriously while inviting us to question the ethics of its representation. If Henry Ford Hospital “exaggerates the correlation between private incident and public discourse,” then the biopic doubles it.[9] And it does so in a manner that intertwines disability with reproductive health in ways that can feel exploitative, like trauma voyeurism, if the viewer is passive and neither willing nor prepared to engage empathetically with narratives about marginalized bodies.

Viewers have flocked to Frida in recent years in light of the #MeToo Movement and after Hayek’s brave testimony against and public condemnation of producer Harvey Weinstein– acts that have allowed Hayek to reincorporate herself as an artist and woman deserving of safety.[10] While these necessary conversations have permanently altered the reception of the film and especially its sex scenes, those regarding the film’s emphasis on the artist’s body as it oscillates between states of ability, maternity, and sexuality are long overdue. To overcome the critically disengaged spectatorship of such a traumatic event in the life of Frida Kahlo and to shape a less exploitative Fridamania, scholars and critics must first take a step back to consider why more dialogue about these scenes is necessary. In a cultural moment where feminists and advocates are becoming increasingly invested in reproductive healthcare especially for marginalized bodies, revisiting depictions of infertility and pregnancy loss in popular media becomes all the more crucial. These texts, including but not limited to films produced in the twenty-first century, construct and disseminate narratives about the health and necessary care of vulnerable bodies, including but also far transcending Kahlo’s.

Notes

  1. Martha Zamora, Frida Kahlo: The Brush of Anguish (Chronicle Books, 1990), 91. For further discussion of this debate, see Margaret A. Lindauer, Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo (Wesleyan University Press, 1999), 20-22.
  2. Lindauer, 22.
  3. Frida, directed by Julie Taymor (2002; Los Angeles, CA: Miramax), 1:00:06-1:00:08.
  4. Celia Stahr, Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist (St. Martin’s Press, 2020), 72.
  5. Stahr, 199.
  6. Frida, 1:02:15-1:02:17.
  7. Linda L. Layne, Motherhood Lost: A Feminist Account of Pregnancy Loss in America (Routledge, 2003), 60.
  8. See Lindauer, 20: Writing prior to the film’s production, Lindauer similarly described this phenomenon: “it is difficult to separate an analysis of the artist’s marital history from her medical history because interpretations of her paintings have converged these two aspects of her life into a single persona.”
  9. Lindauer, 25.
  10. For more on Frida in a post-#MeToo context, see my chapter “Frida: Creativity, Trauma, and the Woman Artist” in A Critical Companion to Julie Taymor, ed. Matt Hodge, Adam Barkman, and Antonio Sanna (Lexington Books, 2023), 129-142. ​​

Gabrielle Stecher (Ph.D., University of Georgia) is a Lecturer and Associate Director of Undergraduate Teaching in the Department of English at Indiana University Bloomington. Her interdisciplinary research and teaching interests include the stories we tell about women artists. Her portfolio is located at www.gabriellestecher.com.

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