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Kahlo's Missing Withered Leg

Extinguishing Frida Kahlo

by MARTA RUSSELL

Usually I leave Hollywood alone. Dramatic film has not been a medium of historical accuracy. Getting around to seeing the movie “Frida,” however, put me in a comment-making mood. No, it drove me to speak up as a fan of Kahlo’s.

Julie Traymor’s film “Frida” is based on Hayden Herrera’s biography of Frida Kahlo, a Mexican painter who was disabled, Latina, female, bisexual and a Communist. The actor Salma Hayek portrays Frida.

What drags me to the computer is the obliteration of polio from the film. When the audience sees shots of Frida as a young person still in preparatory school, she is shown as completely able bodied. Skipping, running with no impairment to her gait, pushing herself agilely up on her toes, legs exposed there is no trace of the polio Kahlo had contracted at age 6.

So I dug out my old copy of the biography, now dog-eared and falling apart at the seams to check how that foundational part of Frida’s life had been depicted.

Although a fellow cripple like myself can take issue with Herrera’s account of Frida, particularly when the historian takes it upon herself to engage in amateurish psychoanalyzing about Kahlo’s “infirmity” (of which I can locate none in her being), the biography clearly documents the polio:

“The reason for the change was illness: when Frida was six years old, she was stricken with polio. She was to spend nine months confined to her room. ‘It all began with a horrible pain in my right leg from the muscle downward,’ she remembered.”

Then: “when Frida was up again, a doctor recommended a program of physical exercise to strengthen her withered right limb,” writes Herrera (emphasis mine) and a letter written by Kahlo states “The leg remained very thin.”

In the film after she and an elderly Leon Trotsky climb the steps of Indian ruins that would leave a marathon runner out of breath, Trotsky asks Frida what happened to her. This question is so familiar as to be a cliche to disabled persons. Frida explains that she is not sure after so many surgeries (some 32 of them) what has caused her condition what but she says, “the leg. the leg is the worst.”

It is now more widely recognized that physicians’ prior advice about what to do about polio – use it or lose it – was quite wrong. It is more like use it and then lose it. Much of the pain Frida experienced can be attributed to post polio and overuse syndrome. In addition, Kahlo’s San Francisco physician diagnosed her with congenital scoliosis of the spine. All this came before the dramatic trolley car accident where Frida was impaled by an iron handrail that broke her spine in 3 places and exited her vagina.

This collision is the moment in which Traymor determines that Kahlo has an impairment yet still we do not see Hayek limping. We see her do a seductive dance in high heels! In reality Kahlo wore three or four socks on the thin calf and her right shoe was built up to compensate for the smaller limb. How much more interesting the dance scene could have been had the limp been a part of the choreography. To flaunt that right leg – that would have been revolutionary. Historically incorrect (surprise) what does the omission say about disability? Why did the filmmaker decide to obliterate the polio? Did Hayek have anything to do with it?

I ask because when Daniel Day Lewis accurately portrayed the writer Christi Brown in the movie “My Left Foot” by conforming his body to that of Brown’s who had cerebral palsy Joan Collins characterized Lewis as making himself “ugly in every way.” Why would the handsome Lewis want to do that, Collins wondered.

Did Hayek, whose voluptuous eat-me-up body is displayed nude on the big screen at every possible opportunity, object to having one of her legs be “withered” by reality? For truly Frida’s right leg was smaller than her left.

One can only speculate but this seems a plausible explanation since the leg factor is brought up in the film by Frida’s husband Diego Rivera’s first wife Lupe when she cries to Diego, “you give up these legs” stroking her own thigh “for these matchsticks, these peg legs” grabbing at Kahlo’s skirt.

It is Rivera who has the most succinct line in the movie. When Frida first undresses before him, she says “I have a scar.” Rivera replies “You are perfect.”

Ahh, I suppose we should be grateful that nobody wanted Kahlo dead in this movie. It was not the era of the Derek Humphreys, the Peter Singers or removed bioethicists who dictate who has quality-of-life and who does not. Had it been, no doubt the “saviors” would have rushed in with the “right to die” chemicals soon after the trolley car incident, when Kahlo found herself in bed in pain. It was in the aftermath she found the makings to become a serious painter. As renown Rivera himself noted, “she is much better than me.”

When I went to get a new copy of Herrera’s book, I found it with Hayek dressed up as Kahlo on the front cover. “Now a major motion picture from Miramax films” it read. The old cover with Frida’s self-portrait with her monkey was gone. The commercial film industry had extinguished Frida and replaced her with Hayek. Kahlo the Communist who disliked Americans because for them “the most important thing was to have ambition” might have remarked frankly “what else can one expect from Gringolanda?” I would add “from temporarily nondisabled Gringolanda.”

MARTA RUSSELL has been a producer and a photographer whose investigative reporting earned her a Golden Mike Award for Best Documentary from the Southern California Radio and Television News Association in 1994. She was honored as co-producer/correspondent for the KCET (PBS) Life & Times documentary entitled, “Disabled & the Cost of Saying ‘I Do” on marriage disincentives in Social Security policy.

Disabled from birth, Russell began writing when her disability progressed and she no longer worked in the film industry. Russell’s commentaries have been published in the San Jose Mercury News, the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union Tribune, the Austin American-Statesman and other newspapers around the nation. Her academic work focusing on the socio/economic aspects of disablement has been published in the BERKELEY JOURNAL OF EMPLOYMENT AND LABOR LAW, the JOURNAL OF DISABILITY POLICY STUDIES, and DISABILITY & SOCIETY amongst others. Disability articles have appeared in New Mobility Magazine, Ragged Edge, and Mouth, the voice of disability rights. She was nominated for a MAGGIE award in 1995.

Russell’s first book, BEYOND RAMPS, DISABILITY AT THE END OF THE SOCIAL CONTRACT (Common Courage Press, 1998) received an Honorable Mention from the Outstanding Books Awards presented by the Gustavus Myers Program for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America at Boston University. She can be reached at: ap888@lafn.org