“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” goes an iconic quote from the Dark Knight film trilogy – so aphoristic that many scarcely believe it originated in a modern film, and not in an ancient treatise on war or life.
But even the dead are certainly not exempt from falls from grace. It’s just surprising sometimes who gets depedestalised. Last week, around her birth anniversary, a Twitter thread positing that Frida Kahlo had been a white cultural appropriator went viral. Comments on it showed that this happens annually, i.e. there are people out there who keep trying to get her cancelled on her birthday (how sweet). Of course, it’s not the deceased person in question who is actually being cancelled, but those who imbibe her work and continue to be inspired by her. Kahlo is known for having battled unthinkable pain and choosing to thrive anyway, and for creating paintings that were testimonies to an unusual life.
As many pointed out, the facts were rather lacking in the attack. Kahlo was half-mestiza, through her mother, and half German Jew, through her father. Her maternal lineage was of mixed Spanish and indigenous origin, like most Mexican people. Her work acknowledged all facets of her ancestry, with a natural inclination for the culture and location she was raised in. Not all of her politics or life choices could stand the test of time: for example, she supported Josef Stalin, and her marriage was rife with severely toxic elements. Relevant to the Tweetstorm in question, she had class power that allowed her to enjoy elements of indigenous artistry, in her wardrobe and in her décor. That she and Diego Rivera, her spouse, possibly helped to visibilise native culture and thereby influenced preservation or artisans’ revenue may or may not be a qualifying factor.
Kahlo was flawed. The same can be said for anyone – anyone at all. But her positive impact on millions who are encouraged by her inner strength is not propaganda or hype. Still, because we cannot convince those in our circles not to support the dictators of today, because we are alarmed either for ourselves or for loved ones whose lives we view at close quarters to learn how extraordinarily difficult it is to exit abusive relationships, because we too adore pretty things and have privileged guilt – we pick a target and throw stones.
A few days later, I saw something much worse: the person being called out was Anne Frank.
Frank – who died in a concentration camp at age 15 after two years hiding from the fascist Nazi German state in a concealed annexe, during which she kept a diary that found great posthumous value – apparently had “white privilege”.
This time, I didn’t even bother to enter the rabbit hole of the so-called discourse.
I’ll say it again: a sense of powerlessness, or unresolved feelings of personal disharmony that manifest as parts of our public personalities, because of which we project onto people who are either on our side or are no threat, are not substitutes for the messy, compassionate experience of navigating or creating change that matters.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in July 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.