Bolls in the image of pilot Amelia Earhart, left, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and mathematician Katherine Johnson, part of the Inspiring Women doll line series. Picture: AP

Washington - A new line of Barbies released this week to honour International Women's Day was meant to recast popular images of female role-models.

But one of those newly unveiled dolls - that of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo - has kick-started a dispute over who gets to use her image in the first place.
In interviews with Mexican media outlets, as well as the BBC, Kahlo's great-grandniece insists she is the sole owner of the rights to Kahlo's image. 

That contradicts the stance of the Florida-based Frida Kahlo, which says it bought the rights to Kahlo's image from another relative 13 years ago. The corporation worked on the new doll with Mattel, whose brands include Barbie, Hot Wheels, and Fisher-Price.

"We're talking about a woman that was so ahead of her time and transcended the generations, and we will do anything to bring that message to the world," said Beatriz Alvarado, a spokeswoman for the Frida Kahlo. "The collaboration with Barbie was in that sense."

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A family statement given to the BBC said that Kahlo's great-grandniece, Mara de Anda Romeo, was the "sole owner of the rights of the image." The family has also called for a more authentic redesign of the doll.

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In a pivot away from Barbie's iconic, bleach-blonde roots, the company has marketed new dolls under the hashtag #MoreRoleModels, including those modelled after film director Ava Duvernay and ballerina Misty Copeland. While many embraced the nod to a female, Latina painter who often explored issues of race and gender in her work, others questioned what Kahlo - a communist and feminist - would have thought about being immortalised in Barbie plastic.

Alvarado said the Frida Kahlo bought the rights to Kahlo's image from Kahlo's niece, Isolda Pinedo Kahlo, in 2005, and that other family members had long been aware of the deal. Alvarado declined to comment on how much the deal cost the corporation, which licenses rights to a variety of products - from tequila to Converse shoes - to educate the public on Kahlo's story.

Dressed in a billowing blue, red, and black dress with a fringe shawl and floral headpiece, the Frida Kahlo Barbie sells for $29.99 (about R350). But Kahlo's signature facial hair, critics quickly noted, was missing from her stick-thin incarnation.

"The Frida Kahlo Barbie doesn't have a unibrow and in a shocking turn of events Barbie wants to add feminism to its brand while still aggressively adhering to western beauty standards," wrote one Twitter user.

"I can't help but feel that it would've been even more impactful to see the artist depicted in a way that was more true to herself - not to mention her own self-portraits," wrote an editor at Teen Vogue.