PRINT December 1987


LOST IN SPACE SOMEWHERE BETWEEN “Close to You” and “Long ago and oh so far away,” Karen Carpenter’s voice throbs with romantic duress in a trilling vocal package. Along with her brother, Richard, she constituted the Carpenters, whose excruciatingly clean-cut musical embroideries provided a score for the early ’70s. That time teetered on the cusp of political rebellion but still wanted out from the rowdy negativities of the preceding decade, and looked vehemently to a phantasm of values and histories that never existed—a phantasm that was, in part, choreographed by America’s first and last demi-holographic president, Richard Nixon.

That Karen Carpenter’s voice issued at a time that was also an era of renewal for various feminisms is a sad irony, which foregrounds the discrepancies that mark women’s struggle for both equity in the work place and some degree of control over their bodies. For it was a distortion of this quest for bodily control that drove Karen Carpenter to her death, at the age of 32, a victim of anorexia nervosa, an affliction whose sufferers become obsessed with their weight and the amount of space they take up in the world. Starving themselves into a deadly image of their own (im)perfection, they favor a cultural ideal over physical existence. Finding themselves in an impossible position, these mostly white, middle- and upper-class women may experience the disease as a strategy for independence but end up, instead, robbing their bodies of flesh, juice, and volition, literally disappearing into thin air.

This disappearing act is the subject and object of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, 1987, a film by Todd Haynes. The film defines anorexia nervosa as an “abuse of self-control, a fascism over the body” that are a response to “a culture that continues to control women through the commodification of their bodies.” To capture the palpability of this corporal absence, Haynes uses dolls to tell the tale of Karen’s rise, fall, and evaporation. This device, although familiar, works. It recalls the use of dolls to perpetuate stereotypes, their function as our surrogates in childhood’s first narrative constructions, and it literalizes the corporal reductivism and miniaturization of dieting. This doll’s-eye view is then conflated with footage of military maneuvers in Vietnam, vintage Nixonian portraiture, demonstrations, beauty pageants, SoCal highways and tract houses, and a forthright analytic text written by Haynes and Cynthia Schneider, which the viewer both reads and hears in voice-over.

Foregrounding the disease as a symptom, in part, of repressive familial control, the film opens with the sounds and sights of Karen’s mother’s discovery of her daughter’s body in the family home. Shot in a tension-laden, cinema-verité-ish style, the camera shows us mommy’s point of view but not mommy, as she stalks the premises, searching for Karen. Up and down foyers, through the living room and bedroom, the topsy-turvy camera bobs manically until it bumps into the body. All this is accompanied by a throbbing demimusical crescendo which makes for a tackily effective, melodramatic denouement. These initial scenes carry the labels “A Dramatization” and “A Simulation,” comedically suggesting that the doll-u-drama that follows could possibly be mistaken as an exercise in verisimilitude. In fact, it is this joining of parody with deathly, bodily abjection that makes for the film’s tension, allowing it to engage both social critique and the cathartic dispensations and distancing of laughter. We are taken on a Barbie-and-Ken-athon that marches from family dinners to meetings with record industry weasels to a cruise down the freeway as Karen’s static polyurethane head gazes lovingly at the plastic Richard propped up at the wheel. A live-action music critic, a DJ, and a vocalist supply ironically delivered expertise on the Carpenters’ melodic prowess. A voice-over gives us a short lesson on American food consumption and display and how they were altered after World War II. All this and more are encased and veneered by the Carpenters’ music, a brayingly saccharine (what else?) tumult of “I fell in love with, you”s.

But perhaps it is not this music that serves as the logo of the film. Shots of spankings, broken glass, toilet bowls, and piles of food melt into one another and repeatedly coalesce into a simple but glowing red, white, and blue graphic image of an object. No, it is not the American flag around which the film’s narrativity congregates, but a logo of a different order—a product that, like the nation’s emblematic banner, has the ability to delineate the looks, sounds, and purges of young women like Karen Carpenter: a luminously omnipresent box of Ex-Lax. It is perhaps this small film’s triumph that it can so economically sketch, with both laughter and chilling acuity, the conflation of patriotism, familial control, and bodily self-revulsion that drove Karen Carpenter and so many like her to strive for perfection and end up simply doing away with themselves.

Barbara Kruger is an artist who writes. She contributes regularly to Artforum.