PRINT April 2003


1987: Todd Haynes’s Superstar

Todd Haynes, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, 1987, still from a color film in 16 mm and Super-8, 43 minutes.

TODD HAYNES MAY HAVE GRADUATED to the Oscars, but he earned hipster tenure with the 1987 bootleg classic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, his docudrama about the plight of the anorexic pop star, as “dramatized” by Barbies.

If the ’80s were the decade of irony, Superstar takes inauthenticity as merely its starting point and evokes real emotion as we feel the pain of a plastic icon. “I just want it to be perfect!” Karen Carpenter (Barbie) declares, stressing out in a lilliputian recording studio. Don’t we all? While the all-Barbie cast could seem flippant, or trivializing, instead of being distanced from the skinny songbird’s saga, we are drawn closer to her alienation, as she internalizes systems of control (family, celebrity) that exploit her as a puppet of wholesomeness. The pedagogical tic of the ’80s was to expose everything we take for “natural” as culturally constructed. Yet as a case study, Superstar manages to be not didactic but funny and sad. The Mattel thespians expose the American dream of becoming an image rather than a self: Behind the “construction” of the celebrity’s plastic persona
is . . . more plastic.

With deadpan rigor, Haynes contextualizes Karen’s affliction within postwar American consumer culture. Anorexia is culturally induced by highly controlled familial environments that the victim internalizes. Karen’s boundary-free, custom-uglified Barbie Mom is uncannily replicated in her showbiz handler, who creepily assures her, “We’re a real family here at A&M. . . . All you have to do is put yourself in my hands.” In the case of Karen’s troubled family, body, and identity, the confusion between her image and her life is tragic. On the level of representation, Haynes’s mingling of dolls and “reality” rocks: The jet-molded actors’ scenes are enhanced by establishing shots of “real” suburban scenery, cutaways to “real” gesturing hands, actual toilets, and TV clips that dynamize the groovily dressed, stilted Barbies. Karen’s personal hell occurs in darling miniature mise-en-scènes, against the incongruously sweet, wistful, melodious Carpenters sound track.

Karen’s low-cal journey from suburbs to stardom to skeleton is depicted in one of several elegant montages: As the Carpenters croon that they’re “On Top of the World,” a whirlwind of world capitals, salads, iced teas, Ex-Lax, and bathroom scales charts the career flying and the pounds dropping. Eventually, fans gasp at this obviously anorexic Barbie, her face hacked into bony angles by Haynes’s clever styling. She bottoms out in an eloquent, grotesque scene. Due onstage, her brother, Richard (Ken), finds Karen passed out at her vanity table, slumped over the telltale box of Barbie-size Ex-Lax: “Redo your makeup. You’re a mess!” Her image-obsession is destroying her, but instead of compassion she gets prodded to pull together her “false” self and get out there and perform. (Ever read Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child?) As Karen desperately acts out her invalidated inner life, literally emptying herself with laxatives and emetics, one recalls Nietzsche: “Through what is laughable, say what is somber.” Till the end, the ill goodie-goodie is eager to please others; home from rehab, she cheerfully reports she’s “better than ever,” then hits her stash of teeny Ipecac bottles and pukes to death.

What I love about Superstar is the same thing that excited me about another great art moment of the ’80s (though it first appeared in ’79): Dara Birnbaum’s video Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman. Over and over again Birnbaum repeats footage from the TV show starring Barbie-shaped Lynda Carter: The superheroine twirls in a circle in her wobbly “transformation”; she deflects killer rays with her wristbands while a pasty dweeb cowers behind her. Birnbaum’s appropriation makes Wonder Woman repeat on us in a cheeky way but leaves her relatively intact, while Haynes gnaws at his icon, dirtying her up with repressed back story. Rather than passively consuming such persecutory myths of feminine perfectness, these artists treat them as our psychic playthings (which they are) and wring meanings and feelings from them at odds with the “ready-made” versions. These icons infect the fibers of our fantasies. Haynes’s Superstar chews them up, metabolizes them, and then vomits them out, with chunks of history. While purging is gross in real life, in art it’s swell.

Rhonda Lieberman is a New York-based writer, critic, and artist.