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.

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