Four years after the tragic death of Karen Carpenter, and two years after he graduated from university, Todd Haynes released Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, an experimental short film utilizing Barbie dolls and dainty, handmade props and dainty doll houses to tell Carpenter's story. The decision to use Barbie dolls in place of real characters is far from a gimmick - the absence of live-action actors allows Haynes to explore Carpenter's world without the additional, unnecessary theatrics and melodrama which typically permeate biopics. It is a Lifetime movie on lithium, a short film that slips between dreamy clarity and nightmarish surreality, which confronts us with the superficiality of pop culture and the commoditization of women's bodies.
Using dolls in place of live actors is an active statement about the way we perceive our icons; there is a particular dissonance we associate with celebrities, an inability and refusal to identify them as human - they are famous because they are better than us, and we hold them to impossible standards of perfection. The same casual misogyny all women endure every day is exacerbated and cranked up to 11 in the public eye - they are expected to be a whore in the streets and a Madonna in the sheets, sexualized but never overtly sexual. There is a horrific pop culture ecosystem: seeing celebrities on screens and in pages engenders a feeling of remove in which they are aspirational yet unattainable, real yet not. Tabloid culture fuels this ecosystem by tearing down celebrities in an attempt to make them human: "they're just like us!" They are praised and held in high-esteem for what makes them special, yet condemned for their very human imperfections. There is an intangible and impossible beauty standard that persists to this day. It is nebulous and that ideal doesn't truly exist, but we find it in the airbrushed pages of magazines and in films and books and television. We hear it in music.
This is the ecosystem that led to Karen Carpenter's demise.
Haynes' film is twee yet haunting, much like Carpenter's music - listen to "Superstar" or "Rainy Days and Mondays" or "Close to You" or any of the big hits Haynes uses to soundtrack the film. Before she even died, Carpenter's voice sounded like a ghost. There's a tonal discordance to the music of The Carpenters, with their wholesome, romantic lyrics and Karen's rich, dreamy voice - the voice of a woman who should be grown beyond such simplistic schoolyard crushing. The discordance in their music lends itself to the discordance of Haynes' film, and similarly to Carpenter's psychologically fractured and emotionally repressed state.
Throughout the film, Haynes uses title cards to express his intent:
They are perhaps unnecessary to anyone capable of digesting cinematic themes and narrative intent, but the most effective of these appear on screen over scenes from a grocery store, as a woman's voice narrates in direct conflict to the message. The woman describes a time in American culture at the end of the '50s, when rationing came to a halt, when there was an abundance of food and food choices in grocery stores, when every home had a refrigerator and could store extra food in their freezers. In contrast, Haynes' captions detail Carpenter's anorexic affliction, the way it fulfilled her desire for complete self-control, and how it effectively made her a fascist to her own body - she was both the dictator and the emaciated victim of this internal governance, and at least a few times throughout the film Haynes inserts brief, terrifying flashes of a skeletal corpse as it is tossed upon other skeletal corpses in a mass grave at a concentration camp.
As Haynes' cards accurately and succinctly suggest, the anorexic's condition is complex, but the result is startlingly effective: in a culture where women's bodies have been co-opted by the media, an anorexic successfully rejects these cultural beauty standards, moving beyond the ideal to become the inverse, a cautionary tale for the dangers of irrationally transmuting subjective beauty to objective standards. And yet, Carpenter was criticized by the very media that held her up to such impossible standards and provoked her to indulge in unhealthy behaviors.
We live in a world of "too." Her eyes are too squinty. Her hips are too wide. Her hair is too short. Her lips are too thin. Her breasts are too large. Her breasts are too small. These lines are drawn until they create a suffocating box, and any attempt to attain this nebulous ideal is met with further scrutiny; we are trapped in these boxes reinforced by our own insecurities, which are used against us like weapons.
"I'm great," "I'm fine," "No really, I'm okay," Carpenter repeats through Haynes' film like a chilling refrain. Tiny, doll-sized Ex-Lax boxes find their way into every corner of her claustrophobic, doll-sized existence, as her overprotective yet well-meaning parents unwittingly reinforce the boundaries of that box. Boxy suburban homes flash by on the screen, replicated with boxy suburban dollhouses. Her entire life is a series of confined spaces.
Karen Carpenter died in 1983. She remains frozen in time, as unreal and haunting now as she was then. She cannot get worse, but she cannot get better; her death allows her to remain in arrested development, just as her family wanted, in a state of suspended animation just like a plastic doll. We can overlook the horror of her emaciated figure, which confronted us with the realities of a war waged against women, and instead focus on the fragile darling she was when she first emerged from her parents' nest. Beautiful, serene, a ghost before her time.
Carpenter's death is almost poetic in its tragedy: she rejected the basic act of consumption in a world that was devouring her.
Haynes captures every jarring note of her life effortlessly - Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story isn't merely an experiment in film, it's an experiment in empathy and a call to arms that is sadly still required.