Mental health issues, and eating disorders in particular—being consistently gendered feminine—are exacerbated, downplayed, and ignored by patriarchal institutions. Frustration on the part of the victimized is understandable, and art can justifiably be deemed escapist in essence. Conversely, I present to you: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), a movie that refuses to allow marginalized voices to be silenced, or their stories to go untold.
Todd Haynes’ (Carol (2015), Wonderstruck (2017)) film school debut takes an unconventional approach to the subject of famed pop star Karen Carpenter. As one half of the ‘70s brother-sister duo, The Carpenters, Karen’s meteoric rise to American pop icon status intensified pre-existing issues with body image. Coupled with a controlling home environment, her condition led to her eventual demise in 1983, when she suffered cardiac arrest from complications arising from anorexia nervosa. Playing off associations with oppressive standards of femininity, Superstar is cast entirely with Barbie dolls, complete with handmade props and real dollhouse sets.
Although his characters are developed with a warmth and compassion normally reserved for, you know, real people, Haynes never asks you to look past the soft vinyl cast of characters. As Karen’s initial insecurities and dieting spiral into laxative addiction and self-starvation, Haynes carved her figure down with a scalpel, scene by scene, to replicate the emaciated appearance of critical anorexic patients. His singular creative casting choice alludes to the oppressive body standards women face from infancy, and calls attention to the plastic-perfect ideological image of Nixon-era America that The Carpenters’ music came to represent. It’s difficult to imagine a better representation of The Carpenters’ white bread conservatism than Superstar’s Barbie/Ken-populated dollhouse.
Haynes splices his film with ‘60s style educational videos, featuring an eerily cheerful, somewhat robotic woman’s voice reading medical definitions of anorexia, and black-font captions, fading in and out of the moving background. Contributing a sense of documentary realism, these segments verbalize the film’s unabashedly feminist mission—insistently placing Carpenter’s body at the feet of twin-bros patriarchy and capitalism.
As a (former) casual Carpenters fan, approaching the iconic duo only through the equally iconic Simpsons Movie soundtrack (2007), the film’s use of their saccharine pop hits was nothing short of revelatory. Writer-director Todd Haynes—who would go on to pioneer the New Queer cinema movement of the ‘90s—made this film about Nixon-era harmful ideologies that resurfaced during his own Reagan-era film school years.
The film’s feminist sentiment rings true in our own context, with eating disorders clearly continuing to fly under institutional radars. Recently editorialized in The McGill Tribune’s opinion section, McGill Student Services’ September overhaul (read: Gutting) of its already much maligned Eating Disorder Program attempted to restructure the service with an eye to balancing accessibility and efficiency. Rationalized in a statement to the Tribune which reads better as a math equation than an apology, McGill’s handling of some of its most at-risk students can best be characterized as ruthlessly utilitarian. This recent maneuver fits snugly within McGill’s recent pattern of downsizing the care that the administration is willing to offer its students in need, and more broadly speaking, the inclination of patriarchal institutions to minimize the effects of mental illness on individuals. As McGill students can attest, Carpenter’s story is but one of many. But as long as patriarchal structures ignore these problems, artists like Haynes will continue to fight for space for those on the margins.
Removed from circulation in 1990 due to copyright infringement for its use of The Carpenters’ music, 'Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story’ is available only in bootlegged form on YouTube and Dailymotion.