“What happened? Why at the age of 32 was this smooth-voiced girl from Downey, California, who led a raucous nation smoothly into the 70s, found dead in her parents’ home?”


Content Warning: eating disorders

Long before Barbie — in fact when Greta Gerwig was just four years old — Todd Haynes created a fascinating student project which used the dolls to portray the life of Karen Carpenter. Filming animated toys is itself nothing novel, but Haynes’ specific combination of Barbie with Carpenter’s life and particularly her anorexia nervosa created a powerful statement about society’s treatment of women and celebrities. In contrast to the previous decade’s rock and roll, the Carpenters’ melodic pop was marketed as “clean cut”, imposing a particular image on siblings Karen and Richard. The use of dolls presents a clear statement about the way in which musicians are controlled and puppeted within a society driven by consumerism rather than art. Barbie’s particular body shape was no accidental choice for a film focused on anorexia (at times adopting the style of a Public Service Announcement) — not only would anorexia-related complications eventually lead to Karen’s death, but Haynes portrays a life dominated by a desperate desire for control. Her family are often protrayed in a grotesquely distorted manner and Superstar may have a subversive tone but it is only ever sympathetic to the tragic figure of Karen and it is overtly critical of society’s treatment of female celebrities in particular. The result reflects unpleasantly back on Barbie herself, as much a tacit subject of the film as a tool. Meanwhile that same treatment of female characters and controlled image is a thread that runs through Haynes’ work, including Carol and most recently May December.