Big Brother’s Only Just Begun: A Foucauldian-Feminist Perspective on Todd Haynes’s film Superstar: A Karen Carpenter Story
by Trinity R. Langbein
Todd Haynes’s film Superstar: A Karen Carpenter Story is a satirical biography of the famous 1970s American singer, Karen Carpenter. Karen became famous during her late teens as part of a family band called the Carpenters, where she and her brother, Richard, shared the spotlight. In the film, Haynes uses Barbie Dolls and a unique cinematic lens to emphasize the many struggles Karen faced in her life of fame, including her struggle with anorexia nervosa. The film perfectly illustrates the harsh patriarchal standards and immense cultural pressures that eventually prompted Karen’s untimely death. It is also through these misfortunes that Todd Haynes challenges his audience’s subservience to cultural norms, almost pleading for them to make a change on Karen Carpenter’s behalf.
Todd Haynes most likely chose Karen Carpenter as the focus for his first film because he felt a kinship with her, having both suffered at the hands of a patriarchal society—Karen as a woman, and Haynes as a gay man. Viewers can easily see that Haynes took an almost brotherly role in how he sympathetically framed Karen’s life story. Haynes’s sympathy for Karen is particularly present in the artificial medium of his film, clearly intended to mock the patriarchal structure of the music media that had turned against Karen during her career. The music industry began Karen’s career by labeling her as a prim, proper role model for young women; but later, when the industry wanted to become edgier, they turned on Karen, trying to stifle her career to make way for edgier performers. They sought to make her seem less perfect by drawing attention to her natural imperfections (such as her weight). It was as if the media suddenly deemed her unworthy of the reputation that they had originally built for her. In the spirit of serving the music industry the same type of criticisms, Todd Haynes re-depicted Karen’s original reputation by having Barbie, a perfected plastic performer, represent Karen on the big screen.
This is exactly the model that Karen strove to become because of the music industry pressure, and this was a crucial factor in her undoing (Haynes). Seeing Karen portrayed by such an iconic character as Barbie, who then becomes plagued by anorexia nervosa due to these types of immense societal pressures, causes the audience to become conflicted by their own expectations of the superstar lifestyle (Wyatt 3). In an interview about this stylistic juxtaposition of film, Haynes stated that “I had an almost childishly earnest desire to understand this character against the grain of the criticism and the dismissal of her as a serious subject or singer. [I] thought of [myself] as trying to rescue Karen Carpenter… Her desire to take back control over her life [through her actions] was something that [I] understood and tried to create some sympathy for” (MacDonald 57).
But, through his quest to support Karen, Haynes received backlash in the form of lawsuits from both Karen’s family and Mattel for using their “intellectual property” without consent (MacDonald 56). The intellectual properties they were referring to include a few hit songs from the Carpenter’s band and the presence of Barbie dolls in the film. And, while copyright laws surrounding the use of music in productions without the artist’s consent is understandable (and later this did prove to be legally fruitful for Karen’s family), the claim that Mattel tried to make was quite a reach. Todd Haynes commented on this quaint legal assertion, explaining, “I received in the mail copies of [Mattel’s] patents on the Barbie doll body. The patents were all for separate body parts… demonstrating, as if there was any question, their legal jurisdiction over Barbie’s body…” (MacDonald 56). The same patriarchy that broke down a female figurine into parts they could own also broke down Karen Carpenter to her literal skin and bones.
It was this sense of overwhelming patriarchy mixed with other aspects of her personal life that eventually created Karen Carpenter’s destructive anorexia. Michel Foucault, the French philosopher that curated the term “episteme” around 1970, described certain qualities in his theory that are found in Karen’s life, further explaining how she adopted such aggressive anorexic behavior. Epistemes assume that no person is completely autonomous in how they act or how they see the world; instead, they assume that people are always subject to the pervading ideologies of the current time (cultural norms, if you will). This pressure can also take place through the presence of “big brother” surveillance, either known or unknown to the subject (Bevir 347). This is especially relevant to Karen since she was a large public figure in the 1970s. Yet, Karen faced surveillance not only in her growing career, but in her personal life as well:
Agnes Carpenter ruled the household with more vigor than warmth. The family ethos dictated that Karen and Richard live at home with their parents – not only when they first became stars at nineteen and twenty-three, but also for many years after. When they did move out, Karen and Richard bought a house and lived together. Even then, one tiptoed around Agnes’s dictates… (Lott 230)
Karen’s mother acted as the panopticon of the Carpenter house, a guard at the center of a prison always watching over her prisoners. Agnes watched her daughter’s every move and, in effect, made every decision for Karen’s life (both personal and career-related). It did not matter if Karen was sick or well, living alone or with her, Agnes always had a way of inserting herself into every fabric of her daughter’s life. And, while Karen’s father, Harold, was not shown much in Haynes’s film, the times that he was on screen led viewers to believe that he was the main “enforcer” to his wife’s “surveillance”–even when the enforcement was downright questionable.
Harold saw his daughter as a sick child in need of “straightening out,” and he allowed his wife to call him in whenever Karen needed to be spanked. Yet, this sort of degrading physical punishment takes on an entirely new connotation when one realizes that Karen was well over eighteen when these spankings occurred (Haynes). The overwhelming parental presence in her life made Karen feel inferior and helpless. These feelings steered Karen toward the one thing she still had control over: her body. The only semblance of control Karen could have over her life was through the fascism of her own body, fostering the perfect mindset for anorexia nervosa.
Anorexics create an odd sense of pleasure and pain through their starvation technique by playing both victim and punisher simultaneously (MacDonald 58). This epistemic battle of trying to maintain inner control while simultaneously feeling a lack of outer control dominated Karen’s life. She became a victim of outside cultural norms, and instead of finding a safe place within herself to escape, her mind turned against her, making her a victim of anorexic inner punishment: “Karen [tried to meet] the culture industry on its own terms, and lost. Operating at the intersection of show-biz spectacle and her mother’s severe strictures on female power and autonomy, she strove to eliminate imperfection until there was no life left” (Lott 230).
Karen Carpenter is an example of how Foucauldian pressures can ravage the female body, furthering the systematic oppression of women in society even today. Every member of the Carpenter family gave everything they had so that their name could become famous, but none of them had truly given more than Karen herself, whom, ironically, was the one that least wanted that fame in the first place.
The film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story by Todd Haynes preserves the fame of the Carpenters while still identifying their transgressions through a satirical, yet accurate, rendition of Karen’s rise to stardom. Haynes used Karen’s feminist and Foucauldian life struggles to crumble the social structure of the film’s audience. Haynes seems to call upon his viewers to question the epistemic boundaries that we are placed into, wanting us to first recognize, and then break those molds ourselves instead of letting those molds break us first.
This is Karen Carpenter’s cautionary tale—the pervading message that Todd Haynes has bestowed upon his audience in Superstar. But the question remains: how will we choose to correct the ruination of Karen Carpenter in our own lives? That, dear reader, is all up to you. By simply recognizing the oppressive cultural norms in our society today, we can work together to enact the changes needed to protect youth, so that they do not have to experience the same pressures that Karen was forced to succumb to.
Bevir, Mark. “Foucault, Power, and Institutions.” SAGE Journals, pg. 345-359, University of Newcastle, 1999, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/1467-9248.00204.
Haynes, Todd. “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.” Dailymotion, Dailymotion, 10 Sept. 2015, https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x363le1.
Lott, Eric. “Perfect Is Dead: Karen Carpenter, Theodor Adorno, and the Radio; Or, If Hooks Could Kill.” Criticism, vol. 50, no. 2, Spring 2008, pp. 219–234. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/crt.0.0064.
MacDonald, Scott. “From Underground to Multiplex: An Interview with Todd Haynes.” Film Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 3, Spring 2009, pp. 54–64. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1525/fq.2009.62.3.54.
Wyatt, Justin. “Cinematic/Sexual Transgression: An Interview with Todd Haynes.” Film Quarterly, vol. 46, Spring 1993, pp. 2–8. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1525/fq.1993.46.3.04a00020.
Trinity R. Langbein is now a rising sophomore at Capital University in Ohio. She is majoring in English Literature with a minor in Spanish, hoping to one day attain a doctorate from graduate school and become a college professor. Trinity has always been an avid reader and writer, and this piece, written in her Critical Theory class, has piqued her interest in the role different media play in the literary world. She is looking forward to becoming a Writing Consultant for Capital this upcoming school year and hopefully having more of her works published in the future.