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  • The Incredible Shrinking Star:Todd Haynes and the Case History of Karen Carpenter
  • Mary Desjardins (bio)

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Figure 1.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (US, 1987)

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Critics have consistently characterized the films of Todd Haynes within the terms of what B. Ruby Rich described in 1992 as the "new queer cinema"—films whose style displayed traces of "appropriation and pastiche, irony" and a social constructionist understanding of history. Not surprisingly, most of these critics, as well as Haynes himself, have sought analytical explanations for his directorial choices in relation to the generic (the woman's film, the star biopic), authorial (Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder), and theoretical (theories of narrative, identification, repression) antecedents cited in his body of work.1 In other words, Haynes's authorship is constituted in the repetition of his particular citations of past forms. The ironic recontextualizations of these forms evidence a social constructionist historiography and assert Haynes's directorial agency as resistant to the norms of conventional cinematic representation and spectatorial identification.

This essay does not seek to overturn these models of authorship or those of the new queer cinema. It will examine the [End Page 23] construction of Haynes's authority as it emerged from the material practices that produced and surrounded Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (US, 1987), a film biography cowritten with Cynthia Schneider of the singer Karen Carpenter, who died of anorexia nervosa in 1983 at age thirty-two. This forty-three-minute, 16mm film using dolls to enact the life of the 1970s singing star was not Haynes's first work, but it was the one that authorized him as a promising director of alternative cinema. Film festivals and critical reviews, in sites ranging from local city newspapers to Art forum and the Village Voice, served as the vehicles of Haynes's ascension as director. But his decision to shape the narrative around the placement of a number of Carpenters songs also resulted in a legal battle (lost by Haynes) with A & M Records and the Carpenter family over the question of who was authorized to represent Karen's life and her voice. Defining Haynes's emerging authority at this time only in the contexts of his trajectory to critical fame or of his legal troubles with Superstar, however, would prove insufficient in answering key questions about Haynes's authoring choices that produced a particular version of Karen Carpenter's life within its historical and cultural context. For that reason, this essay will explore the degree to which Superstar affirms and reproduces the norms of conventional cinematic representation and spectatorial identification—even as its citations of the woman's film and star biopic deploy irony, distanciation, and hybridization to question and critique those norms. A major contention of my article is that Haynes's self-conscious recontextualizations of generic conventions of the woman's film and the star biopic, as well as his infamous use of dolls, do not necessarily result in an escape from either the fantasy potentialities or epistemic foundations of those genres, which promise the recovery, the plentitude, of the biographical subject. The film's threat to A & M Records and the Carpenter family plausibly came as much from its forceful evocation of this desired plentitude (expressed through the voice) as from its parodic critique and the illegal soundtrack.

The generic, cultural, and historiographic work that Superstar performs, and the constraints in which it operates, are made clearer by comparing and contrasting the film not to one of its [End Page 24] antecedents but to one of its successors, The Karen Carpenter Story (dir. Richard Carpenter and Joseph Sargent, US, 1989), the made-for-television movie authorized by the Carpenter family. It could be argued that the films should be discussed together if for no other reason than that the subsequent television movie offers the Carpenter family's version of Karen's life that was produced once Haynes's version had been legally silenced through their efforts. However, I argue that the films share remarkable similarities in their contexts as biopics: they were released during a period in which there was an explosion of media-produced biographies (and...


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pp. 22-55
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Archived 2005
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