“I just want to be perfect,” says Karen Carpenter in the recording studio, played by a Barbie doll fashioned by director Todd Haynes in, what I would argue, is still his best film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Thanks to Haynes’s deranged casting choice, Barbie is a flawless proxy for Karen Carpenter, the wholesome clear-voiced all-American girl from Downey, California who represented the return to girl-next-door family values normalcy after the freak-strewn Golden State 60’s that gave us homicidal maniacs like the Manson Family. But this same star also withered away to almost nothing, binging on ex-lax and ipecac, yearning for control, self-destruction, and yes, perfection—that same perfection embodied by the one doll that gave young girls’ complexes for decades: Barbie.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Haynes’s banned 1987 film, found only illicitly on YouTube because of a copyright dispute with Richard Carpenter who apparently does not appreciate the camp sincerity genius of the film. And no, it’s not because of the avalanche of leaked pictures from the production of Greta Gerwig’s upcoming 2023 nostalgia-fest Barbie, which features I, Tonya’s Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as aging Barbie and Ken. Other than their costumes, including a country getup that looks straight out of an Orville Peck music video, I could care less.
Instead, my recent Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story fixation comes courtesy of a book found in my beloved Nick Cave’s library on view in the sprawling exhibition Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition, which I took a pilgrimage to Montreal in order to see. But more on that in later essays (yes, I used plural). Much more. Part of the exhibition includes Nick’s expansive hoard of books—some more predictable than others and almost all available for viewers to paw through and get our grubby mits all over. One of the surprise finds, at least for me, was a Cultographies series release focused solely on Haynes’s doll-populated cult classic. While I’m sure I could spend a lot of the time analyzing why Nick might be drawn to the demented vision of Barbie as deteriorating Karen Carpenter, I’ll restrain myself since this is only one of the reasons Superstar zoomed into my consciousness in a pink Barbie corvette.
The other—and dare I say, more important—cause was a holy vision, a visitation to kitsch heaven, otherwise known as Barbie Expo, the supposed largest Barbie museum in the world. I swear I could hear a choir of angels as I fell to my knees in front of rows upon rows upon rows of various Barbies, all lined up and dead-eyed beneath gaudy clear crystal chandeliers. There were designer Barbies! Celebrity Barbies! Consumer product Barbies! Seasonal Barbies! Global Barbies! Praise be Her name! Barbie Expo is perhaps the most awe-inspiring use of Barbie I’ve ever witnessed—only Superstar comes close to its tacky transcendence.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Emily, shouldn’t Barbie Expo be a little low on the list of international travel tourist destinations?! Fuck no! Naturally, whenever I visit a new city, I try to find the trashiest tourist trap possible. I mean, sure, I could find a nice French cafe, tour the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, or visit the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. All of which I did. But all three paled in comparison to the garish glory of Barbie Expo. Really, the most memorable inclusion at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was Jori Smith’s clearly cursed portrait of the visibly disturbed Rose Fortin who looks like an extra from The Shining:
Of course, my Barbie fascination shouldn’t be too much of a shock as there are several Barbie-related essays on this very site! Despite coming off as the ghoulish kid who yanked Barbies’ heads off their unmoving bodies, I frequently played with Barbies as a child—the most coveted being my mother’s vintage Barbie whose mid-20th century quaalude stare was right out of Valley of the Dolls. All of this means that when I searched “weirdest things to do in Montreal” and Barbie Expo came up as the first result, I was sold! And boy, it didn’t disappoint.
Mais, où se trouve L’Expo Barbie? What? Oh! I got so used to trying to dredge up my French knowledge from my undergraduate degree for several days that I lapsed back into it!
Barbie Expo is located in the basement of—what seems to be—a mall that, like most North American malls, has seen its better days. Of course, past its former glory is not at all how the mall, named Les Cours Mont-Royal, describes itself. Instead, its website boasts a hilarious copy predicting that the mall will “redefine the meaning of shopping, it is more than just a mall, it is an experience.” That’s for sure. It was certainly an experience wandering down the desolate hallways and past deserted DKNY stores to come across a jaw-droppingly gorgeous and totally classy red heel sculpture.
Why wasn’t this in the museum?
Yet if you descend a short escalator and weave past a burbling fountain, there you will find it: a Barbie paradise so sublime that it looks to the skies while it’s stuck in the basement. The first thing I saw as I entered the silver-drenched space was a vitrine in which Barbies haltingly spun down a moving runway as if they were models in Tyra Banks’s magnum opus Modelland, a novel so insane that even I, a connoisseur of extreme behavior and bad ideas, could not finish. This Barbie fashion show—with models walking the catwalk and fashion mavens judging the designs from the audience—was only one of the several dioramas placed centrally around the exhibition space. The Barbie fashion show, however, is notable for not only being the first viewers confront but one of the only that makes some sense.
The other comprehensible diorama is also my favorite: A tribute to New York City, which seems like an odd choice in Montreal. Nevertheless, this NYC street scene showcases the taxi-clogged chaos of Midtown Manhattan populated almost entirely by these elegant professional career women Barbies, their hair tangled in the wind whipping through the cavernous spaces between skyscrapers. Admittedly, this conception of NYC is a bit idyllic and could use a dose of realism or at least a dash of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (not too far—we don’t need Barbies shitting in the subway). All it needs is a Crust Punk Barbie covered in hardcore patches with her pit bull sidekick to truly feel like home. Granted, that might just be Alphabet City Barbie… There does appear to be a furry Barbie in the background so at least we have a nod to NYC eccentrics.
The NYC diorama, though, is at least clear in its intended scene. I mean, what the hell is going on here:
These dioramas make up only a fraction of the staggering, over 1000 Barbies in Barbie Expo. The only criticism I have of the exhibition is that it’s not, in fact, a store and there’s no gift shop. What the hell?! Talk about disappointment! I would certainly have bought a John Deere white trash Barbie to add to my demented collection!
Though I walked out empty-handed, it wasn’t all for nothing. Barbie Expo is a dizzying spectacle and a must-see trash destination. For every predictable Barbie on view—the Kate Middleton Barbie, the Beyoncé Barbie, the aforementioned original debut Barbie, there are wilder, weirder, and tackier Barbies on view. A few of which I captured for your drooling viewing pleasure: