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Outrageous: How the Jem and the Holograms Movie Completely Misses the Point



The trailer for the Jem and the Holograms movie is out there in the world, and the response on social media is pretty damning. Rightfully so. This film presents us little more than yet another anemic tale of Girl Bands Gone Mild and completely misses the point of what made Jem so significant in the first place.

By eradicating everything about the Jem backstory from this adaptation, the film takes a story of female empowerment and turns it into yet another pop-diva-corrupted-by-fame narrative, and we have plenty of those. What we want, what we need, is what Jem and the Holograms offered: Jerrica Benton, the main character, is a philanthropist who runs Starlight House to foster young girls as well as a successful business woman who wrestled her father’s record label from the evil machinations of her adversary Eric Raymond. She becomes the alter ego Jem through the use of Synergy, an audio-visual synthesizer developed by her father, whose avatar was based on Benton’s mother. What initially began as a marketing ploy to sell Hasbro dolls became one of the most girl-positive, complicated narratives of the 1980s.

The trailer for the Jon M. Chu film suggests that perhaps all of that girl power was just a little too complicated, and instead gives us the story of an orphaned teen uploading her tunes onto YouTube and then – wait for it – becoming a star. Throw in some discarded ideas from Hannah Montana and the Josie and the Pussycats film and… there we are. So when the girls exclaim “The biggest record company in the world wants to sign us!” we lose sight of the fact that Starlight was the biggest record company in the world, and Jerrica owned it. When Eric Raymond tried to control Jerrica, she fired him. He then created a badass trio called The Misfits who exemplified the punk ethos as well as what it means to be a cutthroat woman who stops at nothing to succeed – yet time and again, it is the Holograms who come out on top, proving that the organic team of musicians working together and staying true to themselves will always be more true, appealing and real than the constructed artifice of a slick marketing ploy.

Oh, the irony.

It beggars belief that such an original idea as Jem could be watered down into such a flavourless rehash. Not even The Misfits make an appearance, and yet Juliette Lewis, who is Pizzazz incarnate, appears as the Svengali who remakes the band into a marketable product. Again: the irony.

When Lewis’s character says, “You are no longer Jerrica… Jem! That’s what we call you now,” both Jerricas lose their agency: becoming Jem in the series was Jerrica’s decision to make, not a marketing decision imposed upon her. Her transition to Jem was clearly marked as a persona with the phrase “Showtime, Synergy”. She decided when she would change, and change back. And the conflicts arising from her persona were not another round of beating the tired drum of ‘when women become successful, they betray themselves, their friends, family, and all they stand for’ but instead an existential exploration of identity… and admittedly, a rather unfair (and unbelievable) conflict of betrayal brought on by Jerrica herself by not being honest about her persona to Rio, her boyfriend and the band’s road manager.

But these were Jerrica’s conflicts of career choice: do I want to be the businesswoman or the star? And how Jerrica achieves success in both of these lines of work rests on how she embraces her father’s ahead-of-its-time multimedia technology, which she manipulates effortlessly into an innovative, immersive experience of sight and sound. Jerrica is a goddamn wunderkind.

And the issue with Rio was a reflection of these career options, and the roles women thought they had to take by choosing one or the other – the underlying message being, however, that women could do it all, have it all, because there was Jerrica, doing it all, having it all, and the dramatic irony was that if she were honest with Rio, she would see that. These conflicts were fairly complex for a children’s TV show, but if they were strong enough to make the marketing strategy work for Hasbro, why were they not strong enough for Universal Pictures? Particularly when a good proportion of the audience was built in and expected this?

Near the end of the trailer, Lewis can be heard in voiceover saying “an icon is not one of four, it’s one of a kind” – really? Tell that to the Beatles. When will we finally have the male version of this story, when the singer is segregated from the band and made a ‘star’, friendships break, tears are shed, success corrupts, be ye warned, pop princesses? Oh wait, that never happens. Male musicians are artists; female musicians are a commodity and a family. They must be held to a completely different standard, as though this is just another way of informing women that no, you cannot ‘have it all’. Jem and the Holograms subverted this narrative in the 1980s, in part because Jerrica built a family of blood, of friends, and of foster children; she managed to take on two careers simultaneously in addition to her family responsibilities, and she did this on her own. When her band became successful, it was a band, and this is evident in the videos and the story lines. Sure, maybe it was to maximize sales, to ensure all the dolls on offer were bought. But it also sent the message that Jem and the Holograms was a collaborative effort, there was no one breakout star, each woman in the band – and again, note that these were women of color, as well – were presented as equals, working together. This is what made Jem and the Holograms so great, and what is truly, truly, truly outrageous is that in 2015, none of this made it into a long-awaited big screen adaptation.

Cat Conway is originally from Chicago but lives in London. She is a poet, a journalist, an academic and an inner-city English teacher. She also makes a highly regarded peanut butter chip peanut butter cookie. You may follow her intermittent feminist ranting and retweets at @mllekitty.

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