In the Blog
Why the Jem Trailer makes me sad
Full disclosure: Jem was “my” show when I was a kid. Along with Thundercats and Marvel’s Power Pack comics, it resonated with me. When I was little I had most of the dolls – even Raya and Shana, who were hard to find. There was a Jem poster on my wall. I endlessly listened to the cassettes that came with the dolls. I taped the show. I adopted Roxy as my favourite character; like me, she’d been through a lot. As an adult I rewatched the series on DVD; it had lost none of its charm. And I still loved Roxy.
When I learned that a film about Jem and the Holograms was in the works, I was apprehensive. With many past book adaptations and remakes of 80s and 90s TV and film properties, the creative teams responsible haven’t seemed to even consider where the originals were coming from; they’ve simply built new characters on the frames of familiar names and faces (don’t get me started on the Thundercats and Power Pack reboots of recent years). While that has its merits in some cases, there’s also a lot to be said for respecting what the original creators intended.
I did, however, vow to give the Jem movie a chance. That went out the window the moment I saw the trailer. Hey, for all I know, this is like the first Frozen trailer, and really doesn’t show the heart of the film. However, I kind of doubt it. The new film has seemingly removed every single aspect of what made Jem so special and empowering for young girls, from the bright colors on down. Was the original show perfect? Not at all. It did, however, deserve better than it seems to have received.
1980s Jerrica Benton = Fierce. 2015 Jerrica Benton = Pawn
In the original show, Jerrica Benton was the head of her own record label, Starlight Music. And she didn’t just inherit it from her late father, either – she actually had to fight to take it from Eric Raymond, the nefarious mogul who had been embezzling money from the company. The series made it clear that she didn’t drop that position when she became a rock star under the assumed name of Jem – every now and then she would be depicted working late in her office, doing quarterly taxes or taking care of other business-related matters. In addition, Jerrica actively ran Starlight House, a home for foster girls.
Was she Super Woman? Not really. Starlight Music didn’t always do well. At various points in the series Jerrica was tired, stressed and overworked; in one episode, she (as Jem) said “The hell with it all” and ran off to a desert island. She fretted over whether people liked Jem or Jerrica more. Keeping her true identity a secret ate at her. She didn’t develop Lead Singer Syndrome, and when Jem seemed to get more attention than the other band members, she was upset. Now and then she seemed to finally snap, and nobody seemed surprised when it happened.
Point being, though: Jerrica had some agency, influence and respect in the world. That’s been taken away from her in the new film, as per the trailer. Her music is put online without her permission. Starlight Music is a behemoth corporate entity that is run by someone else, and Jerrica has nothing to do with running a home for foster girls.
When 1980s Jem met other music moguls – including this one, who suspiciously resembled Richard Branson and just happened to be English – she worked with them; not for them.
1980s Jem = Self-Made. 2015 Jem = Prefabricated
As anyone who has ever seen the cartoon knows, Jerrica got her rock star identity, Jem – and her mojo – from Synergy, an intelligent supercomputer designed by her late father. Synergy communicated with Jerrica/Jem through the star-shaped earrings she always wore, and was sometimes called upon to provide distractions or save the day. Jerrica transformed into Jem with the iconic saying, “Showtime, Synergy!” at which time Synergy would fix her up with some (holographic) wild stage makeup and shaggy pink hair.
Here’s the interesting thing, though: while Mr. Benton might have left Jerrica the tools to start a rock group, it was up to her and her friends to make use of them. Synergy didn’t pull the strings at all when it came to the band itself. Jem’s singing voice wasn’t computer-generated: it was Jerrica’s own. The Holograms played their own instruments, wrote their own songs, and designed many of their own stage costumes. Their friends helped direct and choreograph their videos. Jerrica’s record label released their albums. Jerrica also served as the band’s business manager, while her boyfriend Rio took on the role of road manager. It was an in-house, DIY sort of setup.
Shana, one of the Holograms, designed many of the band’s costumes.
All Synergy did was change Jerrica’s outward appearance. The Jemstar earrings and holograms were the equivalent of Dumbo’s magic feather or Buckethead’s mask –they gave Jerrica the confidence to take on a rock star persona, but she was really doing all the work on her own.
Jerrica actually could sing, but only felt comfortable doing so publicly as Jem
In the 2015 trailer, Jem is invented, packaged and coached by the record company, and Jerrica and her friends don’t particularly have a say in anything that is happening to them.
1980s writing = Fairly deep, for a children’s show. 2015 writing = Fluff
Even though the original Jem series had the same intention as many other 1980s cartoons – to sell the toy line – and tended to have silly storylines, it also actually had some reasonably complex character development. There was an ongoing storyline about Ba Nee, one of the Starlight Girls who was determined to find her father, who had been an American GI in Vietnam. The series didn’t gloss over what that meant, either: there was actually a scene that depicted Ba Nee fleeing from a bombed-out Vietnamese village and being rescued by a soldier. Ba Nee’s father was eventually found and was discovered to have blocked out his experiences in the war. It was an allusion to PTSD, a rarely-discussed subject in the 1980s.
In a dream sequence, Starlight Girl Ba Nee flees through a war-torn Vietnamese village
Pizzazz, lead singer of rival band the Misfits (no relation to the punk group!), constantly wanted everyone to love her and had a defensive, angry persona – and viewers learned that she’d been abandoned by one parent and was constantly ignored by the other. Another member of the Misfits, Roxy, was an illiterate former gang member who had been on her own for a long time, but had managed to get to the top of her game as a musician. A third, Jetta, was an undocumented worker; the show made a point of saying that she didn’t have a green card.
Two of the Misfits, Stormer and Roxy
Various episodes showed environmental destruction, drug abuse, gentrification, media harassment, arson, homelessness, runaways and more. Jem was also perhaps one of the only cartoons to heavily acknowledge and feature foster children, with frequent focus on the young girls who lived at Starlight House.
Jem heads to Alaska to save a cove of harbor seals from certain death.
In the 2015 trailer, all of the above appears to be lost. The filmmakers seem to have concentrated on the bubblegum aspects of Jem without delving deeper. It’s been turned into a generic “rags to riches” story.
One of the taglines of the original show – “Truly outrageous!” – certainly applies here. It is outrageous, and perhaps sad, that this amazing show does not seem to have been handled well by Hollywood.