My love for Jem—the mid-1980s Saturday morning cartoon about the outrageous lives of four supercomputer-assisted sisters who form a band and use holograms and music to teach important moral and sartorial lessons to the world—is definitely adorned with rose-colored glasses. Like most Saturday morning cartoons, Jem cared little for plot consistency or character development, and all of the major shakeups to the show’s cast were tied to Hasbro merchandising concerns. Still, Jem managed to tell stories that hinted at a wide variety of complex themes: the value of being true to yourself; of diversity; of sexual identity; of compassion for other people; of knowing where you come from and appreciating where others come from as well; of creative expression; and of knowing that following your dream requires real work. And that’s ignoring the revolutionary gender dynamics of the show. Relatively speaking, Jem could have been an introduction to the parts of the riotgrrrl movement that 5- to 10-year-olds could actually understand.
Which is why the recently released trailer (see below) for Jem and the Holograms, Universal’s upcoming live action adaptation, is a major let down on all fronts. Not only does the movie look about as expensive as a typical episode of star Aubrey Peeple’s current television show, Nashville—it’s not surprising that Hollywood was willing to dump $150 million into the first live action Transformers movie, then put only $5 million into the adaptation of a property aimed primarily at girls—but the fact that Jem is an action-ready spectacle of an animated series has been ignored altogether. We’re talking a series featuring Synergy, an all-powerful holograph-generating supercomputer, and about 80-billion close-call action set pieces where various characters almost die. Jem and the Holograms—at least based on what we see in the trailer—has scrubbed every one of these high-octane elements.
The removal of Synergy is particularly aggravating, since without her I don’t understand the point of calling this “Jem and the Holograms.” This is like doing a reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that tells the story of a group of BFFs who are pretty good at ninjutsu and decide to name their club “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” because they think mutants and turtles are cool. Shredder is no longer an evil crime lord trying to kill them; he’s just a callous ninjutsu instructor who wants Leo to ditch Don, Raph and Mike to become the star of his team. Leo flirts with fame, but realizes that family is more important. Everybody hugs it out and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles win the big karate match!
Instead of holograms and evil Eric Raymond (the cartoon’s primary antagonist, who in the film is a woman and less overtly evil and played by Juliette Lewis) trying to kill the Holograms, the trailer suggests that Jem and the Holograms is essentially going to replicate the same tired story told by every other film about a band catching their big break. Jerrica (Peeples), Kimber (Stephanie Scott), Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau) get famous after Kimber posts a video of Jerrica singing one of her songs online; Jerrica, rechristened “Jem” by her new label, must decide between fame and family when the label wants to make her a solo star. She’ll totally have to apologize to her band for hubris right before they all gather onstage to play whatever song closes out the movie (the one that got them famous, right?). If you want to do a remake of Josie and the Pussycats, just do that. (Well, don’t…at least that movie had some laughs. This one looks like a dirge.)
Though I find the costume and makeup design in this live action glimpse hilarious—which seems to be the correct way to respond to the costume and makeup design—I’m still worried that the movie will pull a card from the playbook of both Josie and the Pussycats and Hannah Montana: The Movie. From the trailer, Jerrica apparently puts on a Jem wig because she’s afraid to show “herself” on camera. One can only logically imagine, then, that post-reconciliation, when the Holograms prepare to play the movie’s final song, they’ll take the outfits off, telling the audience and each other that their “outrageous” looks were just the “artifice” of fame, a distraction from their true selves. If that happens, the movie is basically dismissing the colorful fashion of the original series out of hand, as if it was simply superficial, or a disguise that masked the authenticity of true artistry—and not, as in the series, an extension of the outrageous creative expression of the band, and a symbol for the way style can be an aesthetic extension of individual personality.
Yes, the revolving fashions were also a marketing ploy by Hasbro to sell dolls and outfits—the show was still involved in teaching young girls how to be proper women in a free market economy, and still a shill for capitalism—but the cartoon managed to frame that with a more complicated message than “buy your dolls cloths.” The likely takeaway this trailer suggests at the heart of Jem—that style is ultimately artificial—is equally problematic. Because jeans and a t-shirt are still a style, and pretending that music is more meaningful just because you take off the wig is super reductive. I’m not even going to parse the hypocrisy of the filmmakers selling the idea that fashion doesn’t matter in a film that I’m 90% sure will feature some kind of fashion montage. Not to mention that this is even a conundrum only in movies about female rock stars. The prevalent assumption that (straight) men don’t care about fashion creates this vacuum where men don’t have style, even though every single male rock star ever is the exception to this rule.
Mostly, I’m just deeply concerned about how all of these potential changes may comprehensively obliterate the progressive dynamics of the Holograms. In the television show, keyboardist Kimber was the primary songwriter, drummer/bassist Shana was creative visionary behind the band’s fashion and costume design, and guitarist Aja was the level-headed right-hand woman to Jem. (Second-season addition and drummer Raya would function as the band’s compassion and heart.) Jerrica herself was a badass—she was simultaneously the head of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, the head of the biggest record label in the world and the head of Starlight House, a foster home for young girls. It’s true that in practice these personalities often played second fiddle to fashion changes, music videos and mid-show action sequences, but they were consistent threads in a show—and, one could say, in a whole type of children’s entertainment—that rarely cared about threads at all.
From the trailer, we learn that Erica Raymond (Lewis, who may be the ersatz villain because she’s a record exec who doesn’t believe in true art) encourages Jerrica to ditch the deadweight of her three sisters. In the cartoon, Jem would have laughed her ass off at the very suggestion. Or not, because she was too busy running the band’s record label to entertain silly crap like that. In the cartoon, adult Jerrica created the circumstances through which she could literally have it all. In the trailer, Kimber instigates a circumstance wherein teenage Jerrica becomes just famous enough that malicious record execs want to exploit her. Jerrica’s choice in the original series was to work hard to attain her dream, despite the fact that Eric and the Misfits were constantly trying to kill her and steal Starlight Records. Jerrica’s choice in the trailer is whether or not to stay true to her sisters—a choice which the animated Jerrica wouldn’t and couldn’t have made because her own specialized work was mirrored by the specialized work of her sisters and band mates.
This television series was a landmark cartoon for having such a diverse cast, though it didn’t always explicitly say a whole lot about race—realistically, the only meaningful reference occurs in the Season 1 episode “Adventure in China,” in which Aja is inspired to be visiting her ancestral homeland. Implicitly Jem was quite happy to show women and men of different races being friends, lovers and compatriots. Admittedly, the series never really tackled the specific struggles Aja and Shana faced as women of color, but at the same time, the cartoon’s whole point, seemingly, was that individual women with individual interests could be outrageous together and create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. Moreover, it’s no mistake that the multiracial Holograms were the heroes while the monoracial Misfits (and later Stingers) were the villains.
If it’s true that the film minimizes the individual talents of each woman—Shana’s fashion is replaced by record label stylists; Kimber’s songwriting is now Jem’s—the message of the cartoon disappears. Any remake, whether live-action or animated, should be making these implicit themes more explicit, not reducing the entire film’s conflict to one about Jerrica’s crisis of agency. In the cartoon, Jerrica’s ability to control her destiny, as well as that of her sisters, was never in doubt—it’s why they were the women superheroes we today so often lament such a dearth of in popular film: They were so adept at stopping all the people who wanted to kill them.
I’ve mentioned the Misfits a couple of times; for those unfamiliar, the Misfits were a band Eric Raymond formed to compete with Jem and the Holograms. Not having them in the film is like doing a movie about Transformers and leaving out the Decepticons. And while it’s worth noting that the actor who plays Kimber, Stefanie Scott, has responded to the nonplussed reactions the trailer is getting by cautioning that “it’s a heartwarming story” and “you can’t put it all in the same movie,” we know enough.
We know Jem (and not Kimber) is the artistic stalwart of the band, and we know she puts on a proto-Jem guise because she’s scared to show herself on camera—not because it’s an extension of herself, because it’s her “secret identity.” We know the Misfits haven’t been cast, so unless there’s a teaser at the end we aren’t getting them at all. Maybe you can’t put it all in the same movie, but the 20-minute cartoon sure did, along with a couple of near-death action sequences besides. If Synergy is involved, why would you not put a hologram-generating machine in the trailer?
If the movie turns out to give thick character arcs to Kimber, Aja and Shana, I’ll happily eat my words, but based on the trailer, I doubt it. In Scott’s defense, maybe the movie works—but that’s not really the issue. The critical reactions the trailer’s received are not functionally concerned with whether Jem and the Holograms is going to actually be a decent movie or not; they’re confused, as I am, about why this is being presented as a movie about Jem and the Holograms if nothing in the trailer seems to reflect the source material except for the name and an ‘80s aesthetic.
We don’t need adaptations to follow the source material note for note; I just wonder if it’s still an “adaptation” if nothing seems to reflect the values, meaning or world of the original. Without holograms, without the Misfits, without the collaboration of the various band members, the purpose of making this movie can’t help but seem cynical. Maybe you can’t put it all in, but you also can’t just remove it all either. No wonder Michael Bay got all the available toy money.
Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.