When I was 10 in October 1985, Jem and the Holograms, an animated half-hour program about an all-girl band, made its debut. I was all about it. Now, almost 30 years later, Jem and the Holograms are staging a comeback, via a new live-action movie, announced this March and set to premiere in 2016. And in case you doubt it’s meant to tug on the nostalgic hearts (and pocketbooks) of us Gen Xers, ’80s superstars Molly Ringwald and Juliette Lewis have been given yet-to-be-named roles in the film.
The “Jem and the Holograms” cartoon, which had its first run between 1985 and 1988, told the story of Jerrica Benton, a wealthy young philanthropist and businesswoman who moonlighted as a glamorous rock star, Jem—with the help of cutting-edge hologram technology, naturally. Jem had it all: She embraced rock-’n’-roll rebellion, but she was still a conventionally pretty, blond “good girl,” who would fit in anywhere.
What the 10-year-old version of myself didn’t know was that the toy company conceived Jem as a hipper, more modern challenger to Mattel’s 26-year-old Barbie, the reigning champion of the fashion-doll market. “G.I. Joe” writer Christy Marx to flesh out the story and characters for an animated TV show revolving around the new fashion dolls.
In the cartoon, Jem is frontwoman for a band featuring her biological teenage sister, the redheaded Kimber and their two adopted sisters, the blue-eyed Asian American Aja Leith and the African American Shana Elmsford. Meanwhile, villain Eric Raymond is always trying to shut down Jerrica’s music company and the charity for orphaned girls it benefits.
Even though Jem was glamorous and famous, she had a social consciousness, like any good superhero. Aside from giving hands-on support to the orphaned girls in the Starlight House, who were regular characters, the Holograms regularly played benefit concerts for countless causes. The cartoon often touched on hot-button issues such as drug abuse and teen runaways. In the two-part “Music Awards” episode, Marx emphasized that not all runaways need to return home; some are escaping genuinely abusive situations. The end of that episode featured a public service announcement for a teen runaway hotline.
Hasbro unveiled the first line of Jem fashion dolls four months after the Sunday-morning cartoon hit the airwaves, at the February 1986 American International Toy Fair in New York City. But Mattel beat Hasbro to the punch, giving Barbie an MTV-style makeover by late 1985. One story claims Mattel heard about the Jem prototypes, and rushed out a Rocker Barbie line. Another says that Jem was originally an all-male band, but was changed to all women when Hasbro caught wind that Mattel was making Barbie a New Waver. Either way, the toy lines are suspiciously similar, down to the races and hair colors of the band members.
The neon Jem dolls, at top, look suspiciously similar to the Rocker Barbie dolls below. (photos via Addicted2Cuteness and Tsaki’s Toybox).
Despite this fierce competition, when Jem and the Holograms fashion dolls first landed on store shelves in March 1986, they were a hit. The Jem/Jerrica doll sold for $10-$15, wore flashing LED Jemstar earrings, and came with a pink wig to put over Jerrica’s blond hair, as well as a mic, clothes, and accessories. By October 1986, “Jem and the Holograms” dolls rose to the spot of No. 10 best-selling toy, according to the Toy Hit Parade, which ranked U.S. toys by monthly retail sales. The top three spots held steady, with G.I. Joe at No. 1, Pound Puppies at No. 2, and Barbie at No. 3. The magazine’s editor told the L.A. Times that this was the first time in history a fashion doll got so close to threatening Barbie’s throne.
Up until this point, Mattel had avoided creating any story-driven cartoons featuring Barbie, lest the toy lose its quality of an empty vessel for imaginative play. But the threat of Jem was all too real.
“We are forcing Mattel to create an identity for Barbie,” said Stephen A. Schwartz, senior vice president for marketing for Hasbro told the L.A. Times. “Jem really has a social conscience. Her world is not about shopping and dating. She is a working girl, a woman of the ’80s. She’s an executive. She makes decisions. She has lots of pressure.”
Rocker Barbie was trouncing Jem at the toy store in 1987, even though the 3 million tapes of the Jem song “Truly Outrageous” sold with the dolls would have amounted to a triple-platinum album, had it been accounted for in the record industry. Jem was failing to meet Hasbro’s sales expectations. Generally, when little girls were at Toys “R” Us with their folks, they were told they could only choose one doll, Jem or Barbie. Guess who they chose?
Jem might have been a flash-in-the-pan, but she wasn’t forgotten. In 2004, Christy Marx said she would love to start writing new episodes of the Jem cartoon adapted to life in the 2000s, but the property-rights situation was complicated.
In the past 10 years, several filmmakers have attempted to revive the Jem franchise as a live-action film, making pitches, trailers, and petitions. And now, all us ’80s kids who grew up loving Jem and her glitzy, big-hearted world—as well as all the kids raised on Hannah Montana—will finally get to see Jem on the big screen. But before you go lip-synching and prancing around in a neon-colored conga line, hold up. Early signs suggest the story currently selected by Hasbro Studios, the toy company’s own film branch, won’t be nearly as sophisticated, fun, or socially conscious as the original cartoon.
A teaser for the new Jem film.
On the JemTheMovie Tumblr, director Jon M. Chu, who also directed G.I. Joe: Retaliation and the Justin Bieber doc Never Say Never asked Jem fans for their ideas for the script and encouraged them to audition for the film—not a bad idea. “Within four hours of the posting, we got 1,000 submissions,” Jason Blum, one of the film’s producers, told the LA Times.
However, original Jem writer and creator Christy Marx has not been invited to the table, and she’s “deeply unhappy” about it. Ryan Landels is writing the script, “for a whole new generation with themes of being true to who you are in a multitasking, hyperlinked social media age,” producers told the Hollywood Reporter. There’s no word of Jem and her friends fighting for social causes.
Instead of a young businesswoman trying to save her family’s business and charity, Jem/Jerrica Benton (“Nashville” star Aubrey Peeples) will be an orphaned teen girl who rockets to fame through a viral video. As Lauren Davis at io9 puts it, “Add all of this to the fact that Marx was never consulted on the film and our girl-power movie has an all-male development team and we’re worried that Jem and the Holograms will be flat dolls rather than Day-Glo rockers.”
Good-bye, fabulous hologram dreams. Welcome to the real future: Social-media fame trumps fighting for social causes, powerful women are reduced to sad girls, and a mammoth toy company allies with Hollywood to make money ruining everyone’s favorite childhood memories. Did Eric Raymond actually win? Say it ain’t so.
Writer Keidra Chaney also covers Jem in Bitch's Tough issue—read her article "Requiem for a Jem" in the magazine's digital edition.