We got cable TV in the 1983, the same year I discovered what I called “rock” music, thanks to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Since the “Thriller” video gave me nightmares, I wasn’t supposed to watch MTV, the all music-video channel that launched in 1981, but I did. Pretty much every kid I knew had it on in the background all the time. Why would an 8-year-old girl play with “babyish” toys when this colorful and rebellious world danced before her, beckoning from the screen?
In September 1983, Cyndi Lauper declared “Girls just wanna have fun!” According to the music video, fun entailed the wildest game of dress-up imaginable, with piles of petticoats and flamenco skirts, beads, bangles, and glitter for days. The same month, Madonna turned heads with videos for “Lucky Star” and “Holiday,” synth-laden sassy-in-love songs, while making this punk-lite look even more kid-friendly, with floppy hair bows, cropped T-shirts, mesh gloves, and leggings. I practiced these starlets’ dance moves and adorned myself with twist beads and a chunky plastic charm necklaces. I even tried to tie measuring tape into a hair band.
With all these cartoon-like “rock” stars, it seemed inevitable that the next lady rocker would be an actual cartoon. 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, as were most tweens in the MTV Generation. 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.
“With the advent of MTV, Nickelodeon, and ‘Miami Vice,’ a rock ’n’ roll feeling has permeated the youth market.”
Even though “rock” has lost its cachet with the youth, Jem does have a shot at wooing Millennials. After all, untamed, feisty pop starlets—Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Pink, Kesha, Nicki Minaj, and Iggy Azalea—have conquered the Billboard charts.
Perhaps it’s the perfect time for Jem, the “truly outrageous” one, to descend from her star-shaped platform in the sky. But who is Jem and where exactly did she come from? And can the new movie hold a candle to the original series?
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. She had wild hair and makeup, but in girly shades of fuchsia, purple, pale pink, and powder blue. She had money, a career, a dreamboat boyfriend, a secret identity, and a band, but still devoted a good deal of her time and energy to helping orphaned girls. Who wouldn’t want to be her?
At the time, Hasbro was banking on exactly that. Because 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. In the early ’80s, Hasbro had succeeded in creating animated TV shows to slyly market two toy lines, G.I. Joe—the 22-year-old action figure that was the company’s first answer to Barbie—and the Transformers, a newcomer in the American market. So when toy designer Bill Sanders came up with a prototype set of 12.5-inch-tall rocker dolls designed to appeal to a new generation dazzled by the Day-Glo world of MTV, Hasbro turned to the creators of its previous cartoon hits, Marvel Productions and the New York advertising agency Griffin-Bacal, which had a TV production arm called Sunbow.
“Jem really has a social conscience. Her world is not about shopping and dating. She is a working girl, a woman of the ’80s.”
Sunbow and Marvel enlisted “G.I. Joe” writer Christy Marx to flesh out the story and characters for the new fashion dolls. All she had to work with were the dolls for two all-girl bands and a boyfriend named Rio, a toy classic convertible known as the Rockin’ Roadster, and a doll for Synergy, a female-identified supercomputer endowed with artificial intelligence. How could a supercomputer be represented as a doll? Well, she’s portrayed as a life-like “hologram” of a purple-hued woman. (Back in the ’80s, hologram technology was thought to be the way of the future.)
Marx gave the main character, Jem a.k.a. Jerrica Benton, a dense back story: Her mom, Jacqui Benton, had been a foster child and a nightclub singer, known for her song, “Starlight.” Jem’s inventor father, Emmett, created a Los Angeles record label called Starlight Music to support his wife, as well as the Starlight Foundation, an organization that used to the label’s profits to support a home for orphaned girls called the Starlight House. After Jacqui died in a plane crash, Emmett worked in secret on a supercomputer named Synergy—the “ultimate audio/visual entertainment synthesizer”—that would have the musical gifts, personality, and good looks of his beloved wife, while his assistant, Eric Raymond, helped him run Starlight Music.
The cartoon starts when Emmett dies, six years after his wife passed away, and wills half his company to both his eldest daughter, 20-something Jerrica Benton, and Eric Raymond. The show’s main villain, Eric, is constantly trying to take full control of Starlight Music and shut down the Starlight House. But he doesn’t know about Synergy. Shortly after her father’s death, Jerrica meets Synergy, who explains her father’s work. New mother hen Synergy provides Jerrica and her friends with musical instruments, and tells Jerrica that she can project holograms from her “Jemstar” earrings. Like a good superheroine, Jerrica takes on the dual-identity of pink-haired Jem to avoid the conflict-of-interest issues around signing herself to Starlight Music. While she becomes the frontwoman for Jem and the Holograms, her biological teenage sister, the redheaded Kimber, becomes the keyboardist and main songwriter. Their two adopted sisters, the blue-eyed Asian American Aja Leith and the African American Shana Elmsford, take up guitar and drums respectively.
Of course, Eric Raymond, who is embezzling money from the company, is none too happy about signing squeaky clean Jem. His pet band, the Misfits (completely unrelated to the ’70s horror punk band of the same name) has an edgier, darker sound. This all-women “bad girl” group features wealthy mean queen Phyllis “Pizzazz” Gabor, gruff tomboy Roxanne “Roxy” Pellegrini, and pushover Mary “Stormer” Phillips. The Holograms and the Misfits become fast rivals. Meanwhile, Jerrica’s purple-haired boyfriend, Rio Pacheco, the Holograms’ Latin American manager and engineer, gets particularly confused when he also falls for Jem—perhaps because she is a flashier, more confident version of Jerrica?
One of the most innovative aspects of the “Jem and the Holograms” cartoon was the integration of full songs and music videos. Every episode contained three segments shot like the music videos of the day featuring two Jem and the Holograms songs and one Misfits song. Ford Kindler and Anne Bryant wrote the music for both bands, and Barry Harman came up with the words, including the iconic lyrics of the Jem theme song, “Truly Outrageous.” Britta Phillips sang Jem’s parts, while Ellen Bernfield sang for Pizzazz of the Misfits. The Holograms songs are surprisingly disco-esque, often featuring horns, which no one in the band plays. In 65 episodes airing over three years, “Jem and the Holograms” produced 187 music videos for 151 unique songs.
“Perhaps it’s the perfect time for Jem, the ‘truly outrageous’ one, to descend from her star-shaped platform in the sky.”
And thanks to Marx, 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.
The show apparently struck a nerve. Marx was quoted as saying, “The switchboard was flooded with calls from kids of all ages. I heard of two stories in which 10-year-old children had run away and used the number to be safely returned home. It was an unqualified success and made a profound impression on me. Any time I question my responsibility to my audience, I remember the impact of these episodes.”
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.
“We are forcing Mattel to create an identity for Barbie.”
“We wanted to get into the fashion-doll section of the toy industry,” said Hasbro Vice President Al Carosi told John Swenson of the United Press International in December 1986. “We had identified the interest young girls have in rock ‘n’ roll music. With the advent of MTV, Nickelodeon, and ‘Miami Vice,’ a rock ‘n’ roll feeling has permeated the youth market.”
Candace Irving, Barbie marketing manager for Mattel, told Lisa A. Lapin of the “L.A. Times”: “It would have been impossible to bring something out by the time we could confirm a rumor of that magnitude. We introduced [Barbie and the Rockers] because rock ‘n’ roll is a big trend. Our Rocker dolls were in production long before we ever heard of Jem.”
Mattel dressed its iconic multi-careered 11.5-inch doll in hot pink, purple, and silver lamé with a shock of punky hot-pink clip-on hair. Rocker Barbie came with a doll-sized hairbrush, clothes, accessories, and microphone, as well as a real, full-sized cassette tape featuring songs like “The Rockers Theme,” “Dressin’ Up,” “Born With a Mike,” and “Stretchin’ It.” (An example of Barbie’s preening, materialistic lyrics from “Dressin’ Up”: “I’m dressed in pink. Hey, that’s my shade!/When I wear pink I’ve got it made!/My bracelets flash, my earrings shine,/I’m looking good, and feelin’ fine!”)
Like Jem, Barbie had a whole multi-ethnic fashion-doll band with a redhead named Diva, an Asian American woman named Dana, an African American woman named Dee Dee, and a Latin American guy named Derek. A full Barbie and the Rockers set would include the Hot Rockin’ Stage featuring plastic toy instruments, which was based on the mold for Donny and Marie Osmond TV show playset from 1977. This setup, with all five dolls, would run parents about $70 at the time.
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. The Holograms and Mistfits dolls, meanwhile, came with their doll guitars or keytars, and a playable cassette tape featuring three songs from the TV show. While the Rio doll also came with a cassette tape, instead of an instrument, he held a briefcase. To get all four Holograms and a Star Stage playset would have cost a parent around 80 bucks. The Rockin’ Roadster toy car, meanwhile, came with a working radio.
By October 1986, “Jem and the Holograms” dolls rose to the spot of No. 10 best-selling toy, according to the Toy Hit Parade, published by “Toy & Hobby World” magazine, 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. But when the fashion-doll world took a walk on the wild side, it was a boost for Mattel, too, which reported record-breaking sales of Barbie, thanks to the Rocker line. For Christmas 1986, Mattel introduced a Barbie and the Rockers’ van that doubled as tape recorder with a microphone.
Even though Jem was No. 10 in toy world, she was No. 1 in TV land: November 1986 Nielsen ratings showed “Jem and the Holograms” was the top cartoon in the country. As Hasbro prepared to roll out new Jem dolls in 1986 and 1987, Christy Marx was charged with creating new characters on the show. Thus, Shana briefly left the Holograms to pursue a career in fashion, allowing the show to introduce Carmen “Raya” Alonso, a Mexican American drummer. When Shana rejoined the band, she picked up bass guitar. The calculating saxophone player Sheila “Jetta” Burns was also invited to join the Misfits.
In Season 3, “Jem” introduced a whole new all-blond rival band called the Stingers, featuring a hunky and arrogant male lead singer, Rory “Riot” Llewelyn—and, in the spirit of the popular “hair rock” of the day, an abundance of sky-high hair. Eric Raymond’s new project also featured two women: manipulative Phoebe “Rapture” Ashe and self-absorbed Ingrid “Minx” Kruger. In September 1987, “Jem” began airing five days a week. At the time, the cartoon was Nielsen ranked as the No. 3 children’s series, with 2.5 million viewers. The shift to daily episodes was expected to draw another 1 million viewers.
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.”
In 1987, Mattel, with the help of DIC Productions, aired a two-part animated TV mini-series featuring Barbie and the Rockers, and it was pretty far out. In the first episode, “Out of this World,” Babs and the band put on a rock concert in outer space in the name of world peace. In the second, “Barbie and the Sensations: Rockin’ Back to Earth,” the group returns to Earth to find themselves performing as the Sensations in 1959, not coincidentally, the year the first Barbie doll hit the market. This mini-series was intended to launch a regular “Barbie and the Rockers” half-hour cartoon, but the deal fell through.
However, 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?
Compared to Rocker Barbie, more-or-less a regular Barbie with a hip, new set of clothes, Jem and her friends were fascinating, complex characters and a phenomenon specific to the MTV era. However, Jem’s uniqueness was no match for Barbie’s long-standing ability to hook her tiny plastic fingers into the hearts of children. The remaining Jem dolls were discounted to $7, and the line was dropped from production by the end of the year. New episodes of the cartoon ran until spring 1988, completing Season 3, and then “Jem” re-runs were broadcast on the USA Network until 1993.
“We’re worried that Jem and the Holograms will be flat dolls rather than Day-Glo rockers.”
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. A year later, the first JemCon, an annual convention for a small but rabid group of Jem devotees, took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
So far, Marx’s dream hasn’t been realized. But the 1980s Jem cartoon series returned to TV in 2011, thanks to The Hub Network, a collaboration between Hasbro and Discovery Communications, and a Canadian channel called Teletoon Retro. The same year a “Jem and the Holograms” complete series box set was released on DVD. And the old cartoon has been offered on Netflix since 2012.
Jem the doll has been reborn, too. Hasbro licensed its Jem product rights to Integrity Toys, which offered a special Hollywood edition of Jem at the Hasbro booth at the 2012 Comic-Con International in San Diego. The dolls, priced at $135 each, sold out within 48 hours. At this point, Integrity has put out 25 limited-edition dolls based on “Jem and the Holograms,” selling for around $119 each, roughly 10 times the price of a Jem doll in the 1980s.
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.
“With all these cartoon-like ‘rock’ stars, it seemed inevitable that the next lady rocker would be an actual cartoon.”
First of all, Hasbro Studios, which began production on “Jem” in April, has licensed its beloved toys for empty-headed action movies like the new “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” series, as well as the upcoming “Ouija” and “Candy Land,” (Adam Sandler will both star in and co-write the latter). 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 “L.A. 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. With the help of her sisters, including Disney stars Stefanie Scott as Kimber and Hayley Kiyoko as Aja and “Pretty Little Liars” star Aurora Perrineau as Shana, she goes on a scavenger-hunt type mission to decode a message left by her dad. Ryan Guzman, the star of “Step Up Revolution,” will play Jem’s love interest, Rio.
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.