In the 1980s, girls—in the immortal words of Cyndi Lauper—just wanted to have fun. Hasbro, which had successfully revived its male counterpart to Barbie, G.I. Joe, still wanted a piece of the fashion-doll market that Mattel’s Barbie dominated. Thanks to the popularity of MTV, which played nothing but song-length music videos, Lauper and Madonna made a milder version of punk-rock rebellion accessible, with catchy pop tunes and a girlie spin on punk style.
Thus, the “truly outrageous” rocker doll Jem and her all-girl band the Holograms was born. According to Hasbro, in the early '80s, designer Bill Sanders came up with a line of fashion dolls to appeal to these girls who loved dolls and pink, but also wanted to be MTV stars. His answer was a 12.5-inch-tall vinyl doll with big hair, edgy wardrobes, and glittery glam-rock makeup. Sanders’ prototypes included a car and dolls for two all-girl bands, a boyfriend figure, and Synergy, the female representation of an artificially intelligent supercomputer.
Thanks to the success Hasbro had marketing toys through cartoons like “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” and “The Transformers” in the early 1980s, the company naturally decided to commission another animated series from Marvel Productions and Sundbow Productions, a subsidiary of the New York advertising agency Griffin-Bacal. “G.I. Joe” writer Christy Marx was hired to give the new dolls their story. The Japaneses studio Toei Doga animated the cartoon.
In Marx’s story, Jem is the secret rock-star alias of Jerrica Benton, who inherits half of the Starlight Music label from her father when he dies. Unfortunately, her father’s corrupt associate, Eric Raymond, has been willed the other half of the company. Starlight Music supports the Starlight Foundation, which funds a foster home for girls called Starlight House. Right away, Eric attempts to shut Jerrica out of the business and close down the charity. However, Jerrica is contacted by Synergy, a supercomputer her father built in secret to be the “ultimate audio/visual entertainment synthesizer,” and with the help of Synergy’s hologram projections, Jerrica takes on the identity of pink-haired lead singer Jem to regain control of the label. Jem/Jerrica just touches her “Jemstar” earrings and says, “Showtime, Synergy!” to change costumes fast.
Jem's redheaded kid sister, Kimber Benton, takes on the role of keyboardist and lead songwriter, and her two adopted sisters, Aja Leith, a Asian American guitarist, and Shana Elmsford, an African American drummer, fill out the rest of the band. Together, they form Jem and the Holograms to compete with Eric Raymond’s face-painting wearing “bad girl” protégés the Misfits, featuring Phyllis “Pizzazz” Gabor, Roxanne “Roxy” Pellegrini, and Mary “Stormer” Phillips. To complicate matters, Jerrica’s boyfriend, Rio Pacheco, falls in love with Jem.
The “Jem and the Holograms” TV series debuted in October 1985, several months before the toys actually hit the stores. In the meantime, Mattel had the opportunity to release its own MTV-inspired update of Barbie, a line called Barbie and the Rockers, in 1985. Like Jem, Rocker Barbie favored hot pink, purple, and glitter, and had a band featuring mostly women, including a redhead, an Asian American woman, and a black woman. Both Hasbro and Mattel claim they had the idea first. Rocker Barbie came with a cassette tape featuring four songs: “The Rockers Theme,” “Dressin’ Up,” “Born With a Mike,” and “Stretchin’ It.”
When Jem and the Holograms toys were released in March 1986, they were a little bit more expensive than Barbies, and also about one inch taller. The Jem/Jerrica doll had flashing...
At the time, “Jem and the Holograms” was the No. 1 cartoon in the United States. And despite Barbie’s unshakeable dominance of the fashion-doll market, Jem became the 10th most popular toy line in 1986, the highest any fashion doll had reached since Barbie was introduced in 1959. Later, dolls for new Holograms drummer Carmen “Raya” Alonso and new Misfits saxophone player Sheila “Jetta” Burns were added to the line, as well as a new rival band called the Stingers, featuring Rory “Riot” Llewelyn, Phoebe “Rapture” Ashe, Ingrid “Minx” Kruger, and a few of the Starlight Girls.
Ultimately, Jem and her friends were no match for Barbie, who was more familiar to parents and children. When it came time to choose between Jem and Barbie at the store, most families went for Barbie, which far outsold the Jem line. The “Jem and the Holograms” toy line went out production in late 1987, and the final season of the cartoon continued to air until spring 1988.
In recent years, Jem has seen a revival, as the old cartoon has been popping up on cable TV and Netflix. Integrity Toys recently licensed the rights to produce limited edition dolls based on “Jem and the Holograms” characters. Meanwhile, Hasbro’s Hollywood Jem debuted at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con International for $135 and sold out in a few days. Currently, Integrity has issued 25 Jem-inspired dolls, which sell for more than $100 each. And finally, in 2016, a new live-action “Jem and the Holograms” movie will debut on the big screen.