PART ONE: A SOUVENIR OF THE HOLOGRAPHIC ORGAN, WITH SOME SUGGESTIONS IN REGARD TO THE HOLOGRAPHIC MOTHER, SOUL OF THE RAINBOW, AND THE HARMONY OF LIGHT WITH MARGINAL NOTES AND ILLUMINATIONS.
The live action Jem Movie is slated to be released in October 2015 with a cast that includes Molly Ringwald and Juliette Lewis. It’s based on the 1980’s cartoon series Jem and the Holograms (now streaming on Netflix), which was created by Hasbro to sell a line of dolls. The movie targets the nostalgia of Gen-Xers like myself and has sought to create a legitimate new version of the story with a lineup of reputable actors. As a longtime fan of the show, I am, of course, cranky about this. I’ve been rewatching the cartoon series in an attempt to catalogue and archive those elements that are most important to understanding holographic feminism. These archives make up The League for Holographic Music, a set of paratexts affiliated with the post-internet life of the cartoon show. The movie will reinscribe outdated modes of feminism, working against the League’s grassroots efforts to catalyze a holographic feminist movement.
The premise of the cartoon series concerns Jerrica Benton and her alter ego, Jem, a pop rock star who inherits a holographic computer, Synergy, after her father passes away. Jem and her band the Holograms have many adventures revolving around giving concerts, making movies and record albums, publishing fashion books, and many other artistic endeavors. They are constantly pitted against rival band The Misfits and their manager, Eric Raymond, whose dubious business practices jeopardize the health, sanity, and safety of Jem and the Holograms and the residents of the Starlight House, a halfway house for foster children run by Jerrica Benton.
Synergy introduces herself in the first episode as, “the ultimate audio visual entertainment synthesizer.” She changes the Holograms outfits before their performances or in between hurried moments of the day and creates mirages to distract the bad guys who are often trying to kidnap or harm Jem and the Holograms.
I imagine one precursor to Synergy could have been the color organ, an instrument with screens, much like television screens, that projected colors and shapes as music played. The colors and shapes corresponded in precise ways to the music notes being played. Many artisans experimented with versions of the color organ during the Victorian era. This one, built by Bainbridge Bishop in 1893, looks a lot like Synergy. (The title of this essay is borrowed from Bishop’s book A Souvenir of the Color Organ, with Some Suggestions in Regard to the Soul of the Rainbow and the Harmony of Light).
Still, Synergy may have more in common technically with a machine called the “Clavilux,” a device invented by Thomas Wilfred. According to the Handbook of Holography, the Clavilux, “consisted of various spot and floodlights controlled by rheostats and used prisms, filters, and projection screens….” The Clavilux was intended to display images in addition to just color, making it an important variant.
The Clavilux and Bainbridge Bishop’s color organ were Victorian versions of MTV, a precursor to the music video, the genre that changed my generation’s viewing habits.
It was as a latchkey kid growing up in the 80’s that I was first introduced to the cartoon series Jem and the Holograms. Before coming home to Synergy after school each day, I was first met by a giant oak hutch with a 24-inch television encased behind a set of rolling wooden doors. It is important to note that parents (whether out of apathy, lack of awareness, or ambition) allowed my generation to swim in this new collective unconscious that was MTV. According to Vladimir Propp’s functions of a fairy tale, it is the absence of the parents that allows the hero to proceed with his/her adventure. The same is true for Jem and the Holograms; her story mirrors the story of the show’s intended audience, kids like me, left without parents. Through the course of the cartoon series, we learn that Jerrica’s father (Synergy’s creator) first intends to “broadcast live holographic music shows into every home in America” using his invention. After he learns that he is dying he adjusts his plan, to have Synergy serve as a mother, guide, teacher, and friend to Jerrica and her sisters (who are also band mates). He programs Synergy’s “matrix with the voice and likeness” of Jem’s mother who died years earlier in a plane crash.
I learned a lot from the TV, especially things my mother didn’t want me to know. The television became the Holographic Mother, who in her trinity (laser, beamsplitter, mirror) became omnipresent, summoned on demand. The Holographic Mother was the voice inside my head telling me to change the channel or turn it off. I didn’t always ignore it, even though she couldn’t reinforce her rules with physical presence. It is in part, because of this motherly role, I have begun to classify the hologram as a kind of cyborg, not an automaton.
beam splitter=real mother
lens= my understanding of my mother’s rules about the television
object=television, 2D image
The hologram existed in my mind; I embodied that voice, took it on, and became a mother to myself. Yet, the voice remained a separate and distinct creature, a holy ghost, a sound and logic with its own set of emotions and directives that brought the television’s two-dimensional technology into three. Michael Talbot explains this idea in his book The Holographic Universe: “Creating the illusion that things are located where they are not is the quintessential feature of the hologram.” Is that why the television made it appear that more people were in the house than ever were, to cover up the spooky (un)settling noises of our two-story condominium or the sound of the wind on hot afternoons? Is that why my sister and I used the television as an oracle to answer important questions about the day and our future lives, like whether we would we do our chores, or how much money would we have when we grew up? We never got simple answers. The Holographic Mother raised us with questions, with surreal, riddle-like answers.
To be clear, the Holographic Mother and television are not one in the same. Holographic Motherhood is what sometimes gets created in the transaction between the reader and the text. This transaction between reader and text is what creates a third dimension—the place where holographic motherhood can exist. (This transactional reading theory is an idea I co-opted from Louise Rosenblatt’s The Reader, The Text, The Poem. Roland Barthes refers to this same phenomenon as the “blind field” in Camera Lucida.)
Like the changing colors, light, and patterns projected by the color organs of previous centuries, Synergy uses Jem and the Holograms’ bodies to play out the of choice of colors, shapes, and textures she makes in selecting the band members’ outfits. The impulse to match sound and sight is a biological one. There is an empathic, human quality to Synergy’s technology. Synergy uses logic and imagination to analyze each girl’s personality and then selects appropriate clothes. She draws on the human traits of Jerrica’s mother to accomplish this and is an example of the mother who anticipates the child’s every need. These needs are unapologetically met and delivered holographically. She is synesthete and empath, light-filled cyborg.
This leads me to a question: How does Synergy keep the girls clothed on stage, or anywhere for that matter? For the holographic clothing (or any of Synergy’s holographic projections) to be seen, Jem/Jerrica uses “remote micro processors”—her Jemstar earrings—to project the holograms. It’s consistently hard to believe that she is able to project such large-scale mirages with such a small pair of earrings. It would have been more in keeping with 1980’s technology to create a holographic stage with all the necessary mirrors, lasers, reference beams, and other accouterment. However, this would restrict the narrative of the show too much, not to mention the bodies of women.
The skin is the largest organ of the human body. It is dressed and undressed with the eyes. In the case of Jem and the Holograms, the eyes of 1980’s boys. Synergy’s laser light may play interference, but other images exist between our imagination and the holographic projection.
In an interview, head writer Christy Marx mentions that the show was designed to appeal to girls but to prevent boys, who controlled the TV remotes, from changing the channel. To address this challenge, they added a holographic computer and a lot of action scenes to the narrative. Some may argue that another, perhaps more subliminal appeal for these boys would be the knowledge that in reality these girls may actually be wearing little or no clothing. The only thing standing between these young women’s naked bodies and the viewer is the laser light reflections of a holographic computer with enough power to be a defense industry secret.
For me, the wardrobe changes of Jem and the Holograms were actually central to the show’s narrative arc. The suspense actually didn’t center on the car chases and the airplane crashes, or what the characters weren’t wearing. The show centered around what combination of clothes the girls were wearing and for what occasion. What would Jem wear to ski in Colorado? Sight see in China? Produce and perform in a magic show? I found myself anticipating and relishing these wardrobe changes, constructing possible outfit combinations in my own mind prior to Synergy unleashing her lasers. The time and effort it takes to create these outfits in the viewer’s imagination is where the real pleasure of watching the show lies. It results in the viewer actually dressing Jem and the Holograms, rather than undressing.
Still, one can read Jem and her bandmates’ holographic fashion as a way to keep girls reliant on the machine/mother who dresses them. One can read the girls’ impulse to use such a powerful machine in such a frivolous way as anti-feminist in character, a set of dolls who have not fully realized their subjugated status, not only in the world, but also within their family unit. The girls’ choice to use Synergy as a wardrobe manager (she offers and demonstrates this skill to the girls in the first episode) makes it so fashion is not something Jem and her band mates have to think about, whether they wish to appropriate or subvert the trends of the day or fall in line with a uniform. This leaves them time to compose music, volunteer, run a major record label, travel the world, produce and direct their own movies, fix Synergy when she breaks, adopt children, help others and still enjoy fashion.
The fact that the Holograms’ wardrobe is not one of the constraints of their lives or even a defining aspect of their identity is a real asset. The ability to change their clothes frequently, to undefine their style, is not just a coping mechanism for dealing with an inequitable society or a political statement about their personal worth. The show suggests wearing fashionable clothes is both a survival skill and a desirable attribute of a happy life. Who or what’s to say this message isn’t so far off? (Two recent books that get at this same idea are Women in Clothes edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton and Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism by Linda M. Scott.)
It is certainly a luxury to have a holographic computer. It is also a luxury to have the time, energy, and resources to select one’s own clothing thoughtfully, in the same way that anticipating the girls’ outfit choices while viewing the show is so pleasing. But, Jem and the Holograms frequently aren’t afforded the luxury of time. They are often living in survival mode, coping with an emergency situation. Synergy is what allows them to materialize themselves both as agents in the creative and cultural marketplace as well as in their personal lives. While the television I grew up with was ubiquitous with basic channels being widely available, cable TV and MTV was a luxury and a resource for real parents to draw upon (or reject or be ambivalent towards). Conversely, Synergy is a one-of-a-kind machine. Jerrica Benton receives her, like a princess receives her crown, as a birthright.
In The Holographic Universe, Michael Talbot explains that it is possible “for every portion of a piece of holographic film to contain all the information necessary to create a whole image.” When a holographic plate is cut, the whole image can still be projected using only a fragment of the film. This idea was tested by Karl Lashley, who adopted the hologram as a metaphor when doing his research on memory and the brain. He taught rats to run a maze, then surgically excised portions of their brains and retested them in order to determine if he had also cut away the localized section that contained the memory of the maze run. No matter what portion of the brain or how much Lashley took, the rats continued to be able to run the maze.
The hologram when cut retains the whole in every part. Fully realizing Holographic Motherhood requires understanding our memory works the same way. As Fanny Howe elucidates of memory and consciousness, “our memories are part of one great memory.” Nostalgia pricked from the lobes of babes. Nostalgia met with the luster and leanness of the future. An eternity happening now.
The essence of the Holographic Mother is ethereal but it has material properties. She is the body unmaking rather than securing its coherence and integrity. She enacts life as a souvenir of light, a three-dimensional sound, resounding. She is capable of pixelating and comingling the five senses in order to braid us all back to the mitochondrial DNA, biology’s supreme set of motherly directives, proof that god is woman. A woman who began to segment my life, neatly, into 30-minute episodes, which can be recalled, rerun, and spliced in a Technicolor of sentiments and language over and over. Each time a segment plays, it is the first time.
This is the first installment of Renee Angle’s four-part Jem and the Holographic Feminisms series. Subsequent installments will appear in eight-week intervals through October 2015.