GLITTER AND GOLD: IN GOD WE DIVIDEND
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 The movie will reinscribe outdated modes of feminism, working against the League’s grassroots efforts to catalyze a holographic feminist movement.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.
My first post of this series mainly focused on Jem and the Holograms’ holographic computer Synergy, Holographic Motherhood, and how fashion is depicted and embodied on the show. I’ll focus the discussion for this installment around a three-part episode (Starbright: Pt I: Falling Star, Starbright: Pt II: Colliding Star, and Starbright: Pt III: Rising Star) that occurs early in season one. These episodes illustrate some major tropes of the show that concern capitalism and working women in America. Throughout this show, and especially through this three-part episode, financial transactions (or lack thereof) propel the plot forward and help to determine notions of good vs. evil, sacred vs. profane, and even the chastity of the characters. The importance of a work ethic is reinforced throughout the episodes, frequently crossing into subplots featuring the Starlight Girls, who are orphans that are taken care of by the Starlight Foundation which Jerrica and Kimber’s parents, Jacqui and Emmett Benton, founded. This instills the idea that earning one’s keep is a virtue and working for free is often necessary to meet one’s creative goals and support one’s family. Here’s a clip that outlines the plot:
To recap this three-part episode: Eric Raymond (antagonist of the show) challenges Jerrica/Jem to a Battle of the Bands, and the winner will gain control of Starlight Music (the record company owned by Jerrica/Jem’s dad, which they inherited when he died). Wealthy executive and real estate mogul Howard Sands offers an additional incentive, “a fantastic movie contract” to the winner. When Jem and the Holograms win and show up to the studio for the first day of filming, they learn the studio has been sold unexpectedly. The new head is Eric Raymond, installed by lead singer of the Misfits, Pizzazz, after she convinced her father to buy the movie studio so that she could get her band in on the free publicity the project would offer. The Holograms learn the Misfits will be the new co-stars of the movie, and are continually harassed by them. The Misfits attempt to sabotage filming in every way possible.
Meanwhile, Jerrica takes her 8-year-old Vietnamese foster girl, Ba Nee, to an eye doctor and learns within a matter of months Ba Nee will be blind. The doctor says there is an experimental kind of laser surgery available, but he’s not hopeful. Jerrica takes this as a sign of hope regardless, and the doctor tells her the surgery costs $250,000. As she and the Holograms search for money to pay for the surgery, Jerrica/Jem is advised by the housekeeper of Starlight Manor that they should try to get the cash from Starlight Music. Eric Raymond was the head of the company until Jerrica/Jem won Battle of the Bands, but when they arrive at Starlight Music, they see that the company’s finances have been drained to help support publicity for the Misfits. With no money available from Starlight Music, Jerrica/Jem resolve, with the Holograms, to raise the money for Ba Nee’s operation by returning to the movie set and finishing the movie.
Jerrica goes to Eric Raymond and asks to come back to the movie. Eric agrees, but with the caveat, “I need an assistant. Someone to run around for me.” Jerrica must agree to work for Eric, so that Jem can finish filming the movie. The Misfits spend the entire second episode of the three-parter sabotaging the movie and putting the Holograms in physical danger, mostly through making Jem and Kimber do their own stunts. According to the clause in their contract, if the Holograms fail to perform, they won’t get paid. But when the Misfits go too far and come very close to severely injuring Kimber, Jem quits for good. Eric Raymond continues filming with the Misfits as the lead stars of his movie. Jerrica/Jem invite the film crew, who are all tired of Eric Raymond making bad creative decisions, back to the mansion.
They all volunteer to make a movie for free in order to beat Eric Raymond at his own game, and help raise money for Ba Nee’s eye surgery. Jem and the Holograms then work with their friends to make a “free” movie. In the next scene, Jerrica heads to the eye doctor’s office, where she signs over her deed to Starlight Mansion in order to move forward with the surgery; she is warned that if she can’t ultimately pay with cash, the mansion will be lost. The movie does well at the box office, smashing its competition, the Misfits’ movie. Jerrica is able to pay for the surgery with cash and recover the deed to the mansion. Ba Nee’s eyesight is restored. Cut to Jem’s music video in which she sings this lyric: “Caring people are people with dreams who go to extremes to fight for those dreams.”
Jem and the Holograms is set in a world where physical money reigns, and the characters operate with that understanding. Yet, the women don’t even win “real” money during the Battle of the Bands. Their prize is more work, and more opportunity to prove themselves as the best female rock band around. In this three-part episode, no fairy tale transformations govern the connection between Jerrica/Jem and their holographic mother, Synergy. Jerrica/Jem never think to use Synergy to laser up some cash to pay the doctor. Or, even ask her for advice. Holographic money could have easily been replaced with real money, just as Jerrica recovers the mansion’s deed by paying for the surgery with cash at the end of the three-parter. Transformation is an essential element to many fairy tales as well as the genre of science fiction. The fact that Synergy seems to be so blatantly under-utilized throughout the show, and this three-part sequence in particular, firmly roots the show in the realm of realism, where women’s’ moral obligations outstrip innovative technologies that can solve their problems.
Those of us who can obtain a credit card can expand the money supply just by using it. But, American society still feels uncomfortable giving women credit. This ad I recently found in my Facebook feed neatly mirrors the discomfort the show’s writers display when it comes to having Jem use a credit card. She has a mansion, an expensive roadster, a housekeeper, and is employed as a record producer. If she’s got all these things, perhaps the most important one being gainful employment, why doesn’t she have a credit card? Credit is a privilege that women portrayed in the show don’t have, and credit is also just a placeholder for actual currency, of both the literal and political kind. What’s the difference anymore, between giving our daughters (to whom this ad is marketed) a credit card with a $100 spending limit and a pre-paid credit card, anyway? A pre-paid credit card is an outdated form of technology reliant on the idea that operating with cash somehow keeps women honest and directly tied to their hard work. It becomes problematic when so much of that work is invisible. David Hume put forth the notion that we only need money because it can cipher and figure (inexactly, yes) our appetites and ambitions but patriarchal society has always feared the appetites and ambitions of women.
Many episodes display the same formula: the Holograms creating their art by leveraging the “free” labor of their friends. And this formula rests on another set of equations that goes back to ideas put forth by James Frazer in The Golden Bough where he illuminates a vacillating set of contradictions, the sacred and accursed, clean and unclean, that exists in taboo thinking. Freud’s theory about gold serving as a symbol for feces further affirms the idea that money exists within a realm that is both idolized and repellant.
In short, Pizzazz and the Misfits’ material wealth and spiritual poverty create a bullshitty mess for the Holograms, which they dutifully clean up in order to achieve spiritual well being.
Enter Jem Glitter ‘N Gold.
People of the Internet age accept that everyone/anyone can create, consume, inform, and inspire in ways that previously required huge resources, institutions, and hierarchical systems. Jem and the Holograms’ way of creating their movie (later on they make a fashion book the same way) may fit into systems like Kickstarter or Indigogo, but those structures fail artists too, those structures create scenarios that often times make it impossible to account for the cost associated with labor. How does the Jerrica/Jem movie crew manage to eat or pay their rent during the movie’s production? One must assume that Jerrica/Jem’s non-monetary assets (like the mansion, a housekeeper with access to a giant pantry of food) were put forth to help create a scenario where the film crew could donate their labor for free.
Another cost that goes unaccounted for in the production of Jerrica/Jem’s attempt to one up Eric Raymond and his entourage, by making a movie for free, is the rivalry between Jem and Pizzazz, the Misfits’ lead singer. According to John Ruskin, a nineteenth-century art critic and social thinker, “The art of making yourself rich is equally and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbor poor.” The Holograms “wealth” increases as the Misfits get “taught a lesson” each episode. Jerrica/Jem’s work ethic is valorized on the show in two ways: as each character, she is artistically successful (creating popular, quality work) and she does work she doesn’t expect to get paid for. Jerrica/Jem and all of the Holograms earn their money (or what little of it they seem to have) so they can protect their chastity. Their hard work keeps them pure of heart and without the resources (or even the thought) to consummate the significant romantic relationships in their lives. Rio and Jerrica/Jem are the best example of this. Jem’s always running off to some emergency during their dates, especially when they are kissing (or about to kiss) which is one of the central tensions of the show.
Jem and the Holograms’ work ethic is sharply contrasted with Pizzaz, whose father buys her anything she wants (like a movie studio, yo!), but their relationship is empty and strained. The “miserly” impulse the Misfits constantly express, and their insistence on being paid for the actual work they do, is driven by the fear that their work will lose its value if the Holograms give away too much of it. In an episode called, “World Hunger Shindig” the Misfits jockey to get themselves on a concert bill intended to be a fundraiser for World Hunger, only because the Holograms will be playing. They don’t want to be shown up, they recognize the free publicity this event is bringing the Holograms, and they want in on the action (and the chance to steal some of the money being raised). Their outfits and costumes are way trampier (animal prints, lower cuts) than the Holograms. Their insistence on the monetary worth of their art comes off as naggy and selfish. The Misfits’ “Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie” music video, which appears in the second episode of the three-parter, directly references “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and the later “Material Girl” to suggest that the Misfits are liberated, practical, and available women. Their bodies express continued spiritual poverty, which is tied to the idea they should be paid for their work. The work itself is defined in a nebulous way. What is the work that Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, and Roxy (in this video) are actually doing to get men in tuxedos to hand them expensive jewels? On the other hand, one can also view the Misfits’ (and Marilyn and Madonna’s) attitudes about money and their knowledge of their own sexual power as resourceful, savvy, brave, and enlightened.
Pizzaz might whine a lot to be paid, but Jerrica/Jem’s relationship with their father’s record label, Starlight Music, also reeks of entitlement. Starlight Music is often referred to as a bank almost, rather than a creative endeavor. In the pilot, Jem and the Holograms head there to get cash to make repairs on a ramshackle house they’ve been living in. A few episodes later, when they need money for Ba Nee’s surgery, they do the same when the housekeeper reminds them: “Have you forgot about Starlight Music?” Jerrica/Jem’s inheritance of a holographic computer, rather than cold hard cash, seems not only weird and random (yes, this is one of the appeals), but a logistical nightmare, a type of deficit that leaves them continually cash poor. Maybe this is one way that the Holograms are able to be positioned as the underdogs, over and over again, even though the narrative frame, physical attributes, and personalities all overwhelmingly position the exciting, fashionable, benevolent and chaste Jem and the Holograms as the heros.
What Jem and Pizzazz have in common are their distant fathers. Jem’s is distant through death, but even when he was alive, he was always working on his holographic computer. Pizzazz’s talent or persona is not fortified, masked, or bestowed by a holographic computer, but she wears a mask of glam rock make-up and she is unabashedly ambitious. Jerrica’s ambitions are cloaked in a gift economy, in a do-gooder impulse that leaves everyone else at a deficit, and so I sometimes end up feeling pretty unsympathetic to her character. Jerrica’s father leaves her the tools to fish and Pizzazz’s father buys her the fish. No one is self-made here. Both girls are inheriting men’s money; both take their turns topping the charts, yet neither seems truly happy. When looked at from this direction, the Misfits don’t seem like the unilateral villains they first appear to be.
At the beginning of episode two, after Jerrica/Jem and the rest of the Holograms have resolved to return to the movie set and finish their work, Eric Raymond forces Jerrica into working for free as his assistant in order for Jem to be paid. It’s Jerrica’s body that must toggle back and forth between Jerrica/Jem (with the help of Synergy) in order to perform two jobs at once: lead actress in a movie and executive assistant. Eric’s unwelcome promise of reward (in this case, a percentage of movie profits for Jem) in exchange for work that is being done as a “favor,” for “free,” creates a power dynamic that involves a sexual harassment scenario without the bodily signifiers.
John Ruskin also argues that the true definition of wealth is the capacity of exerting “power over men,” but the person who has the wealth and power over Eric Raymond is Pizzazz and she often exerts it through highly orchestrated corporate take-overs (backed by her oblivious father), manipulating the media, or yes, even kidnapping and physical violence as in one episode where she pushes Eric into a time machine and it is unclear if he’ll be able to come back.
Jem and the Holograms seem to suggest the intrinsic rewards of working hard for free are enough. That is an idea American culture continues to sell, for women especially. This idea affects men and fathers as well, but is also a set of assumptions bound up in the helping and creative professions. Non-profit sectors that don’t compensate for labor by paying a market rate (or even a living wage) and adjunct salaries both rest on the assumption that workers in the nonprofit or education fields should be working, in part, for altruistic purposes. Market economies may pay higher rates, but they now make the assumption that employees should be available at any time, through their smart phones, wired devices, and laptops; this renders the work/life balance so lovingly referred to in the 80’s a passe fixation of frustrated employees that lack good sleep, good human connection, good pay, and good advocacy for the work they do. Lack of full time employment opportunities – and the trend of using software programs to do the work of employees, so companies can downsize as needed on a daily or monthly basis – also leaves many people who do work with itinerant and unsteady pay situations. What this landscape means for Jerrica/Jem, as they actively participate in every aspect of work/home life, is that the creative work that is most important must be done for free, the labor of raising children will also go unaccounted for in societal terms, and the salary that Jerrica draws as a record executive will not account for her skill set, the time she spends working, and the overall product she delivers.
Alternative to the work-for-free ethic Jem and the Holograms seem to espouse, and the Misfits’ whiny brand of entitlement, is the eye doctor’s calm, factual statement that Ba Nee’s surgery will cost $250,000. In the context of the show, (and even here in 2015) it’s okay for the doctor to charge full price (I suspect) for his services, even when there is no description of what that money actually buys, even when those who need those services cannot reasonably pay. It’s okay for an 8-year-old Vietnamese foster child to go blind because she cannot pay, but it would be unacceptable for her to forego the surgery just because it might not work. (The doctor explains it as “experimental” surgery. Jerrica/Jem read this as “hope.”) In the context of the show, it’s okay for Jem/Jerrica to gamble with the health of a child, if there’s even a small chance that a procedure will restore health; this is especially true if the child has no “real” parents, has dark skin, and is an indirect victim of a war the country she now calls home instigated and inspired.
I learned by watching Jem and the Holograms that Synergy, Jerrica/Jem’s holographic computer, isn’t the only fiction. None of it is realistic. It’s not realistic that Jem and the Holograms pay for an expensive eye surgery. It’s not realistic for the eye surgery to work. It’s not realistic for this group of women to be “a struggling female rock band” and still have time for romance, children, and domesticity in a variety of forms. I couldn’t “buy” these plot points then, anymore than I can now. These things were (and still are) as realistic as the idea of a father leaving a holographic computer to his daughters. What the show seemed to be suggesting to me, back in the 80’s, was that women need a holographic computer to be able to “fix” the problems they face. And that the problems working women faced could only be fixed by a technology that still, in 2015, does not exist in a commercially viable way. When it finally does, it will already be outdated. It is here, watching this show, that I’m reminded again that the problems that women face are a fiction, able to be solved by science, which has just about caught up to the fiction. But the technology has no practical application for improving the lives of women. The American Dream is actually not an option for anyone on the show at all. Instead of enacting their singular destinies, all the characters are really only representing the larger phenomenon of the economic structure. As a girl, this message was certainly underscored by my own single mother’s working life. She might be why I interpreted this motif as a hopeful message, if only because it felt like someone was telling me the truth.
THE INCOMPLETE LEDGER
According to one collectors site, Jem and the Holograms was the number one cartoon in the United States in 1986. The toy line went out of production in 1987, but the show kept airing until spring 1988. Part of the problem with the Jem dolls was that they were 12 ½ inches tall, while their direct competitor, Mattel’s Barbie dolls, were 11 ½ . Some theorize the difference in doll size is what accounted for sluggish sales for the Hasbro line. If Barbie clothes didn’t fit on Jem dolls easily, parents had to purchase additional accessories for Jem. Mattel also introduced “Barbie and the Rockers” and they sold better, perhaps because parents and children were already familiar with the brand. Barbie didn’t have her own TV series, but she and the Rockers did have a TV movie, and a subsequent career in video.
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. According to Hasbro’s 2014 annual report, “entertainment-based toy revenues in the U.S.” grew 7%, while non-entertainment toys remained static. Hasbro’s studio has spent $260 million in cash to develop programming that has delivered more than $1 billion in “television-backed merchandise sales.”
In contrast to the money that Hasbro and corporate America makes on toy and entertainment sales, is the gift economy within which these fan arts exist. Like all gift economies, almost all of the art, music, and fan fiction created around a particular show is freely exchanged between fans. However, there are important exceptions. Some fans do find employment making video games and some visual artists sell work inspired by their fandom. A “grey market” exists where fans sell unique or one of a kind items, and this carries the implicit understanding that items are priced to cover costs only. It can’t be discounted that fan fiction/art is some of what fuels the sales and production of corporate products. Not only that, but fan comments, feedback on websites, and online conversations can be used by corporations to help shape a product that ultimately earns great profits. “Fan labor” has an entry on Wikipedia, where two different points of view on monetary exchange are posited:
“There is a divide in fandom between those who want to see new models of remuneration developed and those who feel that “getting paid cuts fandom off at the knees.” For example, Rebecca Tushnet fears that “if fan productions became well-recognized gateways to legitimate fame and fortune, there might be a tradeoff between monetary and community-based incentives to create.” By contrast, Abigail De Kosnik suggests that, since fans are inevitably part of a monetary economy in some way or another, fans should be able to profit from the people who are profiting from them.”
Contest structures are prominent on Jem and the Holograms and it’s no surprise that the studio might reference that trope during the production of the movie. Some fan sites document and express the fact that fans really didn’t like the way Universal and Hasbro Studios exploited the nostalgia and fan base of the original show; the open “audition” they promoted, with a promise to cast fans in small roles, turned out to be a total hoax.
Writers are no strangers to contests either. Writing contests too are referred to in an almost commonplace way, with their own kind of hoaxes and scandals. Still, to take the comparison further is hard for me, in part because I lack the experience of an editor/publisher, but also because I question whether the literary field is a true gift economy. Yes, the goals of the literary field (break even) are no different from a grey market. Yet, the anxiety that I sense as a whole from the literary community to produce and publish, the religious regard for the book, and the professionalization of that product, requires gatekeepers, seals of approval. Perhaps we writers situate ourselves within the market economy under the pretext/pretense of hope, that some wistful someday we might actually make a living wage off of a book (or a catalog of books), rather than the teaching contract or a 9-5 desk job. Is it wrong that this reminds me of the gamble Jerrica/Jem takes on Ba Nee’s eyesight? How could it look if we burned that hope and the books so tenuously tethered to it?
Karen Sternheimer notes, “Toys are social manifestations of many things: they represent collective (although contested) ideas of how children should play; their presentation and marketing reflects notions of value, and their purchase reflects and reinforces inequality.”
I think very much about the kind of toys and books my own, smaller children have around the house. I think about how my own consumerism is one small (but big) way to combat some of the inequality that exists in the society where I live. My stepdaughter never played with Barbies. It was the type of toy her mother and father didn’t encourage and it made sense to me. She asked for some at 12 ½ in order to accomplish our fan fiction project The League of Holographic Music. It wasn’t easy to make the leap and purchase a bag of six naked Barbies at the thrift store. As I began to document how she was working with them, I became even more uneasy.
Mr. Rogers’ “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” rejoinder about television acknowledged the medium was ubiquitous and argued if so, why not just make the very best programming possible? I find the difference between ubiquity and obliquity to be a thin line, a razor’s edge, a double-edged sword, a rock and a hard spot, and a cliché. They are two poles within two other dichotomies that mark my experience of working with the hologram as a metaphor: the absence/presence of the avatar and the random/pattern of the laser beam. In the book How We Became Post Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Information, N. Katherine Hales argues that our culture is shifting “from a Fordist regime to a regime of flexible accumulation” and that “the shift of emphasis from ownership to access is another manifestation of the underlying transition from” paradigms that favor a dichotomy of “presence/absence over “pattern/randomness.” I like to think that this shift in emphasis is perhaps what accounts for the hiccups in the narrative of Jem and the Holograms, rather than the production quality, audience, and goals this show possessed. This shift is the explanation for Jerrica/Jem’s cash-poor lifestyle with fully-stocked fridge and housekeeper, and these narrative details (and the show) foreshadow our post-humanist lifestyle.
I try, but it’s hard to deny Jem’s corporate America origins and my participation in that. I think instead about how the show was actually written and created by a woman, Christy Marx (which doesn’t automatically give it feminist cred, I realize). She wrote the show under a work-for-hire basis and does not own any of the rights. This is standard for the industry she works in. She wasn’t consulted at all on the upcoming movie, which is directed by Jon M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) and has a slew of male producers. Marx, who continues to write for the gaming industry and several cartoon series aimed at boys, is not happy with the new trailer or the lack of foresight Hasbro showed in not consulting her on the movie.
Considering all these things, I can’t help but go back to the conclusions I made about Jem and the Holograms that concern the believability of each scenario presented to me, each added together to equal the impossibility of women being successful. Which is different from not believing them capable. This conclusion is linked in my mind with the idea of the archive, an idea that our culture has embraced and enhanced with patriarchal gusto. At least that’s what Derrida tells us in Archive Fever.
The League of Holographic Music is an archive of Jem and the Holograms’ music, video, and ephemera that was lost in an Internet Fire and is slowly being recovered. Our recovery process is chaotic, haphazard, unstudied at best. Yet, without knowing it, my step-daughter and I created a patriarchal system for ourselves.
Derrida explains the archive cannot contain everything and so it must choose the tenets, assumptions, dogmas, and laws that will constitute a selection process. The archive dismantles in order to create, self-perpetuate. The archive can’t encompass everything, and so, those criteria signify male-dominated systems of wiping out, voiding, searing, heating the text. The archaeological impulse of the archive is the craving, longing, and lust to find the most singular, irrecoverable sources. Derrida describes a mal d’archive, which is an illness where one smolders with sentiment. It means never to sleep, endlessly seeking the archive in the very location it becomes elusive, “right where something anarchives itself.” It is to have the uncontrollable, monotonous, ceaseless urge coupled with a yearning wistfulness. The symbol of the archive is fire, the book on fire, a library in flame, the sweaty brow.
How can I distance myself from these anxious, hungry wishes to catalog, collect, describe, define? How do I give chase to the archive when there are enormous, redundant, superabundant amounts of information? How do I account for myself and my children in all of this? How do we, as humans, account for ourselves, when we no longer need our bodies? How could this all work out without a victor or a supreme loser, or even a host? How does it look, “the making and unmaking of history?”
This is the second installment of Renee Angle’s four-part Jem and the Holographic Feminisms series. Subsequent installments will appear in eight-week intervals through October 2015.