PROLOGUE TO JEM AND THE HOLOGRAPHIC INDEX OF LUV with POP QUIZ:
“ARE YOU A HOLOGRAM?”
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 The movie will reinscribe outdated modes of feminism, working against the League’s grassroots efforts to catalyze a holographic feminist movement.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.
I like Jem and the Holograms.
I am a feminist.
Jem and the Holograms must have progressive potential.
The objective of this series of linked essays has been to root out the motives of adult writer/creator and child viewer/reader of Jem and the Holograms, understanding the show as a contact zone for the desires of both adults and tweens. It was as the step-parent of a teen that my interest was sparked; however, this dual reading (both as my older self and vicariously through my step-daughter’s eyes) has provided me with an opportunity to reckon with feminism in an imaginary realm that mostly exists outside of my own daily circumstances. While I don’t claim the show has progressive potential, my enthusiasm for it, and the fan fiction it has spawned, is hard to mask.
From Tania Modleski’s Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age comes this very good question: “Is the female feminist critic able to give an authentic voice to the women traditionally silenced by patriarchal culture and sometimes even by that culture’s sternest dissidents?” The form these last two essays in the Jem and the Holographic Feminisms series take, I hope, will undermine a singular subjectivity and bring the essays more into polyphony, a space that may be more inclusive than the viewpoint of one single critic/author.
According to Sharon Thompson, the sickness and disappointment that many heterosexual teenage girls experience is caused by the ineffectiveness of aimlessly trying to negotiate the old deal of sex for love concealed by changed societal conditions. Teens have a right to know it is not on the grounds of their own personality characteristics that the constraints of femininity and marriage are no longer operational. According to Thompson, teens need vocabulary so that they may have more capacity to analyze adolescent sexual contact: “They need to know more about pleasure–that they have a right to pleasure and how to get it.”
In Jem and the Holograms, what are the deals Jerrica Benton makes in her love relationship with Rio, her boyfriend? She is already a foster parent, a business woman, and a rock star incognito, but she can’t or won’t be Rio’s lover. The most pressing, unresolved dilemma in Jerrica/Jem’s life is that Rio does not know that Jerrica is Jem. Rio doesn’t like liars and she is very worried that when she tells Rio, he will break up with her for lying. However, Jerrica/Jem’s dual identity, and more specifically the Jemstar earrings, often interrupt Rio and Jerrica kissing, calling Jerrica away to “find Jem,” thereby keeping physical contact carefully restricted to kissing. Synergy’s repeated entreaty to Jerrica not to reveal her secret identity to Rio is a coded way of saying, “Don’t have sex with your boyfriend, until you are married.”
A common situation encountered on the show occurs when Jerrica can’t go out because she has to work, but then somehow Jem ends up hanging out with Rio instead. Or, Rio rescues Jem and in the passion of it all they end up kissing. Jerrica/Jem’s inability to settle into her alter egos, or really her full self, has to do with Jerrica’s uncertainty about how to please herself, especially sexually. The Jemstar earrings are at once a chastity belt, a deterrent from having sex, and a figure for the clitoris. Jem is the sexier, more open, fun-loving one, and can seek, access and express the love she wants through her mouth and ears when she plays music.
Even though she’s assumed the mantle of adult work and family obligations, Jerrica is still prevented, through her own self-imposed strictures or Synergy’s presence, from accessing physical pleasure. What is Synergy’s role in this arrested development? (Is it arrested?) Our society’s social mores make it impossible for Jerrica to fulfill her own needs and so she is often depicted deferring them. But, at least there is a recognition of need. Despite Jerrica/Jem’s commitment to solving problems through teamwork with various communities of people, on the issue of her romantic love, she absolutely operates with the assumption that one must retreat to satisfy one’s own needs. This idea is careless, reckless, and essentially impossible.
Synergy surveils Jerrica/Jem at every turn, but can’t level with Jerrica about what she has observed when it comes to Jerrica’s relationship with Rio; that would violate the line between Jerrica/Jem and her deceased mother, whom Synergy seeks to honor. Synergy also can’t reconcile Jerrica’s need to resolve her love dilemma with Rio with the fervent desire that her own identity remain secret. Additionally, Jerrica can’t be honest with herself about her own sexual desire and need for pleasure because of her father’s impossible dying wish: that she protect Synergy by never divulging her dual identity. In one episode, Synergy does attempt to speak frankly with Jerrica/Jem about love, but Synergy is rebuffed in her computer form (“What does a holographic computer know about love? Even one as amazing as you?”); she must reappear in a different human form, that Jerrica does not know is Synergy, in order for Jerrica/Jem to listen.
Roland Barthes says romance stories are read (and watched?) in a state of defection, truancy. You can’t be truant with your own mother. Even when that mother is an other mother. Nancy Chodorow writes in Femininities, Masculinities, Sexualities, that “most girls seek to create in love relationships an internal emotional dialogue with the mother: to repair, to attach, to incorporate, or reject; to emancipate themselves or define themselves against her.” Jerrica seeks to attach to her mother’s legacy by creating music as Jem, and she seeks to repair the world she’s inherited from her father by running the Starlight Foundation. However, Synergy isn’t the panacea with which Jerrica may go forth and solve the problems encountered in life. Synergy is the problem itself (one of them, anyway), the mechanical malfunction of a father/daughter relationship.
As the borders break down between center and perimeter, consumption and production, ciphering identity with the premise of a self/other split becomes progressively questionable. The consumption of Jem and the Holograms dolls by marginalized groups (such as gay and transgender) in addition to the Jem doll’s adoption in non-commercial activities (such as the production of memes, YouTube videos, and tumblrs), is emblematic of the increasing need for cultural space that insists on the reader/maker’s capacity to understand subjectivity beyond identity politics.
For the most part, Jem and the Holograms is couched in heterosexual terms, but some of its fan fiction revises male/female tropes. These coded, alternative, implied stories might be the ones I’m most interested in, but they’re only ever understood in terms of heterosexual norms. Tania Modleski speaks to this idea: “Today, we are in danger of forgetting the critical fact that like the rest of the world even the cultural analyst may sometimes be a “cultural dupe”– which is, after all, only an ugly way of saying we exist inside ideology, that we are all victims, down to the very depths of our psyches, of political and cultural domination (even though we are never only victims).” So how do we fold definitions of what it means to be a Jerrica, Jem, a hologram, a rock star, a mother, a lover, into society’s clichéd renderings of love and being? How do we take the narratives that Jem and the Holograms offers us and follow them though in more reticent, subtle, nuanced, holistic ways? How do we strip our definitions of definity? How do we locate other ways the women on the show display their lust fulfillment? Where do we see their pleasure-seeking impulses fulfilled in healthy, fun, and funny ways?
In an attempt to allow these questions to persist (rather than to try to answer them completely), let’s build an index. Let’s include more voices, opinions, stories to create a more complicated subjectivity. Let us create our own wonderment that is “demonstrated as the charm of another system of thought, [and] the limitation of our own….” It will not be exhaustive. It will not account for every relationship or even every type of love that appears on Jem and the Holograms. It will catalogue the rare and mysterious love that does not conquer all but instead exists in spite of loves that could be fluid, malleable, courageous and charged with the spirit of hot pink.
In order to generate content for the index, I invite you to answer the quiz located below (click image to begin). By focusing on the singular we will amass the plural. We will not qualify or subdivide, but we will account. Numbers here will be missing their punchlines. They are only math.
Your responses to this quiz will be used to generate the last essay in this series, which aims to be not only an index, but an errata of sorts, a holographic eulogy to Jem and the Holograms which will put away the show, the old deals, tropes, archetypes. To be clear, you do not have to have seen the show, fallen in love, or be anything other than yourself to take the quiz. While the quiz focuses on elements of Jem and the Holograms, it also hopes to consider love itself, especially how women suffer, oblige, bargain, steal, enjoy, weld and wield it in their lives. The show is a contact zone, one that anyone could ingest without having seen a single episode.
The Holographic Index of Luv will seek to bolster and wreak havoc on the definitions of love, fidelity, gender, and the body by scrubbing any catalogue of reasonable logic. We aim to deviate and enfold, spectrum and zone, spiral and jettison. This here is the Prologue to the Holographic Index of Luv. Herein lie the secrets of the pictorial art of artificial spaces, the subjectivity disbursed through the cybernetic circuit, the plastic waste of the toy company Hasbro, the racist, sexist inhibitions of a generation, the ambitions of women wrapped in capitalistic brill.
This is the third installment of Renee Angle’s four-part Jem and the Holographic Feminisms series. The final installment will appear in October 2015.