Diversity Aboveground: Return of the Jem

May 22, 2015

The Original 1985 Jem television series

Jem, once an animated series from 1985-1988, has returned to multiple formats. Unlike the resurgence of My Little Pony, Jem is not getting a revamped animated series but there is a feature film and comic book series from IDW. The comic book is on the third issue but the film won’t be released until October 23rd.

Just because a film’s not out yet, doesn’t mean the trailer and all available information can’t be critiqued especially compared to the source material and comic book series.

In the film, Jerrica and Kimber Benton are orphans living with their aunt who has taken in two foster children; Aja and Shana. Conveniently, all have musical ability and can form a semi-professional band.

In the original series, Jerrica and Kimber’s parents founded Starlight House; a group home for foster children. The girls often visited there and befriended Aja and Shana. Their parents adopted them. With Emmett Benton, their father, being the CEO of Starlight Music, all four girls grew up surrounded by music and developing skills around that passion. It made more sense.

When Emmett dies, Jerrica is old enough to inherit the company but young enough that half is given to Eric Raymond, similar to Obadiah Stane with Stark Industries in the Iron Man films. Like Stane, Raymond goes against Jerrica’s nest interests, including staging a rigged battle of the bands to promote his new discovery, Misfits. It’s this last straw that forces Jerrica into making a band with her sisters to challenge Raymond.

Jem in the film

In the film, Raymond has been gender-swapped into a female, Erica Raymond, played by Juliette Lewis. The casting suggests she’ll sing at some point but there’s no proof of that. There doesn’t appear to be a contest. Kimber posts a video of Jerrica singing in Youtube and before you can say Justin Bieber, Raymond wants to offer her a contract with Starlight Enterprises. However, there is a greater sin that the film has committed against the Jem fanbase.

There is NO MISFITS!

How can you have a Jem film without any Misfits?! The Misfits were the perfect musical foil to Jem and her band, the Holograms. In the same way that Lotso and Jessie in the Toy Story films show what Woody could have turned into if his life had been different, the Misfits are about good girls who let ambition get the better of them. The Misfits don’t have as many qualms about lying, cheating or scheming to get what they want. They’ll even team up with Eric Raymond and Raymond doesn’t mind plotting to blow up Starlight House or try to kill Jerrica to get what he wants.

In the film, it appears that Jem herself falls prey to ambition, putting herself ahead of her sisters and causing tension. On paper, it probably looked good that they were trying to be edgier with Jerrica but between this and making Eric into Erica, the trailer comes off more like a remake of the Josie & the Pussycats film adaptation than Jem. This simplistic, tired plot is an insult to the original television series. Compared to the rest of children’s programming in the 1980s, there was nothing like it. Jem was a serialized animated television show aimed at girls where events from thirty episodes ago still mattered. Even now, most cartoons are designed to have a story told within the confines of one episode and not be relevant to any other episode. Its closest kin would be Sailor Moon and that wouldn’t be until the early ’90s.

Pizzazz, Jetta, Stormer and Roxy

The Misfits (Comic Book Edition)

The other problem with making the film into a gritty horror story of a record executive preying on a young girl is that Jerrica physically transforms herself into Jem using make-up and clothes. This isn’t Jerrica from the original series or the comic. The original Jerrica has a crippling social anxiety disorder. She can’t sing around non-family members and she can’t even film a video for the band contest in the comic without her throat closing up. It’s also another reason why Raymond is able to get away with questionable choices for the company because her disability gets in the way of stopping him. Luckily, she discovers that her father invented a state of the art sound projection machine and software with holographic properties. Yeah, it’s like JARVIS or FRIDAY but Synergy is programmed to resemble her mother, Jacqui. Synergy can also transform any person into looking like someone else, either a real person or someone completely new, like Jem. By wearing special earrings, Jerrica can use Synergy at any time, any where and no one knows it’s really her unless she tells them. Jem is Jerrica’s armor but instead of Tony Stark using his armor against criminals, Jerrica uses her armor to be able to function and follow her dreams. Jerrica uses Jem to cope with her social anxiety the way others use prescriptions or therapy dogs. While Jerrica does mention Synergy in the trailer, it isn’t clear what form she will take but it won’t be anything like the original version. By taking that away in the film so that it’s simply a matter of make-up and fancy clothes, it ignores those with severe phobias and disorders that would benefit from seeing someone else struggling with the same issues.

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Jem, the series, was always meant to be diverse. Aja is Asian-American and Shana is African-American. They’re later joined by Raya, a drummer who’s Mexican American. ┬áThe film has kept true to casting Aja and Shana with actors who share their ethnic backgrounds, but they’re both multiracial and it doesn’t appear that Raya will be in the film although she will be added to the comic book. The comic book is doing a fantastic job of diversity with changing the Misfits from being all-Caucasian to becoming a more multi-ethnic group like the Holograms. Writer Kelly Thompson has also confirmed that Kimber will have a relationship with Misfit band member, Stormer and wants to include more “LGBTA+” characters. The A for Asexual is particularly exciting since Asexual characters are almost non-existent in comics. The characters also have a variety of body types instead of being various varieties of underweight like the film. Compared with Barbie, the Jem doll always seemed like a believable goal.

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Jerrica’s love interest was always Rio, a Hispanic male known for his purple hair. The fact that Jerrica is jail bait in the new film is going to put a damper on things although some people close to Hasbro insist the lack of familiar people and relationships from the original show are because this is just a prequel…no, that’s not a good appeasement plan. They should have learned that from Marvel’s “But you get Captain Marvel in just three and a half more years, why are you still so upset?” plan. Rio is miscast in the film. While Ryan Guzman does have a Mexican father, his mixed heritage makes him considerably lighter skinned than other Latinos. The fact that all the cast members of color in this film are multiracial, and thus have lighter skin and softer racial features, have created legitimate complaints of “white-washing” from the Internet. Shana doesn’t have her natural “natty” hair that she would sometimes wear in a sort of Afro. Rio can easily pass for Caucasian and doesn’t even have his purple hair. It’s not Rio without purple hair.

The whole nice cast of Jem.

This shows the difference in skin tones from the original show, but Rio’s skin is usually darker than that and his doll made Ken look like a vampire.

The differences between the comic series and the film based off Jem are best illustrated by how each treated the show creator, Christy Marx. The film companies didn’t bother to tell Marx until right before it was announced to the world and when she went to her former employer, “no one in the entertainment arm of Hasbro wanted to talk to me, have me write for it, or at the very least consult on it.” While Hasbro’s ban on involving Marx in Jem extends to the comic, Thompson did extensive research on the original show and found it was Marx’s original wish to make Jetta of the Misfits African-American but she was outvoted. Thompson was able to keep Marx’ original intention for the comic and wrote in the first issue that “I owe thanks to Christy Marx who originally brought these astonishing women to life nearly 30 years ago. She gave us all such vibrant and captivating women that three decades later we are all still enthralled by them. And for me, they feel so real that it was almost easy to breathe new modern life into them once again for this new medium. I hope we do them all justice. We certainly tried our absolute best to keep the soul, the very lifeblood that Marx breathed into them, alive and well. Everything has been done with the utmost love and respect for what came before and I hope you guys can feel that in the book.”

Jem songs!

I must have broken my Jem tape long ago from overuse. The poster above is mine as well.

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Will you be seeing Tomorrowland which appears to have a female protagonist going on a Hero’s Journey?

Next week’s column…are we finally allowing family adventure films with female leads again?

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