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Saturday Supplemental: The Jem Trailer, or Why Am I Even Here?

16 May

I can’t quite believe I’m doing this: I’m not only about to complain about a movie that hasn’t come out yet, but I’m furthermore going so far beyond my logical range of interest as to be utter madness. But when the trailer for the live action adaptation of a cult 80’s cartoon is so bad that even William Shatner knows about it, it probably bears some examination. And besides which, the opportunity is golden for me to complain about the current state of creativity in mass media.

So this past week the trailer was released for the live-action movie Jem and the Holograms, based on the 80’s cartoon Jem by Christy Marx featuring Jerrica Benton, daughter of a record company executive who bequeaths her and her foster sisters an AI named Synergy who projects holograms, enabling Jerrica to turn into the glam rock star Jem and lead her band, the Holograms in setting off a cultural bomb against her late father’s underhanded partner and his fractious and criminally insane ‘bad-girl’ band the Misfits.

The cartoon is completely daft from first to last: Jerrica is a borderline Mary Sue – a record company owner and trustee of a private group home for girls, who also maintains the secret identity of a fashionista rock star. The secret identity produces a lot of drama with her boyfriend, the Holograms’ roadie Rio, who dallies with both Jem and Jerrica not knowing they’re the same person, and causing Jerrica angst as she tries to sort out his true feelings and maintain the secret identity. All this despite him being in the inner circle and kind of a creepy hypocrite about lying even as he thinks himself to be two-timing his girlfriend. It’s the kind of relationship drama that could only possibly work on somebody under the age of 8.

Still, its whacky premise and aesthetic and timing for the millennial generation gives it hefty nostalgia potential. But, naturally you must be wondering, how in the hell do I, a hominid of the male persuasion, know all of this?

Full disclosure, I’ve watched some of this show. And I don’t mean when I was a little kid. I mean about two years ago. I stumbled upon it partly by way of a fanvid I randomly happened upon, then I looked it up and discovered Outrage of the Zygons, a quite excellent fan webcomic crossover with Doctor Who, and then I went ahead and examined the source material, partly out of nostalgia for the crummy old animation style of the period and partly out of a quest to lose my Man Card as far behind the sofa as possible. Besides, it was more or less Christy Marx’s magnum opus, and since she also penned a number of episodes of my favourite shows – an award-winning episode of Beast Wars, in addition to episodes of Shadow Raiders, ReBoot, X-Men Evolution and even Babylon 5, I figured she deserved some further recognition on my part.

When I was a kid, my grandparents were the only ones in the family with satellite TV – back when having a satellite dish looked a like you had a Jodrell Bank franchise on your lawn – and I used to sneak next door to watch retro Cartoons at ungodly hours of the morning. Gotta hand it to them, they never seemed to mind.

From this experience I deduce that Jem is something of a missing link between three generations of cartoon.

It’s got early signs of the ‘socially responisble Aesop’ kid’s show of the 90s, exemplified by Captain Planet (and even cheesier, if you can imagine). It lives in the period of the ‘suprisingly good glorified toy commercial’ of the late 80s; it’s basically a girlie counterpart to GI Joe or Transformers. But it’s also among the last of an older subset of the mystery-solving-team genre a la Scooby Doo where the amateur detectives are also a rock band. I have no idea where this concept sprang from, but in the 70s and 80s there seemed to be scads of them: Josie and the Pussycats are the obvious one, but there’s also Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids and Jabberjaw, a sci-fi variation taking place in an undersea civilization where the band’s frontman is a talking shark. No I don’t know why, shut up!

Anyway, like a lot of such properties it’s getting a bit of a reboot in film form, and the trailer almost instantly provoked universal objection from the whole freaking internet.

I was vaguely aware from the Facebooks of fangirl friends of mine who remember this show that a movie was in the offing, and red flags sprang up instantly when the creative team running the show were revealed to all be men. So, the cartoon that set itself up as being a deviation from the bunches of dudes in contemporary shows, that told stories from women’s perspectives, and you’re handing it off to a bunch of dudes? You don’t think a woman’s perspective and understanding of the characters, their dynamics and society’s pressures on them might have helped? A woman like, say, Christy Marx, who you didn’t even bother telling about this movie apparently?

Then when you actually get to the trailer itself, it bears zero resemblance to the source. Apparently in this Jerrica is a regular teen who gets discovered on YouTube, is picked up by a record label who basically turn her into Jem and make it impossible for her to be herself anymore, straining her bond with her family/bandmates and setting up the moral about the costs of fame. Jerrica Benton? More like Jerrica Bieber!

This moral played itself out about three trillion times in various teeny-bopper shows in the 90s – I seem to recall the show Kids Inc tackling it in particular. What’s striking is that it’s tonally the opposite of what I got from the cartoon. In this, Jerrica is a victim of the big monstrous machine forcing her to be Jem and ruining the really important stuff in her life. In the cartoon, being Jem is her idea, allowing her to rocket to the top of the charts at the head of her own record company. She’s in charge, and uses that power to prevent unethical business practices and do good in the world, while trying to balance that with her private life! She was basically a well-adjusted, girlie-glam-rock-Batman!

Adapting that aspect convincingly would indeed have been a challenge, if they’d actually tried, because the cartoon’s tagline of ‘glamour and glitter, fashion and fame’ would be met with cynical suspicion rather than awe in the age of the Britney Spears train wreck and corporate-engineered pop stars like Justin Bieber. But to then turn around and subvert that (kind of like what I suggested they should have done with idealism in Man of Steel) would have been a cool idea.
More bizarre still, the ‘hologram’ part of ‘Jem and the Holograms’ is absent. Back in the day it was a truly random bit of sci-fi – Synergy’s avatar always looks to me like one of the Bangles had a lovechild with Optimus Prime – but today it’s bordering on plausible! And yet they almost recoil from the idea of making this in any fantastical or even fun!

And I find this all very instructive because we’re living in an age where, in the words of Yahtzee Croshaw, “What isn’t a sequel is a knockoff, what isn’t a knockoff is a reboot, what isn’t a reboot is a remastering.” As I wait for a reboot/sequel hybrid apiece from Jurassic Park and Star Wars, and another one from Star Trek, plus the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this trailer seems to foretell the absolute extreme of several of the problems this trend brings with it.

Science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer once told me that, as a writer, it is better to be exceptional to a few people than adequate to a lot of people. And movies like this exemplify the opposite approach, as do things like the AAA video game industry (the gaming equivalent of Hollywood) regularly cranking out long series like Call of Duty.

Unfortunately, part of that homogenization is also reinforcing certain tropes which end up going unchallenged. See this article on the exact gender politics of the period Jem came from, but it actually reminds me of the kerfuffle that’s been attending Marvel and Hasbro’s (also the originators of Jem) obstinate refusal to make toys for Black Widow. Despite the consumer outcry, they seem determined to keep women and girls in the marketing-safe, age-old boxes. It’s as if they’re actually defying their customer base, rather than just misunderstanding them.

Usually my big concern about reboots is that the creators will be fans whose love of the source material will get the better of their artistry. But this is closer to nostalgia reboots like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies or J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: a stereotypical twenty-something everyman protagonist, using tired old stereotypes of who the fans are to inform who they write it for, disrespecting any element of depth or daring that might have been present lest it be too niche in its appeal.

In the Jem and the Holograms trailer, we invert the setup of the cartoon, making Jem a victim and fame and success bad and to be avoided, rather than harnessed. What’s more is that she has no agency: her stage persona is forced on her, her success demanded against her will. In fact, the song that makes her famous appears to be uploaded to YouTube by her sister without her permission! The only agency she has is to ‘be herself,’ which seems to mean ‘be a quiet, unassuming hometown girl with no ambition or dreams of great artistic achievement.’ And also Black Widow has to want babies, boys don’t want girl toys, a Wonder Woman movie won’t sell, the action protagonist always has to be a youngish white American guy with brown hair and stubble, blah, blah, blah. Making everything the same is bad enough, but we’re making everything the same to a standard which is sexist, oversimplified and retrograde indeed.

I’m not one of the old-school fans of Jem, but like Captain Planet, I can see what it could have been in a different time with a different format, but the fanfiction community, combining familiarity with the material with the freedom not to have to worry about making money from it, is far better equipped to explore its potential than a committee-designed big-Hollywood production team who aren’t able to be daring, or unusual because there’s no will to test their assumptions about what people want anymore. They couldn’t even see their way to having what was clearly a pretty influential story by women, for girls, updated and retold by women! And that’s why the Jem trailer interests and infuriates me, because it summarizes what I feel is the looming threat of the big movie and video game industries: cultural stagnation, and even regression at times, not helped at all by the backlash against the slightest diversity in pop and geek culture that’s becoming so common these days.

It’s truly outrageous, is what it is.

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