Director Jon M. Chu and producers Jason Blum and Scooter Braun have announced they’re making a modern-day, live-action movie version of ’80s cartoon favorite Jem. At first people greeted the news with excitement, but as more details came out, and are more people began to pay attention, that enthusiasm dimmed considerably. Right now, it appears that some of the key elements that made Jem such a powerhouse have been removed. It’s unfair to dismiss the movie out of hand without seeing the final product, but it feels like it’s already a disappointment to those who spent part of their childhood watching the show.
Jem the character is the hologram-induced alterego of Jerrica Benton, owner and manager of Starlight Music. When Jerrica’s father dies, he leaves her Synergy, a mega-computer touted to be “the ultimate audio-visual synthesizer.” Via Jerrica’s mini-projector earrings, Synergy sends out holographic images that help disguise Jerrica as the lead singer of the band Jem And The Holograms, a diverse group of all women, including Jerrica’s sister Kimber. The band’s rival is The Misfits. They and manager Eric Raymond resent the soaring popularity of The Holograms, and each episode finds them bumping heads via catchy songs and striking ’80s fashion. Jerrica also runs a foster home of children affectionately called “Starlight Girls” and has to deal with the complicated love life that arises when her boyfriend Rio finds himself in love with her and her rockstar double.
The new live-action film, written by Ryan Landels, will focus on an orphaned teenage girl who achieves internet stardom. Somehow she and her sisters will take part in a musical scavenger hunt, looking for clues to decipher a message from her father.
Chu, Blum, and Braun released a video announcement about the film, indicating they’re looking to crowdsource much of their talent. (They seem very proud that they’re not asking for money but for “creativity” contributions — actors, singers, dancers, songs, artwork, and costume designs. Compensation for these creative contributions hasn’t been detailed publicly yet.) In the video, Blum constantly shoots and cocks a toy gun, and Braun, who is also Justin Bieber’s manager, briefly plays with an ax, presumably, if the movie poster adjacent to it is any indication, from the set of the The Purge. Add these antics to the fact that the faces for the new movie are all men and it doesn’t seem to bode well for a project based on a show about female empowerment.
Jem gave its audience a look into a world where people constantly doubted a woman’s ability to lead because she was young and female. The end goal of her rival, Misfits manager Eric Raymond, was to take away Starlight Music from Jerrica because he didn’t think she deserved it. Jerrica fought hard to prove her worth, even taking on a separate personality, to keep her company lucrative and safe. Jerrica/Jem and the Holograms, with heavy assistance from the feminine-presenting Synergy, frequently outfoxed Raymond’s greed and sense of entitlement.
This isn’t to say that teen girls on a scavenger hunt can’t also embody “girl power,” but there’s something quite satisfying about seeing Jerrica as an adult woman be a business leader, rocking fashionista, and caregiver. Cartoon Jerrica Benton has already addressed the idea that women can have it all, including a purple-haired partner who loves all those sides of her.
Getting rid of Jerrica’s adulthood isn’t the only absence that thickens skepticism about the upcoming movie. Creator of the original Jem Christy Marx has revealed that she is not involved with the project — and received a few days’ notice about the announcement. Marx navigated the male-heavy world of animation and game design, much like Jerrica had to deal with that of the music industry, when she created Jem in the fist place. She is frank in her disappointment, and the lack of her involvement frustrates many, especially those who participate in the weekly #JemLiveTweet, which recently featured Samantha Newark, voice of the original Jerrica/Jem. In the video announcement, Chu comments that he and his partners remain connected to fans via social media, so it’s difficult to imagine the three of them being unaware of the weekly event. In fact, it would be surprising if the increasing audience for the live tweeting session was not a factor in getting this film a greenlight.
It’s understandable that Chu would want to bring Jem to a new generation, but part of the show’s appeal is its nostalgic magic. Scroll through the hashtag and it’s easy to find people saying the music and ’80s fashions still work today. It’s unclear why Jerrica now needs to be an orphaned teenager. Watching an adult woman and her friends carve space for themselves didn’t prevent a significant audience of children from tuning in during the 80s. Before Tupac’s hologram appeared at Coachella, Jerrica Benton was whispering “Showtime, Synergy!” and belting out inspirational pop tunes that could find a high spot on the charts today. Without the input of the show’s creator or any prominently featured female contributor, news of a live-action film leaves many wary and its long-time fans feeling ostracized.