Megan Griffiths is an independent director, writer and producer. Her most recent film, Lucky Them (starring Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, Oliver Platt and Johnny Depp), premiered at Toronto in 2013 and was released by IFC. Her previous film, Eden, premiered at SXSW 2012, where it won the Audience and Emergent Female Director awards and was picked up by Phase 4. Prior to that, Megan’s film The Off Hours, premiered at Sundance in 2011, received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for cinematography, and secured distribution through Film Movement.
The saddest part is that I wanted to love this film. I had watched the cartoon Jem as a kid and thought that given the series’ strong female characters, nefarious rival bands and ridiculous fashion, the adaptation had potential to provide some fun and inspiration to a new generation of impressionable minds (with hopefully a couple bones thrown to the nostalgics like me). And with the rise in unabashedly feminist themes in big movies this year (Mad Max: Fury Road, Spy, etc.), I felt primed for a Jem movie that would have me cheering from my seat.
I did not get that movie, and I’m bummed about it. And not just because I couldn’t have a couple hours of fun at the multiplex, either. This movie was a missed opportunity to make something that was both commercial and truly empowering for its demographic. But now, because it’s bombing so hard, it’ll likely end up being cited as proof that reboots for girls don’t work. And that completely sucks. It didn’t have to be this way.
Let me back up and give some context. The plot of the original cartoon featured Jerrica Benton, by day the CEO of a multinational corporation, Starlight Music, and who by night secretly performed as the biggest act of her own label: Jem. Jerrica’s deceased father left her a device (Synergy) that allowed her to alter her appearance by way of nifty hologram technology, enabling her to live this double-life without being discovered. Oh, Jerrica also ran Starlight House, a foster home for troubled youth. She was powerful, philanthropic, and basically cool as hell.
By contrast, Jem and the Holograms is a movie about shy, small-town girl Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples), who struggles with self-confidence and can only muster the ability to perform hidden under a mass of hair and makeup as her alter-ego Jem. She gets overnight fame from a YouTube video and then has to deal with the conflict of being both shy and a celebrity, which might be interesting except the movie skips the beat where she overcomes her shyness — she is just all of a sudden a confident performer without ever actually having to gain the sense of self that such an undertaking might demand. And with her shyness no longer a thematic driver, the film decides it will now be about being yourself and not hiding who you truly are. The problem with this new theme is that we are never given a sense of who Jerrica truly is. Her character feels like a combination of predictable teenage girl attributes, never a flesh-and-blood person functioning in an authentic reality. Given that she’s a songwriter, the songs in the film were an opportunity to give us access to Jerrica’s psyche, but alas, she just belts out bland pop anthems that don’t seem at all related to her personal journey. Her songs are so generic that when they are received as some kind of life-changing message for her fans and for Jerrica herself, it fails to convince let alone satisfy.
In another random deviation from the source material, the CEO of Starlight Music is a character named Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis, who completely owns this role). She is the only character with any real agency, she’s far and away the most entertaining aspect of the film, and she’s the only female with true confidence in herself… so naturally she’s the villain. I found myself rooting for her 100 percent, which I’m pretty sure was not the filmmaker’s intention.
There’s a weird robot-part scavenger hunt that becomes the device that (barely) moves the plot forward, but I won’t go too deep into that. Suffice it to say, it’s ultimately the words of Jerrica’s dead father (delivered via hologram projected out of said robot — named 51n3rgy, get it?) that give her the boost she requires to persevere. Well, his words combined with the words of her many social media followers, which form a montage of support for Jerrica at her lowest point. I mean, why look within yourself to find validation when it’s right there on the internet waiting for you? (Oh yeah, this film exists in a parallel universe where the only feedback you get online is life-affirming and positive. Seriously, I’ll accept the science of this film’s hologram technology before I’ll accept there’s not a single troll on Jem’s Instagram.)
At the end of the film, Jerrica goes on stage and tells the crowd that they’re all Jem and they don’t need to hide who they are – all the while still hidden under her own giant wig and glitter makeup and very expensive clothes, and not altered in any perceptible way. I guess fluff can’t really change form since fluff never had a shape to begin with.
As I watched, I thought maybe Jem and the Holograms was going to serve as an origin story of sorts, ending with Jerrica somehow becoming the head of Starlight Music. But nope, Jerrica’s love interest, Rio (Erica’s son), discovers that his dad willed him the company, effective “whenever he felt like he was ready” (?!?), so Rio proceeds to immediately fire his own mother and assume his rightful role as boss-man. And Jem is just another act on the Starlight roster, not the badass double-life-living powerhouse that she is in the source material. It is quite literally the opposite of empowering for every female involved.
When facing (utterly predictable) backlash about the fact that Jem and the Holograms was top-lined exclusively by men (director Jon M. Chu, producers Scooter Braun and Jason Blum, and writer Ryan Landels, to name a few), Chu responded by saying:
It was definitely a surprise to me, because I didn’t think [Jem] was exclusively for women in the first place. We didn’t have some preconceived notions that we needed to do this as men for women, or something. I guess I just didn’t understand that [reaction], and most people complained that women shouldn’t be objectified, there should be more female-empowered movies. And yet, that’s what we’re doing. And we’re being attacked for it. So that, to me, was a little bit strange, but you know, it’s the internet. That’s what it is. And we took that challenge.
This reaction is pretty much par for the course for the well-meaning dudes (or WMDs) who are more and more frequently being called out for their part in the inequality behind their monitors. Silly acronyms aside, I am truly not trying to make a villain out of Chu or those like him who have made public remarks about the problem of sexism in our industry. At least they’re entering the fray. They are speaking from their own experience, and I don’t expect them to be able to speak for every demographic. My problem with these kinds of statements is that the dudes in question seem unwilling to acknowledge that their experience is limited, which leads directly to their belief that they don’t need help to create characters that are outside that experience. Not everyone fails to see the value in reaching out for help: George Miller brought in Eve Ensler (vocal feminist best known as the writer of The Vagina Monologues) as a consultant on Mad Max: Fury Road, and as a result we got a well-rounded action film that appealed to both sexes and killed at the box office.
Chu kicks off his statement with a valid point: we shouldn’t think of Jem as something that was/is exclusively for girls. I’m completely with him there. But after that, he begins to lose me. The idea that because he’s addressing one issue (there should be more “female-empowered” movies), he should be exempt from criticism for others (not building a more balanced decision-making force) is truly outrageous. And then complaining about being “attacked” when he’s in fact being asked questions that are reasonable and, in fact, necessary for any progress to be made, well that’s just truly, truly, truly outrageous.
I want to take this opportunity to implore WMDs everywhere: own your choices. Producing teams don’t just build themselves. Writers don’t appear out of the clear blue sky. You curate your team when you make a film. You have power. I have read that Chu loved Jem as a kid. He went to Hasbro and pitched this film. He is the reason it exists. He wasn’t hired; he created this opportunity for himself. That’s rad and not an easy task in this risk-averse business. But it doesn’t excuse him for neglecting to seek out some women to be part of the team who laid the groundwork for this project (script, story, etc.). As a fan of Jem, I’d hope he’d have been raised to understand that a powerful lady in the room might have had a lot to offer when creating a film about a powerful lady.
No, Jem isn’t just for girls. But will girls see it? Even with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 20%, the answer is still yes. So it would have been really great if more thought had been put into the female characters behind all that glitter. I really hope that ends up being the takeaway here, and that in the future studios and filmmakers look at the performance of this film versus films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Spy and consider and respect their potential female audience more. Then we might grow to expect three-dimensional characters, arcs that don’t rely on male saviors, and actual agency for all. As it is, the makers of Jem and the Holograms didn’t get the teens they were pandering to, didn’t get the older fans like me, and didn’t reach across the aisle and get any boys. They just bummed everyone out.