Twenty-five years after its debut, Jem continues to resonate not only with the fans, who are almost to a person intensely loyal and devoted, but within current music and pop culture. What continues to make Jem so powerful? To be sure, there is a certain nostalgia associated with it as there is with most 80s properties. However, unlike most 80s properties, it doesn’t lose its strength when that nostalgia evaporates. Also, unlike other 80s properties, there has been no relaunch, no re-imagining and no live-action movie. The source material still remains the original toy line and the three seasons of the original cartoon.
Jem was highly unique for its time and has yet to be successfully duplicated in the years since. Coming during the meteoric rise of MTV’s influence on culture, the music videos in the show certainly made it stand out. The style and action were highly reminiscent of anime, and the opening sequences of the classic series Urusei Yatsura were even used as reference points. The characters were not teenagers or children but full-grown adults with adult problems and concerns: making the budget work, romantic entanglements, balancing a professional and personal existence. They had faults and flaws that were presented as realistic shortcomings and not as adorable or quirky. Kimber’s rebellious streak often caused more problems for her than anything else, and Stormer’s lack of self-confidence informed everything she did in one way or another. And let’s not even get into Pizzazz’s daddy issues or Rio’s problems with trust (or his hair-trigger anger).
In many ways, the cartoon remains highly relatable to adult fans who grew up with it. At the same time, the current demographics are an unbelievably wide spectrum encompassing both genders, all age groups and all points of the Kinsey scale. Jem herself was certainly a very strong character. She was an eternal optimist, always managing to come out on top with her ethics in tact, always making the right decision in the end. As Jerrica Benton, she was a highly competent, intelligent and successful businesswoman, without sacrificing her humanity or compassion for others. She was a champion for the outcast and those who didn’t fit in or were abandoned by the mainstream, encouraging everybody to follow their heart and be who they wanted to be.
The Jem toy line was originally designed as Hasbro’s answer to Mattel’s iconic Barbie. She was meant to be more outrageous (obviously) and with more attitude. Despite the unnatural hair colors, the impossibly sophisticated nature of Synergy and the sometimes bizarre fashions, Jem and her friends were much more connected to reality than Barbie ever was. They had distinct roles and personalities that didn’t shift with the season. Jem was always a singer. She wasn’t an astronaut one day, then a flight attendant, then a pilot, then a waitress, then a veterinarian. The dolls were also much more realistically built on an anatomical level. Their waists weren’t as narrow, their busts not quite as big, and it was much harder to choke on their shoes. Plus, not all of the characters were blond white girls.
While Jem was aimed primarily at young girls, the show also contained action and suspense to bring in young boys, as well. What the creators may not have intended was the effect it would have on young boys who would grow up to be gay men. The fashion, the music, the drama, the glamour. (Not to mention all the pink.) Jem wasn’t as devoted to the standard gender roles that cartoons normally encouraged: boys like guns and robots; girls like flowers and rainbows. Jem was a combination of the two, a strong woman who was also capable of as much action as any male character. Fashion shows happened as often as explosions, sometimes both at the same time.
Originally, the concept for what would become the Jem line was a superhero boy band. The boys became girls, but Jem still remained very much a superhero. Jem had to keep her real identity secret, she had colorful costumes, and she had outrageous adventures around the world where she solved problems and saved innocents as diverse as a European princess that just happened to look and sound exactly like Jem’s sister to a group of young runaways. Certainly, a young gay boy unsure of his sexuality—but fully cognizant of being different—would identify with someone who could hide behind a mask, yet still find success and happiness.
On a personal level, Jem inspired me to study and pursue music. Frankly, I thought the keytar that came with the Kimber doll was way cool, and it ended up as 10 years of classical piano and theory study, which led to composition, which lead to an album release. That’s the power of Jem.
But I wasn’t the only one. Look at any number of female pop stars today, and you’ll see echoes of Jem’s style and spirit. The most obvious example has to be Lady Gaga, even if she takes Jem’s outrageousness to dimensions that Hasbro (or the majority of humanity) never dreamed of. Gaga’s first photos featured her in make-up highly reminiscent of the Jem characters, and over the years she would continue emulating the series’ flamboyance with an ever-changing spectrum of Technicolor hair and unique, sometimes impractical fashions. Yes, Jem probably would never show up anywhere in a meat dress, but if you take Jem’s fashion sense to its logical (if absurd) conclusion, you might find something highly similar. Nicki Minaj, Pink, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Rihanna and Christina Aguilera all have had aspects of Jem in their image at one point or another, as well, if only based on hair color alone.
Jem and the Holograms, as well as the Misfits, were the 80s version of a dynamic girl group at a time when actual girl groups were fairly rare. This doesn’t mean singing groups, but groups that played their own instruments and were all-female. They’re the spiritual successor to both the Carrie Nations of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and their almost polar opposites from the 70s, Josie and the Pussycats. The girls of Jem were more complex than Josie, and possessed with about as much drama as the Carrie Nations. The Misfits were even more dynamic, an all-girl punk/pop band at a time when groups like L7 were just getting started. When such a thing appears, it’s inevitable that it will make an impact among its viewers. Would we have the Runaways without the Carrie Nations? Would we have Lady Gaga without Jem? It’s possible, but also impossible to separate them from their fictional forebears.
If anything else, a property has definitely reached iconic status when Leg Avenue decides to make a “sexy (fill in the blank)” costume based on the characters. Their Jem costume is no longer produced, but they still sell their pitch-perfect, cosplay-ready Pizzazz costume. Look at any pink wig, and see if it’s possible to not see Jem there.
In fact, look around and see if you can block Jem out. If you grew up with the show, it stays with you forever, inspiring you, entertaining you and giving you a little bit of hope and respite in a crazy world. For a true Jemboy or Jemgirl, the show’s never really over.
Next week, Life In Pink continues with an interview with the woman herself: Samantha Newark talks to Fanboys of the Universe!
Be sure to check out all of FBOTU’s truly outrageous Jem coverage here.
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and is a life-long Jemboy.