an interview with Jem creator Christy Marx
Note: This article was original published at Mediasharx.com in September 2004
In 1984, New York advertising agency Griffin-Bacal was hired by Hasbro to create a cartoon based on a series of prototype fashion dolls designed by Bill Sanders. Christy Marx, who had scripted G.I. JOE episodes "Countdown for Zartan," "Synthoid Conspiracy - Parts I & II" and "Captives of Cobra - Parts I & II", was contracted to develop a television series based on the toy line. Each doll was sold with a cassette tape continuing two songs--one by the fictional Jem and the Holograms, and one by the Misfits.
JEM began as a series of 7 minute segments, sandwiched between ROBOTIX and MONSTER TRUCKS in the weekly first-run syndicated animated anthology series SUPER SATURDAY. The idea was to create a series aimed at girls that had enough action that the boys wouldn't switch channels, while waiting for the next "boy" cartoon to come on, while the girls would get hooked and buy the dolls. While the two "boys" series died a quick, merciful deaths, JEM became a hit and 65 episodes were produced before Mattel introduced a rock star Barbie in the wake of Jem's success, the JEM toy line was discontinued by Hasbro in 1987, with the final first-run JEM episode airing in the spring of 1988.
The series begins with the death of Jerrica and Kimber Benton's father, Dr Emmett Benton, a brilliant man who not only ran a music company with partner Eric Raymond, but, unbeknownst to his two girls, had built a supercomputer capable of generating sophisticated lifelike 3-dimension holograms. After his death, Jerrica is sent a pair of earrings which function as remote holographic projectors and she learns of her father's work from the computer's artificial intelligence, Synergy. Using Synergy's holograms, Jerrica disguises herself as Jem and forms a band to win back her family's business from Raymond, who was embezzling funds from the business, and continue to run Starlight House, a foster home for girls.
The band was made up of Jerrica as the lead singer, her younger sister Kimber on keyboards, and two foster sisters, Aja Leith and Shana Elmsford on guitar and drums. It was later explained that Jerrica and Kimber's mother, Jacqui Benton, had been a famous folk singer and music ran in the family and had been a day-to-day part of the girls lives. Their chief rivals throughout the series were an all-girl metal band Eric had signed, The Misfits, lead by spoiled rich girl Phyllis Gabor (Pizazz), with tough Philly native Roxy (Roxanne Palligrini) and shy Mary Phillips (Stormer) who allows herself to be bullied by Pizazz and Roxy. Over time, the cast was expanded to include new band members (the Holograms gained a drummer named Raya; the Misfits a snarky English saxophonist named Jetta), a third band (the Stingers, who weren't quite as squeaky clean as wholesome Jem and the Holograms, but were more sophisticated than the hard rocking Misfits), and countless enemies and allies.
Over the run of the show, Jerrica maintains the fiction that she and Jem are two separate people, even though it may damage her relationship with long-time boyfriend Rio Pacheco, who finds himself attracted to her alter-ego. While Jerrica spends much of the series tormented by her fears that Rio will reject her once he discovers she has lied to him, she seems remarkably unconcerned that Rio--being unaware of the fact that both his dream girls are in fact the same person--is in effect cheating on his girlfriend with the pink-haired rock star. After all, Lois Lane wasn't dating Clark Kent when she started laying the lip-locks on Superman, which put an interesting spin on the time-worn concept of a "superhero" triangle built for two.
Part of what made JEM unique, and a large part of its appeal to the MTV generation, was the integration of music videos into the series format. Each act featured a song, with most episodes showcasing two Jem and the Holograms songs, and one by the Misfits. However, some episodes feature songs by the Starlight girls, and even solos from regular or guest starring characters. In the third season, a third band, The Stingers, were added, and proved immediately popular with the fans. All of the songs for series was written by Ford Kinder and Anne Bryant, with lyrics by Barry Harman.
While the thrust of the series was music, fashion, and fame, Marx infused the series with a social conscience. The series tackled subjects such as teen drug use, runaways, and added recurring characters such as Giselle Dvorak (Danse), who ran a shelter for street kids called Haven House. Creator and writer Christy Marx, who scripted "The Music Awards" two-part episode, wanted to stress that the answer for every teenage runaway may not be returning home, as some children literally escape from abusive situations. But that help can be found, and that street kids are not alone and not without resources if they ask for help. The episode which ended with a PSA including a hotline for runaway teens to call for help, and the response was overwhelming. Marx later told fans via the JEM mailing list that "the switchboard was flooded with calls from kids of all ages. I heard of two stories in which ten-year-old children had run away and used the number to be safely returned home. It was an unqualified success and made a profound impression on me. Any time I question my responsibility to my audience, I remember the impact of these episodes."
In a time when there were few action/adventure series aimed at girls (Filmation's SHE-RA: PRINCESS OF POWER, which was launched with a March 1985 theatrical release, being a notable exception), JEM was unique. While designed as a vehicle to sell dolls, the series has achieved cult status as an entire generations of girls were hooked by the love "triangle" of Jerrica, Jem, and Rio, and the music videos which were integrated into each episode. While the soap opera aspects loom large, the series as also packed with action and suspense. The series cast of recurring Starlight Girls (Deirdre, Ashley, Ba Nee, and Krissie) created by Marx, gave young viewers characters to identify with. While JEM was a powerful wish-fulfillment fantasy, the characters lived in as close to the "real" world as the writers could make it, with real issues and real problems, which was a huge draw to older viewers in high school and college.
Jerrica had a complex relationship with her sister Kimber, and conflict was as like to come from within the cast as it was from rival musicians the Misfits. Even Pizazz gained some sympathy with viewers, as it was revealed she was desperate for attention from her distant father. Stormer, easily the most sympathetic of the Misfits, struck a chord in viewers who had trouble standing up for themselves, and was constantly trying to keep her compatriots from causing harm as they did their mischief. Each of the characters had back-stories that were revealed over the course of the series, and had flaws and strengths with were explored.
The first two seasons of JEM are currently available on DVD from Rhino, with the first half of the third and final season due to be released September 14. Featuring the series "Bible" or writer's guide, and commentaries with creator Christy Marx as well as interviews with Marx and the speaking voice of Jerrica/Jem, the discs have allowed all those children of the 1980s to relive the glam n' glitter of this "truly outrageous" series.
Tara O'Shea: I have a confession to make. I have a JEM tee-shirt, and every time I wear it around town, young women and, well, lots of gay men run up to me, so excited to talk about the dolls and the series.
What do you think accounts for the staying power of JEM, nearly 20 years after it began airing?
Christy Marx: I think it's probably a combination of factors. I think we had an incredible complex of talent that were working on the show. Everybody from the designers who designed the characters, and the people who wrote the music and did the lyrics. The people who sang, the people who wrote. All in all, I think we got incredibly lucky that we had this pool of talent, number one. So that people still remember the songs, and still like the songs. And they remember the characters and the storylines that came through, and the things that were said within the stories, although I wouldn't want to characterize it as a show that depending on having a moral or anything like that, necessarily. But we did try to deal with real issues. The characters were all so three-dimensional, which I think helped an awful lot. You did have characters who were your bad girls, but there were shades of gray in all the characters, both the good ones and the bad ones. I think that helped a lot, because people associated with these characters so well. They felt so real to them.
The other interesting thing that I've found, both at the time that the show aired, and now all of these years later, hearing from fans--and I am very much in communication with the fans, and I have been for years--is that the show did actually manage to touch their lives, and in many cases change lives. And I think that's because we tried to do a show that wasn't shallow, that had some depth, that had real characters, and that tried to deal with real issues and real relationships.
I was also fascinated to discover a very large male gay population that was really into the show, which fascinated me. I've asked about that, and the sense that I get is that not only did just the show itself--the fashion and the beauty and the color and the music and everything else--appeal to the gay people who watched it, but also I think they seemed to relate an awful lot to the conflict of the Jerrica/Jem character and her two identities. Having to keep the one identity secret, and what it would mean if it were revealed and all of that. Interestingly enough, that also seemed to resonate a lot.
Was it ever difficult keeping Rio's character sympathetic, when in effect he's cheating on his girlfriend?
He's an interesting case, and I have to admit I sometimes get a bit disheartened with the way the fans treat poor Rio. I was very, very fond of Rio as a character, and there was a lot more I would have liked to have done with that character. I really wanted with him to get into issues of someone who didn't necessarily have a good childhood. Maybe had a very bad time, and has issues, has anger management issues, and things like that which now I think would be a lot more fun to deal with, because you couldn't really deal with them that much back then. But yes, I wish I could have made him a great deal more sympathetic and I tried to do that. I certainly pushed for that, but unfortunately some of the fans think Rio was just a jerk.
Did you have, of all the characters that you created for the show, did you have a favorite to write, or did that change per episode or per season?
I've been asked that before, and I have to say there wasn't really any one character that just absolutely loved above all the rest. I just loved the whole thing. I think probably the whole Jem/Jerrica/Rio I always really enjoyed doing, whenever we could get that in. I really had a lot of fun playing around with Stormer. I'm not sure where it came from to give her that real shade of gray that she had, but it worked out really well. It was a lot of fun, whenever we played upon that. Generally speaking, they were just a fun mix of characters all around, so I pretty much liked all of them.
Was it Hasbro's idea to introduce the Stingers?
Everything was based on the line of dolls that Bill Sanders created that Hasbro put out. There were different toy seasons, so they would introduce a couple of new dolls that then had to be new characters for the bands--so we got Raya and Jetta. The next toy season, they decide to go beyond that and add a whole new band, the Stingers, so then I get to create those characters and add them to the whole affair.
But the Starlight girls were created by you, and then made into dolls.
Yes, which I didn't even know about until much later. Nobody at Hasbro ever breathed a word to me. I didn't find out about it for years.
Was it one of those development deals where everything you created, they owned the rights?
Yes. They might have at least sent me one. Actually, I never got one single doll on that show. The only JEM doll that I currently have is one that my mother went out and bought for me and gave to me, because she was so thrilled when the show started to run. I still have that. It's not true of every show I've ever worked on. I actually have boxloads of toys from various shows I've work on. But for some reason, never did with JEM. I wish I had. Especially when you see what they sell for on eBay!
There's an enormous trade in the dolls and accessories, and a big big chunk of the fandom is still very much revolves around the dolls themselves, as much or more than the animation.
What was your reaction the first time you found a JEM fan website online or JEM fan fiction?
What actually happened about eight years ago is that a pair of young women I know, sisters who were writing to me since they were 16 and 12 years old about JEM, and became continuing friends of mine. One of them, by the way, is now in LA working in the animation business, writing animation. And they just also worked on something together. About eight years ago, they started up a JEM email list called "Totally Outrageous." So I took part in that from day one, just being there and reading the email that came in, and answering questions that the fans had. That was my primary contact with the fandom and it was only after that list had been going for a while that people would start posting about their JEM pages.
I think it's wonderful. I love it. I don't very often visit them or look at them, just because I don't have a lot of time. But every once in a while I'll try o go check one out, or have a look at it. I just think it's tremendous fun, that people are still inspired by this [series] enough to create artwork, or whatever they do. I don't read the fanfic mainly because I have my own secret hopes of maybe being able to do something with JEM again in the future, and I need to keep myself away from fan fiction [for legal reasons]. But other than that, bless them! Let them have fun!
With so many of the 1980s series such as HE-MAN, GI JOE, TMNT, TRANSFORMERS, and THUNDERCATS comic back in new forms as new TV series and new comics series, do you think that we'd ever see another JEM series on the horizon?
I would like to see that happen. I don't want to go into a lot of detail, but the whole rights situation for JEM is very, very complicated. Believe me, if there were a simple straightforward way to do it, it would be done. But there are some very big complications that are in the way at the moment.
What are you currently working on?
I'm in-between animation jobs right now. My partner, Randy Littlejohn and I just finished up a couple of scripts for a new series from BKM called LEGEND OF THE DRAGON which is in production at the moment, about martial arts. Just finished writing two more of the non-fiction educational books for Rosen aimed at a 5th grade reading level. I did one about the discovery of the structure of DNA, and I did one about the Wachowski Brothers, so that was a lot of fun. And then I segued from writing a bio of the Wachowski Brothers to currently writing supplemental materials for the MATRIX online website.
Want the latest news on JEM creator Christy Marx? Check out ChristyMarx.com!
Tara O'Shea is the TV Editor at Mediasharx, and is wearing her JEM tee-shirt and singing along to "I'm Okay" right now this minute.
primer index |
jem and the holograms |
the misfits |
the stingers |
women of jem |
men of jem |
episode guide |