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Television: Interview – How Jem and The Holograms Were the Unsung Feminist Heroes of the ’80s

Jose Barbosa interviews Samantha Newark, voice of Jem in the mid-80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms, and reflects on how the show represented bold and independent role models for young women. 

Every generation has their cultural touchstones. For my parents it’s the music of the Beatles and Norman Kirk. For their parents it was Johnny Cooper and boiled food. These are all good, solid, grownup things to base a collective identity around.

Generation Y was the first generation whose social tendons consisted not of serif fonts and talcum powder, but were drawn together by other concerns: a team of alien robots who prefer to pretend to be hatchbacks than enslave the human race; a military black ops team run by a guy called Joe who keep America’s overseas oil interests safe; and a young orphan who, with hologram emitting Wurlitzer organ, creates a band with some mates and calls herself Jem.

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Like everything that rose to prominence in the 1980s, the TV cartoon Jem and the Holograms was created to help sell toys (and that includes Donald Trump). In this case Jem’s creation cradle was a line of dolls designed to rival the matriarchal Anna Wintour of the industry, Barbie.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that companies will want to exploit their back catalog of properties, but it feels like Jem at least survived (and become a Hollywood film that has purists screaming) because it had something unique baked into its DNA. Whatever it was, it’s enough to draw what seems to be a good sized crowd to an annual event called Jemcon held in mid level hotel conference rooms across the US. 

One person who’s hit the trail to Jemcon many times is Samantha Newark. Decades ago, the 18 year-old Samantha provided the speaking voice of both Jerrica and Jem. Amazing enough, although she’d been singing all her life, she didn’t sing on the show (Britta Phillips was Jem’s singing lungs) – apparently the voice cast never asked to audition for the music side of things.

Samantha lives in Nashville and is working on making an album. She’s super nice and keenly aware of just how nuts it is she’s called on to talk about a job she had thirty years ago to someone on the other side of the world.

“You show up and do the best work that you hope you’re able to do. To have it recognised all these years later is kinda bananas and really wonderful. I feel like I’m getting the full force of what was not available back then. I’m finally getting to meet the fans back they’re all now grown up and hear how much they loved the show.”

The show revolved around Jem who, when not belting out hits as leader of her pop band, is living a secret life as Jerrica. Jerrica, who’s eighteen years old according to this exhaustive sleuthing worthy of an episode of Serial, has a lot on her plate. She has to juggle Jem’s relentless pop star schedule of rehab visits and endorsing pimpmobiles; run her late father’s music publishing company (so 80s!) Starlight Music; maintain a rundown orphanage for girls; navigate the awkward and ultimately sleazy crush her boyfriend Rio has for Jem and deflect the constant trash talk and general property damage caused by rival band, The Misfits.

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Revisiting Jem now is a pleasure, albeit a confusing one. Speaking broadly, nothing in the show makes any sense – even on a simple narrative level. Jerrica’s father leaves her Synergy, a huge computer described as the “ultimate audio-visual entertainment synthesizer.” Appropriately, Synergy’s UI looks like a woman dressed somewhere between a jazzercise instructor and a Cirque Du Soleil loon. On top of all that, he bequeaths her a dragon’s hoard of clothes and music gear – but for some reason also leaves her a dilapidated house to live in. He could have at least left some Wet ‘n Forget in the shed.

It’s never explained why Jerrica is compelled to have a secret identity. In the first episode, the Holograms enter a Battle of the Bands (run by and rigged by The Misfits’ manager) and a rich guy turns up with a suitcase full of money and says he’ll give the winner one million dollars. (There’s an argument that says it’s an historically accurate and chilling depiction of cocaine addled music executives from the period, but that’s beyond my remit to investigate.) For no reason at all, The Misfits will blow in and basically tear shit up. In one scene they crash a yacht party and spend most of their time kicking over pot plants.

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In a world where we have shows like Adventure Time, Over The Garden Wall and Rick and Morty, it’s easy to write Jem off as yet another condescending, poorly written, trashy cartoon from the 80s. But anyone who says that hasn’t been compelled by work commitments to sit down and watch an hour of Jem.

While trying to not overstate it, Jem and the Holograms is extraordinarily feminist in what it does. Jerrica’s generally able to get herself out of trouble without resorting to being rescued by her boyfriend Rio (I liked Rio, he shared a name with a line of underwear constantly advertised on TV at the time). Jerrica was the working definition of empowered. “All her sisters were,” says Newark. “I loved that about her – the character was still vulnerable and she still had her insecurities, but she worked stuff out and she managed whatever the Misfits were going to throw at them so she’d come out on top.”

The cast was predominately female and, at the time, it was remarkable to see a group of girls acting badly – even if they were the baddies. It was also unique to see an adventure series targeted at girls, the nearest competitor was My Little Pony.

For Newark, the show tied in with milestones in her own development into an adult. “It was the beginning of my independance. I was pretty young, but I was able to get my very first apartment and it sort of helped me transition into a young woman on my own and into independence. It was very Jerrica.”

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The show has other things going for it. The secret identity guff was utterly redundant, but added suspense. Each episode would usually feature two songs from either the Holograms or the Misfits. At this point the story would be halted in favour of Dali-esque music video which usually had the character running along piano keyboards or riding flying musical notes like munted intermediate school kids yahooing on a merry-go round at a fairground.

Jem only lasted three years which, says Newark, was a short run for the time. She continued in voice acting, but the industry shifted to big names. “My agent was saying, ‘it’s down to the last three, between you, Alicia Silverstone and Drew Barrymore’. And I was like ‘wow that’s a trip’. So there was a time where I wasn’t doing much voice work at all because they were willing to pay a lot of money for recognisable people.”

She’s got back on the wagon since – her latest gig was a LGBT friendly children’s audiobook. Now music takes up most of her time and, of course, there’s always Jem. She’s still peppy about the show and meeting fans – there’s none of the vague resentment one occasionally senses from actors on the convention circuit. “I figured out a long time ago that I wanted to go where the love is and there’s so much love and genuine wonderfulness in the Jem fanbase I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

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Jem and the Holograms will screen from Saturday 26 September as part of a Jones! Junior school holidays Pop-Up channel on Sky

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