Star Light, Star Bright:
The shooting star known as Jem
By Bethany M. Sefchick
She was, and still is to some, truly outrageous. She represented the height of '80s Glam rock and punk roots, to those who really looked. Yet, she was watered down enough to be acceptable as a child's toy. She was Jem, the pink haired rock star by night and the blonde and reserved Jerrica Benton by day.
She was also more than just your average fashion doll. Jem had novel-like stories written about her that played out in cartoons and on the doll's boxes. Her fashions and accessories complimented and continued the plot lines that maker Hasbro had carefully laid out for the doll. She was everything from rock star to movie star to business woman and head of her own orphanage all rolled into one. She had a boyfriend named Rio that she hid her secret life from. She lived a jet set life and had the wardrobe to match. She had magic and technology and true friends to go along with it. In short, Jem had it all
Jem is considered by some to be the "daughter" of Kenner's Darci, the fashion model doll of the early 1980s. Jem used Darci's torso, arm and leg molds and she could easily fit into any existing Darci fashion. Not that she really would have wanted to. While Jem may have been the successor to Darci in the body mold category, that's where all comparisons stopped.
While Darci had been high fashion, like the early years of Barbie, Jem was more grounded in popular culture, just as Barbie's cousin Francie had reveled in the Carnaby Street fashions of the 60s. Even though she was supposed to be a business woman, all of her clothes and accessories reflected not just the story Hasbro created for her, but the time in which she "lived", the height of the "Me" decade.
The story of Jerrica and her alter ego, Jem, was really as old as time itself. Here was a motherless young woman who's father had just died, leaving her in a power struggle with an evil ex-protégé of her father's, in this case Eric Raymond, president of Misfit Music. Along the way, she had the help of her friends Aja and Shana and her kid sister Kimber, who Jerrica had protected all of their lives. She also had an understanding boyfriend in the boy-next-door, Rio.
In the end, the heroine wins, but here's where Hasbro changed the story and expanded it to fit a play line of dolls with a hook. The young woman needs money to keep the orphanage going so she creates a band, The Holograms, and an alter ego, Jem, made possible only because of a fantastic last invention of her father's, a computer known as Synergy. Enter the evil Eric and some more antagonists for Jem/Jerrica, the equally evil band known as the Misfits. Stay tuned for their adventures, or so the story went.
All of those ingredients combined to provide a glitzy, glamorous world that appealed to little girls, and, truth be known, adults as well. Mass media inundated the culture with these gold plated images not so far removed from the days of Studio 54, and most children of the day saw the world through the skewed lens of MTV. These same children craved a world where they could be like the artists they saw on the music channel. They wanted a part of that adult world for themselves where they were the sexy rock star and no longer the little princess of the house.
Jem provided that in a way that most parents felt was safe.
For little girls who wanted to dress and be like Madonna, the Barbie of that time held little interest. This doll, too, lived in a fantasy world, but one of spring gardens, winter wonderlands, and moonlight walks under the stars with glowing gowns and an unwavering beau in Ken. It was fantasy and it was romantic and pretty, but it wasn't glittery. It wasn't glitzy. It wasn't what they saw on tv or heard on the radio. It was too sweet and sugary for a generation of children being raised on MTV and Dynasty.
Jem was different. She was all of those images rolled into one and a positive role model too, for a country that was beginning to care about such things. Parents bought their daughters Jem dolls to play with and let them watch the cartoons, feeling that this was a better way to feed an obsession with a sparkling lifestyle and still let their little girls be little girls. Jem cut out the parts dealing with drugs and sex and the darker side of life in the 1980s and let the fantasy of adult-type life live in girls who craved the next Wham video as much as button candy.
So what went wrong?
In reality, probably nothing. The world simply changed and Jem failed to change with it.
Near the end of the Jem run, two separate things had happened to change the way the doll was viewed by the public. First was Mattel's introduction of Barbie and the Rockers. Released around the height of Jem's popularity, Barbie was now a rock star too, projecting the same wholesome image that Jem did. Only Barbie was still Barbie, and mothers who had a Barbie doll as a child were more likely to buy a Mattel made Rocker doll than a Jem doll for their girls. Barbie and her band could fit into clothes that were already at home, a problem that had also plagued the Darci doll.
Jem also had the Misfits to contend with. This was the one down side to the whole Jem story. This band of renegade women were never punished for misdeeds and cast a negative light on the entire Jem line at times. They were the sex and drugs of the Jem's rock n' roll fantasy world. Barbie didn't have a competing, evil band, so parents who wanted to shield their child from this kind unpleasantness, yet still please their daughters, now had an alternative to Jem, who's fashion booklets and boxes featured the unruly Misfits. Jem sales were down and sliding further, with Barbie and her Rockers taking part of what had previously been Jem's exclusive market share.
Secondly, American society as a whole changed. Wham broke up, Queen's Freddie Mercury died of AIDS, and Poison fell to the downward spiral of drugs and a hard rock life. Glam rock began its slow slide into oblivion with the emergence of rap and grunge and a fashion world that was no longer tied to the bright neon and plastic that had been a hallmark of Jem's world.
Hasbro did try to change Jem, at least a little. An entire line called Hollywood Jem was drawn up in sketches and character profiles. Jem was to become a movie star, the Misfits would be gone and a new, European band was to take their place. Rio was even going to get a run for his money for Jerrica's heart with the introduction of Riot, the lead singer of the new band, the Stingers.
It sounded wonderful and the artists' sketches and character back stories were beautiful, but it never came to pass. No one's quite sure why. Perhaps financial losses at Hasbro were too great or the new line wasn't going to be ready in time to compete with the ever changing Barbie and the society that she usually seemed to mirror with ease. It could have been that by the time Hollywood Jem would have reached the shelves, her style would have been out of favor too. Or, perhaps the time of Jem, like the decade she had been born into, had simply come and gone.
The story of the future of Jem is borrowed from A. Glen Mandeville's book, "Contemporary Doll Stars". For more information on the story of Jem, you can order this book from most major booksellers.
By Bethany M. Sefchick
So why was Jem successful, at least for a time, even in the face of Barbie? Perhaps because she was being Barbie before Barbie was being Barbie. Confused? Let me try to explain.
For as long as Barbie has existed, she's remained on the cutting edge of fashion, careers, and societal changes. In the early to mid 1980s, however, Barbie was a bit complacent. She had stopped mirroring the real trends of the day and took the safe road most of the time. Even though Barbie sat out the Vietnam War and took up wearing prairie skirts instead, she still reflected a real part of the culture of that time. Women dressed in navy surplus pea coats and granny skirts at that point in history. She was still a mirror of reality, even if it wasn't pretty.
But in the mid-80s, Barbie wore more fluffy, frilly ball gowns than anything. They were beautiful, but they weren't tied into any real fashion trend of the time. Even the women of the popular tv series of Dynasty who did wear ball gowns wore sexy ball gowns designed by Nolan Miller, not the fluffy stuff that Mattel was marketing. Barbie wasn't quite the societal mirror that she once was.
So Jem became, just for a brief instant, the trend setter that Barbie had previously been. A career as a rock star was something that Mattel did not consider wholesome enough for their pink princess, yet, more teenagers were dressing like Madonna than were dressing like Barbie. Jem showed that there could be a doll that represented a rock star life and still be the "good" person and role model that was needed for a child's toy. Jem took over Barbie's role as trendsetter of the doll world. And it made Jem and Hasbro successful until Mattel jumped on the band wagon.
Then, Barbie and her Rockers appeared and stole some of Jem's thunder. However, the Rockers didn't overstay their welcome, disappearing a year or so later to make room for the Sensations, a new 50s inspired group that Mattel used to capitalize on the revived interest in do-woop music that recalled soda fountains and car hops instead of gang wars and Live Aid .
Barbie was back to her old role as doll world queen and trendsetter. For as good as an idea as Jem and the Holograms had been, they never changed with the times like Barbie and her world did. But, I think they might have, if only Hasbro had given the line one more year and changed a few more things.
The Hollywood Jem line sketches look stunning, having been restored under Dick Tashin's skilled touch. This was a Jem doll that would have changed with society and given Barbie a run for her money. But, would that have happened had Jem and her world stayed in their holographicly projected world of rainbow colored hair and wild makeup? Probably not.
The dolls were beautifully made and most of the clothes and accessories were, too. New dolls like the Russian ballerina, Danse, and the music video producer, Video, added to the diversity and scope of the line. While they didn't look as human as Darci had, they still looked real enough in a time when Barbie still didn't look all that human herself anymore. The story was solid and captivating, and could have been made even better had it been allowed to develop. The artwork that adorned the lunchboxes, posters, and merchandise boxes were breath-taking.
Not since the early days of Al Anderson's artwork at Mattel had any doll been drawn to look so human. One artist's drawing of the Giltter and Gold Rio is still enough to make an adult woman look twice to make sure that it's not a portrait of some real-life hunk with a smoldering gaze. The dolls had real stories and personalities that were more than just the blank slate that Barbie usually was.
But would the changes on the drawing board have been enough? Again, I don't think so.
Part of Jem's problem was that as a child's toy, parts of her story were too real. The good band and nasty band scenario was playing out in real life every day on the radio and in the media. For every "good" band like The Hooters from Philadelphia, there was the nasty band, as exemplified by Harrisburg's band boys of rock, Poison. Most parents tried to keep the images of sex and drugs from their children. Unless changes were made in the Misfits behavior, why would parents continue to buy those dolls for their children?
Interestingly enough, one of the changes in the proposed Hollywood line was to do away with the Misfits and introduce a new group, the Stingers. But one of the members of the new group, Mystique, was to have been into Voodoo and dabble in the so-called "black arts". For a child's toy? I don't think so. Parents would have been up in arms. While it may have been 1980s reality, it wasn't for children.
Also, Hasbro would have shattered the biggest part of the fairy-tale if had they gone ahead with plans and paired Jem/Jerrica and Rio. Despite the punk rock clothes, little girls still believed in fairy tales. Jerrica, the sweet girl at heart, and Rio, the boy next door who was her one true love, were the fairy tale couple that most girls envisioned. Taking that away would have been devastating for the doll's main audience. Just because Madonna's marriage to Sean Penn ended, didn't mean that it had to be the same in the Jem world. Again, being too real might have doomed any chance the line had in succeeding.
After so many years out of production the question is, is Jem ready for a come back? Can she even hope to make a come back? As a Jem fan and a doll trend observer, I think so.
The Jem line has always had a small, but loyal following that never really let the doll and her story die. They kept her alive via the Internet and fan clubs. These groups were mostly made up of the people who played with Jem as a child. They, like so many others who are now adults, want their childhood toys back and are prepared to pay. Even now, Jem items are some of the most in demand on eBay and other on-line auctions. So more importantly, Jem's fans have the money to spend. And, they would most certainly buy any new Jem items that Hasbro might market, provided they tied into the world that they remembered from their childhood.
The other primary market for these dolls is not the people who played with them, but the people who lived a life similar to the one they represented. It's the reason that I collect Jem. I was too old to play with her when she was first released. After all, I was a teenager then. But, I dressed like those dolls did and I lived as a young adult in the same world that these fictional adults had. They were the cartoon equivalent of my peers. My friends and I may not have been rock stars, but we acted as if we were. We lived a life similar to the one John Hughes made popular in his movies starring the so-called Brat Pack, a life that was also tied into the fantasy of the doll line. Jem was a mirror of my teen-aged society.
Today, Hasbro as a toy company is doing well. Well enough to bring Jem back, to life but not as a doll for children. Rather, market her as a doll designed for adults. Keep the story, keep the basics of Hollywood Jem. Even keep the Stingers, if necessary. Change a few characters and rewrite some of the Jem story that was never told. But, make her a doll targeted for adults. Mattel has been successful with a similar tactic in their reproduction dolls and others like Far Out Barbie that are new dolls based on an old theme. It could work just as well for Hasbro.
The public interest is there and the cash to buy is too. The recently released Star Wars dolls from Hasbro shows that at least the basic doll molds still exist, as evidenced by the shape of the Princess Leia doll's hands. Other non-Barbie dolls like Gene, and Daisy and Willow are selling well and cashing in on an ever-expanding collector's market. Most of those companies are showing healthy profit margins and keep the new doll lines coming.
Would Jem be a 100% certified hit? I really don't know. I do know that the time for more competition in the adult doll collector's market is ripe. Never has there been such an explosion of new dolls and new collectors coming into the hobby. Current and older collectors are looking for ways to branch out. Jem just might be the key.
Is it possible that the star that was once called Jem could rise again. Maybe.
I, for one, hope so.
The Day AFTER Christmas
By: Linda Smith
T'was the day after Christmas
And all over the floor
There's still lots of clutter
Wrapping paper, tags and more!
In the kitchen there's hardly
A counter that's free
They're all covered with plates
Bowls and food items for me!!
Under the tree there are boxes
Filled with all kinds of Loot!
(Well of course there were dolls
This question is moot!)
My tummy is stuffed 'til it's
Almost ready to pop!
When I sat down to all those
Goodies, I just couldn't stop!
Friends and relatives came
With gifts and to chat!
All this has made me so
Tired, I don't know where I'm at!
I'd like nothing better than to
Just sit here on my rear!
However, there are dollies on sale
And I must bring them HERE!
HAPPY DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS!
I love you guys
(for Archived previous rants!
please click on the titles)
Bethany's Old Rants
Tamara's Old Rants