Jem, by Wrather
In thinking about my contribution to this week’s Think Tank, I realized that my task was not as straightforward as first it appeared. The idea that a show about a young woman who leads a secret double life as a pop star would be successful hardly needs defending. In fact, just such a show has become, in the last few years, a global TV, concert, and merchandise juggernaut.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my task was not to praise Jem, but rather to bury Hannah Montana. That is to say, I need to make the case that Hannah Montana is not the legitimate heir to Jem. (Other than its manifest deficiencies in the keytar department, which is enough evidence for me.)
One area you can’t fault Hannah Montana relative to Jem is in the area of crass commercialization. Jem was produced by a consortium comprising Hasbro, Marvel Comics, and Sunbow Entertainment, the same team that had been responsible for G.I. Joe and Transformers. In other words, multi-media synergy ain’t just a magical computer that uses holograms to create the illusion of a spectacular pop concert. Toys, comics, audio casettes… Disney didn’t invent the marketing full court press.
Still, Miley Stewart is a creation of the Gossip Girl generation and of its essential aristocratic worldview where social standing (wealth in Gossip Girl, stardom here) is seen as a sign of greater intrinsic worth. (Miley Cyrus herself purports to hold an interesting version of this view, with her “faith” being the reason she is successful in Hollywood—it’s ambiguous whether she means the religious or the self-help type. Though let’s not take that too seriously; we all said a lot of bullshit when we were sixteen.)
In this view, the world exists to fulfil the aims fo the aristocracy—in fact, that view has been expressed pretty baldly on My Super Sweet 16. Social change is worse than impossible, it’s moot; things are the way they are, and efforts to change them are pointless.
There is even a similar self-centeredness in the show’s central metaphor, where the vicissitudes of having a sceret personality stand for the average expectable identity development of adolesence. The throngs of adoring fans really are there to teach Miley lessons about herself. (More generally, this is the fallacy of the Lessons of Cancer, where external events are taken to be important fundamentally because they teach important moral lessons to a third party, e.g., “My mother’s harrowing and painful death was so good for my personal develpment!”)
Jerrica Benton, who holographically becomes Jem, is not preferable simply for the reason that she’s a better role model (though she is), but rather because she has a different relationship to the world. She is a successful entrepreneur, but it’s not all about stardom: her main goal is to fund Starlight House, a foster home for girls (many of them doubtless orphans like her).
The point here is not her empowerment or her generosity. The point is that she sees the world as if not perfectible then at least improvable, and she feels a responsibility to contribute to its improvement. She makes her own opportunities as a businesswoman, and she makes opportunities for others as a philanthropist.
So let’s have a real remake of Jem. In fact, let’s have a remake of entertainment. One that stops telling us there’s a better class of people in order to sell us albums. That would be truly outrageous. Truly, truly, truly outrageous.