A few summers ago I rewatched the awesomely 80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms with my sister (Anika!) and her family. It’s very interesting to watch this show, which I had very definite but very limited memory of, after so long. For one thing, it’s pretty good – much better than, for example, He-Man was on rewatching. The animation is pretty terrible, but the character designs are great and the stories are wild and entertaining. I don’t think I’ve seen any painfully antifeminist bullshit, even, which is a real surprise for the 80s. For another thing, it truly is outrageous: because it takes place in the real world (excepting only the hologram technology on which the show rests), with regular humans and relatively mundane situations–in one episode Jerrica is stressed out doing her taxes–you might think that not every episode would place one or more of the Holograms in deadly peril. But you’d be wrong! They’re always on the brink of death. At one point, Kimber was kidnapped and left inside an erupting volcano. Awesome.
But the big surprise to me, really, has been how fucking awesome a character Pizzazz is. The frontwoman, the money, and the ferocious heart of the Misfits, she’s a classic 80s cartoon villain, selfish, petulant, wealthy, perversely obsessed with foiling the heroes even (almost always, in fact) to her own detriment. Like a lot of people, at first I found the conflicted, nice-girl-in-a-bad-crowd Stormer (who also has the best look on the show) to be the more interesting Misfit. But when Pizzazz, in a fit of pique at the Holograms upstaging her once again, turned a fire hose on them in the middle of an interview on national TV, I thought, she’s rich, she’s spoiled, but there is no poseur about Pizzazz. This woman is the true heir to the Sex Pistols. And the more I see the more I believe it’s true.
I actually can’t tell if the Misfits are supposed to be punks or more of a glammy hair-metal kind of thing; not that I really think the creators of Jem necessarily knew the difference (I’m not too clear myself, style-wise, and their music, while awesome, is nothing like either–more of a new wavey, almost Adam Ant kind of thing.) There’s nothing underground about the Misfits, but there are lots of mohawks and trad-punk-looking dudes at their shows. In any case Pizzazz is the real anarchic brick-through-the-window deal. She wants to assert herself and express herself and be the biggest star in the world doing it. To me (and I hasten to note that I was just a little kid at the time, so what do I know about it) the mistake made by the American heirs to punk in the 80s, the hardcore and postpunk underground, was that they created just another straightjacket of orthodoxy, “authentic” VS “sellout”, in their attempt to escape the corporate system. Pizzazz just doesn’t fucking care and doesn’t answer to anyone–not to her band, not to her fans, not to co-villain Eric Raymond, and certainly not to the mores of Reaganite America.
Pizzazz and Jem, of course, are sort of mirror-images of each other, and maybe it’s Marxist of me or something, but I find their differences to be mostly based on class. They’re both extremely wealthy heiresses, but their sense of class is very different. The Holograms in general, but especially Jem, seem almost as obsessed with foiling the Misfits as the Misfits are with them, and what they often complain about is their lack of taste. (The Misfits’ clothes, all clashing colors and prints, are certainly intended to make this point.) Pizzazz is loud, crass, attention-seeking, and self-aggrandizing–a walking slap in the face to bourgeois proprieties. The show was created at exactly the moment when terrible paternalist do-gooder pop-rock was at its peak with Live Aid and We Are The World, and Jem was surely influenced by this both in her music and her life: in addition to being the world’s fastest-rising pop sensation, she runs an orphanage for girls. Pizzazz, on the other hand, while of course she respects literally no one at all, actually seems to like spending time with lower-class adults on their own turf, hanging out in seedy clubs in abandoned warehouses and the like, without trying to “improve” them, and certainly without any appreciable “slumming” attitude. That’s just the kind of place she likes.
The episode “Father’s Day” reveals some details about Pizzazz’s troubled relationship with her cold zillionaire father, who gives her money in lieu of affection. It turns out her mother walked out on them when Pizzazz was young, and she’s had a chip on her shoulder ever since. While this is a little bit the usual story of assigning Freudian anguish (if not actual mental illness) to explain away behavior outside of the accepted bounds of patriarchal bourgeois society, what the hell. It rings kind of true for me, and it adds another fascinating layer to the character of Pizzazz.
Like one of my favorite bands ever, the Red Aunts, Pizzazz and her Misfits are apolitical, but at least as subversive as any actual riot grrrl band. With her Kabuki-influenced makeup and ferocious ambition, Pizzazz must have been an iconic countercultural figure in the Jem universe. In one episode, to my surprise and delight, the Misfits beat the Holograms and won Best New Artist at the show’s equivalent to the Grammys. I hope that in that world, where Pizzazz was an influence on thousands of young people around the world, a girl picking up a guitar is not the fraught, defiant action that it still, somehow, is in our world today. When some idiot boy tells her she can’t play, the girl in Jem World closes her eyes and sees a green-haired, zebra-striped monster in her mind, and knows it’s not true. She is a giant.
by John deBoer. Post originally written in 2011 and reposted with permission.