Andrea here. Another wonderful wrestling writer has stepped up to help me keep this blog alive while I finish up the book I’m translating (almost done, I promise!). Scarlett Harris offers us an interesting look here at the generational themes WWE shares with the movie Jem and the Holograms. And get a load of Xavier Woods, by the way!
The 2015 reboot of Jem & the Holograms was a flop that I had no intention of seeing until I read this review by Alison Willmore on Buzzfeed. She wrote:
“Jem and the Holograms is a movie about a pop star for whom nothing is planned, and who rises to a ridiculous level of celebrity in what is apparently the space of a month. It’s all about setting up a false division between what is genuine and pure and what is calculated and therefore phony. It does a runaround on the idea of musical stardom involving work or desire, carefully relieves its main character of ever having to make a choice that could be interpreted as something so sullying as ambitious.”
I’m more intrigued to see something I have lukewarm feelings about when the reviews are terrible just to see if it’s a bad as it’s professed to be. So not only did the above paragraph pique my interest but it reeked not of awesomeness à la Edge and Christian but of a certain chairman’s obsessed with millennials and their reluctance to “grab the brass ring”.
Vince McMahon, most famously during his appearance on the Stone Cold Podcast in December 2014, said the WWE’s dearth of top stars is due much of the roster being “millennials… They’re not as ambitious… and they just don’t want to reach for that brass ring… If you reach for that brass ring and you fall on your butt… No one wants to fail.”
McMahon’s, along with many other people of a certain age, derision of young people is more subtle but still evident in his product: the continued return of old white men who’ve had their day, such as Ric Flair, Sting and The Undertaker, at the expense of younger talent; the resistance to a newer form of storytelling exemplified by NXT; and the fact that Big Show is still on the roster.
Another criticism of young people is that we’re obsessed with social media and narcissistically documenting our every move via selfies and check ins because we think everyone cares about our gourmet vegan breakfast and New Year’s rooftop shenanigans.
Some of the most ambitious, passionate and upwardly mobile people I know are millennials. I have a friend who is studying law with designs on becoming a judge while another is working for Australia’s Prime Ministerial cabinet in the nation’s capital. My mom relayed a story to me of a teenaged employee at her local coffee shop who recently shaved her head to raise $14,000 for leukemia research and turned her chopped locks into a wig. And in the wrestling world, just look at Sasha Banks. I wrote for Calling Spots magazine:
“… Banks is proof positive that young people have the passion and tools to strive for greatness, as LeBron James, another millennial, would put it. How many times have we heard current Superstars such as Daniel Bryan in his book Yes!: My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of WrestleMania, Tyler Breeze on Breaking Ground, and Bo Dallas and Neville on an episode of Table for 3 say that they knew they wanted to be wrestlers since childhood, Banks being one of the most vocal among them. I challenge any baby boomer, McMahon in particular, to accuse WWE Superstars who’ve achieved such goals of being directionless. That goes double for a 23-year-old biracial woman in a sport dominated by middle-aged white men who refuse to pass the torch. The mind boggles at how much more Banks can achieve if this is what she has done only a few short years into her wrestling career.”
In Jem & the Holograms when Jerrica and her sisters, Kimber, Aja and Shana break into the pop world as, well, Jem and the Holograms (though I don’t recall them ever being referred to collectively as this in the film), their manager Erica Raymond (played by Juliette Lewis) puts them on a social media ban in an effort to control the mystique surrounding the band. For teen girls, banning social media is a farce, but it’s never been more important in wrestling: in this day and age, social media is one of the most important facets of keeping fans engaged in between shows, bringing in new viewers and the all important “going viral” (just ask Joey Ryan). It’s even more important for indie wrestlers who don’t necessarily have the platform of broadcast television. McMahon reiterated this on the podcast, saying “Social media is huge… It gives people the tools that [older generations] didn’t have.”
This is followed by the obligatory makeover scene, a far less sophisticated and genuine version of what can sometimes be seen on Breaking Ground in the promo and character workshops. When Jem and her band emerge in wigs with their faces painted, it’s not unlike the Demon Kane or Sting, antiquities from a bygone era.
Similarly, Jem’s whole facade is a throwback to the ’80s and I understand that’s the origin of the character, but perhaps the reason the modern remake flopped is a wider allegory for for WWE’s low ratings. WWE’s characterisations also echo a time when patriots defended the honor of their country against foreigners and super villains bested larger than life heroes. That’s not gonna fly when audiences have such diversity to choose from when it comes to telling these stories: Jessica Jones, Breaking Bad, House of Cards and, indeed, shows like NXT and Lucha Underground. The ’80s may have been a simpler time, whatever that means, but there’s a lot to be said for telling simple, good vs. evil stories with integrity and flair, an asset which WWE—and Jem—has lost.
Finally, what really brought my suspension of disbelief back down to earth was the inclusion of Synergy, a robot that Jerrica and Kimber’s biological father built for them before he died. What place a robot has in a story about viral sensations cum pop darlings is beyond me (the original series was before my time, so forgive me if this was an imperative plot point from the cartoon), but it distracted from the storytelling with what was arguably a supernatural relic from the past. All we have to do is look at storylines such as Bray Wyatt and Dean Ambrose’s feud from 2014 and anything involving The Undertaker and Kane to see that the similarities between Jem and WWE are uncanny.
But to return to Willmore’s Buzzfeed review, the real problem with Jem is a lack of passion, both from the titular character and the film as a whole. McMahon may believe that Jerrica’s apathy is synonymous with her status as a millennial, but all viewers need to do is look at Kimber, Aja and Shana to see that this isn’t true. Kimber wishes to be a viral star of her own and is probably the most passionate of anyone in the wretched movie. Aja is a computer genius and Shana is a budding fashion designer but somehow passive Jerrica is the star of this show? Mmmkay.
In wrestling, it’s often said that those without passion are found out soon enough. Hell, Matt Bloom (aka Albert aka A-Train aka Tensai aka Jason Albert) drums it into the fledgling Superstars at the WWE Performance Center on Breaking Ground every other week. Also in wrestling, it’s more likely the Superstar who expresses lethargy at having to get in the ring and wrestle while the person behind the character has a burning desire to reach the top. Cases in point: Seth Rollins with his cowardly heel gimmick, and guys like The Miz and Tyler Breeze, who have better places to be, such as Hollywood and the catwalk, respectively.
In Jem & the Holograms, Jerrica has a “secret identity crisis” in which she, as Jem, struggles with her superstar alter ego who’s hungry for fame, but boring old Jerrica reluctantly goes along with her sisters in order to get a payout to save her aunty and guardian’s (played by Molly Ringwald) house. Sure, there are wrestlers who are only in it for what they can get out of it (*cough* Brock Lesnar *cough*), but they need to be in possession of many other things in order to make it.
The even more fame hungry Erica Raymond senses Jerrica’s weakness and offers her an advance on her contract to save her aunty’s house if she ditches her sisters and goes solo. “Let me turn you into an icon,” she tells Jerrica, words not hard to imagine coming out of the mouth of McMahon. Erica’s obsession with creating just one star is one she shares with McMahon, as evidence by the one-eyed push of Roman Reigns at the expense of all others. McMahon should look back to the heyday of the Attitude Era when, yes, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock (who appears in Jem & the Holograms as himself) were the brightest stars, but there were also Triple H, The Undertaker, Kurt Angle, Mick Foley and Chris Jericho who orbited around them. Today there can be Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, Sasha Banks, Tyler Breeze, Dolph Ziggler, Becky Lynch, New Day and Bray Wyatt in addition to Reigns. You can’t make a superstar (or, indeed, a Superstar) if they have no one to challenge them to be better.
Missing from that list of Superstars is Cesaro, the man who has become synonymous with “grabbing the brass ring” since McMahon namechecked him in his abovementioned podcast interview as lacking charisma. “He doesn’t have the verbal skills,” McMahon said. It might be because he’s Swiss… The audience needs to care about you. They need to be able to feel their presence. You need to be able to project that… At the moment—and hopefully he’ll be able to get it—he lacks ‘it’.” First of all, that’s discriminatory. Secondly, anyone who’s watched a Cesaro match can see he has the “it” factor in spades. His athleticism, strength and storytelling set the bar for everyone else, as evidenced by the placement of four of his matches in WWE.com’s top 25 matches of 2015 (and six the year before). McMahon went on to say that the deciding factor in getting a Superstar over is “the audience, really. The audience makes or breaks a star. You can put all the resources in the world into someone but if the audience doesn’t want them to be a star, if they don’t believe in him or her it’s not going to happen.” The man McMahon seems hellbent on pushing, Roman Reigns, has deficient verbal skills and McMahon did anything but listen to the audience for the better part of 2015 when they all but booed Reigns out of the building.
Austin tended to agree with McMahon, making the apt observation that “as a promoter… you don’t just have a magic wand and make someone be over. You can put the jetpack on them, the rocket boosters on them and send them with some forward momentum but therein lies what they have to bring.” It’s interesting that Austin used such fantastical terminology as it harkens back to Jem. She has the veritable magic wand, jetpack and rocket boosters which gets her to the pinnacle of superstardom, but she still doesn’t work out how to bring it, as The Rock would say.
In Jem, one of Synergy’s functions is to show Jerrica a hologram of her father and project home videos of them together when she was a kid. So strong and singular is the bond between father and first-born daughter that seldom is Kimber seen or even referred to in these flashbacks, reminding me of the lost McMahon offspring, Shane.
If McMahon is the father of sports entertainment and the megastars it wrought—Hulk Hogan, Austin, Rock, John Cena—then what of the other Superstars he’s (and by extension, Daddy Hologram and Erica Raymond) neglected in his monocular pursuit of lone superstardom for only a handful of his sons (because, let’s face it, as long as McMahon’s at the helm women will never attain such positions)? I guess we’re still waiting to see.