Is Hollywood Whitewashing Jem And The Holograms?

April 27, 2014  |  

I’m not trying to start no stuff here, but am I the only one who feels like the live-action cast for the upcoming Jem and the Holograms film is looking a little less colorful?

It was an announcement that few were expecting, considering that the film project had only been announced like a month ago. But according to the Hollywood Reporter, the film, which brings to life the popular girl-centered ’80s cartoon about a group of multi-racial adopted sisters turned rainbow bright-colored pop stars (with the help of a holographic computer named Synergy), has been placed on the fast track and will begin production as early as this spring.

Perhaps it is this shortened timetable, which might give explanation to the very haphazard casting of the film. I’m speaking in particular about why the producers thought that biracial actress Aurora Perrineau, best known as Bianca on the television series Pretty Little Liars, would be a good likeness for character Shana, the dark-skinned African American bass guitarist (of course she plays bass) and Hologram member with the electric purple afro?

And while we are at it, what’s the deal with the producers thinking that Hayley Kiyoko Alcroft, the biracial daughter of comedian Larry Alcroft and figure skater Sarah Kawahara, and best known as Thelma in recent Scooby Doo projects, would be a good pick for Aja, the Hologram’s only Asian-American member? That one may not be as obvious an issue for some, considering that the term “Asian” is pretty inclusive. However, you rarely see Hollywood go darker or more aesthetically Asian, say, like a Mindy Kaling or Lucy Lui (unless the film requires martial arts or slumdogs or something).

And while I’m throwing all sorts of plot twists out there, the film will also star Aubrey Peeples, best known for roles on TV’s Nashville and the the SyFy film Sharknado, as Jem. Stefanie Scott, star of several Disney productions including A.N.T Farm, will play Jem’s younger sister, Kimber. These picks have managed to stay true to original casting: thin, young, pretty and white. If we are going to toy around with the original, why not make Jem or Kimber of the darker, more ethnic looking persuasion? Or what about a heavier-set Jem? Hell, half the country is overweight or obese anyway. Yes, a whole re-envisioned Jem and the Holograms with an all non-white, yet equally diverse cast. I think it is brilliant. And yet, in this reboot of the series, the only characters needed to be physically re-envisioned are the characters of color.

I’m sorry, but I have to call shenanigans.

This is no criticism of Kiyoko, or for that matter Perrineau, who is also the daughter of married acting couple Harold (of The Best Man franchise) and Brittany Perrineau. I hope they do splendid in their roles and I wish them continued success in their careers. But according to Variety, the producers of this Jem reboot are aiming this reimagined Jem and the Holograms at “a whole new generation with themes of being true to who you are in a multitasking, hyperlinked social media age.” While the latter part sounds scary (I don’t know if anyone else thinks this film project sounds like it will be filled with a bunch of hashtags in 3D), it is equally scary how little the cast is actually reflective of a new generation. Despite what that Euro-centric America in 2050 picture, circulating the Internet, from National Geographic might suggest, people are and will likely remain more colorful than that.

And in the interest of candor, if this is the new generation, I much prefer the old one. At least the original television series took a little effort to add some level of diversity to the show (also note that Raya, the Holograms’ Mexican-American member, is not listed yet among the new cast). Was it perfect? Not at all. But neither were the rest of the Reagan years. And I never thought it was fair that the black girl couldn’t sing lead, especially since she could play bass guitar. But visually, we had the chance to see a rainbow of women calling themselves sisters.

However, what I see in the revised cast are women, who with exception of hair color, all have the same look – from the nose to the eyes, cheek structure, and down to skin tone. It’s homogenous without actually being homogenous. Or better yet, it is Noah writer Ari Handel’s everyday man without the vanilla.

According to published reports, the live-action “modern-day” reboot will be directed by Jon M. Chu, who also did the live-action version of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, as well as such other teeny-bopper films as Step Up 2: The Streets, the sequel, Step Up 3D, and Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never. If that’s not inspiring enough, Christy Marx, the Jem series creator, was never consulted on the film. She wrote this on her Facebook fan page:

No, I had no inkling that the movie was being developed or had reached this stage until a couple of days ago. Someone high in the Hasbro PR department thoughtfully reached out to me to let me know about the movie and the impending announcement so that I wouldn’t be blindsided by it. I appreciated that gesture.

That same afternoon, John Chu also reached out and called me and we had a long, wonderful talk. I greatly enjoyed talking with him, sharing our love of Jem, and becoming acquainted.

Many people wonder how I feel about it. I don’t think I can hide that I’m deeply unhappy about being shut out of the project. That no one in the entertainment arm of Hasbro wanted to talk to me, have me write for it, or at the very least consult on it. I wouldn’t be human if that failed to bother me.

My other unhappy observation is that I see two male producers, a male director and a male writer. Where is the female voice? Where is the female perspective? Where are the women?

Now, as far as not bringing me on-board, that’s the reality of franchise IPs. It’s their property, they can do whatever they want with it, and they have no obligations whatsoever to me. Was it a smart decision? You decide.

Finally, I want to say good things about John Chu. He treated me with honesty and respect. He is sincere, passionate, and filled with a desire to make the best Jem movie he can make. He wants to reinvent Jem for a current audience. His take is somewhat different from the approach I wanted to take, but that just means it’s different, not that there’s anything wrong with it. I urge everyone to judge the merits of his work on the result and I hope he delivers us an excellent, truly outrageous movie.

Okay, maybe I am trying to start some stuff, but as a fan of one of the few girl-centered cartoons in the history of television back in the day, I really expected better of the casting choices. I mean, if this was Batman or Spiderman, the casting – as well as production in general – would likely warrant more respect than that. And in the age of Lupita Nyong’o and flap over Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone (as well as other very questionable color casting choices), and all the Dencia skin lightening mess, we all should expect better than the continued homogenizing of the entertainment we consume.

So what do you think about the linear, to say the least, casting choices? Truly fine or truly outrageous?


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