Greetings, friends! If you’re tuning in for a theatre column, I have bad news for you: as Fiyero explained last week, we’ve phased that one out as our writer base has changed. That doesn’t mean we won’t post about theatre anymore, it just means we won’t be doing it every week.
The bright side of that change, however, is that it’s being replaced with a cool new column: Throwback Thursdays! Starting today, we’ll be celebrating old-but-awesome media. And to kick it off today, I’m gonna tell you all about why you should love the Josie and the Pussycats movie—a.k.a. fictional semi-dystopian Spice World, a.k.a. the most formative film of my childhood years.
The Josie and the Pussycats IP had a humble beginning as a comic strip about a girl band. Josie and her bandmates Melody and Valerie graduated to a Saturday morning cartoon in the early 1970s, during which they had Scooby-Doo-esque adventures, solving mysteries and getting up to all sorts of hijinks while on tour. And finally, in 2001, some blessed heart decided to make a movie.
The Josie and the Pussycats movie is a marked departure from the campy, lighthearted cartoon whose reruns I used to watch in the mornings before elementary school. While it’s certainly still funny, the 2001 film takes the girls and throws them into a pointed satire of consumerism and girl-girl hate in the most ludicrous of fashions.
The premise of the movie is that the record industry is at the heart of an international conspiracy to brainwash the youth of America, using messages hidden in music to drive trends. After the boy band of the day (whose name is literally “Du Jour”) discovers the secret tracks their manager has been putting in their albums, the record company arranges for their mysterious and tragic deaths. Unfortunately for the MegaRecord execs, though, they’re now short an act. When manager Wyatt Frame (played to perfection by Alan Cumming), desperate to fill that slot, stumbles across the busking Pussycats, he rockets them to stardom in a matter of hours to please his histrionic boss Fiona.
The girls are a little suspicious at first about their ridiculously rapid rise to fame, but Wyatt brushes off their concerns. All the while, though, he also subtly picks at their insecurities to make them more malleable to MegaRecord’s whims. They nearly succeed in driving the girls apart, but in the end the day is saved, their friendship is restored, the futuristic subliminal message machine is destroyed, and they ride out the story’s resolution on the power of rock and roll.
Growing up, I loved this movie because it was about awesome small town girlfriends getting to become an awesome and glamorous band, and who kicked bad guy butt in the end. And, honestly, to me that’s a good enough story to show a growing girl: three girls with different skills and interests whose friendship carries them through the bad times. The story also emphasizes the importance of organic female friendships based on trust and sharing, rather than forced friendships based on stereotypes of what certain types of people want or a desire for popularity.
Now as an adult, well, the movie definitely still has an amazing girl-power message, but there’s also some pretty blatant societal critiques going on. The most obvious of these is that you shouldn’t accept everything pop culture hands you without examining it critically. You shouldn’t just buy into something because it’s popular, and you should put your own beliefs before trends. It also sends the message that popularity isn’t everything—only by being yourself can you really by happy. At the end, Fiona and Wyatt both reveal that the personas they’ve presented to everyone were fronts intended to hide traits that made them “freakish” (in Fiona’s case, a heavy lisp; in Wyatt’s, albinism). They’ve gone to ludicrous lengths to keep these things secret; hell, Fiona was going to use the subliminal message machine to brainwash America into thinking she was the coolest girl ever. But only after letting it out—after accepting themselves and owning their differences—do they truly become happy.
The movie also satirizes the culture of product placement and corporate sponsorship by filling every single scene full of high-profile name brands, to the point of silliness. Furthermore, the whole conspiracy is posited on the idea that self-involved young people have money but don’t pay taxes, and so corporations, in league with the government, have to resort to brainwashing to get them to spend that hard-earned babysitting cash back into the economy. It’s kind of sad that, twelve years after this was the satirical plot of a comical movie, real news organizations have devoted real time to shaming young people for not investing enough in the system that earlier generations fucked up for us. Who knew Time magazine was a comic book movie villain?
Does the movie have its flaws? Well, it’s honestly hard for me to look at it in even a remotely objective light; but, duh, obviously. Despite its cleverness, the whole thing is a ridiculous premise filled with ridiculous characters. The bad guys turn out to be formerly-bullied nerds in the end, who only want to use their power to be liked and respected. The humor is a little grown-up at times (so much so that it sometimes went over my head as an eleven-year-old), and so it’s kind of unclear what audience exactly this was intended for. (As an example, the boy band sings a song called “Backdoor Lover” that is so transparently about buttsex that I even suspected it had a double meaning as a kid.)
There’s also a shoehorned-in romantic subplot, but the character of the guy in question is so weak as to be a near-misandric caricature of any other movie’s girlfriend character. He tags along with the band for no reason except Josie has a crush on him, and in the end they admit their feelings for each other, but he’s bland and kind of hopelessly dependent on Josie for everything from advice to car repairs.
All that said, though, this is still one of my favorite movies of all time, and if everything I’ve said hasn’t sold you on at least giving it a try, I don’t know what else to say besides this: