When girls are in groups, they form coalitions of best friends, two against two, or two in edgy harmony with two. A girl in a group of girls who doesn’t feel that she has a specific ally feels at risk, threatened, frightened. - Woman: An Intimate Geography, Natalie Angier
I recently spent a couple of hours watching Saturday morning cartoons from the 70s and 80s with a bunch of strangers. A local group (in Vancouver) puts on cartoon parties every few months. They show period commercials and PSAs in between cartoons, and have trivia contests. They sell plastic bowls of sugary cereal (one dollar discount if you bring your own bowl). The emphasis is on fun and nostalgia. But watching a program when you’re not part of the target audience - even if you once were - is hugely educational. Any work of art that finds an audience says something about that audience - their priorities, their values. And the episode of Jem they showed that day slid quite neatly into a few things I’ve been reading about feminine psychology.
First, a quick recap of the show. Jem (1985 - 1988) tells the story of two rival girl bands: Jem and the Holograms - the good ones, and the Misfits - the bad ones. Most episodes feature some kind of contest between them. Jem and the Holograms always win, despite the Misfits’ dirty tricks. And winning means making the bigger hit record, and garnering the most love from the public.
The episode shown that day was The Bands Break Up. Jem’s younger sister and bandmate Kimber feels unappreciated when the group won’t listen to the lyrics she’s been working on. She leaves a recording session in a huff. The same thing happens across town with Stormer of the Misfits. The two end up at the same bar (where they order, respectively, a “peach shake - thick, real thick,” and a “vanilla cola, make it a double, and a hot fudge sundae, three scoops, with a banana!”). They trade hostilities before being invited on stage by club’s emcee, grudgingly coming together for an impromptu performance. They combine the songs their own groups wouldn’t play, and the crowd loves it. The two unexpectedly become friends, rejecting their former bands, performing and recording exclusively with each other. They’re soon signed by a nefarious businessman who wants to finagle a controlling interest in Starlight Music - Jem’s record label. The Misfits also try to sabotage the new partnership. The evil businessman’s plans come to light, and Jem and the remaining Holograms help Kimber and Stormer record and promote their album. Soon they have a hit, and Starlight Music is saved.
So what does this say about feminine psychology? In the Kosmic Consciousness interviews, Ken Wilber talks about psychological types, and how differences in type colour one’s experience of the world. One example of contrasting types is feminine and masculine. Citing the research of developmental psychologist Carol Gilligan and her book In a Different Voice, he describes the feminine type’s emphasis on care, relationship and responsibility. Neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine corroborates this in her book The Female Brain, saying: “In the brain centres for language and hearing, for example, women have 11 percent more neurons than men. The principal hub of both emotion and memory formation - the hippocampus - is also larger in the female brain, as is the brain circuitry for language and observing emotions in others.” She describes how women get a rush of oxytocin and dopamine when they feel they’re communicating, saying it’s “the biggest, fattest neurological reward you can get outside of an orgasm.” These impulses particularly intensify towards the teenage years, when “every trait established in the female brain during girlhood - communication, social connection, desire for approval, reading faces for cues as to what to think or feel - will intensify. This is the time when a girl becomes most communicative with her girlfriends and forms tightly knit social groups in order to feel safe and protected.”
Here are a few bits of dialogue from various scenes in The Bands Break Up that highlight how these themes of care, relationship and social groups play out in entertainment aimed at an audience with these priorities:
Kimber: You really don’t think my opinions count.
Jerrica: Kimber, we love you! And we do care about your opinions.
Kimber: Yeah? Sure!
Stormer: You don’t care about anything I say!
Stormer: You never cared. I hate you all!
Pizzazz: Without us, you’re nothing. You’ll come crawling back!
Stormer: Hmm. The Misfits just want to exploit me. At least your group cares about you.
Kimber: I care about you, Stormer. Friends?
Stormer: Friends forever. Against the world.
The song Kimber and Stormer create in their first stage appearance is titled I'm Okay. It forms a recurring motif in the episode, and continues these themes:
Sometimes I feel so alone and resent
Sometimes don’t know where to turn
Or who to call my friend
But I’m okay (I’m okay)
I’ve got faith in myself
I’m okay (I’m okay)
I’m gonna make it through the day
The performance shows Kimber and Stormer playing and singing together, quite strongly there for each other. It’s clear they both know who to call their friend now.
The storms of relationships are powerful forces in women’s lives. As Brizendine says:
When a relationship is threatened or lost, the bottom drops out of the level of some of the female brain’s neurochemicals - such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin (the bonding hormone) - and the stress hormone cortisol takes over. A woman starts feeling anxious, bereft, and fearful of being rejected and left alone. Soon she begins to jones for that good intimacy drug, oxytocin. She gets a feeling of closeness from the flood of oxytocin, which is boosted by social contact. But the minute that social contact is gone and the oxytocin and dopamine bottom out, she’s in emotional trouble.
Stress can bring on something which is often denied to have any relation to females: aggression. In her book Woman: An Intimate Geography, New York Times biology writer Natalie Angier explores feminine aggression:
If you are or have ever been a girl, you know that the first job of being a girl is learning to survive in a group of girls. And girls in groups are not little Joni Mitchell tunes made particulate. Girls in groups are... how shall we say it, what’s the word that we persist in thinking has a penchant for boys? Aggressive. Of course they’re aggressive. They’re alive, aren’t they? They’re primates. They’re social animals. So yes, girls may like to play with Barbie, but make the wrong move, sister, and ooh, ah, here’s your own Dentist Barbie in the trash can, stripped, shorn, and with tooth-marks on her boobs. If you are or have ever been a girl, you know that girls are aggressive.
But female aggression doesn’t take usually take the obvious form of punching and kicking. Relational aggression is far more common - exclusion, insults (in every degree of intensity from veiled to overt), gossip, undermining a rival’s friendships and reputation. Angier continues:
A girl who is angry often responds by stalking off, turning away, snubbing the offender, pretending she doesn’t exist. She withdraws, visibly so, aggressively so. You can almost hear the thwapping of her sulk.
Here’s a bit of dialogue from The Bands Break Up that shows this dynamic at work between Kimber and her sister Jerrica (Jem):
Jerrica: Why don’t you talk to me, sis?
Kimber: Got nothing to say.
Jerrica: You going out?
Kimber: Any problem with that?
Jerrica: No, of course not. But where are you going?
Kimber: You don’t really care what I do or think, so why are you asking me all these questions?
The Bands Break Up concludes with Kimber returning to being a member of the Holograms, in gratitude for their help, and accepting their apology for having taken her for granted. Jem extends the olive branch to former rival Stormer:
Jem: You can be a part of our company, Stormer. How about joining the Holograms?
(the Misfits suddenly arrive.)
Pizzazz: Stormer! They don’t really need you. Please Stormer, come back to the Misfits. We need you.
Chrissie: Yeah, it’s true.
Stormer: It’s true, Jerrica - you don’t need me. But they do.
Pizzazz: You mean it? You’ll come back? Yay!!
Stormer: I will, but you’re gonna have to listen to me also, from now on. I’m an equal partner, right?
Pizzazz: Oh... right. right.
The relationships are preserved (both friendly and rival), and the episode is resolved with a bit of dialogue that got a laugh at the cartoon party for being so ridiculously on the nose:
Kimber: It was fun, Stormer!
(they hug for the rest of the exchange)
Stormer: It was more than fun, Kimber. We learned a lot about each other.
Kimber: Yeah. And a little bit about life.
Obviously, an episode of Jem can only be a simplified painting of the picture. It is a cartoon, after all, whose intended audience would have been girls age 7 - 11. But the fact that it was a popular show in its day, still remembered by those nostalgic for the icons of their 80s childhood, says to me that it hit home with many. And those same themes of female alliances, rivalries, care, relationship and aggression appear in Margaret Atwood’s novels Cat’s Eye, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Robber Bride, in Sex and the City, Gossip Girls, Mean Girls, Heathers, Âll About Eve, Mermaids, Thelma and Louise, The Poisonwood Bible and many other works that continue to speak to women.
It’s an idealistic notion that relationships between females are exclusively coloured by harmony and nurturing. In the world of women - a strata of life to which men are largely oblivious - there’s turbulence and uncertainty, competition and alliance, acceptance and shunning, fierce love and bonding.
And now I suppose it behooves me to watch and analyze an episode of GI Joe or The Transformers to show how a masculine oriented cartoon of the 80s shows the values Wilber describes as being important to that type: freedom, rights and justice.