Josie and the Pussycats reached the sixteenth anniversary of its theatrical release this past Sunday and I’m 100% serious when I say that this film is not only wildly underrated but also masterful in its commentary about consumer culture and girl power. There’s so much to be said about Josie and the Pussycats in terms of feminism that I’m unsurprised but nonetheless disappointed that it isn’t talked about more.
At first glance, one would probably dismiss this film as plotless and silly. Roger Ebert himself gave the movie a scathing half-star rating, claiming that central characters Josie, Valerie and Melody are just as dumb as the Spice Girls (neither are, by the way), that the commercial commentary was overdone and that the soundtrack was awful. I never thought I would say this, but you were wrong Roger! Especially for the latter—the soundtrack is iconic.
There’s an ongoing silliness about the movie that’s completely intentional. The message about consumer culture may feel exaggerated to older people but this is something that’s still seen even today. The beginning of the film starts with screaming fans waiting for Du Jour (a rip-off of the Backstreet Boys/NSYNC) to show up before they board their private plane. There are girls, there are guys, everyone is in love with this band. One girl exclaims that she just wants to touch them, she doesn’t care who it is or where she touches them.
This obsessive fandom mentality has been seen with seen with recent boy groups from One Direction to every K-pop group that reaches an international audience. Before, MTV was the primary source to get information and watch music videos but today, we have YouTube. Nothing has really changed except for the outlet that people use to get closer to their favorite bands and groups.
When Du Jour finally boards their plane, the first thing we notice is the overwhelming product placement. The plane is Target-themed with household brands such as Bounce and Ivory taped to the overhead. One of the band members complains that his limited addition Coke can features an older appearance that isn’t up to date with his current appearance and you instantly get the feeling that these people are very shallow.
The group members are so focused on their looks in magazines and soda cans that they constantly argue. They’re still friends, but fame and media has dumbed them down. Despite this, they’re still smart enough to realize that MegaRecords, their record label, may be using their music for sinister intentions. This curiosity is what leads to their disappearance and the eventual rise of Josie and the Pussycats.
Du Jour’s actions towards each other is a huge contrast to Josie, Valerie and Melody. These three girls love each other; they’re tight-knit, consider themselves sisters and despite constant setbacks with trying to get a record deal, they know in the end that they have each other. And that’s what always matters: the fact that their friendship and love is the number one priority. They’re not manufactured in the slightest—they just want to make music because they enjoy it.
Each girl is their own individual character and that’s what makes them work so well: Josie is the insecure singer who knows she and her friends are good enough to make it big but can’t help but to question why it hasn’t happened; Valerie could be seen as the parent of the group because she’s level-headed and constantly reassures her friends during their moments of doubt, and Melody is a vegetarian animal lover who just wants to spread peace and positivity among everyone. Although Melody portrays the trope of a ditzy blonde, she turns the trope upside down with her in-depth analyzation skills. We relate to and like the girls because they’re genuine and diverse in appearance, which is the first thing that’s threatened when they get signed to MegaRecords.
The flashy product placement in the film is shown to emphasize how often companies insert their brands into society for people to subconsciously take in. Starbucks, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Steve Madden, Puma—these are all brands that people are actively using and it ties into the bigger conspiracy of how MegaRecords uses music to brainwash their consumers into using products that they deem cool, therefore making society a slave to the brand.
MegaRecords doesn’t care about its clients, they only care about making money—after Du Jour goes missing, it’s announced that the label is releasing a limited edition boxset of their discography. They don’t care enough to release a statement about their disappearance, their focus is how much more money can they make off of Du Jour’s name before they’re completely irrelevant.
The consumers aren’t listening to Du Jour, they’re listening to subliminal messages—which are ironically enough spoken by iconic voice Mr. MovieFone—telling them to buy new things. One minute red is in, the next pink is the new red… it’s never-ending. There’s a scene where MegaRecords executive Wyatt goes to a CD store and plays the last recorded song from Du Jour and everyone changes taste again. The only person who doesn’t fall for the message is a goth girl who Wyatt calls a free thinker. The company ends up kidnapping her for brainwashing purposes, thus showing that freedom of expression is a threat to those in power (sound familiar?).
Josie, Valerie and Melody pose that same threat towards the company but they’re so excited about fame that they don’t realize at first. It isn’t until the girls get an instant makeover (to match current trends) and walk outside to see their poster on a billboard that the reality sinks in. Valerie thinks it’s strange that the band is being marketed as Josie and the Pussycats instead of their original name The Pussycats. Josie was already predetermined as the face of the group and Valerie instantly notices that. This awareness is similar to Du Jour’s and because Valerie caught it so quick, she’s at risk.
The mastermind behind this brainwashing mega company is the outgoing Fiona. She displays the typical characteristics of an eccentric villain; she’s flashy, confident and shallow—just like the ads that are hidden in her client’s songs. Although she appears confident in her plan, there’s a hidden insecurity that’s later revealed when the girls go to a MegaRecords party (that’s being promoted with Josie’s face) and she invites them to her room for girl time.
That “girl time” is mostly Fiona fawning over Josie and belittling herself for wanting to eat one Pringle potato chip. She asks Josie personal questions such as how much does she weigh and is only happy when Josie says she weighs 118 and Fiona reveals that she’s three pounds lighter. Despite this, she refers to Josie as “pretty and popular” and the girls are rightfully freaked out. After the incident, Melody echoes Valerie’s previous concerns and Fiona and Wyatt decide that they both need to be taken out.
Josie isn’t oblivious to this either, she’s just as alarmed as her friends but she’s also trying to adjust to her newfound fame and potential love life. Despite the romance subplot between Josie and almost-boyfriend Alan M, it’s never the central issue. The relationship between the girls is always emphasized and that’s why it’s painful when Josie gets brainwashed into believing that she’s the face of the band, something that she actively rejected and was afraid would happen. She’s become the very person she promised herself she wouldn’t and she doesn’t even know it’s happened.
There’s an earlier scene where the girls are on a plane to the recording studio and they’re sitting together in excitement over their sudden luck. They make a promise to themselves to put friendship first and the band second but Fiona’s greedy obsession with popularity led to their conflict. Valerie didn’t want to believe that Josie only had fame in mind but she starts to resent her because she’s become the face of the band and is the only person marketed through magazines and interviews and—surprise—Coke cans. In a way, even she’s brainwashed to think that Josie is the star because that’s how the media promoted the band.
Josie snaps out of the manipulation after falling down and seeing pictures of her, Valerie and Melody. Being able to look past the toxic subliminal message in their songs and see photos of her and her friends together proves that love trumps hate. Valerie and Melody are more important than being famous because friends come before the band, boys and everything else.
Fiona’s ultimate plan is to achieve something she’s never had before: popularity. By using Josie’s stadium performance, she planned to market out the message that she’s coolest person ever. The girls are surprised by this revelation; to have that much power and send out a message as trivial as that is strange to them but to Fiona, it means the world. This is the tragedy of Fiona’s character—she was unpopular in school and teased because of her lisp. Even as a powerful CEO, she isn’t happy. She changed her voice and fit into trends so she could be admired but that’s still not enough.
The biggest twist in the film (other than Du Jour surviving the plane crash and only being alive because they knew the lyrics to Metallica’s Enter Sandman) is that Wyatt and Fiona went to school together and were both unpopular. Wyatt was teased because of his albino appearance so he started wearing makeup to hide his real skin. Both are wildly successful but still feel like they have to hide who they are. Wyatt wipes away his makeup and takes off his wig, prompting Fiona to remove her false teeth and their embrace ends with him showing off his beer belly. They’re finally comfortable in their own skin… only realizing too late because they get arrested by the very government that they extensively worked with.
In the end, the girls are able to play their music to the people and not subliminal messages. Embracing yourself and not what society tells you to is the main theme of the movie, and it’s what the girls did even when questioned or threatened. Josie, Valerie and Melody are all special because they’re genuine and that’s why concert-goers ended up liking their real music. Josie said it best: “It’s cool if you like it [our music]. It’s all right if you don’t. Just decide for yourselves.”
The media is a powerful machine that only continues to be influential. Although the film jokingly shows how popular people and names such as MTV, Carson Daly, Starbucks, Target and more were involved in the brainwashing conspiracy, it’s still a message that’s relevant today. Obviously not with brainwashing, but it is easy to be influenced by what the media says and sometimes you find yourself forming an opinion based on what someone else says because you never got the chance to experience it and decide for yourself. Hell, when Fiona and Wyatt get arrested, they’re told that the government would start sending messages through movies because it’s easier to reach audiences. But as long as free thinkers exist, everyone won’t be controlled by the media.
Like I said, Josie and the Pussycats has a brilliant message behind it. As culturally dated as the movie is, it’s still a film that was ahead of its time. This movie promoted girl power, feminism and individuality in a time where no one talked about it. Sixteen years later and we finally are but we’ve forgotten one of the hidden gems of the early 2000s that helped us get here.
Growing up, I loved this movie because it was about friendship between girls. Now, I love the movie for that same reason but also the social commentary and the message it emphasized about being an individual. I’m still trying to understand how Roger Ebert missed that but regardless of what any critic says, this is a movie that was made for girls and by girls (Deborah Kaplan co-wrote and directed the film) and in a world that still needs female-driven content, we need to embrace positive representation of women and friendship when we see it.