Last week, Barbie had the highest-grossing domestic opening weekend of any film so far this year, netting $162 million in U.S. ticket sales. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Barbie, G.I. Joe and the Gang: Dolls Are Us,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman positioned Barbie’s economic and cultural importance with other iconic American dolls. The road to Barbie’s current box office supremacy has been long. Back in 1986, Mattel’s Barbie first entered the world of television and film during a rock-tinged battle with a Hasbro doll-band, Jem and the Holograms. 

In September 1985, the toy company Hasbro debuted a syndicated cartoon, Jem and the Holograms, on children’s television across the United States. 

The show followed a 21-year-old heiress named Jerrica Benton who inherited a music firm, Starlight, from her father. Jerrica donated the profits from the company to a home for runaway girls, Starlight House. By night, she donned magic earrings that linked up to a holographic computer named Synergy, which helped to transform her into Jem, a rockstar supported by her all-girl backing band, Shana, Kimber, and Aja. 

There was a Clark Kent-Superman romance element. Rio, Jerrica’s boyfriend and Jem’s manager, did not realize that the two women were actually the same person and often felt guilty for his attraction to them both. 

There was also real conflict. Jerrica/Jem had to compete with an evil punk band, the Misfits, led by the nasty lead singer Pizzaz. 

The show, an instant hit, was a precursor to the release of a doll product line starring Jem and her band. In December, Hasbro’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, Stephen Schwartz, sat for an interview with the Washington Post. Hasbro, America’s largest toy company, had produced several iconic dolls and action figures; Transformers, G.I. Joe, and My Little Pony chief among them. 

Hasbro had largely avoided a direct challenge to Mattel’s Barbie, however. Now, Schwartz told the Post, they were planning something big with Jem. 

“We’re about to face one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced, and that’s going up against Barbie next year,” Schwartz said. He was confident, though, that Jem would have an edge. “She happens to have pink hair and makes Barbie look like Phyllis Schlafly,” he claimed, comparing the famed Barbie to the anti-feminist leader. 

Two months later, in February 1986, Hasbro introduced Jem and the Holograms at New York’s American International Toy Fair. Each Jem doll came with a cassette tape of the show’s Madonna-esque theme song, “Truly Outrageous,” which was on its way to selling 3 million copies – triple-platinum. 

Soon, Hasbro introduced several musical tie-ins, including a stage that doubled as a cassette player and a hot yellow and pink roadster with a functional FM radio. The TV-doll rollout was successful. Soon, Jem and the Holograms had 2.5 million weekly viewers and was among the most successful shows in the children’s television market. 

Mattel quickly fought back, releasing a Barbie and the Rockers doll set later in Spring 1986. The company held a celebratory gala at New York’s Pier 92, complete with 64 screens playing a stop-motion animation video of the grammatically-jarring single, “Born With a Mic in Our Hand.” The dolls also came with a tape, featuring the more Joan Jett-ish “Rock and Roll Girl.” 

Barbie and the Rockers did not have a tie-in television show, but the band did have a fleshed-out backstory. Barbie’s band included her best friend Diva, the fashionista and backup vocalist Dee Dee, the dancer Dana, and bassist Derek. 

Derek’s centrality to the Rockers – and Ken’s relative absence – quickly drummed up significant gossip over a potential affair between Barbie and Derek. Mattel spokeswoman Candace Irving denied the charges: “People acted like it was as big as the Chernobyl meltdown when they thought Barbie dumped Ken. Barbie and Derek are just good friends.” 

Upon the arrival of the Rockers, the tension between Hasbro and Mattel began to grow, with Hasbro officials accusing Barbie of capitalizing on Jem’s success. “Our Rocker dolls were in production long before we heard of Jem,” Irving claimed. 

Hasbro’s Schwartz disagreed, affirming his belief that Mattel was sloppily cashing in on Jem: “Everybody in the trade knows that’s not really the truth. Everybody knows everything they use for Barbie and the Rockers is all old Barbie parts. All they had to do was packaging and wardrobe, which you can do in 30 or 60 days.”

Schwartz also continued to throw shade at what he viewed as Barbie’s conservative identity: “Jem is a woman with a purpose. She’s an executive. Barbie likes to shop. Barbie has no personality.”

Barbie loyalists were quick to defend Mattel. In December 1986, the Wall Street Journal’s Carrie Dolan explored the spike in the Mattel-affiliated diehards in an article entitled, “Many Adults Are In Barbie’s Corner as She Fights Jem.” Dolan interviewed Evelyn Burkhalter, the founder of the Barbie Hall of Fame, a 14,000-Barbie museum behind her toy shop in Palo Alto, California.  “People are seeing that this is no longer a doll but a representation of our history,” Burkhalter said of the passionate Barbie defenders.  

Dolan also asked Thomas X. Murn, the executive editor of the industry journal Toys & Hobby World, about Jem’s sudden ascendance. “This is the first time I can ever remember a doll who’s climbed up so quickly on the charts,” Murn said. 

The Jem and the Holograms TV show was continuing to fuel sales of Hasbro’s dolls. The show, co-produced by Marvel Productions and the Sunbow animation studio, had three new songs in each episode and had the band battle the Misfits across the world, from China to a luxury liner in St. Thomas. 

Mattel was not going to be bested without a fight. The company orchestrated mall tours for real-life Barbie and the Rockers bands in both Canada and the United States and aggressively merchandised, particularly around lunch boxes. 

To further counter Jem, in Summer 1987 Mattel announced the release of two VHS tapes featuring Barbie and the Rockers – the first ever official Barbie televisual content. The initial installment, “Barbie and the Rockers: Out of this World,” saw Barbie cast as the “First Ambassador for World Peace.” 

The plot was decidedly late Cold War: To further her ambitions to unite the world, Barbie planned a pioneering concert in outer space, to be broadcast back to the global citizenry. She and the Rockers traveled up to a flower-shaped space station called Interstar aboard a bright pink branded Barbie space shuttle. “Hello out there! This is an indescribably exciting moment – the first concert in outer space for the first day of world peace everywhere!” Barbie began her idealistic, arguably post-Communistic introduction, before greeting her satellite audience in several different languages. 

The second VHS, “Barbie and the Sensations: Rockin’ Back to Earth,” resembled the popular Back to the Future film franchise. On their return from the Interstar, Barbie and the Rockers were thrown through a time wormhole and landed on Earth, 1959, the year of the first Barbie. While the script largely avoided the “time-space continuum” paradoxes of messing with one’s own origin story, Barbie ultimately sang a space-themed set at the early-NASA Cape Canaveral and was saved from a life in the 1950s by the wisdom of a forward-thinking rocket scientist, Dr. Merrihew. 

The two videos, which included synth-heavy covers of The Beatles’ “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You,” the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic” and Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance” captured a simultaneously forward-thinking and nostalgic identity for Barbie and the Rockers and effectively countered Jem’s popularity. 

The VHS tapes got significant play, and a live-action Barbie and the Rockers group even performed one of the group’s tracks, “Reachin’ for the Stars,” on TV during the 1987 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

By the end of 1987, it was clear that Mattel had won the duel with Hasbro. Jill Barad, an eventual Mattel CEO then serving as a product manager, was largely given credit for the Barbie and the Rockers marketing blitz that had so neutralized Jem. “Jill just made Barbie a rocker, called it Barbie and the Rockers with capes and songs, and just totally wiped out Jem,” former Mattel marketing director Lynn Rosenblum recounted in the 2009 Jerry Oppenheimer book Toy Monster: The Big, Bad World of Mattel.

Barbie and the Rockers dolls brought in $70 million over the course of 1987, while Jem only moved about $21 million. Hasbro discontinued the Jem and the Holograms dolls at year’s end and the show ended shortly thereafter. 

Barbie had entered the televisual fray. In the 1990s, she starred in a workout video and several video games. In the early 2000s, she appeared in a series of fairytale computer-generated animated straight-to-DVD specials. Jem, for her part, reemerged in a 2015 live-action film, although box office receipts were underwhelming. 

Clearly, Barbie and Mattel’s influence in the filmic realm has increased exponentially since the days of Barbie and the Rockers. The 1980s battle between Barbie and Jem, however, provides a glimpse at the corporate maneuvering and pop influences that led the iconic doll line toward its current cultural supremacy. 

To learn more about Jem and the Holograms, watch the entire television series for free (with ads) on the streaming service Tubi

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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