hile we are undoubtedly not far enough into the ’Naughts to say, I nevertheless feel prepared to identify the most important film of the decade: Josie and the Pussycats (2001). This little-noted and quickly forgotten movie, written and directed by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan and inspired by characters from the Archie comics world, received mixed reviews but is nevertheless bold, radical, and uncompromising in addressing the central problem of contemporary life in America, and perhaps across the world.
Since the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy and free-market capitalism, of which the United States is the standard-bearer, have been triumphant and gone largely unchallenged. Consumer capitalism and its products flood this country and are exported across the world, together with the American pop culture that is usually chief shill for both. This trend has given rise to the fear, at home and abroad, of consumerism’s dangers: the loss of distinct cultures and traditions and an erosion of discipline, morality, and civic-mindedness. All that is left after consumerism takes hold is a soft hedonism in search of quick and dirty self-gratification.
A backlash against American consumerism has emerged among the chattering classes, especially among young people venting their animus toward the mainstream. The purest expression of this backlash is the journal Adbusters, which skewers consumerism through ironic juxtapositions of images. Josie and the Pussycats also confronts the dangers of consumerism and, in a more subtle way, anti-consumerism, among the young.
The film presents the consumerist system, with its partnership between business and media, as a conspiracy in which the stock James Bond villain is pop-music honcho Fiona (Parker Posey). Fiona manipulates the buying patterns of music listeners through subliminal (or sub-aural?) messages. She adjusts fashions and fads to fit vendor needs, as in the scene when a gaggle of teeny-boppers instantly decide, after listening to one of Fiona’s musical concoctions, that orange clothing and accessories are the hottest item on the market, replacing their previous obsession with pink products (“Orange is the new pink!” shrieks one). Pop musicians, the tools of the marketing conspiracy, are chosen, groomed, and hyped to ensure maximum exposure to doctored music, hence the assembly-line stream of plastic boy bands and pop idols.
When our heroines, small-town musicians Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), Valerie (Rosario Dawson), and Melody (Tara Reid), are chosen to be the new superstars by Fiona’s minion Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming), their talent—or lack thereof—is irrelevant. Wyatt needs a new band and the Pussycats stumbled across his path at the right time.
Subliminal messages and comic exaggerations aside—Fiona’s policy of killing any musicians who uncover the scheme, for instance—the film offers a perfectly accurate description of contemporary American business and culture. While the media moguls might not be as nefarious as Fiona, television, movies, magazines, concerts, and celebrity appearances are so awash in product placement that subliminal advertising effectively already exists. Whatever Jennifer Lopez wears in her latest music video becomes the big new fad and pours cash into the coffers of the appropriate clothing manufacturers. Fiona’s explanation for why she targets adolescents—they have more disposable income than any other demographic—is not conspiracy, its sociology.
Josie is so bold as to state plainly that Fiona is not a lone madwoman but a mere agent of the U.S. government, which is the driving force behind her schemes. As actor Eugene Levy, playing himself in Fiona’s informational video, explains, promoting constant consumption benefits the economy. Buying consumer goods is your patriotic duty. The on-screen viewing of this video by an audience of international dignitaries and business leaders neatly captures the export of American consumer culture to other nations.
Were it not for Josie and the Pussycats’ airhead plot, light tone, and bubble-gum rock soundtrack, it would easily be the most unabashedly cynical movie in recent memory. The villains are not defeated at the end: When our heroines unmask the conspiracy, only Fiona and Wyatt are arrested—as the Feds’ scapegoats. Federal Agent Kelly (Tom Butler) even comments, as the two are cuffed and led away, that losing Fiona and Wyatt is not such a big loss: the most effective subliminal messages are conveyed through movies.
Appropriately, this remark is followed by a flashed caption and sped-up narration informing the viewer that “Josie and the Pussycats is the best movie ever.” The film is also filled wall-to-wall with prominent and undisguised product placement, underscoring its own role in the conspiracy. Josie acknowledges the unassailable power of American consumer culture and its own status as yet another product of that culture.
This cynicism, though, points to the real subject of the film’s subtler critique: Anti-consumerism. Like Josie, foes of American consumerism identify consumer culture with conspiracy and manipulation. Such a culture, its foes assert, increases corporate control and dominance of the society, fostering apathy, passivity, and acceptance of the status quo. As in Josie, opponents often view the current situation as the work of elite and secretive groups—CEOs and other denizens of big business along with the legions of politicians and bureaucrats in their pockets. The fight against such culture is presented as something rebellious, liberating, even destructive, all attractive traits to authority-shy Americans, especially young Americans.
While there may be truth in some or all of these attitudes, they tend to ignore one central fact: Consumer society is ultimately powered by the vast social majority that does the consuming. Consumers themselves ultimately hold the reins in a consumerist system, and unless its foes believe that human free will has been wholly eradicated, consumers still have the choice of whether and how to spend their money.
Consumerism is the creation of mass society, not elites. Josie recognizes this fact by presenting the business/media conspiracy as the work not simply of a cabal of sinister gray suits (as in the similar film Zoolander), but as a policy of the United States government to keep the economy going—and, by implication, to perpetuate the consumer culture that is accepted and expected by Americans. The conspiracy cannot be reduced to a few bad people. It encompasses the whole of society.
Similarly, Josie, as a multimillion-dollar product of mainstream Hollywood, featuring name actors, musicians, and media personalities, does not even pretend to be a rebellious or anti-establishment film. A truly anti-establishment ending—in which Josie and her pals, repelled by the evils of consumerism and the mass media, give up stardom and return to their humble, small-town life—would be unconvincing and hypocritical. Instead, they accept their manufactured stardom, blissfully ignorant that the conspiracy continues in full force.
The moment of hope in Josie comes at the very end as Josie exhorts an ecstatic crowd not to follow fashion, not to do or buy things just because the Pussycats or other pop groups do, but to think and make choices for themselves. She and her friends then proceed to bring the house down. She places the responsibility for consumerism and its ills squarely at the feet of those who actually buy the products. Josie calls on the consumers not to rise up, not to rebel against the system, but to reform themselves. The Pussycats will seek and enjoy their stardom, she’s saying. What effect that has on the rest of you depends on you.
In essence, the film calls the anti-consumerists’ bluff. Its claim is that consumerism will not be defeated by anger or rebellion but by those most un-hip and boring of forces, prudence and self-restraint. Rebellion in the face of consumer culture only compounds the problem, since if consumerism works at all, it works when individuals are determined to be free of restraints and to gratify themselves.
Josie and the Pussycats says to America and a world facing the triumph of consumer capitalism that the future depends on human wisdom, not on political or economic revolution. Safeguarding tradition, community, and morality may require those who value them to set aside their rebellious and individualistic impulses and proceed with humility and wisdom.