Celebrating the Sly Subversiveness of ‘Josie and the Pussycats,’ 15 Years Later

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A few years ago, I was on the phone with one of my best friends, telling her I was watching Josie and the Pussycats for the umpteenth time. In my mind, that would lead to quoting various meanings of “Du Jour,” singing lyrics to songs from the still-catchy soundtrack, and waxing poetic about all things Parker Posey. Instead, my friend basically replied with a “huh” that I could only interpret as “why?” and I had to get to the bottom of it. “You’ve seen Josie and the Pussycats, right?” I asked. The five small words of her response shocked me, even after years of defending the movie: “I heard it was bad.”

I couldn’t blame her — Josie was a box office bomb, thoroughly skewered by critics. But I told her they were wrong, that it was secretly a brilliant pop satire about the homogeneity of culture and the commercialization of music, as anyone with a sense of humor or irony could see, if they were to merely give it a shot. Then I hung up on her so she could make that happen. Five minutes later, she was sending the first of many texts: “DU JOUR MEANS CRASH POSITIONS!”

Josie and the Pussycats was released in April 2001 – the thick of the post-‘80s teen movie renaissance, in which Josie’s lead actresses, Rachael Leigh Cook (She’s All That), Rosario Dawson (Down to You), and Tara Reid (American Pie), were key figures. The era was also all about faux-access to the world of pop culture (especially in music), whether in the form of MTV’s TRL: Total Request Live or its sister network VH1’s Behind the Music. And Josie and the Pussycats not only got that — it made that part of the story. The Leif Garrett episode of Behind the Music is an evil government official’s favorite episode? Well, it was everyone else’s too. The face of TRL, Carson Daly, plays himself as a literal tool of the consumerist machine? That was such a consensus on that topic, Saturday Night Live had sketches about it.

Plus, the movie had (and still has) a fire soundtrack.

But Josie has a terrible rep, and it all goes back to that initial critical skewering. Rotten Tomatoes has the film certified “Rotten” at 53%, with reviews like:

– “This self-styled self-reflexive comedy asks the question, just how stupid are teenagers?” – – “Ranks a ‘one’ next to Spinal Tap’s ’11.’” – – “A nice one for the kids, but that’s about all.” – – “This exhumes the corpse of a long-forgotten old Archies cartoon.” – The Guardian

The critical consensus around the film took it very much at face value (product placement, boy bands, girl groups, impressionable teens), despite the fact that it’s a movie about not taking anything at face value. How could Josie be construed as playing it straight, when you have fourth wall-breaking moments like unpleasant Alexandra (Missi Pyle) muttering, “I’m here because I was in the comic book,” that point out just how ridiculous said nostalgia was in the first place? And for all the talk of tasteless product placement — 73 companies were part of the joke, according to IMDb — none were actually paid endorsements. Keep in mind that Riverdale, the small-town home of the Pussycats, is introduced with a welcome sign featuring product placement of its own, and is a mecca for trendy, fashionable stores you’d be more likely to see on Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue. “Too much product placement” is the point; it’s unavoidable, especially when demographically targeted. You can’t turn away.

Simply put, Josie was missing the point in order to make one of its own. The mere existence of Josie and the Pussycats — based, as it is, on B-characters from Archie comics — makes it a pop culture satire, but it also falls more in line with the ‘90s Brady Bunch films than with 2015’s Jem and the Holograms. It’s covered in flash and brightness, but that flash and brightness are as transparently manufactured as the world in which the original story existed.

In his 2009 My Year Of Flops entry on Josie, critic Nathan Rabin pointed out what its fans had been saying since the movie came out: “Like many underrated satires, Josie and the Pussycats could easily be mistaken for its satirical subject.” Simply put, Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont — who were also responsible for A Very Brady Sequel and Can’t Hardly Wait — took a look at the climate of youth and pop culture at the time and pointed a funhouse mirror at it. But since unlike, say, 21 Jump Street or Zoolander, Josie and the Pussycats was also widely viewed as a “girl movie,” it was always going to have to fight an uphill battle to be taken seriously. When Roger Ebert called Josie and the Pussycats “as dumb as the Spice Girls” and a “positive” review of the movie starts with, “ah, once again the nostalgia of our youth has been strip-mined for a Hollywood remake,” it’s hard to see fair criticism instead of an attack.

A Pitchfork piece titled “Pop Music, Teenage Girls and the Legitimacy of Fandom” opens with the observation, “There is no greater cultural crime a young girl can commit than loving pop music without apology,” and goes on to lament that such a person is “[f]orever marginalized as the screaming, crying Beatlemaniac, Directioner, or Swiftie.” Critics accused Josie and the Pussycats of committing that crime while also being a part of that same “pop” world. But to say Josie and the Pussycats was mocking the TRL-minded fangirl as a brainless drone is to ignore its inclusion of a character jokingly referred to as the “free thinker” (decked out in all black and probably harboring a lot of opinions on The Smiths), who shows up to drone on about the “crap” that is pop music, only to be kidnapped via the secret code “smells like teen spirit.” Even as millions are being brainwashed, it’s the one who chooses to put them down — while contributing no original thoughts of her own — who suffers the consequences. And at the end, when Josie tells the millions watching the band’s concert live or at home to make up their own mind, what she says isn’t bad on a judgment about that audience.

That’s where the film’s simple, “be yourself” message becomes clear. But ultimately, what it’s really saying is closer to: “let other people have their opinions.” That’s the battle cry of everyone who’s joined the Josie and the Pussycats army over the past decade and a half. Is it really “the best movie ever”? Probably not. But to paraphrase Marco Rubio, let’s dispel with this fiction that Josie and the Pussycats doesn’t know what it’s doing. It knows exactly what it’s doing.

Josie and the Pussycats is streaming on YouTube and other platforms.