[Nostalgia Week] ‘Josie and the Pussycats'(2001) is a Feminist Text

Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), Melody (Tara Reid), and Valerie (Rosario Dawson) share one package of ramen in the kitchen in their crappy rental home. The three friends are in a band together, The Pussycats, and they’re waiting for their big break. In a sudden and super-speedy series of events, the all-female pop band land a record deal and fly off to New York City with their record producer, Wyatt (Alan Cumming). Everything seems too good to be true as Josie, Melody, and Valerie realize, their bosses Wyatt and Fiona (Parker Posey) may have sinister motives. The film, inspired by the Archie comics series, combines fast-paced action, head-bobbing original songs, and over-the-top product placement to highlight the capitalist motivations at the heart of the music industry. Josie and the Pussycats is biting social commentary dressed like a classic 2000s teen comedy.

Alan Cumming (white, brown hair cut in a bob parted down the middle) stands next to Parker Posey (white, short wavy hair), both give a judgemental look to someone off camera.
Image courtesy of Universal Studios

From the get-go, Josie and the Pussycats has great female characters. The leading trio are all wonderful. Each of them excels at their instrument, has their own character arc, and cares more about their friendships than making money off their music. They are all imperfect and have to learn from their mistakes, making them lovable for their drive to become better people. Spelled out like this, these seem like simple human characteristics, but far too often, only male lead characters are given a successful career, good relationships, and the space to improve themselves. Usually, women can only have one or two of those things, frequently giving up one or more things for a man. Josie, Melody, and Valerie’s characters go against stereotypical gendered representations. Even the villains, Wyatt and Fiona, push back on gender norms. Wyatt is an androgynous man who I, a non-binary person, strongly identify with. Wyatt has a sleek bob, sassy tone, and tiny colored sunglasses that make him look a gay icon. He’s a heavily queer coded character, yet, his sexuality is not the butt of a joke or a punchline. He’s simply accepted in his mixture of feminine and masculine gender expression. Wyatt and his boss Fiona, who appear to have malicious intentions, are ultimately revealed to be acting out of self-hatred. The previously-ugly female and queer coded male villian tropes are glaringly problematic at first glance. Yet, in the end, both of them reveal that they acted out of insecurity, aligning themselves with selfish values for financial gain. In Josie and the Pussycats, gendered stereotypes are used to draw attention to the problems with those tropes.

As Josie and the Pussycats rapidly gain a worldwide following, they find out the music industry is tied to a larger plot to use subliminal messaging in music to sell things to teenagers. The corporate advertising is completely profit-driven, with a stated goal of getting teens to spend any allowance, summer job, or babysitting money they have on the newest trend. Wyatt and Fiona are pawns of the advertising company, using the promises of fame and future records to get Josie, Melody, and Valerie to bend to their will. To pound in the message that consumerism and capitalism are bad, Josie and the Pussycats is filled with over-the-top overt product placement including a McDonald’s Happy Meal-themed bathroom, a Motorola airplane, and other logo-covered scenes. The music with hidden audio advertisements and satirical product placement send the overall message that money-hungry corporations prey on people with less power including young musicians desperate for a record deal.

Large yellow and red text that reads "Josie and the Pussycats is The Best Movie Ever JOIN THE ARMY" is set over an image of Parker Posey and Alan Cumming standing across from a white man in a suit
Image courtesy of Universal Studios

The satirical tone of Josie and the Pussycats works effectively at addressing gender and class issues, yet, it falls a bit flat in trying to address racism in the music industry. The only person of color in the main cast is Valerie, who is repeatedly given the short end of the stick. Valerie quickly notices issues with Wyatt’s promotion of the band: he switches the band’s name from “The Pussycats to “Josie and the Pussycats,” blatantly ignores everything she says, and even drives off in a limo with Josie and Melody, nearly leaving her stranded in Manhattan. Each of these issues is meant to signal the racism of corporations, yet, they don’t really get at the heart of the problem. These individual racist actions are attributed to Wyatt himself rather than point to systemic issues tied to the very core of institutions like music production companies.

Upon re-watch, Josie and the Pussycats is certainly not perfect, but it holds up more than most early 2000s teen films. Sure, there’s still an unnecessary heterosexual love story and some appearance-based jokes that feel outdated, but the anti-capitalist satire makes it worthy of watching even now. Josie, Melody, and Val will always hold a special place in my heart and my Spotify playlists. And, don’t forget: Josie and the Pussycats is the best movie ever!