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Josie and the Pussycats is cinema’s greatest takedown of capitalism

Writer-directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont dig into the Archie adaptation’s searing subtext

Image of the four women from the Josie and the Pussycats movie on a vibrant background Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source image: Universal Pictures

Believe it or not, the Josie and the Pussycats movie turned 20 years old in 2021. In the two decades since the release of the Archie Comics adaptation starring Rachel Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson, and Tara Reid, the movie has gone from belittled box-office flop to cult classic and critical darling.

Why did a movie that hardly anyone saw in theaters become a generational touchstone for millions? Simple: Because it’s a movie about socialism. Yes, Josie and the Pussycats is technically also a movie about an all-female rock band caught up in a world-domination plot involving Parker Posey brainwashing millions of teenagers with pop music, but it’s also about three women who live together, share everything, and reject ego. If this isn’t AOC’s favorite movie of all time, I’m not sure what is! (OK, it might be Spaceballs.) Still — viva La Josie!

In a new episode of Polygon’s new podcast Galaxy Brains, my co-host Jonah Ray and I go straight to the source and discuss the true meaning of Josie and the Pussycats with the film’s writers and directors: Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation (which has been edited for clarity):

Dave: Was the socialist aspect of [Josie], the fact that they live together and there’s no front person, on your mind when writing? That kind of like collectivist feeling?

Harry: Look, first of all, I don’t mean to be that asshole that says like whatever you take from the movie is right. But whatever you take from the movie is right. But I mean, I can tell you the things we talked about. It was much more nonconformist. You know, we definitely talked about consumerism, but it definitely felt more to us that it was non-groupthink. I mean, she says at the end of the movie, you know, think for yourselves. That’s kind of the message. That’s a very basic message in the movie. But yes, it certainly has grown into this reputation for being an anticapitalist film, which I’m good with.

Jonah: I remember my friend saw it before me and he’s like a punk kid and says, “This is an anticapitalist movie.” I was like, “Wait, what? No, you know, it’s Josie and the Pussycats...” and he’s like, “No, no, no. It’s deeper than you think, man!”

Deborah: I want to know how they even got him into the theater with the marketing campaign.

Jonah: He worked at the theater!

Dave: He had no choice. He had to watch it.

Harry: Oh, if only everybody had to watch the movie.

Dave: Now we’re all doing it by choice. It has become this cult classic. This movie that I think people me and Jonah’s age saw at a time when we were very impressionable and it made an impact on us. It reinforced our feelings about standing out. But I think one of the interesting tensions in the film is it is about being yourself and standing out, not being a part of the group, but it also has this familial, sticking together thing. And I think sometimes American movies have this problem where they can’t decide if you’re supposed to go it alone and be this individualistic hero or you’re supposed to stick close to home and be a part of a fringe group or be a part of a family unit or, you know, be a part of a collective. Do you think that there’s, not specifically just about your movie, but in general, this problem that American movies have where they can’t decide if you’re supposed to go out and be Luke Skywalker or if you’re supposed to stay home on the farm?

Deborah: I feel like that’s a bit of a male perspective versus a female perspective. This sort of the lonely rider has to go out and be a man and take care of business. Women, I think we’ve always operated from a perspective of the village stronger together. We need back up. And maybe because we weren’t allowed to go out alone or we’d get raped and murdered, I don’t know.

Dave: That’s a great point. This is a movie that really does center women and give them the chance to be not only the stars of the film, but also to talk about issues that are very unique to women. And I think that that’s another reason why it works as well as it does, is because it has that very strong center and that very strong perspective. The female gaze is very clear in this movie.

Deborah: Well, we explored a bit of something I think has sort of been put on us by men, which is that there’s only room for one woman at the table. Once they got successful, it became cutthroat. They wanted to put Josie out in front. There was not room for all three of them. And that’s a myth, really.

Harry: And we also wanted the heart of the movie to be their friendship. You know, there’s only one love interest, which is a bit of an afterthought, but it’s not like there’s a guy for every one of them. At the end, it was really about, you know, their relationships with each other. That was the most important thing. And that was important to us to be the center of the story emotionally.

For a bigger deep dive into Josie and the Pussycats, or to hear our episodes on Star Wars, Mortal Kombat, and Godzilla vs. Kong, check out the Galaxy Brains feed, wherever you get your podcasts.