Analyzing the digital and analog feedback loop.
“Could there be a female gremlin?”
“Lipstick, boobies bitch, you had me [at] little gremlin va-jay-jay. I love it so much that it’s not only in the movie, but it’s definitely in the movie. There’s no backsies on that one, no penny taxis, yes yes yes, in the movie – done! That’s why we need a woman in the writer’s room. Next!”
– “Hollywood Sequel Doctor” skit from Key and Peele
And that’s exactly how Greta made it into Gremlins 2: The New Batch. At least, I’m convinced of it.
I remember the first time I stumbled upon a Google image result that included Greta, the Gremlin It-Girl. I was disgusted at first (the eye-roll was reflexive) but eventually intrigued. This was several years ago. Now my opinions of her, when read under a more feminist-revisionist lens, are that she’s charmingly camp, she’s a 90s icon and she’s absolutely that bitch.
Greta is both a problem and a potential solution to that problem. She’s introduced by drinking what appears to be a gender serum and then immediately pursuing a man after she transforms. Obviously, the implications of this transformation are very essentialist and thorny (not to mention potentially transphobic, but I’ll leave space for others to discuss this aspect other than for me to state that’s definitely not great), especially when coupled with the fact that Greta is voiced by Joe Dante, the director of the Gremlins films.
Considering how deliberately Looney Toons-esque the sequel to Gremlins is, this puts Greta in line with a long cartoon history of characters who perform femininity as the butt of a joke. She’s closely adjacent to the Humanoid Female Animal trope, with the dial turned almost all the way to the human-side of the Sliding Scale of Anthropomorphism for maximum va-va-voom male gaze action. Yet Greta’s also a monster, which means she gets to be a neon green baddie that transgresses or at least comments on some of these norms.
As Jess Zimmerman eloquently said in the intro to Women and Other Monsters (which is not only about women, but those who are marginalized because patriarchy perceives them as feminine), “if stepping outside the boundaries makes you monstrous, that means monsters are no longer bound.” Greta is definitely a caricature of femininity, but in some ways, she resists the typical male gaze. Think of the “New York, New York” scene, when the Gremlins present a stage that is Greta’s face, with her ascending through a hole that telescopes open from one of the stage’s eyeballs. There’s almost an element of drag to her as she preens in a blood-red dress with a plunging décolletage and a matching fluorescent feather boa. And this might be deliberate, as there are theories that she’s connected to Deagle gremlin, a gremlin who appears more deliberately in drag during the bar scene in the first film. Her beauty is, typical to the Gremlins franchise’s hyperbolic style, quite literally in the eye of the beholder. And Greta is always feeling her fantasy. Greta is both the personification of a male writer’s anxieties about what feminine chaos means for them and a figure that can be read as having a specific type of empowering energy: gremlin girl energy.
Gremlin girl energy can be characterized, in my experience, as a quality that someone has when they are perceived as feminine but refusing to conform to any rigid feminine definition. Especially with regards to beauty standards and emotional regulations. Someone possesses this sort of energy they love themselves fearlessly, doesn’t avoid any “ugly” feelings or hide any unsightly expressions they might make. One of Greta’s most iconic and only lines (outside of suggestive moaning) is in fact “Don’t be afraid of how you feel” and it’s even been used as the slogan for her “Skullector Edition” Monster High Doll. Gremlin girl energy is ugly crying, ugly laughing, as well as pulling strange faces and poses without any restraint. It’s definitely related in some ways to Oxford’s word of the year, “goblin-mode” but is specific to feminine social codes.
This energy extends, of course, to other behaviors and actions too. Like indulging in junk food, shamelessly taunting or flirting and more. In some ways, gremlin girl energy intersects with Manic Pixie Girl energy. But unlike the latter, gremlin girls don’t feel beholden to a brooding man who they act as a chaotic guide for. They simply do what they want when they want without worrying about external criticism or approval. And if a side-effect of behaving so is inspiring or infuriating others, well, what did you expect? This last statement might come off as somewhat petulant, but we’ll get to that shortly.
Gremlin girls and their influence on geek and game culture actually have a long and ongoing history. Other than Greta and her Lola Bunny-like introduction to the Gremlins movie franchise, there was a real-life equivalent of gremlin girls in the arcade scene as well. Back when Sega was partnered with Gremlin Industries to increase their presence in the arcade market, they hired Lynn Reid and Sabrina Osment as a competitive gamer duo who were officially dubbed the Gremlin Girls. They toured 19 cities, in both the U.S. and Europe, challenging players to beat them two out of three games for Sega Gremlin’s promotion of their game Hustle.
The Gremlin Girls also did this while dressed, according to arcade historians Keith Smith and Ethan Johnson, “scantily clad in T-shirts and short-shorts.” They would give victorious players a $100 bill and later a suggestively-worded certificate stating that winners “played around” and “scored” with them. Yet despite this provocative narrative, the Gremlin Girls were more than just their company’s advertising gimmick (although they did rake in $1.5 million dollars-worth of orders for Hustle cabinets). They absolutely dominated in the competitive gaming scene, with apparently only several challengers out of 1,233 beating them during the tour. Like Greta being the sole surviving gremlin in the film, the Gremlin Girls were nigh untouchable.
The Gremlin Girls of game history defied the stereotypical perception of gamer culture being male-dominated. They did this a decade before publications like Electronic Games reported on the presence of women in arcades to boot! But they also represent the way that women have often been used as an attractive way to sell merchandise as well. Though they were obviously not as sexist as the employment and treatment of Booth Babes at latter day expos, the Gremlin Girls are not wholly divorced from that trade show practice. They share with Greta the problematic nature of binary gender and how perceptions within such a binary are skewed towards thinking the feminine version of something typically perceived as masculine – like a competitive gamer – are essentialist and discriminatory.
This carries on in today’s gaming culture and with a surprisingly specific instance of the term gremlin being applied to e-girls, who often inhabit competitive online gaming spaces like Twitch. For the most part the energy associated with e-girl or gamer gremlins is similar to my initial definition of empowerment via exhibiting chaotic representation and behavior. Yet there are some key, less positive differences in this arena.
For instance, since 2016 in the Overwatch scene this label is often associated with D.Va mains but is connected to the character being perceived as a girl that shares similar traits to crusty old stereotypes of “hardcore gamers.” Namely that hardcore gamers chug Mountain Dew, eat copious amounts of Doritos and fast-food, and relentlessly mock other players. The depiction of D.Va this way went viral enough that Activision-Blizzard accepted it as canon by giving D.Va an emote of her slugging back a Dew and chomping on snacks while streaming a game.
On the surface, D.Va very much has gremlin girl energy, but when it’s mashed up with the hardcore gamer stereotypes it reads more as her being “one of the boys.” Although one could also view this emote and the representation of Gremlin D.Va and e-girls as being a subversion of hardcore gamer culture. After all, hardcore gamers (or casual gamers for that matter) are not inherently gendered labels, even if we may have strong associations with those labels.
I think the trouble with current gremlin girl culture stems back to how dysfunctional emotions are often internalized by feminine individuals in a patriarchal society that likes to infantilize them. When people think of gremlin girls these days, they put emphasis on them being girls. After all, being a brat with no regard for anyone isn’t a great reputation to aspire to. But being a brat that breaks boundaries and proudly broadens definitions of femininity? Now we’re talking. But some creators manage to find another way to navigate the more problematic aspects of gremlin girl energy and what it can influence.
Emily Rifkin and Rebecca Warm’s titular Gremlin Girl from their 2019 YouTube animated series is a personification of one woman, Franny’s, anxious inner child. This gremlin, according to the co-creators, is meant to be a metaphor for how hyper-vigilant anxiety can constrict us. But this gremlin is not unique to Franny’s experience. In the penultimate episode of season one titled “Round ’n Round”, it’s revealed that Franny isn’t the only one with an inner gremlin voice. In fact, everyone has one, regardless of gender. And each individual’s gremlin ruminates on something different, from how their date judges them to how small their existence is in the grand scheme of things.
There’s something to be said about how Greta, despite being a fairly insulting, low-hanging fruit of a character, can open up discussions about how femininity in geek spaces and beyond is performed. There’s a reason why she’s one of the most enduring gremlins besides Gizmo, both in the film and in the fandom. Even if your reaction is more akin to Forster’s at the closing wedding scene, a mixture of panic slowly giving way to resigned yet fascinated shrug, you have to admit Greta’s a force to be reckoned with. A force we’re still reckoning with.
Phoenix Simms is a writer and indie narrative designer from Atlantic Canada. You can lure her out of hibernation during the winter with rare McKillip novels, Japanese stationery goods, and ornate cupcakes.