tv review: ja’mie: private school girl
Chris Lilley’s mockumentaries always tread a fine line.
The comedy television shows that he writes and stars in parody stereotypical Australian identities. Some argue that in doing so, they entrench discriminatory stereotypes. Yet, Lilley’s nonchalance for taking the piss out of, well, everyone, allows him to perform a social critique more explicit and engaging than most.
From We Can Be Heroes underclass teen, Daniel Sims, who appropriates African American iconography and loves to rap about wanking, to Summer Heights High’s effeminate drama teacher Mr G who hugs ‘special kids’ tighter than others, Lilley’s characterisation shits all over political correctness.
Lilley’s newest creation, Ja’mie: Private School Girl is no exception. In this series that has just finished its run on ABC, Lilley plays one character: seventeen-year-old private school student, Ja’mie King. The character is vile; a racist, homophobic, classist snob who considers herself ‘pretty much good at everything’.
The show follows Ja’mie as she torments disadvantaged individuals and minority groups, sparking uproar amongst critics. American writer Hank Stuever catches the source of much of this outrage in his comment that the show is ‘uncomfortably discriminatory’.
In episode one, Ja’mie throws a milkshake at the boarders, a school group she negatively accuses of being ‘fat lesbians’, and reduces the ‘weird Asian kids’ to ‘# fried rice’. Later in the series, Ja’mie patronisingly ‘adopts’ a black African immigrant, Kwami, and forces him to act as servant to her white party guests.
Partly because Lilley himself is a white, upper-class male, this onslaught feels like an assertion of privilege at times, which serves to further ostracise minorities.
The show is also problematic due to its negative portrayal of teenage women. Implicit in Ja’mie’s characterisation is the message that young women are more superficial, irrational and bitchy than young men. All the female students are malicious, with the exception of Erin who is simply too stupid to comprehend girl culture. In contrast, male characters are either rational, as in the case of the deputy-principal, Mr. Hayes, or detached, like Mitchell, until Ja’mie compromises them by flaunting her sexuality. As Phil Dyess-Nugent wrote at the AV Club, this frames women as inherently more manipulative, and their sexuality as more disingenuous and dangerous than men.
Yet, my little sister feels, as do many people I’ve spoken to, that somewhere amongst this tangled mess of cultural insensitivity, is a well-considered commentary on Australian society.
‘I thought it was good because it makes fun of those kinds of people’, she says of Ja’mie: Private School Girl’s depiction of a prejudiced bully.
Lilley highlights prevalent patterns of thought and behaviour in Australian society and forces people to face, and even laugh at, how irrational they are.
A good example is the disrespectful treatment of Ja’mie’s mother Jhyll. Zooming in on Jhyll’s expressive face as our protagonist calls her a ‘good for nothing bitch’ and her husband, Markus ignores her, illuminates the dehumanisation of women when they take on the role of mother.
Ja’mie: Private School Girl does an especially good job of showing how some social groups maintain power over others. Rich, white, well-educated and primarily heterosexual, Ja’mie embodies privilege. Noting the advantage dealt to her, she mistakenly believes that it derives from her natural superiority over other social groups – she’s ‘just a step above’ everyone else. Consequently, she criticises traits in others which are different to her own. This discriminatory behaviour, in turn, maintains her privileged position. Thus, Lilley shows that in many ways power does not derive from natural superiority, but from one’s deluded belief that they are naturally superior.
Overall, the notion of Ja’mie King’s superiority is so absurd, her behaviour so cruel, and Australia’s laughter at her so loud, that viewers become ashamed to mimic her any longer.
However, there remain fundamental problems with Lilley’s representation.
“He’s trying to get girls to look at themselves; how superficial they’ve become” my younger sister tells me.
Unfortunately, without a parallel plot line, Lilley’s criticisms can be interpreted as targeted at only one demographic: teenage girls.
The question arises: Is it the place of an adult man to criticise and change the behaviour of teenage girls? Lilley is not some objective, one-man ethics board there to remind Australians of what’s right and wrong. His perspective in some ways seems as prejudiced as his characters’. His treatment of female sexuality is especially troublesome; with Ja’mie’s sexual autonomy ultimately depicted as something to be laughed at and eventually warranting control. Lilley places the onus of blame for the women’s behaviour on their own superficiality, with limited consideration given to the cultural and institutional norms which influence and appraise it.
As always, Chris Lilley says ‘puck you!’ to Australian society in Jamie: Private School Girl. But this time, the biggest ‘puck you’ is troublingly, saved for young women.