Tuesday 25 February 2014

Ja'mie: Private School Girl

A few months ago, I posted about Simon Carlyle, an actor who created a female character, Terri McIntyre, and then played her on screen in a comedy. It turns out Carlyle is not alone in doing this. Recently, the television series Ja'mie: Private School Girl, has been produced, and screened in the US, Australia (where it was made) and the UK.

Ja-may-zing: Chris Lilley
Created by Chris Lilley (with assistance from Ryan Shelton), the titular character is a teenager, living in a wealthy district in Sydney, and attending the fictional but prestigious Hillford Grammar School for girls.
Ja'mie: Hi. My name's Ja'mie. I used to be Jamie but I added the apostrophe in year 8. I'm 17 years old, I live in Sydney, Australia, and I'm a private school girl. This series is about my last few months of school, and the events which changed my life for ever.
Ja'mie King was created as a character for two previous shows, in which short comedy skits were seen. Now, she has been given a show all to herself, all six episodes. Before we go any further, a note on pronunciation. You say it "Ja-MAY", or at least, she does.

Lilley is highly skilled at creating characters, both male and female, of different ages and races, and he portrays them all himself with great subtlety. But nonetheless, portraying a teenager must have been extremely difficult, especially as this character is so monstrous!
Sydney Morning Herald: The show is firmly grounded in reality, which is why it works as mockumentary. Lilley went to great lengths to ensure his observations were accurate. He interviewed kids from rural towns, followed an Asian amateur theatre group and filmed conversations between girls from private schools. Although he went to a private school on Sydney's North Shore and knew Ja'mie's world, he wanted to make sure he had the speech patterns and references right. "I didn't want teenage girls to watch it and think that's such an older guy's view of teenagers," he says.
School captain, or whatever
And Lilley does it brilliantly. It's a stretch to imagine Ja'mie as supposedly gorgeous (especially as she isn't very pretty), but the setting is perfect: the costume, the surrounding cast members (who play it dead straight), and the well-observed parody dialogue (especially the gossip sequences, which look very much like the real thing). After a while, we get completely absorbed in the character. Every flounce, every flick, every put-down, every girly line is flawless.

Ja'mie is the school captain, and is always surrounded by six fawning, sycophantic prefects, all attractive young girls. She is vain, shallow, self-centred, racist, homophobic, manipulative and bitchy. She is obsessed with all the things one expects teenage girls to be obsessed with: image, boys, brands, social media.

I found it all horrifying at first. From my own schooling, I remember that type of girl quite well: the queen bee. As an unattractive boy, struggling with his own identity and his self-esteem, I was helpless in the company of pretty girls-- and they knew it. Seeing all these girls with their self-importance and their casual contempt of outsiders almost made me want to hide behind the sofa.

It's all like, so totally, OMG!
Part of the reason the parody works so well is that it is so well-observed. It has its roots deep in truth, which is exaggerated enough to be funny, but without getting to the point where we think it's impossible or ludicrous. Like all the best parodies, it works on several levels. One of the most obvious levels is that the statements made about Ja'mie by herself and her parents are constantly contradicted by the behaviour we see on the screen.

But you don't need me to dissect it for you. What you should clearly do is go and watch it for yourself!

Reviews of the show have been generally favourable. Jake Flanigin of The Atlantic wondered whether the show was mocking teenage girls themselves-- or mocking the society which enables "monstrosities" like Ja'mie to exist. Madeleine Ryan of the Sydney Morning Herald, herself a graduate of a private school, draws comparisons between Ja'mie King and Frankenstein's monster:
Ryan: The question then raised by Lilley is: are young women, in order to make sense of their place in the world, becoming monsters? These motivations may seem laughable, but they are the parody of a devastating truth - in order to be loved and approved of, young women today believe that they need to master it all.
Flanigin: It’s a question better posed as “Why are young women turning into monsters?” The answer, of course, is the gauntlet of ludicrously high expectations society demands they run through—perhaps the only facet of modern culture Lilley effectively lampoons in Private School Girl. Ja’mie has quite a lot of plates to keep spinning: She must be hot (or “quiche”); she must be thin; she must be charitable, dateable, and creative. She’s the head prefect and the soi-disant “smartest non-Asian” at Hillford Girls’ Grammar, and she’s banked her entire self-worth on receiving an all-school award before shipping off to Africa for a gap-year of aid work. This on top of maintaining her record for “the most Facebook friends” in school. So maybe we have an inkling as to why Ja’mie and the young women she supposedly represents are turning into monsters.
Talking non-stop: Ja'mie
On the other hand, Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter thought it was all a bit too much:
Goodman: You'd have to be the biggest of Ja'mie fans to want to watch her talking nonstop for 30 minutes. While Ja'mie skewers the predictable targets in this new series, it's just too, too much to endure her without a break.
It seems clear so far that none of the reviewers considers Ja'mie to be anything other than loathsome. Nobody is applauding her as a person. But so much for what the reviewers think. What about me?

While Terri McIntyre was a likeable character, a "bitch with a heart of gold", Ja'mie King is not likeable in the least. Therefore it's a lot harder for me to find this programme funny. As I've mentioned before, crossdressing as a comedy device doesn't really work for me. On the other hand, the crossdressing is so clever and played so straight that it is almost incidental to this show.

But crossdressing there is. I was envious of Simon Carlyle getting made up as Terri and being able to become that other person. I remain in two minds about Chris Lilley. First, looking back, I was desperate for popularity and acceptance among girls in school. So for me to put myself in Lilley's shoes might allow me a glimpse of what that might have been like. On the other hand, the reality of it, at least as we see in the show, is cruel and lonely and uncertain and shallow. These are not things I aspire to! And I am sure I would tire of that reality very quickly.

And what did the other actors (particularly the prefects) think of it all? Was it easy to get into character? Was it easy to forget Chris Lilley isn't a teenage girl but a grown man in a pinafore? Or was it all a bit weird?

And what about Lilley himself? For him, Ja'mie is just a job. Ja'mie is one of the most memorable (but by no means the only one) of the different characters in his arsenal. Which parts of himself did he bring to the role? Did he enjoy playing Ja'mie? Was he fascinated by the glimpse into her life that the character must surely have brought him? Did he learn anything? Did he come away from the role with sympathy? With reluctance? We don't know.
Lilley: Strangely, I do find her slightly attractive sometimes. I think it's that thing when it looks like you; it's kind of like why people like their children.

As Ja'mie herself might say: yeah, whatever.


  1. Vivienne,

    I watched the first episode of this show after reading your blog and honestly, I'm just not sure what to think. As a crossdresser, this show didn't really move me. So then I thought maybe the satire would work for me because it involved a man playing the part of a woman but in that regard it really didn't work either. Ultimately, it was my own flat reaction to the show and its set up that surprised me the most.



    1. Hi Sally. I know exactly what you mean. I expected that watching it would provoke more of a reaction in me. It's clearly not aimed at us crossdressers, nor is Chris Lilley a crossdresser; just an actor who is playing a part. I think he does it well, and the satire is effective, but there isn't really anything more to the show than that.