Chris Lilley has always courted controversy. It’s one of the most defining features of his unique brand. It’s difficult to look back on his illustrious career without finding polarizing story choices made almost every step of the way. In 2007, it was a ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ storyline about the drug overdose of a teenage girl. In 2011, it was the use of Blackface in Angry Boys.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Lilley has recently returned to screens, and social media memes everywhere with Ja’mie: Private School Girl, a six-part comedy series for the ABC that brings one of his most memorable creations, Ja’mie King, back to life. In the three weeks since the series went to air, reactions from around the country have been mixed, with many people quick to make note of Ja’mie’s frequent racism, homophobia, and put-downs based on weight and body image.
One such commentator, an ex-student from the school that is serving as a filming location for Hilford Girls Grammar, the fictional girls school that Ja’mie attends, notes that “we used to be proud of our roots at Haileybury and now to go back and see that they are promoting racism, homophobia, bullying, picking on kids for their weight and size is just horrible.” Is this a case of the lines between fiction and reality being blurred, or does it perhaps speak to a larger problem in contemporary Australian society?
Are people so uncomfortable with Ja’mie as a character because in all her putrid behavior, she’s someone we all know? Satire is at its best when it holds a mirror up to society, and Lilley does just that in Private School Girl. Ja’mie is a heinous character. There is absolutely no way of disputing that. She’s racist, she’s homophobic, she’s petulant, she’s spoilt. There are absolutely zero redeeming factors to her – and that’s where the comedy lies.
Lilley’s shows have always been popular with the teenage demographic, and as such, it can be easy to see where the concern arises from. At such an impressionable age, is it a good thing to see such a despicable person be championed for her bullying?
Let’s be perfectly clear here: Ja’mie is not the hero of her story. She is not a character to sympathise with. She is not someone anybody in their right mind would actually identify with. If anything, Lilley’s portrayal of her is important for the dialogue it allows young people to enter into. It shines a light on just how dire the situation can often be in today’s high-school environment, and it does so in a way that’s an uncanny reflection of the types of people that are out there. We all knew a Ja’mie growing up.
To claim that the character is a bad role model for Generation Y is to place absolutely no faith in their own cognitive abilities. He’s a middle-aged man playing a 17 year old girl – and he’s here with a message: Ja’mie is not a role model, but people like her are out there. It’s not something we should be proud of, but he’s not lying or sugar-coating about what goes on with teenagers. They can be like that. They can be nasty and mean and everything Ja’mie is.
In fact, you could almost go as far as saying that there are people who might watch the way she treats people and see a bit of themselves in her. They might recognise the racism, the homophobia, and start to realise that it’s time to grow up. That’s an important thing.
You can catch Ja’mie: Private School Girl Wednesdays at 9pm on ABC1.
Article by HARRISON CARTWRIGHT, a public school boy, who is totally quiche. Follow him on Twitter here.