Five years ago, HBO aired a quirky little mockumentary written and starred in by an Australian comic few Americans knew of: Summer Heights High, the eight-part, sidesplitting portrait of a Sydney public high school created by writer-performer Chris Lilley. Lilley played all three principal roles: Mr. G., the flamboyantly self-deluded drama teacher; Jonah Takalua, the juvenile delinquent with a penchant for phallic graffiti; and Ja’mie King, the egomaniacal exchange student from Sydney’s posh North Shore. HBO's gamble paid off. Within weeks, viewers fell in love.
Each of the characters a fount for laughs in his or her own right, but Ja’mie was a clear fan favorite. From her self-serving charity projects to her fondness for the term “povo” (short for “impoverished”), she made a big impression stateside—big enough for HBO to team up with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to produce Ja’mie: Private School Girl, which premiered in the U.S. on Sunday.
Private School Girl is classic Lilley, full of expertly crafted cultural satire. It opens with a particularly apt riff on the soapy voiceovers favored by rich-girl-centric reality shows like MTV’s Laguna Beach: “My name’s Ja’mie. I used to be Jamie, but I added the apostrophe in year eight. 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 at school, and the events that changed my life forever.”
It’s not hard to understand the appeal of Ja’mie. America loves to hate on the rich-bitch archetype, perhaps because we all remember some version of her from our own high school days: the faux modesty, the backhandedness, the coterie of hair-flipping, heavily lip-glossed sycophants. Or perhaps audiences have had their fill of morally ambiguous queen bee-types, like those created by Josh Schwartz and Ryan Murphy. Either way, Chris Lilley knows what his audience wants: the most exaggerated caricature of teen girlhood imaginable. It’s funny stuff, as well as a relatable and comfortable trope.
But ultimately, it’s a trope with some not-so-funny implications. It’s clear from the first episode that Ja’mie hasn’t changed much since Summer Heights High. Why should she? Viewers loved to hate her self-involvement, casual racism, vicious lesbophobia, and obsessive body-consciousness. All are well in place for Private School Girl. Presumably, Lilley poses this array of amusing insecurities and prejudices as a critical device, not face-value comedy—but it’s difficult to say whether the audience can discern the difference.
Lilley provides some understated direction in that regard. He surrounds Ja’mie with bootlicking friends, a doormat of a mother, an over-indulgent father, and lenient teachers—possibly a comment on how the upper middle-class social machinery has a hand in engineering these entitled young women. But some viewers may not catch on to such subtleties. To many, watching Ja’mie manipulate her father into paying for a second iPad, or a spring-break trip to Bali, is nothing more than voyeurism, perhaps even vicariousness. The joke is on the conniving brat, not the clueless, acquiescing dad. The basic conceit most viewers are likely to take away from Private School Girl is “teenage girls are vapid, self-loathing sociopaths.” For instance, when Ja’mie bemoans her flat chest, or asserts the necessity of a “box gap” (sufficient space between one’s thighs), are viewers finding humor in the culture of body dysmorphia, or one of its victims? When she obsesses over a boy’s Facebook page or proudly declares, “I know how to text and drive, I’m not a fucking idiot,” are we laughing at the silly girl with warped priorities, or the warped society that thrust those priorities on her?
And to be fair, it’s a message with some veracity. “Ja’mie King is a parody of a devastating truth,” writes Madeleine Ryan for The Sydney Morning Herald. “The question raised by Lilley is: are young women, in order to make sense of their place in the world, becoming monsters?”
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. But the next question is, why do we find it so funny?
Private School Girl isn’t likely to offer any useful answers. It’s a project of pure fan service; HBO and ABC identified a demand for an entertaining character, and shrewdly obliged with a spinoff. “You’d have to be the biggest of Ja’mie fans to want to watch her talking nonstop for 30 minutes,” writes The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman. And those fans exist. In droves.
So it’s worth realizing that Chris Lilley and the usual Hollywood suspects don’t foist these distortions of teenage girlhood on audiences. Rather, audiences demand them. And so long as Lilley and his cohorts fail to recognize the hypocrisy of ridiculing young women for failing to meet impossibly high standards (and becoming monsters in the process), they may only add to the problem.