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.