TV Review Ja’mie
When you ask someone what they think of Chris Lilley’s newest project Ja’mie: Private School Girl (Wednesday evenings ABC) the reactions are strong and polarised. On the one hand it’s common to hear people say that ‘it’s too intense, can’t cope with it’ or ‘can hardly bear to watch it’. Others say that they are rivetted, that the series has become a must-watch.
The critical response has also been mixed; some critics complain that it ‘isn’t funny enough’, as though by demanding that people think and contemplate uncomfortable truths Chris Lilley has somehow cheated them of easy laughs. For the laughs (and there are many) in JPSG are never comfortable; indeed the whole script and performance would repay a thesis on the subject of dark comedy’s function as a morality play.
Lilley’s minute observations of wider social and interpersonal politics force us to take a hard look at what is going on around us – and inside us. What do we tolerate, ignore, collude with, when it comes to the tough questions of personal moralities and courage in the face of the universal and pervasive scourge of bullying? A look on the internet at the many instances of people driven to suicide by bullies should confirm for us that JPSG’s scenarios, dialogue and cultural observations are hardly exaggerated. The harshness and ugly obscenities of Ja’mie’s routine banter are taken straight from the playgrounds of all our schools, from the poorest state high school to the poshest and most expensive of the private institutions. Lilley places us in the white-hot centre of bullyocracy, showing us, even as we wince and sometimes look away, what is really happening.
For some it seems too far-fetched, but such reactions (‘that just doesn’t happen; I’ve never seen/experienced/done anything like that) are unscientific. Anyone watching Nine’s 60 Minutes on Sunday November 10 would have seen the extent of what lengths bullies are prepared to go to in order to persecute a target. The number of children and young people driven to self-harm and suicide through bullying is rising, but it is still rare for people to acknowledge the extent and seriousness of the problem to the point of actually doing something about it. In fact, brilliantly, Lilley has Ja’mie echoing the denialism of all the commentators (there are even some now who speak of ‘moral panic’ in relation to bullying) who would discourage people from taking effective action.
Watching Ja’mie’s many cruelties and manipulations and then seeing the tragic ‘Chloe’s Law’ segment of 60 Minutes will be revelatory for some, one hopes. For if anything, Ja’mie was less malicious than Chloe Fergusson’s persecutors. At seven, Chloe, born into a large and loving family in Hobart, lost her mother to breast cancer. It was at that point, horrifying enough, that the bullying began, escalating to physical violence in high school. She even changed schools at 15 to try to escape but was stalked by her persecutors and attacked in the street on the way home. Two days later, after relentless vile abuse on Facebook concerning the incident and amid threats that the attack would be triumphantly uploaded online, she killed herself. Her devastated family, led by her older sister, are trying to lobby for a specific anti-bullying law in all states and territories. It is sobering watching. One question that kept recurring in my mind throughout was ‘what were they thinking, these cruel ones? Why? What kind of people do this?’ It was never answered.
JPSG is confronting because it goes there, right to the heart of what kind of people do this, and the answer seems to be, in part, ‘popular and successful ones’. Both programs are worth seeing, if only to reinforce the grim knowledge that in tackling bullying, schools are looking into the heart of darkness in the human spirit; for at the root of bullying is the deadliest of all the sins, that of Pride. All the others, Anger, Vanity, Lust, Greed – they all dance attendance on the worst and most insidious of them all.
Looking at JPSG through the lens of a morality play we see eternal truths: her love of status, her retinue of cowed, mindless supporters, her transparent yet bafflingly victorious ploys for dominance; these are the perpetual weapons and techniques of the successfully functioning psychopath. These tactics work even against her mother, whom she orders around like a servant, secure in the knowledge that while she flirts (sickeningly and transgressively) with her complaisant father, her mother is powerless in the household. We see her exhibitionism as she twerks through assemblies, bamboozling the staff with a combination of obsequiousness and prevarication as she aims for the school’s end of year prize. And her bomb-proof status and popularity remain untouched, at least so far. We long to see a come-uppance, but Lilley is a realist.
As ever, Lilley continues to force us to look at the things we usually take for granted: snobbery, elitism, unkindness, vanity, deceit and selfishness are all laid out here in their awfulness for us to see. His acting is brilliant: there is no sense that he is being a drag queen: instead he presents us with a beautiful young girl whose soul is ugly. And that is the true brilliance of the double-think with which we visually experience his portrayal of Ja’mie. We know she must be beautiful because she would not have the effrontery to behave as she does if she had the actual face that Chris Lilley presents. The confident movements and carriage, the gestures and the acceptance of the other characters of her ascendancy, all point to Ja’mie as looking stereotypically beautiful. Yet we the viewers see Chris Lilley’s very male face, as disciplined as a Noh player in its range of expressions, yet unmistakably still that of a man’s. Or a very disturbing-looking woman. That is part of the genius of Lilley’s creation. We see what’s really going on because we are forced continually to look, fascinated, at Lilley’s face, (only minimally made up) in ways that we wouldn’t if it actually were a beautiful young woman taking the part.
In essence JPSG says: ‘Hey bullies, I know what you’re doing and how you do it. You are on notice.’ Let’s hope that parents and schools will take notice, and be more vigilant about such matters, and that schoolkids will be braver and less inclined to succumb to Bystander Syndrome when the most powerful and popular student starts to bully someone vulnerable. In the meantime, we should try to overcome our fear or disgust and watch what is one of Australia’s great artistic geniuses make one of the most profound and uncomfortable moral explorations of human behaviour. You can still catch it on ABC’s Iview.
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