No Offence, But… A Look at Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High

This article has been modified after its original publication on GaydarRadio.com on 21 July 2008.

The announcement that Chris Lilley’s Ja’mie: Private School Girl is set to hit Aussie, UK and US TV screens in October has caused many to dust off their DVDs of his 2007 series Summer Heights High, which featured his popular character Ja’mie King, a wealthy, snobby Australian school girl who, for one term, transfers to the government funded Summer Heights High to see how the other half lives.

 

As we wait to see what Chris Lilley’s new series will expose about Australia’s privileged using his particular brand of dark, outrageous humour and who it will offend this time ‘round, it is worth revisiting Chris Lilley’s earlier satire. The series offers an insightful, albeit exaggerated, exploration of the human condition and life in the Australian government system, an environment in which people from varying social backgrounds are forced to interact with each other on a daily basis and, as such, is affected by very real issues including bullying, social cliques, racism and homophobia. Lilley is not afraid to point out that the issues of class, race and sexuality still very much matter today. The series also humanises, at the same time as it caricatures, those people who fall through the cracks of this environment – this is no mean feat, proving just how much of a genius Lilley is as both a character actor and a social commentator.

Lilley’s response to the inevitable controversy that surrounded the confronting satire was to remind his audience and critics that his aim was to be as aesthetically, stylistically and thematically authentic as his mockumentary would allow. “I went to a lot of trouble to make sure the show was very real and we shot it in a real working school with real kids’, he told The Australian. “So when you’ve got a big comedy character like Jonah swearing and being inappropriate in this real environment, that’s what upset a lot of people”. Lilley’s collaborator and co-producer Laura Waters attested to the authenticity of the program when she explained that the pair “do a massive amount of the factual research at the same as working out story lines and character thoughts, exactly as if we were, in fact, making a doco. We want to create as authentic a world as possible in which these characters exist alongside people from real life”.

 

Tongan schoolboy Jonah – the “square peg in the round hole”, as the school counsellor, Mr. Petersen, describes him – is introduced to us when he is pulled into Peterson’s office and reprimanded for bullying a ginger-haired year eight boy and calling him a “ranga” (slang for “orang-utan”). Leon, Jonah’s friend, seems familiar with the sort of language that’s regularly used against minorities when he attempts to justify his group’s bullying of the red-headed boy by arguing that “there’s heaps of ‘em, they’re everywhere”. Indeed, Jonah complains that the “teachers are so racist, blaming me for all the shit”. So, while Johan behaves extremely badly, Jonah’s English teacher, Ms. Wheatley – who must deal with Jonah’s disruptive antics – is not exactly above criticism herself, referring negatively to the racial identity of Johan and his friends: “Oh look, it’s the Islander boys, late again. Why’s it always you lot?” Tellingly, Ms. Wheatley’s class is studying The Outsiders.

Summer Heights High is, in turn, concerned with drawing comparisons between “outsider” groups that face persecution and discrimination due to their skin colour, hair colour, economic background, sexuality and a multitude of other differences. Senior drama teacher Mr. G, who has delusions of grandeur about his popularity and talent, is a thoroughly unlikeable character who nonetheless elicits sympathy late in the series due to his frustration at the lack of government funding for the arts and his reluctant solidarity with Toby, a student with Down ’s syndrome who happens to idolise Mr. G. Mr. G admits that he faced bullying at school for being effeminate and now vehemently defends his passion for drama. “People say that drama is a bludge subject, that’s it’s a poofo subject, that there’re no jobs in it”, he says. “They’re wrong, drama changes lives”.

 

Ja’mie, on the other hand, is a different kind of outsider. She is an outsider in the sense that she has come to Summer Heights High from an exclusive all-girls grammar school for one term as part of the “It’s All About Education” campaign, a state sponsored program to bridge the divide between government and private schools. She has been dropped into this cultural melting-pot with an attitude of self-importance and tactless prejudice. According to Lilley, speaking to Digital Spy in 2008, “she doesn’t go to a multicultural school, so it’s a shock for her. She thinks she’s hot, she’s white, she’s young and she’s extremely attractive – and consequently doesn’t think much of the Asian girls”.

Her ignorance of a socially-integrated school environment extends to disabled children when she comments: “Aw, you’ve got disabled people! That’s so cute! We have one burns victim at our school, but no mentally retarded people”. She also blatantly sees her new classmates as disadvantaged and stupid: “Studies show that students from private schools are much more likely to get into uni and make a whole lot of money”, she addresses the school at an assembly. “While wife-beaters and rapists are almost all public school educated. No offence, but it’s true”.

Ja’mie immediately becomes the queen bee of the most popular all-girl clique at Summer Heights High, introducing a whole new kettle of fish to Lilley’s exploration of social bullying, self-esteem, racism and discrimination, this time concerning girls. It is similar to what Tina Fey did in her screen play for 2004’s Mean Girls, based on Rosalind Wiseman’s self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes. Ja’mie tries to persuade her new friends to “run away” from Bec, an Asian girl who bears the brunt of Ja’mie’s racism, talks behind the girls’ backs and makes fun of their background. Ja’mie’s empty promise to call her “povvo skank” friends after she returns to her exclusive private school in turn makes clear the fact that the “It’s All About Education” program has not worked. I guess we will find out for sure when Ja’mie: Private School Girl airs this October.

 

In any case, Lilley offers no easy answers to the problems he exposes and keeps picking at like a scab that’s had the band-aid ripped right off. He implies that shelter from the social politics and problems he explores is not as easy as Ja’mie might make it seem. He contends that, out of all his characters, it is Ja’mie who will have the toughest time when she is forced to leave high school behind and go into the “real world”. And the reality, as Lilley shows us, is not all fun and games, even though we can have a damn good laugh at it.

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