After weeks of speculating about Ja’mie’s fate – will she get her comeuppance? Will she see the error of her ways? Will her mother finally crack? What will happen between her and Kwami? Will she, in fact, learn nothing at all? – Chris Lilley served up a smorgasboard of outcomes for the private school girl we love to loathe. The multiple endings presented by Lilley in the final episode of Ja’mie: Private School Girl threw up many contradictions and that’s perhaps why it’s taken me so long to gather my thoughts and write this article. My head is still spinning, to be honest.
But here I go.
Lilley’s final episode simultaneously strove to please everyone by covering all bases, yet still, in many ways, pleased no one due to its lack of real change in Ja’mie – and perhaps that was the point. Madeleine Ryan’s article in The Age rightly pointed out that the series presented a parody of the unrealistic expectations society placed on young women to succeed so, subsequently, they became monsters. In Ja’mie’s words, she had to be “quiche”, “demonstrate Christian values and be good at everything”, not be a “full slut”, have a “box gap”, and “work at stopping child slavery and healing people and stuff like that”. The series, like its title character, couldn’t please everyone. That seemed to be one of the points it, and she, was trying to make in this interesting final episode.
Ja’mie, in failing to receive the coveted Hillford medal due to a leaked video of a Skype conversation between her and Kwami, in which she revealed her breasts while Kwami fondled himself, caused her father to concede that Ja’mie, by having her mother Jhyll’s genes as well as his own, wasn’t going to be a consistently high achiever after all. Jhyll’s silence as she sat next to her husband spoke volumes.
Ja’mie, however, responded to criticism and failure by making herself seen and heard. She states to her mother before her graduation ceremony, “No one fucks with me and gets away with it”. She means it. She hi-jacks the ceremony by playing the controversial Skype video while telling the audience, “I chose to expose my breasts on Skype in front of the boy I love. Because I chose to have an interracial relationship, the leaders of this school have decided to silence me”.
She then leads her pack of friends in a choreographed strip tease to the graduation song ‘Learning to Be Me’, where she takes off her bra after telling the audience, “Get your tits out girls, unite, no matter how big your tits are, get them out”.
I felt this first “ending” to the series was a clever way of turning the narrative on its head. Ja’mie accusing the school of being racist when she is, in fact, racist herself, and seeking attention through exhibitionism was, in an ironic way, actually conveying a positive message for young women – to express themselves how they liked and not how they were expected to, as well as to love who they wanted regardless of race and socio-economic background. Of course, this scene exposes – pun intended – the problematic elements and contradictions within the concept of feminism in 2013. Namely, the “blurred lines” – pun again intended – between women exploring their sexuality and having their sexuality exploited.
Actress and writer Rashida Jones, in a recent column for Glamour entitled ‘Why is Everyone Getting Naked? Rashida Jones on the Pornification of Everything’, wondered, “Even if adult Nicki and Miley have ownership of their bodies, do the girls imitating them have the same agency? Where do we draw the line between teaching them freedom of sexual expression and pride in who they are on the inside? Are we even allowed to draw a line?” The article elaborated on a tweet she had posted earlier that received an enormous backlash. The tweet in question stated, “This week’s celeb news takeaway: She who comes closest to showing the actual inside of her vagina is most popular. #stopactinglikewhores”.
To clarify her tweet, Jones followed it up with:
“I don’t shame ANYone for anything they choose to do with their lives or bodies…”
“BUT I think we ALL need to take a look at what we are accepting as “the norm”…”
“There is a whole generation of young women watching. Sure, be SEXY but leave something to the imagination.”
What was interesting about Ja’mie’s decision to bare all at the graduation ceremony while reciting such lyrics as, “A woman I shall be, ’cause I’m learning to be me”, was the question it raised regarding the current sexualisation of women in Western culture – was Ja’mie making a stand and an important statement, as well as reclaiming her power and confidence, or was her exhibitionism actually having the opposite effect?
At first, Lilley played with his audience, showing us a Ja’mie who, at the airport on her way to spend her gap year in Africa, had changed for the better; that through the whole video and graduation ceremony mess, she’d had some sort of epiphany and learnt that what mattered was having a good heart.
Ja’mie instead takes a helicopter from the airport, because “more important than school, friends and helping Africans” is love. Lilley then treats the audience to a clever parody of teen dramas centering around, and culminating in the resolution of, love triangles by intercutting shots of Mitchell, Kwami and the helicopter. Where will it land? Who will Ja’mie choose?
I can’t decide whether I found Ja’mie’s choice to reunite with Mitchell surprising or predictable. Lilley makes clear the fact that Ja’mie hasn’t overcome her racism, snobbery or narcissism when she states, “I may be a simple private school girl, but I know one thing. When it comes to love, it’s important you find someone of equal looks, class and colour”.
But wait, there’s more.
Fast forward six months and a lot has changed. Or has it? On the surface, yes. Ja’mie is now enrolled in a public school and repeating year 12 with her gaggle of girlfriends, all of whom were also expelled from Hillford for their part in the graduation ceremony stunt. In a repeat of Summer Heights High, Ja’mie is now mixing with teenagers from a different socio-economic background once more and highlighting both the similarities and differences between them. She hangs out with a range of different students, but Ja’mie and her friends still saunter the grounds with an air of superiority. Mitchell is out of the picture and Ja’mie has decided to go through her “bisexual stage” with a “quiche” girl named Astrid. Ja’mie’s bisexuality, while probably all for show, causes the audience to refocus their attention on her relationships with the females in the series, driven home by the final shot of the series being a school photo with Ja’mie front and centre, Astrid on one side of her, her best friend Madison to the other.
This, I feel, is one of the main areas worthy of examination in the series, above her relationships with Kwame, Mitchell and even her father. In an interview published on junkee.com, Lilley said, “Seeing the way girls talk to each other, their love for each other is so intense and so over the top”. Lilley portrayed and explored this in practically every episode of the series – the squealing, the hugs at the end of the school day, the declarations of “I love you so fucking much” and the dramatic crying on the last day of school.
He explored the darker side of female relationships when Madison hooked up with Mitchell, an incident that sparked a physical catfight between the two girls. They eventually patched things up when Ja’mie manipulated Madison into breaking up with Mitchell. At the point of making up, Ja’mie said something along the lines of if she died right then, her life would be complete having loved Madison. I realise that this tumultuous friendship, as well as Ja’mie’s intense hatred for the boarders, disdain for her younger sister (and vice versa), and her horrid treatment of her mother are deeply problematic for the conclusion I’ve reached that Lilley has used the series to stress the importance of female relationships. But hear me out.
Despite their complexity and oscillation between love and hate, Lilley seems to be presenting a view of female friendships as the most enduring in a woman’s life, that the sentiment “friends forever” isn’t just empty words. At the same time as presenting catty girls at their worst, thus fulfilling the stereotype that women don’t know how to be friends, Lilley also turns this notion on its head by stressing that they are capable of doing anything for each other. Ja’mie’s friends were also expelled for going along with the graduation ceremony stunt – now that’s dedication to friendship.
In turn, perhaps the most important relationship in the entire series is the one between Ja’mie and her mother. In the five episodes prior to the finale, the series seemed to be building up to reveal an affair between Ja’mie’s dad and his personal assistant Mandy, and the possible breakdown of the mother. Instead, all that built up to one brief scene in which Jhyll finally expressed her insecurity out loud and Ja’mie showed a moment of empathy towards, and unity with, her mother. Jhyll asked Ja’mie if she thought it was strange that Marcus was bringing Mandy to the ceremony, to which Ja’mie responded, “Mum, you do realise dad’s an idiot; he’s just really rich and that’s why we need him”.
The general consensus between my friends who followed the series was that this very brief exchange between mother and daughter was one of the most poignant and touching of the entire show. In a series full of outrageous moments, here was an instance where less was definitely more. Lilley almost certainly knew this. The scene’s power lay in its subtlety and I feel was the main message of Ja’mie: Private School Girl. For women to find their way in society, they must learn to support and stop shaming each other. Ja’mie has a huge way to go in that respect, but that scene was a start. It was not for nothing that before the presentation, Ja’mie and her friends reminded each other of the “prefect promise – we stand united no matter what”.
After almost 1,700 words, I feel that this article has said both everything and nothing. It’s no coincidence that that’s exactly how I feel about Lilley’s entire series. Lilley has given us something to laugh, get angry, feel shocked and really think about.