Best of 2013: Ja'mie's disability

Ja'mie KingTV viewers are alarmed that they can so easily identify with Ja'mie King, the studiously unlikeable comic creation in Chris Lilley's Ja'mie: Private School Girl, currently screening on ABC1. The 17-year-old school captain at the fictitious Hilford Girls Grammar on Sydney's North Shore is proudly racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and more. 

Lilley developed the character with the use of recorded interviews with private school girls and a certain amount of strategic eavesdropping. It seems he also consulted textbook descriptions of narcissism that point to shamelessness, distorted thinking, arrogance, envy, entitlement, exploitation, and lack of respect for the boundaries of other people.

There's another critique of educational privilege in Christos Tsiolkas' new novel Barracuda. The character Danny Kelly is from the other side of the tracks and was sent to a prestigious private school in Melbourne's east. But he remains an outsider. He calls the school 'Cunts College' and ruminates on the finer points of his classmates spending their summer holidays at Portsea and Sorrento as opposed to Rye and Rosebud. 

The novel reflects on a society that is crippled because it is beholden to a privilege that fosters class division, racism, and hostility to Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers, and others on the margins. 

But privilege can also work the other way. If the privileged are so disposed, their resources can be shared with those who are disadvantaged. But what matters most is not the amount of the resources that are shared, but the attitude of the privileged persons doing the sharing.

Ja'mie showed the wrong attitude when she appeared in the earlier series We Can Be Heroes (2005). She was sponsoring underprivileged Third World children about whom she knew little and cared less. The fundraising was all about her, and not the other people who could use her help. She could not feel their need.

People like Ja'mie have a pathological disability when it comes to being genuine in their attempts to do things for others. A few years ago, some privileged schools started to encourage their students to be 'men and women for others'. There were students who mocked this. Perhaps they shared Ja'mie's disability, or maybe they were just having fun at the expense of their more earnest teachers. Either way, some students took the message to heart and into their lives and careers, and found what it led to deeply satisfying.

While the character of Ja'mie is set up to be judged for her callous disregard for the feelings of others, it is not for us to judge her and people in real life who are like her. In time, they come to the conclusion that there is something wrong with their lives when they constantly feel empty when not performing for their friends.

For us, it is better to allow those who are 'men and women for others' to inspire us towards a life of empathy. Whether or not we ourselves are economically and socially privileged, the ability to feel the pain and discomfort of others is a personal asset that leads to deeper contentment and a life fully lived. 

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. This article was originally published on 27 October 2013.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Chris Lilley, Christos Tsiolkas, Barracuda, Ja'mie King, social inclusion, privilege, educ



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