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. 

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



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Existing comments

I will state up front: I am an admirer of Chris Lilley's subversive, brilliant writing and comedic talent. Ja'mie is a character who takes no prisoners. I think we'd all like to be as empathetic and giving as we possibly can be -but Ja'mie is lurking. It can be uncomfortable watching Lilley's comedy but it teaches us much.
Pam | 25 October 2013

Ja'mie King is the Shadow side to many of our public spirited young women and men. When we get too earnest and self-righteous, that Shadow side tends to manifest and destroy our safe illusions about ourselves. The problem with Chris Lilley's fictional character is that, as a one dimensional parody, she is not presented with the possibility of self-realisation and self-redemption. She is also probably too young and immature to face up to the task. It sometimes takes a lifetime to finally do so. Christians would also introduce the concept of Grace, as it was seen to operate in the lives of the saints, such as Ignatius of Loyola. It was their response to this Grace which effected the change in them with the obvious fruit it bore. Mottos like "Men and Women for Others" are good to encapsulate worthy ideals in young people's minds. Only genuine examplars and mentors, like the late Emmett Costello; P J Stephenson; Fred Imray and others; can help facilitate this. We need them in Australia for our young people. Ordinary people in everyday life can also be exemplar-mentors. We need these men and women desperately as our bulwark against self-centred, narcissistic acquisitiveness.
Edward F | 26 October 2013

Don't take it to heart, Michael, but Ja'mie isn't a real person, She is a comic characterisation. A work of fiction. She doesn't exist in real life. The humour derives from the way some people patronise teenage attitudes.
DavidSt | 27 October 2013

Edward F expressed beautifully my own sentiments. The observation was sharp and accurate - but (at this stage) limited. What I loved about 'Angry Boys' was that there were layers to the characters - I haven't yet seen tht in Ja'amie. But given Chris Langham's talent...who knows what will transpire?
Helena S | 28 October 2013

What has always concerned me about 'men and women for others' is that it necessitates there being 'others'....
Margaret | 28 October 2013

To be an authentic message for young people, "men and women for others' must be exemplified in the daily deeds of the institutions who espouse the message - before it can result in action somewhere down the track.
Charlie | 28 October 2013

The attitude of the youth serving others is reliant on the prebrief, context given, and debrief, rather than a glib handing over of cash or giving up a couple of hours to serve. Without discussion beforehand and debrief afterwards, the action has no meaning for youth and just serves to give them a feel good factor, rather than a meaningful experience that changes attitudes and opens their hearts and minds.Guided reflection is essential.
Lynne | 28 October 2013

Interesting article. I agree, it's not up to us to judge people like Ja'mie. I think while symptomatically it's an inability, it's not a disability in the way of being inherent in one person and absent in another. I think the blame lies squarely with societal messaging, which can have disastrous effects when left uncritiqued. Our society is heavily designed to serve the growth/ success of the economy and encourage narcissism (which is truly scary - consider the dark side to the exhibitionism encouraged by seemingly-innocuous Facebook). So we're inundated with messages of why we're inadequate (breeding insecurity, precipitating spending to counter it) coupled with reminders of the bad 'other' who wants to take from you, waste your tax dollars or otherwise rip you off, thus creating suspicion. The problem with Ja'mie's situation is that she has not been taught empathy and compassion to offset these messages - so in this way, her character is disadvantaged. Because as you said, living in this way is likely to lead to perpetual emptiness and dissatisfaction.
M Grey | 28 October 2013

Only having seen one episode, I may be jumping the gun. That said, I'm disappointed that the portrayal of Ja'mie doesn't provide a context for her development as a sociopath. Her parents, whom we met for the first time, seem pretty normal, though completely blind to Jamie's 'disability'. (They pronounce her name 'Jamie', too - is this indicating she isn't their fault)?Yes, it's comedy, but this kind of satirical comedy has a purpose, which isn't just to make us feel superior. How do people become sociopaths? Can they be helped? I'd like to see a possibility of self-awareness creeping in to Ja'mie, some indication that she can be saved.
Joan Seymour | 28 October 2013

Ja'mie is very real, if not in a single character in the group behaviour of some middle class girls who do a lot of damage with their cruelty. Chris Lilley nails the behaviour with painful accuracy. If turning the spotlight on it means there is less of it in the future that’s got to be good.
Petra | 28 October 2013

Weird in concept, weird in execution, beyond my ken but if Mr Lilley likes dressing up as a teenage girl well that's his (and HBO and the ABC's) business. I'm not surprised that he took so long to raise investors although the ABC isn't terribly discerning. He's not doing his nasty, bordering on racist, schtick on that Polynesian character that stopped me viewing him last time is he?
Ross | 28 October 2013

I resent your use of the word 'disability', which usually refers to something people have with little or no choice. Ja'mie's 'condition' is that something that can be rectified, though whether s/he and others choose to, is another matter.
Suzbat | 28 October 2013

Ross, Chris Lilley's portrait of Jonah Talua wasn't racist. Jonah comes across as a tragic figure betrayed by family, school and society alike. He elicits pain and pity, not contempt or laughter. And I've met many real Polynesian boys like Jonah - he's not some crude golly-figure.
Name | 31 October 2013

Chris Lilly is superb! His depiction of an upper-middle bogan family- the class that elected philistine Abbott to be our Prime Minister- is nothing short of brilliant. A mirror has been held up to the better off section of Australians that send their children to private schools- frequently run by churches.
Peter Daaughtry | 01 November 2013

To "Name" of 31 Oct (I have slips of the fingers sometimes when typing too :-)) I've had to do with quite a few Polynesian folk, young and old during my time in NZ. I worked on a perceptive film "Kingpin" about a "Borstal" type youth centre, written by a young Maori guy who had done time there, on the seminal feature film "UTU" about the wars and a number of other films with strong Maori connections. I do not believe that Mr Lilley would get away with his portrayal of the Samoan (?) Jonah in that country. Sure there's satirical treatment of Polynesians in NZ, but it's not cliched and mean in the manner of Mr Lilley and performed by Polynesians not North Shore white boys.
Ross | 01 November 2013

Congratulations Michael. I was not a Chris Lilley fan until I saw Ja'mie. News for David St (27 Oct 2013): there certainly are real people like Ja'mie in our world, though hopefully a little more layered in adulthood. At a deper level there is a kind of national Ja'mie evidenced in our recent 'race to the bottom' over asylum seeker policy blasted all over the last 2 years and the recent federal election campaign, by two proclaimed Christian political leaders. Lets hope Lilley's Ja'mie serves as a sobering mirror of the self-indulgent people we risk becoming.
dr Frank Donovan | 04 November 2013

Yes, I do deeply admire the comedy writing and acting in Ja'mie, but I can't help myself: I cringe so much that I have hardly seen an episode. I know that it is my own weakness and self-delusion that prevents me from enjoying it, but I can't help it. I feel deeply ashamed and embarrassed as a woman to see the antics of Ja'mie and feel for her rather sad self despite all things.
Eveline Goy | 06 December 2013

OMG, here we go again. Another do-gooder found another comedy politically incorrect. Start looking at life a bit more positive!
Beat Odermatt | 10 January 2014


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