Ever since I watched Chris Lilley’s most recent TV series Ja’mie: Private School Girl, I’ve been trying to think of a way to express exactly why I found the show so distasteful. As it happens, the answer came to me yesterday when I picked up a copy of Libba Bray’s novel ‘Beauty Queens,’ which I warmed to within the first few pages. Both stories are marketed and read as satire, but as I compared the two, I came to question whether I would actually call Ja’mie a satire, or just an excuse for dehumanisation, ridicule and hatred of teenage girls.
Ja’mie is a self-titled mockumentary, intended as a satire of wealthy private school-educated teenage girls and the sort of unacknowledged privilege, racism, homophobia, and sexism that the private-school-girl stereotype is built on. It follows the story of the wealthy and narcissistic Ja’mie King as she navigates the last few weeks of high school life. From boyfriends to Youtube video scandals to competition over the high school’s prestigious medal, Ja’mie’s trials and exploits are meant to make us uncomfortable, make us laugh, and ultimately make us recognise the truth behind her portrayal. (Some reviewers say that the Ja’mie stereotype is far too real, but I question whether this holds in more than a small handful of individual cases.)
Bray’s novel Beauty Queens has a similar premise, if in a somewhat more fantastical setting. The beauty queens are a group of teenage pageant competitors, obsessed with their appearance, shallow humanitarian interests and dubious talents (or so they first appear). Stranded together on a seemingly deserted jungle island after a plane crash, they are forced to navigate a very different world and work as allies and friends to somehow survive. Like Ja’mie, Beauty Queens is designed to be a satire of teenage girlhood.
This is as far as the similarities go, however. At the heart of each story are two very different mindsets and two very different objects of satire. Lilley’s TV series constructs a single teenage character as the epitome of everything that we, as twenty-first century Australians, are meant to feel justified in ridiculing and hating. Ja’mie is promiscuous, manipulative, cruel to both her friends and enemies, and utterly self-centered, and as stated before, swimming in cultural privilege. The problem for me is that in focusing exclusively on Ja’mie and her horribleness, she comes to stand as for teenage girlhood as a whole, underlining how vapid, self-centered and altogether alien teenage girls are seen to be. Some reviews of the show buy into this explicitly, pointing out how Ja’mie represents the upcoming ‘generation selfie,’ the worst kinds of girls. This isn’t helped by the portrayal of Ja’mie’s friends as a gaggle of girls who serve no role other than to assure Ja’mie she’s not fat and to laugh at her offensive jokes. Rather than expanding the show’s scope to also critique broader issues such as educational privilege in Australia, it is only the ‘teenage girl’ that remains as the object being satirised.
Bray’s novel, on the other hand, sets up a scenario that starts out with the same image of teenage pageant girls: vapid, self-obsessed and privileged. But instead of mocking the girls, they are slowly humanised, and their characters fleshed out to reveal real and thoughtful back stories, motivations, hopes and fears. Here, the girls are not the objects of satire: the culture, the gendered expectations, the social pressures and stereotypes that they feel they need to conform to are satirised instead.
Unlike Bray’s characters, Lilley’s Ja’mie does not grow or develop as a character or as a human being: she shows no compassion, no empathy, no relatable fears or uncertainties. Even when she is dumped by her boyfriend, loses her chance at winning the school’s medal, or laments her appearance or body in the mirror, her insecurities and emotions come across as manufactured rather than genuine. There is no attempt to humanise her or to understand her motivations beyond emphasizing how privileged, sexist, fat-phobic, racist and homophobic she is. In short, she is portrayed as less than human.
All this might be influenced by the fact that her character is written and acted by a thirty-nine year old man, projecting his own (outdated and dubious) idea of what teenage private school girls are like onto his performance. But whatever the reason for Ja’mie’s portrayal, there is no doubt that she is meant to be someone we cannot feel sympathy for and should not feel sympathy for. Lilley justifies us in laughing at Ja’mie, justifies us hating her. And by default, he opens the doors for us to hate on all teenage girls: the shallow, self-obsessed other to our purported multicultural and progressive society.
Beauty Queens again shows a different mindset, one where characters originally seen to conform to the teenage girl stereotype defy expectations and are revealed to be complex human beings with a range of positive traits and motivations. There is Adina, determined to fool everyone into thinking her a pageant girl in order to expose its sexism and commercialism; Petra, who is found to be transgender; Mary Lou, who wears a purity ring and participates in pageants as a means of controlling the sexuality she was taught was unnatural and dangerous; Shanti, who sees pageants as a way of placating her mother even though she hates the way her ethnicity is fetishised. Even Taylor, the most pageant-obsessed, and Tiana, the stereotypical ‘dumb blonde’ manage to become fierce and fleshed-out characters. Bray’s satire is not a satire that ridicules girls at the expense of their humanity, but one that celebrates their humanity and complexity as individuals. What’s more (as my friend Chally pointed out to me), Bray has her characters take up the very tools of femininity that are ridiculed by others and transform them into objects of power, instead. Here, the real objects of satire are the institutions that perpetuate the teenage girl stereotype: the media, commercialism, prescriptions about how girls should act, dress, eat, conform.
Reading Bray’s Beauty Queens and watching Ja’mie: Private School Girl has made me question what we can call satire, and at what cost we do so. For me, the best satire is satire that has a sense of ethics, that critiques and pokes fun at something in order to demonstrate how we can see through things like gender stereotypes. Satire, for me, needs to say something about society rather than just provide amusement. Beauty Queens does this by showing us that teenage girls exist as people behind the stereotypes. Ja’mie, however, does just the opposite. The series perpetuates the stereotypes surrounding teenage girls who attend private schools, giving them new credibility rather than dismantling them. The little snippets of satire directed at racism or homophobia in Australia are virtually drowned out by the focus on just how self-obsessed, vapid and horrible Ja’mie really is.
I hesitate to call Ja’mie: Private School Girl a satire, because its primary effect is to completely dehumanise and ridicule a single teenage girl to the point of hatred, rather than saying something about the mechanisms and ideologies that make her so revolting. At its best the series is puzzling and somewhat distasteful; at its worst, I think it does damage to the image of the teenage girl that real-life teenagers have to contend with. In a society that already has some very derisive views on what teenage girls are, I think we can do without Lilley’s attempts at satire, and some more novels like Beauty Queens instead.