After watching a few of Chris Lilley’s series (Summer Heights High, We Can Be Heroes, Angry Boys) I began to see a bit more of a critical theme running through his work. After watching his most recent revival of one of his best loathed/loved characters Ja’mie in Ja’mie: Private School Girl and reading in to the thoughts of Australian bloggers and journalists who also saw glimmers of a critique, I also made my own investigation into what Lilley is actually mocking.
Ja’mie: Private School Girl what is it that Chris Lilley is actually mocking?
– An exploration of mock-documentary in a self-reflexive society.
Mock-documentaries and its fellow hybrids of the ‘docufiction’ genre aim to distort televisions most fundamental aesthetic dichotomy through the appropriation of conventions that are associated with the aesthetic of factual discourse in order to represent a fictional subject (MAST, Jelle, 2009). The blurring of these traditional boundaries is as Roscoe and Hight put it is a subversion of the privileged status of the documentary proper (2001), mocking its cultural status in the contemporary television landscape.
New forms of popularised factual programming developed from the ‘always serious’ documentaries of Griesonian heritage (Nichols cited in LOWE, Jamie, 2014) such as the ‘Pop-doc’, ‘docudrama’ and ‘reality TV’ (KILBORN, Richard, 2003). These new forms have inspired filmmakers and producers of television to use the codes and conventions of the genre in ‘mock’ formats to foreground long standing issues in documentary practice (MAST, Jelle, 2009). As Roscoe and Hight suggest ‘the appropriation of documentary codes and conventions is used not so much to anchor the argument in the real world or to bolster claims to truth, but rather to offer critical commentary’. They also argue that the aim of mock-documentaries is to ‘ultimately to parody the assumptions and expectations associated with factual discourse’ (2001: 47, 50). Therefore, the status of Popular Factual Television is as Jelle Mast puts it ‘a likely target for critical commentary’ due to its situation ‘at the intersection of popular culture and documentary practice’ (2009: 232).
Since the 1990’s Popular factual programmes populated prime-time slots in schedules due to their appeal and commercial viability (HILL, Annette, 2005: 2-7), the new hybrid forms assisted in creating a new appetite of television experience (KILBORN, Richard, 2003), which rendered the experiences of ordinary people worthy of our scrutiny (ROSCOE, Jane and Craig , Hight, 2001). The new formats typically presented a ‘behind the scenes’ look at large institutions (ROSCOE, Jane and Craig , Hight, 2001: 37). Although didactic representations of social issues, where institutions are portrayed in order to ‘raise broader ideological questions’ (Izod, 1998; Mapplebeck, 1998 cited in ROSCOE, Jane and Craig , Hight, 2001: 37) were flouted in favour of a soap-opera style narrative and a distinct orientation towards entertainment (KILBORN, Richard, 2003).
Richard Kilborn explains the rise of popular factual programme as a ‘broadcaster-driven need for a relatively inexpensive form of material … with the whole influence being on extracting maximum entertainment potential from factually-based material’ (2003: 11), which was received by an audience often alienated by serious factual programming (HILL, Annette, 2005). Exacerbated by a contemporary skepticism of broadcasting (KILBORN, Richard, 2003) an increasing public political cynicism of traditional forms of authority and security provoked a turn to the self as the only possible marker of integrity (Frosch cited in BIRESSI, Anita and Nunn, Heather, 2005). New forms of replace it with the narritivisation of personal identities and experiences (BIRESSI, Anita and Nunn, Heather, 2005).
Ja’mie: private schoolgirl (2013) created by Australian comedian, actor and writer of several successful mock-documentaries Chris Lilley, is a fictional text, which follows the life of Ja’mie King in her final year at Hilford Girls Grammar and her aspiration to win the ‘Hilford Medal’, which recognises the perfect example of everything a private schoolgirl should be. Ja’mie: private schoolgirl has garnered large audiences in the UK, USA and Australia. Chris Lilley plays all of the central roles in his work including Ja’mie; he is famous for portraying large characters of his own creation that interact equally outrageously in convincing naturalistic settings. By appropriating documentary aesthetics, Lilley juxtaposes the serious with the absurd (BODE, Lilsa, 2005) creating humor as Brett Mills suggests, ‘by emphasizing the gap between the characters self-perception and reality of their talents and abilities’ (Cited in BODE, Lilsa, 2005: 68).
This particular text parodies the type of popular factual and reality TV programmes, such as MTV’s ‘docusoap’ Laguna Beach (2004), that Dovey describes as representing the ‘relentless comodification of every sphere of cultural production and consumption that characterises neo-liberalism’ (DOVEY, John, 2000) where capitalist economic imperatives have encouraged the narritivisation of private spheres, such as individual experience and consumption. In turn generating ‘a culture of narcissism’ where people desire to capture media attention in order to legitimise their social existance (BIRESSI, Anita and Nunn, Heather, 2005: 99-101).
Laguna Beach (2004) constructed its narratives around the lives of rich, white, American girls, living in the ‘real orange county’; an intertextual reference to an already popular teen drama that followed fictional lives of the young and beautiful residents of California The O.C. (Warner Bros. 2003). Typically, much of the narrative content was contrived but concerned characters that lay claim to an existence outside of media space, therefore offered a sort of ‘hyperreality’ (BIRESSI, Anita and Nunn, Heather, 2005). A ‘hyperreality’ that the audience was all too happy to interact with, as Kevin Robins suggests ‘new media offers and escape from mundane reality into a new simulated reality. Simulated worlds are powerful expressions of fantasy and desire’ (Cited in BIRESSI, Anita and Nunn, Heather, 2005). Therefore viewers enjoy vicarious satisfaction of the desires, which Biressi and Nunn describe as being associated with a highly mediatised self-reflexive society (2005).
The first episode of Ja’mie: Private Schoolgirl opens with a ‘self-impressed’ voice over: “My name’s Ja’mie. I used to be Jamie, but I added the apostrophe in year eight. I’m 17 years old, I live in Sydney, Australia; and I’m a private-school girl. This series is about my last few months at school, and the events that changed my life forever.” This type of narration is a convention of ‘docusoaps’, which aids in progressing the narrative. Lilley appropriates this convention in order to parody the MTV ‘docusoap’ genre and its archetypal characters, as Roscoe and Hight point out ‘the objects of parody are easy targets because their cultural currency is typically exhausted and they are ripe for mocking’ (2001). Although, the ‘docusaop’ format continues to prevail in the form of Made In Chelsea (E4 Productions; Monkey King Productions, 2011) and The Only Way Is Essex (Lime Pictures, 2010) they reside in the schedules of the main commercial broadcasters’ (ITV and Channel 4) sister channels ITV2 and E4, which are typically air the more superficial entertainment programmes aimed at younger audiences. Through wider intertexutal understanding of the genre, audiences are generally aware of the constructed nature of many of the narratives the genre represents. Therefore, they aid in obscuring the fictional nature. Lilley uses conventions of this genre as ‘props’ or ‘social reference points’ (ROSCOE, Jane and Craig , Hight, 2001) in order to position the audience to engage in familiar codes in order to understand the humor as the fictionality of the text becomes apparent.
Thus far, I would argue that the reflexive nature of this parody could work on different levels. Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight in their book Faking it, mock-documentary and the subversions of factuality (2001)describe the different degrees of reflexivity of a text towards documentary. The use of a ‘docusoap’ aesthetic can be considered ‘benevolent’ or a ‘degree 1: parody ’, a nostalgic representation where documentary codes have been appropriated in order to create a fictional milieu (ROSCOE, Jane and Craig , Hight, 2001). However, the sophistication of the audience in their knowledge of the formal aspects of the genre, namely its constructed nature, creates a critical position for the audience. Roscoe and Hight describe this as more ‘ambivalent’ or a ‘degree 2: critique’, a space is opened where audiences can recognise the problematic nature of the creation of media representations (2001).
This is explored further when we turn towards its central character and Lilley’s representation of Ja’mie as the ‘rich white girl’ archetype. By appropriation of the observational, ‘fly-on-the-wall’ aesthetic and the more constructed, confessional addresses to camera, Lilley highlights the dichotomy between Ja’mie’s performance when she is aware of the cameras presence and otherwise (BODE, Lilsa, 2005). As Lilley points out in an interview with TV blog SplitSider: “Ja’mie thinks she’s telling her story, but the documentary are actually indicating certain things she doesn’t realize. And there’s fly-on-the-wall stuff where Ja’mie’s kind of unaware she’s being filmed, so that it allows you to see all aspects of her” (LILLEY, Chris, 2013). For example in the first episode, Ja’mie and her friends are making an introductory confessional address to the camera where they bring us up to speed with their lives in Hilford. The camera is stationary and framed beautifully with the girls arranged on a bench, legs crossed with Ja’mie in pride of place at the centre. The address to the camera is lead by Ja’mie with the other girls repeating what Ja’mie says or laughing at her jokes, which Ja’mie ignores and carries on speaking. This reveals the hierarchy of the friendship group and represents the girls as superficial and self-obsessed. Ja’mie begins to describe how she had to get rid of her friendship group last year because they “got all fat and weird” reminding the girls around her how untenable their position is in the friendship group. The humor here is created by the stereotype that Ja’mie and her friends represent, a nostalgic nod toward a familiar stock character. Ja’mie goes on to describe how she is “like, still really nice” if she sees her old friends in the playground, the sequence is then intercut with a hand-held, shaky shot, which shows Ja’mie and her entourage walking through the playground. Her old friends spot her and greet her, she replies with a sarcastic wave then begins to make jokes with her new group about how “awkies” the experience was and how “weird” her old friends are. Observational documentary conventions here purport to show us ‘real-time, unfiltered immediacy’ (Frohne cited in BIRESSI, Anita and Nunn, Heather, 2005). Via this appropriation of the observational mode Lilley implicitly comments on the failure of the ‘docusoap’ to reveal the truth of ordinary people. As far as she is aware we are audience to Ja’mie’s preferred representation of her self. However Lilley ensures that we also see the contradictions which undermine the integrity of this representation highlighting the problematic nature of authenticity in ‘docusoap’ formats and the equally problematic nature of media representations.
Throughout the series Lilley explores Ja’mie’s extensive range of qualities that make her the worthy winner of the ‘Hilford Medal’ thus showing us all the ways in which she inauthenticly markets herself in order be considered the best, an acclaim that she believes she is entitled to. A belief instilled in her by her equally warped parents, shown in a scene where the parents talk about Ja’mie to the camera. The shot has qualities of the confessional address made by Ja’mie and her friends, her father mimicking Ja’mie’s position at the head and her mother, broken down and submissive from a life of playing ‘the good wife’ to a monstrous family, represents Ja’mie’s friends. The camera is positioned forcing us to look up at them, with their feet being the most prominent part of the shot. This is where the father ‘deaf, dumb and blind to his fortunate position’ (CARO, Jane, 2013) expects us to be as, according to him, that is the natural order of things. He explains how Ja’mie, they still refer to her as Jamie, is “everything a father could wish for in a daughter”. A sense of entitlement radiates from him as he declares: “I expect big things”. What he means is he deserves a perfect, high-achieving daughter to follow his example and wear as a badge of honor. After all, he has paid for it and Ja’mie is doing everything to fulfill her fathers’ expectations.
From her ‘self-conscious social tourism’ (CARO, Jane, 2013) with ethnic minorities to her obsession over her appearance “Ja’mie King is a parody of a devastating truth” (Madeline Ryan, Sydney Morning Herald cited in FLANGIN, Jake, 2013). In his article, Jake Flangin suggests that Ja’mie is the result of societies ‘ludicrously high expectations’ (2013). I would suggest that the ‘Hilford Medal’ is metaphoric of the pressures society demands of young girls in Ja’mie’s position. For example, society dictates she must be pretty; however, she is portrayed by a man suggesting that she is not intended to be represented as traditionally beautiful. Nevertheless, Ja’mie has armed herself with certain things to ensure she and everyone around her believes that she is a beauty. Firstly she is a Hilford girl and as she assures us “Hilford is pretty much know for having the hottest girls in all of Sydney… If you go to Hilford people are like, oh my god you must be so hot”. Lilley suggests here that the image of beauty is not created by an appearance but a social commonsense created by a mediated representation which implies that Ja’mie and her friends believe which school you go to effects whether you are considered attractive, in the same way that contemporary media is critiqued for perpetuating distorted ideals of beauty.
In an effort to redefine beauty to suit her particular qualities, Ja’mie has manufactured her own word “Quishe”. The etymology of which she describes as the need for a word which means “a step above hot”, which of course subsequently means that Ja’mie and her friends are labeled “quishe” and carry it as a mark of superiority over all other forms of attractiveness. The coining of new words has been recently featured UK ‘docusoap’ The Only Way is Essex (Lime Pictures, 2010). A character Joey Essex, who has particular influence on youth male fashion (ADMIN, 2013), came up with the word “Reem” to mean ‘cool’ which he used particularly to describe certain clothes and other consumerist items. Lilley could here be commenting on how the ‘docusoap’ genres are creating accepted images of attractiveness, which the audiences are encouraged to replicate by buying clothes considered ‘reem’ in order to be themselves considered ‘reem’. Whilst wearing the uniform of the ‘hypereality’ the realism of the viewers’ vicarious experience of the fantasy world is enhanced.
In order to win the Hilford medal Ja’mie must be charitable, or at least appear to be. She boast about her charitable acts such as befriending a disadvantaged black male Kwami who she manipulates in to falling in love with her in order to portray her self as humanitarian. Ja’mie makes the grand gesture of bringing him in to her home in order to give him a better experience of life however Lilley makes it clear that she is “helping” him for all the wrong reasons. The narrative sees Ja’mie throwing a party in order to attract the attention of Mitchell from the close by private boys school and as Kwami is not relevant to Ja’mie’s desires at the time, she rebuffs his attempts to socialise with her and makes him serve food to the guests. Here Lilley juxtaposes the two styles of representation to show Ja’mie’s contradictions. When she is introducing the idea of her charitable friendship with Kwami she is very much in control of her representation, she is aware of the cameras presence and how the implied audience will view her.
Conversely at the part when she metaphorically reduces him to a slave she is unaware that the camera is there exposing her selfish intentions in “helping” Kwami. The shaky, hand-held camera that reframes to find the action purports realism. Further to this, there is a scene where Ja’mie is seemingly dragging a younger girl through the playground. The action is captured using the familiar observational style. However, this time she is aware that the camera is watching her. She makes gestures at the camera making sure that the implied audience that she is representing her self to know that the girl that she is dragging through the playground has learning difficulties. Lilley adds another layer that shows Ja’mie’s exploitation of the girl by having her look embarrassed and hide her face from the camera also raising the question of the production teams involvement in the exploitation and Ja’mie’s inauthentic representation of herself.
Lasch (Cited in BIRESSI, Anita and Nunn, Heather, 2005: 100) said “We live in a world of cameras that arrest experience and play it back to us in slow motion. Cameras… not only to transcribe experience but alter its quality”, by approaching Ja’mie’s character in this way Lilley raises the question of integrity, can we trust that well publicised charitable gestures are made for the right reasons or for the good PR that they create. Ultimately we cannot trust the way Ja’mie has used media in an attempt to market herself as charitable and worthy of the ‘Hilford Medal’.
Australian social commentators have suggested that the way Ja’mie mediates her representation mirrors the way that Australian private schools market their supperiority, Olympia Nelson, Birdee Mag, explains ‘private schools aggressively pitch their superiority in the marketplace against one another and against the state and Catholic systems’ (2013). Nelson also describes how the Australian school system is divided in to state and private, fostering elitist attitudes: ‘The basis of the snobbery is competition and the motif of ‘us being better than you’ seeps into the social attitude of the students’ (2013). Jane Caro of The Conversation laments that Lilley has highlighted through Ja’mie’s snobbery ‘[that] Australia is rapidly creating a class system via … school education’, she states that ‘[Ja’mie] is a girl we all recognise’ suggesting Lilley’s outrageous character is indeed a very real product of a combination of a elitist attitudes and a mediatised, self-reflexive society. Jake Flangin, The Atlantic, raises the question when Ja’mie declares: “I know how to text and drive, I’m not a fucking idiot,” ‘are we laughing at the silly girl with warped priorities, or the warped society that thrust those priorities on her?’ (2013).
Here Ja’mie begins to transcend a comical parody or a critical comment. Lilley begins to reveal issues of vanity, narcissism and self-reflexivity in society, perpetuated by the very Popular Factual formats that began to appear in the 1990’s (which I situated at the beginning of the essay) bringing the private sphere into the public discourse. Resulting in what Nunn and Biressi call ‘the crisis of self’ (2005) that Ja’mie opitimises.In terms of Roscoe and Hights degrees of mock-documentary we can now consider Ja’mie: Private schoolgirl a ‘deconstruction’, a sustained critique of both the contemporary documentary practice an the social actors that appear in them. This is not to suggest that all documentary is void of substance, there still continues to be a ‘discourse of sobriety’ (Nichols cited in LOWE, Jamie, 2014) where issues are brought to light and audeinces are enlightened. Through Ja’mie: private schoolgirl Lilley provides an ‘ethical lense’ (WYATT, Wendy N and Bunton, Kirstie, 2012) with which we can consider the consequences of increased self-reflexivity in contemporary society. How, as Kirstie Bunton puts it, ‘our television diet effects our existential health’ (2012: 35), how the discourses that we engage with effect how we create meaning and intern how we create our own representation of self. Lilley attempts to make us laugh through Ja’mie’s consistent violation of our ethical expectations (WYATT, Wendy N and Bunton, Kirstie, 2012), then through the appropriation of codes that are used to represent popular culture he asks us to consider how our own identity and social existence is affirmed through the ubiquitous presence of media in our lives (BIRESSI, Anita and Nunn, Heather, 2005).
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