Meet Ja’mie King. She’s seventeen, Australian, rich, “a step above hot,” and probably the only overtly racist and homophobic protagonist on TV.
Played by 38-year-old male comedian Chris Lilley as a caricature of entitled teenagerdom, Ja’mie also feels like a necessary creation in our New Gilded Age, a well-drawn but ultimately fictional straw woman toward whom viewers can channel their indignation against the one-percenters.
In her previous incarnation on Summer Heights High as an exchange student at a public high school (to experience a totally different world from her familiar environs of country clubs and private academies), Ja’mie summarizes the difference between the haves and the have-nots: “Studies have shown that students from private schools are more likely to get into uni and end up making a lot more money, while wife-beaters and rapists are nearly all public-school educated. Sorry, no offense, but it’s true.”
In her new series, Ja’mie is back at the Hillford Girls’ Grammar School, which she rules on high as the senior class’s student body president. That small authority comes with greater scrutiny from school administrators, so that it’s no longer possible for Ja’mie to continue failing upward. Just weeks before graduation, her valedictorianship and popularity are on the line, a state of affairs that makes Australia’s biggest brat act with increasing desperation. She ditches her long time best friend because the latter has gained weight and “adopts” a high school-age African immigrant boy named Kwami to prove her humanitarianism. When Kwami begins to show feelings for her (god knows why), she quickly shuts him down. “No offense, but you are really povo [poor], you live in the western suburbs, and you’re black. And I am this,” she explains, gesturing toward her body.
As Lilley states in an interview with The Village Voice, the point of the show is “watching her downfall. [Ja'mie] makes you want to really take her down. As things start to fall apart, it has the audience really cheering that on.”
Ja’mie isn’t the first female character whose superficiality and privilege have been exploited to spark feelings of schadenfreude, of course. The Real Housewives franchise seems to be solely based on the promise of seeing rich bitches take a fall. (Many, many copycat reality shows have followed suit.) But eventually, viewers’ sadism reaches a tipping point — when the stars declared bankruptcy, ran into considerable legal trouble, or, in one horrific case, when a Housewife became widowed by a husband’s suicide between seasons.
Then there’s the strange conundrum that exists between real and made-up women on screen. A lot of women “reality” stars, the Housewives included, are framed to invite all manner of hate. And yet fictional females are plagued by the dictates of likability. Anti-heroes outnumber anti-heroines by a large margin on TV. Some female characters become targets of viewer hate even when they’re written to be sympathetic, like Breaking Bad‘s Skyler White.
Ja’mie, then, makes for a perfect TV scapegoat, the sacrificial creature we symbolically kill for expiation and catharsis. She’s a figment of Lilley’s imagination — a fact that’s impossible to forget since the comedian looks nothing like the gaggle of teenage girls who constantly surround him — but she’s based on enough observations of the clueless rich that she could be real. (In the same interview, Lilley stated that Ja’mie is probably “not that far from the truth” of her flesh-and-blood counterparts.)
That Ja’mie’s prejudices are rooted in a different set of cultural and social references — her anti-Asian sentiments seem more acceptable in Australia than they would be here — takes the tiniest bit of sting out of her hatefulness while making it feel more realistic. (I’m no expert on Aussie society, so who I am to say that Lilley’s wrong here?)
So feel free to hate on Ja’mie for being the terrible waste of functional internal organs that she is. Because, unlike the real women on TV ambushed by agenda-thumping producers and complicit viewers alike, Lilley wants the rage.