One of my all-time favourite shows is Ja’mie: Private School Girl.
If you’ve never seen it, the show gives audiences several great examples of high school scenarios and experiences. With the character of social queen bee Ja’mie, creator-actor Chris Lilley goes one step further, taking what audiences imagine would play out in a scene dominated and populated almost entirely by teenage girls, and not only fulfilling their pre-existing stereotypes, but also warping them completely out of loop.
One of the reasons I enjoy Ja’mie so much is because of my own experiences in an all-girls school.
I’ve always been what is commonly known as a ‘tomboy’. I spent six years of primary school surrounded by brash, loud boys and quiet, demure girls. Most of that time was spent ‘running with the boys’, as the neighbourhood mothers would cluck. When I found out I would be attending a school with no boys for the next four years, I had no idea what to expect.
I entered this weird and wonderful new land of girls’ school with wide, awestruck eyes. My twelve-year-old self was caught completely off-guard by how much freedom there was to be enjoyed.
Sanitary pads were tossed across classrooms without a care. Barely anyone bothered with traversing long corridors to get to the toilets just so they could change for P.E. class. Conversations were unfiltered, and carried out at whatever volume we pleased. Girls stood, sat, talked, walked, shouted, and ran about however the hell they wanted to, and no one ever so much as worried about a bra strap showing.
As long as I was in school, consciousness of appearance never weighed on my mind. Walking about on the streets, I would subconsciously hunch to hide my growing chest from the view of passersby. On a public bus or train, I’d notice one or two sets of eyes passing over me less than fleetingly, and I’d tug the hem of my perfectly appropriate skirt further down over my knees. But once I was inside the gates of my beloved school, I never once felt the invisible weight of a male gaze on me.
We never once second-guessed ourselves before opening our mouths to speak. Questions were asked about sex and sexuality, personal hygiene, mental health, and so many other things that were rarely (if ever) brought up or openly discussed outside the boundaries of the school. Even the teachers often felt comfortable enough to share stories from their private lives, tidbits of personal experience that did so much to teach self-love and encourage self-confidence.
We were unself-conscious, and we revelled in it.
(Plus, we sounded hella amazing singing our national anthem and school song during Friday assemblies. No offense, my male brethren.)
I graduated from that all-girls school about eight years ago. Even to this day, I still acknowledge it as one of the best experiences of my life.
Over the years, I’ve put a lot of thought into why that continues to be. Stick with me as I try to put these thoughts into (hopefully coherent) words.
Puberty is an important period in life.
It’s basically pure growth. It’s formative in all senses of the word — physical, emotional, psychological. It’s during this period that we, as individuals, start to form opinions of our own, to speak out in a voice that is uniquely ours, to lay the foundation of that which will become the essence of our very being. The opinions and voices you open yourself up to during this time matters.
So, yes, puberty is important. This is a statement that isn’t actually unique to girls.
But I would say that it is especially important to girls.
There’s a lot of stuff out there in the world today that tells us what life should look like. Ads that bombard us from every possible direction on the streets, on buses and trains, and on the Internet. Books we page through and share with our friends. TV shows and films we watch over and over and over again. Even the role models in our lives that we take our cue from before we’re even able to speak — mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, babysitters and nannies, guardians and caretakers.
There are a million avenues through which we, as females, learn how to act and speak as females, how to dress and conduct ourselves as females, and also, how to interact with other females.
During this crucial time of growth, it’s important that all we know of girl-girl interaction does not come solely from second-hand experience.
Don’t get me wrong. Films and TV are great. Mass media, in general, is great. I love mass media.
But the lens through which we view and consume such content should be healthily and holistically constructed in order for us to process what we see in healthy, holistic ways.
For example, Mean Girls is arguably one of the most iconic cinematic portrayals of female friendships. However, if I were to watch Mean Girls without paying too much attention, I might just miss the film’s underlying message of encouraging positive connections between girls and women — connections that comprise of more than just gossip about boys, badmouthing friends behind their backs and constantly criticising each other’s appearance or behaviour.
It’s also vital to note that the problem of female underrepresentation in mass media does not make for entirely accurate or effective understanding of female interaction in general. We’ve made some leaps and bounds, but the fact remains that according to most of Hollywood, women are there to play the hero’s love interest, or sidekick, or concerned family member. Sometimes they even play the villain. But the message is clear enough — women aren’t the heroes, not even when it comes to their own stories. We are the feature, and never the main event.
That seeps into real life. It affects real opinions, and gives precedent to real perceptions of how the real world works.
Watching shows like Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill all throughout my teenage years, I always felt a little uncomfortable at how female characters were almost always given plotlines centred around or connected to a male character. Girls on TV shows and movies rarely interacted with each other sans male presence or mention of a male character.
Everything I saw on my screens just didn’t match at all with my reality. My reality was going to school, hanging out all day with almost entirely female company, talking science and literature and making stupid jokes and playing sports games after class, usually with barely any mention of boys or men — not because we hated men, but simply because our lives don’t hinge on male influence.
This is why it is so important for us girls to ground ourselves in female company, and learn for ourselves what it means to foster healthy woman-to-woman relationships. Even if the movies and TV shows aren’t so good at showing it, females are literally half the world’s population. It’s not enough to watch girls get together on our screens just to whine or complain or cry or squeal with delight over whatever it is the male figures in their lives happened to do or say the day before, because that’s just not life at all. It’s furtherance of a plotline.
Our lives consist of so much more than whatever influence the male figures we associate with happen to wield. We all have thoughts and feelings of our own. We all have goals and ambitions that have nothing to do with a man’s approval, or support, or even opinion.
We should be more than capable of passing the Bechdel test for ourselves — with friends, with family, with first-time and long-time acquaintances alike. With flying colours, too.
You can find out more about Mel on her author page.