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April 15, 2012

For some time now I’ve been following the unfolding drama about the MPAA’s rating of Bully — the occasional language seems to have been used as an excuse to slap an R rating on, which would work to keep the film from those most likely to benefit from seeing it. Fortunately the MPAA has backed down and granted a PG-13; now we must ask if the film itself is any good. And my answer to this is a lot less cut-and-dried than my position on the rating.

Bully starts with the story of Tyler Long, from Murray County, Georgia. Tyler was an affable, gregarious baby, but he turned inward as school started. He was never the most athletic or very popular; he didn’t quite fit in. Point by point as Tyler’s father tells us about his life, I find myself nodding in recognition. Tyler’s story is a stunningly close mirror of my own, except for the fact that at the age of seventeen Tyler took his own life to escape. I would be lying if I said that the seventeen-year-old version of me wouldn’t look at him with a perverse sort of envy.

Which, I think, goes to the heart of my response. The film will almost certainly play better to those lucky people who didn’t get it really bad in school. These days everyone loves to claim what an outcast or a reject they were in school, and most of them don’t know the half of it. Bully succeeds in giving a little taste of just how bad things can be, and to the extent it helps people realize the truth I applaud it.

The most poignant moments center around Alex Libby, from Sioux City, Iowa. Born significantly premature, Alex is physically thriving, but it’s obvious to look at him that he’d stick out as an easy target. We see him on his school bus, suffering a litany of abuses at the hands of his tormentors, who he later turns around and refers to as his friends. This may be the hardest thing for most viewers to understand, and far too little is made of it by the filmmakers: victims of abuse don’t necessarily think the same way that other people do.

If most people don’t see the effects of bullying as clearly as the victims, the flip side is that the victims don’t see the rest of the picture as clearly as they could from the outside. If these bullies aren’t Alex’s friends, he thinks, then he doesn’t have any, and that’s an even worse scenario. Not only do we rightly see that as backwards, it’s even false in the premise — there are other kids who are at least friendly towards Alex, but he simply cannot see them. It’s obvious from the outside that they exist, and so we assume that he must realize it too. Most viewers will have little idea how different the world looks to someone like Alex, and the film doesn’t really go out of its way to raise this point.

The other thing Alex’ story highlights is the abysmal state of school system response. It’s one thing to hear Tyler’s parents talk about the fact that nobody would hear their complaints in time, but it’s another thing entirely to see Alex’ principal in action. She is exactly the same sort of petty bureaucrat in over her head — with exactly the same seemingly-willful ignorance — that enrages me as much now as ever when I lived under their diffident supervision, and which are still in power across the country.

To her, the children are “cherubs”, and how bad can angels really be? She’s ridden on Alex’ bus before and says she saw nothing wrong. At the very best, this woman in charge of hundreds of children is too terminally stupid to think that kids will cover up when they’re being watched; at worst she’s knowingly carpeting over a huge problem and hoping nobody notices. Faced with video evidence, she convenes an investigation that results in no meaningful punishment and just pushes an ugly bulge in the carpet from one place to another.

But the worst part of her approach is the way she turns on and confronts the victims of bullying, making them answer for the bullies’ behavior. If a kid gets hit, he must have provoked it and so he’s really responsible. A kid who resists emptily shaking the hand of the terrorist who threatens his life daily is just as bad as his bully, and since the bully played nice in front of her watchful eyes, it’s the victim that gets punished.

This sort of behavior also extends to the parents, although they mean well. Alex starts to go emotionally numb to defend against the way he’s treated on the bus, and so he doesn’t come forward with complaints very easily. His mother doesn’t realize how different the world looks from his eyes, and confronts him over this point, which doesn’t exactly encourage anyone to be more forthcoming.

So we see a number of stories, and coupled with my own experience it helps crystallize some of the thoughts I’ve dealt with hazily for years, but few of these connections are drawn by the filmmakers to make them clear to an audience that has never been thrown head-first into a cinder-block wall themselves. It’s unclear what sort of response they might have beyond the emotional masochism of watching terrible things happen, followed by the release of a few anemic rallies to “stop bullying” at the end.

And it’s here that I actually agree with the school administrators on one point: we cannot stop bullying any more than we can stop any other kind of terrorism. Kids will always act like this, and we cannot watch them all the time. Sure, in some cases we can emphasize the responsibility of, say, bus drivers to monitor their charges, but bullying will always happen.

What we can do — and what the film leaves untouched — is help recognize and deal with the effects after it happens. We can organize responses around an understanding of how bullied children — like victims of any other form of abuse — think and feel differently than we might. We can give them the benefit of the doubt and not victimize them again by forcing them to prove their abuse. We can recognize that they may have adopted defense mechanisms, and not make it their responsibility to identify abuse as abuse. We can make the effort to learn about them so we can approach them with real understanding and compassion — to speak to them in their language rather than our own — the better to encourage them to open up and speak out rather than shut down in the face of yet another confrontation.

There are a lot of things we can do; sharing these stories is an important first step, but the next step is not to gnash our teeth and beat our breasts, wail about how horrible it is, and release a few balloons before we go home confident in the thought that we’ve done something. The bullies and their victims both know that won’t really change a thing.

Worth It: a tough call; it’s worth seeing these stories, but it’s a shame they never connect to anything of real substance.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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