|Twelve-year-old Alex is the subject
of the documentary Bully, now in theaters
Bullying in America has become an epidemic. Some things haven’t changed. Many parents of today endured bullying as children: heartbreaking taunts, physical abuse, cruel practical jokes and being picked last while teachers, administrators, and even parents, well aware of what was going on, turned away and did nothing. Yet victims of bullying today face a terrifying new reality.
Bullying, as represented in the most talked-about documentary of the year — Bully — seems to have escalated in terms of the violence, profanity, epithets, and cruelty used against the victims. Social media are used to destroy reputations. Victims are tortured to the point where they consider suicide, and in the most heartbreaking and tragic of cases, follow through, sometimes at the suggestion of their tormentors. In our schools, it seems less acceptable than ever for children to be even a little bit “different” or individualistic, and this has tragic consequences both for the children themselves who are struggling to find their identities, and for the creative soul of our nation.
Director Lee Hirsch skillfully interweaves five tales of bullying victimization. We meet Alex, a sweet-natured but socially awkward preteen who experiences brutal bullying on a daily basis. There is Kelby, a high school student who experienced relentless bullying after coming out as a lesbian. She is endearing and remains optimistic, philosophical, and always with a smile, even after an attempt on her life and being forced out of her athletic teams where she had formerly excelled. We follow Ja’Meya, a young girl who at twelve brought a loaded gun on the school bus to strike fear into her bullies and who wound up in juvenile detention. We also meet two sets of parents whose sons committed suicide after the taunts and bullying became too much: Kirk and Laura Smalley and David and Tina Long.
As parents, teachers, mentors, administrators, classmates, and friends, we have a responsibility to act. This message is clear in Bully: apathy is the poison that enables insidious bullying to thrive and spread. In the film the administrators and local authorities are portrayed as well aware of the bullying problems occurring in their schools. Turning a blind eye to reality, refusing to act, they are in a sense complicit. “Kids will be kids” is a mantra they use as a shield for their obvious negation of the fact that victims of bullying are being verbally abused and physically assaulted, often in life-threatening ways, right under their noses.
Bully is proof that it takes a village for a child to become a victim of bullying, as much as it takes a village to get him or her out of that situation. Alex’s parents are in a state of denial about his victimization, and they seem slow to respond with compassion when they do learn the truth. It’s shocking to see Alex’s father in one conversation imply that the bullying is Alex’s fault, since the middle schooler doesn’t do an effective job of standing up for himself. His mother, who obviously cares about her son, has a self-pitying breakdown when she finally must face the reality, which she must have known in her heart all along, of what is happening to her son. Even then, she seems almost afraid to reach out to her son, feeling powerless to break down the walls Alex has put up to protect himself from the world.
Ultimately, Alex’s parents do have a meeting with the astonishingly incompetent and lazy school principal. She nods and smiles, recites a few platitudes, and quickly shoos them out of her office. School officials are apathetic to the problem, but so are Alex’s classmates, the countless bystanders who are the witnesses to the abuse Alex endures on the school bus and in the school yard, who choose to do nothing. Perhaps they fear for their own safety, but it’s heartbreaking to watch Alex tolerate threats on his life as he’s bullied on the school bus while his classmates hardly even look up. This episode, in which Alex’s tormentor uses the f-word repeatedly as he strangles him briefly and tells him that he’s going to kill him, is at the heart of the ratings controversy over Bully.
The frequency of the f-word perpetuated an “R” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America for Bully in its original version. After whittling it down to three occurrences, the MPAA responded with the “PG-13” rating the filmmakers originally desired, and the MPAA issued a strong warning for parents. Standards for the ratings system have changed considerably over the past ten years, and the f-word is much more routinely heard in movies and broadcast or network TV. Many parents are displeased about this development, but in the case of Bully, parents will need to consider making an exception to their rules for what their children are permitted to see.
Watching Bully is enough to make some parents want to home school their children. The scenes portrayed are shocking and disheartening, though the film ends on a note of hope with a series of anti-bullying nationwide rallies. The reality is that most school children will continue to either bully, be bullied, or bear witness to those acts. The best solution to bullying is education — knowledge is power — and a decision to stand up and take action.
Reel Mama’s rating: Considering that the film has been re-edited, I am going to agree with the MPAA and suggest 13 and up, with a strong suggestion that parents inform themselves as much as possible about the movie beforehand, discuss it with their children, and accompany their children to the viewing. This will enable parents to gain new insights into what their children might be experiencing daily in school, and to prepare them to have a meaningful conversation with their kids about it.