[12 July 2012]
The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round
The Making the Bus Monitor Cry video is our society in microcosm. The moral outrage might indicate otherwise, but the general reaction was more a case of the exception proving the rule. The rule being: know your place within the pecking order. The ten-minute video proved to be exceptional because it spotlighted a breakdown in acceptable channels of communication and the official system of social organisation. Those four school kids had obviously learnt about social hierarchies. Their mistake was not paying lip service to agreed upon lies — such as respecting the elderly and the equality of all people.
The school kids weren’t so much speaking truth to power but making themselves increasingly powerful through speech acts and mobile phone. The source of injury can be literally seen and heard in the Making the Bus Monitor Cry video. The kid’s linguistic ‘performance’ — and the way it intersects with their point of view — enact the violence on display. Their bullying finds its expression in the relation between sight and sound — it’s the point where the verbal and visible become akin to sticks and stones.
It’s also important to see, however, that the power of their words and images to subjugate and to injure resides in the outside world. Society is the original aggressor here: it has made it possible for school children to discriminate through value laden terms and social norms.
So who are we really kidding here? Our society doesn’t show respect towards elderly or overweight people. And when one of these people happens to be female she might as well be wearing a target on her back. If women are no longer young or are not considered attractive, they have clearly outlived their usefulness. We also have little regard for people who have failed to achieve in life. No one grows up wanting to be a bus driver or bus monitor. People who end up doing such ‘lowly’ jobs would normally have to learn to swallow their pride. Being stuck in a job dedicated to social mobility would nonetheless be adding insult to injury: driving around children who will (hopefully) move through the ranks would be more humiliation than many of us could bear.
Karen Klein had obviously learned this the hard way; moving to the back of the bus was merely confirmation of her social status. Indeed, to be publicly seen as a big fat loser is the ultimate (moral) failing. And that’s why the former bus driver was being monitored in the first place — she was targeted for failing to measure up to pervasive social standards.
To clarify: the moral outrage — and subsequent outpouring of generosity — is not an instance of hypocrisy. Many people were genuinely (and justifiably) moved by the bullying of the elderly bus monitor — a 68-year-old grandmother literally driven to tears. Nonetheless, those kids had clearly internalised existing social values: the problem was that their behaviour was perceived to be antisocial. We’re therefore commenting on the fractures within a value system that cannot abide its own rulings and prizes.
Making the Bus Monitor Cry prized open the cracks between appearance and reality. The video and/or widespread reaction to it is culturally significant because it documents the faultlines within our own society — it’s all too easy to blame these kids when the adult world continues to lead by bad example. The moral faultline intersects with other planes of reference, laying bare the cracks within society.
Malcolm Gladwell recently observed that the tipping point of society is that moment when social behaviour goes beyond the norm of acceptability and spreads like wildfire. According to Gladwell, we are in the middle of a shift in how generations communicate and see the world. The new generation supposedly doesn’t think in terms of hierarchy and is all about social networking. Making the Bus Monitor Cry puts that theory to the test by highlighting a contradictory feature of social networks: hierarchies will invariably emerge on a level playing field, anyway.
Making the Bus Monitor Cry was originally posted on Facebook by teenagers seeking status through the traditional structures of domination — trying to establish a pecking order through bullying. And like all bullies across the generations, these young boys picked their target and audience. Many of their ‘friends’ therefore witnessed a ‘generational shift’ by ‘liking’ a shift in the balance of power.
When the video was reposted on Youtube by a concerned adult, society began the process of correcting itself, when the video spread like wildfire. Nonetheless, the bullying of an elderly woman raises an age old question: why do some people seek (and achieve) status through the deliberate harming and humiliation of others?
Making the Bus Monitor Cry provides an answer to that question by teaching us about how bullying works: being bullied is (supposedly) not personal.
“The video doesn’t reveal how the bullying started, but the way it escalates demonstrates how little it has to do with Klein, and how much with the dynamics of adolescent groups… If the victim is trapped and unable or unwilling to meet the group’s aggression with equal force—a tall order for a kid and, as this video shows, for an adult, too— the bullying will quickly feed on itself, becoming a vehicle for one-upmanship and status. Responsibility is diffused across the group, and cruelty is normalized by virtue of the fact that everyone else is doing it.” (Libby Copeland, “The Case of Karen Klein Proves that Bullying Isn’t Personal”, Slate, 22nd June, 2012.
While this is as fine as a characterization of the ‘social dynamics’ of bullying you’re likely to read, it unfortunately minimizes other social forces at play. As the video reiterates time and time again, the victim plays an ‘active’ role by virtue of being who she is: a passive and (supposedly) deserving recipient of negative attention. Making the Bus Monitor Cry says as much about Karen Klein as it does about the school kids. The relationship between bullies and victim therefore remains integral, too. Of course its personal – that’s why Klein was being victimized in the first place. And viewers were able to relate to the bullying because they personalized it: we might as well have been watching our own grandmothers or children interacting here.
Status is already written into the social script and re/enacted accordingly: people bully the weak and defenseless so as to distinguish themselves from them and assert everyone’s place (or value) within a hierarchy. If the bus monitor happened to be a ‘jock’, we would have been witnessing an entirely different social dynamic – these kids would have been kissing his ass or he would have been kicking theirs. Substitute the elderly and overweight woman for a young cheerleader, and we would be watching the boys devalue each other as they compete for her attention or jockey for position.
The assignment of relative values remains the social lubricant, here. To highlight some examples:
“Oh my God, you’re so fat”. “Karen, your fat!” “Dumb-ass, fat-ass.” “Maybe she is an elephant.” “Fucking hearing aid.” “I’ll egg your house.” “What’s your address so I can piss all over your door.” “I’ll fucking take a crap in your mouth.” “You touched her arm flap. It’s all stinky and smelly.” “She probably eats deodorant because she can’t afford real food.” “What size bra are you? Triple sag?” I want to know how poor you are. What a fucking poor-ass. You’re so poor. You’re fucking troll, Karen.” “I’m gonna freakin egg your house. Your house is probably shit” “She probably lives in a fuckin trailer” “She’s crying cause she misses her box of Twinkies” “she probably shoves the Twinkies up her freaking ass”. “How bout I bring my knife and freakin cut you? If I stabbed you in the stomach, my knife would go through you like butter cause it’s all fuckin lard” “how bout you shut the fuck up”?“If I cut you, the value meal’s gonna be comin out like McDonalds” “It’s gonna be fuckin Big Macs flyin out of your stomach. Fatass”. “Is the word ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ on there, because that’s what you live by.” “You probably got [that purse] at Family Dollar, but you don’t have a family, because they all killed themselves, because they didn’t want to be near you”.
As can be seen, an order of subordination occurs through the act of devaluing her through language. Klein’s social status is already determined by her place within a system that assigns relative position and value (rich versus poor, thin versus fat, beautiful versus ugly, smart versus dumb, young versus old, etc). Since Klein falls on the wrong side of the moral divide, she is repeatedly struck down with words.
Perhaps the other striking thing about the video, though, is what has somehow passed without comment. We were so taken aback by the children’s use of language, we failed to note another force at play: it’s the presence of the mobile camera that renders her completely powerless. Indeed, their camera is the other instrument of violence here: she is effectively subordinated within its unwavering gaze.
The mobile camera is so stationery that it might as well be mounted on a tripod. It barely wavers from its fixed point of view as the other bullying happens out of frame in the form of ‘dialogue’. The ‘staging’ suggests that we are not watching a normal bus route but a scene specifically set up for the camera. Indeed, it appears that Klein is being ‘framed’ in another way: she’s being set up and is trapped from the moment the camera starts monitoring her. A couple of the bullies find their way into the frame, of course, but they do not appear to be the main focus. It’s certainly strange that the ‘cameraman’ makes little attempt to capture the behaviour of the ‘stars’ around her. These kids are obviously not camera shy: it’s just that they’re literally more focused on her as the bullying becomes a ‘vehicle for one-upmanship and status’.
Klein is like a rabbit caught in the headlights, and the school kids are (presumably) trying to get a rise out of her. Equally telling, however, is Klein’s awareness that she’s being watched: she remains seated as the camera records her every move in response. At one point, Klein even asks the child monitoring her to point the camera at her (other) verbal aggressors, too. In order words, we’re not just watching a group of kids bully an elderly woman – we’re also watching a surveillance video. It’s almost as if the school kids are seeing how far they can push the bus monitor before she loses control.
As the second of two other harrassment videos indicates, Klein is perfectly capable of taking control of a situation when she’s unaware of being ‘watched’. Like the first harassment video, the framing is morally distinct to the third video: the camera wanders all over the place and remains haphazard in its point of view. And observe the way Klein manages to take control of the first situation: she wields her own mobile camera and stares them down in a battle of wills.
The staging in the third (and most infamous) video therefore appears to play an active role in the resulting social dynamics – the kids feel empowered by their mobile camera while Klein is rendered immobile and powerless. Despite appearances to the contrary, the camera is no innocent bystander or objective observer: it remains complicit in her bullying. As all three videos indicate, however, we’re not seeing the full picture because they all begin mid-scene.
Flash Points is obviously not claiming that Klein is acting out of character or that she has brought the bullying upon herself. Nonetheless, she does appear to be on her best behaviour because she is (presumably) afraid of what the kids might do with potentially incriminating footage. She’s clearly incapable of ‘meeting the group’s aggression with equal (or greater) force’ because the locus of power is literally in their hands. All said and done, its beside the point of course: the kids paid the cost when their own footage was seen through other people’s eyes. The resulting media attention invariably raises other questions – like whether it was appropriate to bully these kids in turn, and why it was felt that throwing money at this poor woman would soften the blows.
People who ‘deviate’ from supposed sexual norms are, of course, amongst the most bullied individuals in society. Deviation from the mean (average) has somehow given mainstream society licence to be even meaner (cruel). It’s not enough that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are made to feel abnormal: they have to be repeatedly struck down by words and fists, too. Growing up would be particularly difficult for individuals uncomfortable in their own skins. It’s no wonder that many such teenagers commit suicide or learn to become invisible by living a lie.
The It Gets Better Project was designed to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage, and reaches out to young people by showing them that they’re not alone. It highlights the importance of community and leading by example. The It Gets Better Project publicly demonstrates the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach – if they can just get through their teen years.
Things aren’t going to get too much better, however, if LGBT people continue to feel displaced and/or insular. Mainstream media also requires role models that will help normalise what is generally perceived to be ‘abnormal’. While the question of sexual orientation or gender identity is a relatively private matter, the closet remains a strong presence in public life.
It’s worth noting, then, that two people recently (and independently) came out in the same way: in an open letter to the community. The heartfelt declarations of Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean couldn’t be more different and will hopefully pave the way for greater acceptance and understanding.
Perhaps what is most interesting, however, is that the least prominent coming ‘out’ is arguably the more culturally significant. Cooper is, of course, an already established television personality—and heir to the Vanderbilt fortune—while Ocean is a poor boy from New Orleans and rising star within the music industry. This is not to diminish the significance of Cooper’s moral fortitude. Indeed, the renowned CNN journalist even provides a context in which to understand the importance of becoming increasingly ‘visible’.
“I’ve begun to consider whether the unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle. It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something—something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true.
I’ve also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible. There continue to be far too many incidences of bullying of young people, as well as discrimination and violence against people of all ages, based on their sexual orientation, and I believe there is value in making clear where I stand.
I love, and I am loved.
In my opinion, the ability to love another person is one of God’s greatest gifts, and I thank God every day for enabling me to give and share love with the people in my life.” (source: Email from Anderson Cooperabout the subject to Andrew Sullivan, who posted it on his Daily Beast blog.)
Cooper’s ‘coming out’ also shared the character and value of his own ‘brand’ – one that promotes personal integrity and candour. By remaining ‘invisible’, the CNN anchor threatened to tarnish his own reputation as a truth teller. Since his private life was already an open secret, it’s arguable that the letter was more damage control and/or potential ratings boost.
It’s a different kettle of fish, however, for Ocean. The 24-year-old runs the risk of damaging a burgeoning career and alienating his own peers in the hypermasculine world of urban music, where singers cultivate images as lady-killers. Ocean’s main claim to fame, of course, is as a break-out member of the hip hop collective, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, and for the critically acclaimed free mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. He has since been anointed by Jay Z and Kanye West on Watch the Throne and his recently released debut album Channel Orange was highly anticipated.
Although Kanye West and Jay Z have famously supported gay rights over the years, Odd Future members remain infamous for their homophobia and misogyny. As one LGBT spokesperson complained “Lyrics such as those played by Odd Future increase the societal discourse against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, a discourse that encourages stigmatisation… bullying and violence” (RJ Cubarrubia, “Odd Future Dumped from Festival Due to Homophobic Lyrics”, 4th November 2011).
Ocean’s open letter, then, is particularly remarkable for the way it breaks ranks. Unlike another band member who appears to protest too much, Ocean is fearless in his approach. He risked life and limb by eloquently describing the “first love” that “changed my life” and continues to “overwhelm” him. He talks of a common humanity – “all wanting to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to” – and of being caught unaware by a “love” there was “no escaping” or “negotiating with”. Ocean remembers the many summers spent together and how time would “glide” once seeing the other 19-year-old boy’s “smile” as they lay together.
The only problem was: his lover also had a girlfriend and preferred to live a lie. Nonetheless, Ocean had “no choice” but to be overcome by his feelings and surrender to their natural rhythms. He continues to feel “grateful” for the heartbreaking experience and has vowed to “channel overwhelming emotions” through his music.
Despite media pronouncements, however, Ocean is neither a rapper nor gay. He’s an R&B singer who has come out as bi-sexual. While being in touch with one’s sensitive side might come with the territory, the question remains: is the world ready for an R&B singer that can potentially speak to (or for) everyone equally?
To be perfectly frank, it doesn’t come much better than this. Ocean keeps divisive labels at arm’s length and embraces a range of musical styles. His primary concern is plumbing the depths of the human heart and finding a language in which to channel its ebb and flows. The talented singer songwriter endeavours to give voice to something that is becoming increasingly audible: a shared humanity, despite sexual orientation and/or identity. Also important: his visibility moves the ‘tide of history towards greater inclusiveness and equality’. Ocean’s musical versatility helps to humanise (and represent) complex feelings and fluid identities.
By having it both ways, Ocean overcomes sexual boundaries and establishes connections between people seemingly separated by continents and archipelagos. Trailblazing poet June Jordan arguably said it best when she observed “the keenly positive, politicizing significance of bisexual affirmation… is to insist upon the equal validity of all of the components of social/sexual complexity.” (GMax.co.za, 7 July 2004) If people are willing to meet him half way, Ocean can help bridge the cultural divide.
We mustn’t get ahead of ourselves though. Ocean will remain a divisive figure amongst many people. As the Frank Ocean impersonator on Twitter makes all too clear: it didn’t take long for the cyber bullies to come out in full force and assert his value within the sexual hierarchy. If any of these homophobic responses to one of his love songs is any indication, Ocean has clearly burnt his bridges in some quarters: some people can’t even hear the music because they refuse to see past his sexuality. Ocean certainly has his work cut out for him when even the lesbian member of Odd Future presents as a misogynist guy and thinks calling someone a faggot is hiliarious.
Louie CK and Melissa Leo in the infamous Louie scene.
A remarkable scene recently occurred on television – it culminated in sexual assault as it simultaneously assailed viewer sensibilities. Perhaps what is most remarkable about it is the way it subverted assumptions about sexual relations and identity. If the roles had been reversed, for example, many people would have been outraged and claimed that the series had hit a sickening new low. Instead, the overwhelming response was laughter amidst suggestions that the show had scaled new heights.
The comical scene itself, though, is not played for broad laughs: it also has dramatic and moral weight. It’s primarily about sexual tension and remains tense until the antagonist gets release through violence. The scene is morally complicated by the possibility that the victim was ‘asking for it’ when refusing to reciprocate a sexual act. The line of consent is blurred by the protocol of agreeing to a bet that the “faggot” will be “strapping on the feedbag” regardless of personal objections.
We are, of course, talking about the rape (or not) of Louie CK by Melissa Leo, an actress who dominates both the scene and the actor with her fearless performance, in the FX comedy series, Louie. While that might look funny in print and on screen, there is no escaping the fact that viewers were witnessing a scene that raised many serious questions. Indeed, Louie CK uploaded it to his own Youtube channel because he was aware that “a lot of people have been discussing this scene and I thought it would be helpful to have it on here as a reference”.
If you haven’t seen it yet (see below), it might prove to be anticlimactic. It’s worth noting, though, that like Louie’s character, viewers did not originally see it coming. The scene is arguably less hard hitting if you’re bracing yourself for it and don’t know the original context (it was a blind date set up by mutual friends, assuming that’s even relevant). Although the self-contained scene speaks for itself, it nonetheless says volumes by pointing to other ‘components of social/sexual complexity’. A relatively straightforward and humorous sequence ideally becomes increasingly complex and questionable.
Some of these questions include: is there a difference between being bullied to have sex and being raped? Does it matter if the bully cum rapist is a woman and the victim is a man? What if the victim had just been sexually pleasured and refused to return the favour on moral grounds? Was the woman morally justified in her outrage and entitled to insist on being pleasured in turn? Was the man being unreasonable when he politely declined and explained his reasons? Was she being reasonable when she mocked his manhood and accused him of being ‘gay’?
Who is the real (or bigger) bully here: the man who received pleasure without wanting to give anything in return, or the woman who forcibly took pleasure after selflessly giving of her own accord? If Louie went to the police to file a complaint, would it more appropriate for them to take his allegation seriously or to simply laugh at him for being such a “pussy”? And, of course, who is being the real ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in this situation? Specifically, are there gender differences in the perception of rape, when the incident is (morally) ambiguous and grounded in cultural norms surrounding dating and courtship behaviours? I’m not going to presume to answer any of these questions. As can be seen, they’re more a litmus test on how you perceive sexual identities and relations between the sexes.
Steven Aoun was the film and television critic for Australia's leading film journal Metro magazine. He has also written music criticism for Melbourne's daily newspaper Herald Sun and been an editorial assistant for CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, the peer-reviewed quarterly of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. He is currently writing a PHD on the nature of critical theory and may even finish it within this lifetime. Steven regularly contributes to PopMatters as a feature writer and previously wrote the column Through the Looking Glass and the Flashpoints series. Steven can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org