‘Bully’ Is Heavy-Handed

[1 April 2013]

By Michael Abernethy

Imagine being stabbed repeatedly with a pencil, your head grabbed and slammed into the back of a chair, hands wrapped around your throat to choke you, all while being told you are someone’s “bitch”. Undoubtedly, the perpetrator would be subject to arrest and a lengthy prison term – unless he was the 11-year-old kid sitting across the aisle from you on the school bus. Then, he gets a free pass, because, you know,  “boys will be boys”.

Such was the experience of Alex, a constant victim of bullying, and one of several kids whose stories are told in Lee Hirsch’s controversial documentary Bully, now available on DVD. The controversy, now well-documented, centered on the film’s rating, which was originally an R on the basis of harsh language and mild violence. However, the types of violence and language used pales compared to most R-rated features, and sadly, it’s kids who are doing most of it. Celebs and parents alike demanded a lower rating for the documentary, arguing that its message was so important that it needed to reach as many people as possible. Bully‘s message is important and clearly delivered, although in such a heavy-handed way that one may feel his or her emotions are being manipulated into a state of outrage.

There is plenty in Bully about which to be outraged. Most tragically, the film tells the stories of two boys, both named Tyler, who committed suicide rather than face the continuous teasing, hitting, ridiculing, shoving, spitting, choking, kicking, name-calling, and tripping that most all of the bullied kids in the film report enduring. Kelby, a 16 year old lesbian, became a cutter and made three suicide attempts in response. Fourteen-year-old Ja’Meya struck back, pulling out a gun and, according to police reports, taking her entire school bus hostage after one of her regular bullies began abusing her on the ride home.

Equally discouraging is the response of school systems. When Alex’s parents complained after seeing film footage of how badly their son was being treated on the bus, they are told by the principal that she had ridden on that bus and the kids were “good as gold”. (Possibly because the principal was onboard?)  In another incident, a vice-principal lectures Cole, a young boy who has refused to shake hands with the boy who has been bullying him for months, as opposed to counseling the boy who was bullying. Repeatedly, child after child reports talking to teachers, counselors, and school officials, all to no avail.

In contrast, it’s heartening to see the parents of these kids fighting for their children. Both Tyler Long and Ty Smalley’s parents have become outspoken advocates of major school reforms and new laws protecting children from bullying. Repeatedly, these parents follow the right steps and are noticeably distraught that nothing they do seems to protect their children. Kelby’s father even reports being ostracized himself after his teen daughter came out.

Missing from the film is the parents of the bullies. Herein lies the flaw that pushes Bully more into the realm of propaganda than documentary. Clearly, the film argues, there is only one acceptable response to bullying, and thus, only that perspective is presented. Very little footage of the bullies is shown, only when they are in the act of bullying or being counseled by school officials for doing so. While there are interviews with those who are bullied, mostly in their home settings, the bullies are not interviewed nor are their home lives examined. The perspectives of their parents are ignored.

Do these kids think what they are doing is justified? Fun? Do their parents rationalize and excuse it? Or do they encourage it, claiming it makes them “real” men?”

Only by examining what makes a bully will we be able to end the problem. Laws, rallies, marches, and school education programs raise awareness and help reduce bullying, but it still permeates our schools. If our culture is still creating bullies, then sending them to school and telling them they can’t act on the rage that has been instilled in them, are we created future monsters waiting to explode?  How do you fault a kid for being a bully when he’s being beaten at home for not being tough enough? This isn’t to excuse their behavior, but to suggest that Bully would be a more complete film if it had looked more deeply in to what is the root cause of bullying to begin with.

This issue is avoided further in the DVD features, which nevertheless illuminate. Most compelling is a follow-up report on Alex, who one could easily worry was heading towards the same heartbreaking decision as the two Tylers. After the documentary came out, Alex gained semi-celebrity status at his school, and the bullying stopped. Where his face was formerly taut and worried, now it is smiles and laughter. His social skills will most likely always be awkward, but now he has friends, tells jokes, and doesn’t eat alone. More than anything, this comparison of the two views of Alex, during and after his abuse, is the best argument in the film about the damaging effects of daily torment.

Also of interest is a piece about Sioux City West High School, which has undergone a five year program to eliminate bullying and create a sense of inclusion with great success (Sioux City is where much of the documentary’s footage was shot). Kids break up fights at West High, and kids counsel their peers on hateful actions committed. All students are encouraged to feel a sense of worth. In one scene, a freshman dance is highlighted. Unlike most school dances, the walls aren’t lined with kids too uneasy to ask someone to dance or waiting to be asked. With one exception: a single young lady, slumped down on the floor alone, until some young gentleman pulls her onto the dance floor, where a group of girls immediately circle her and make her a part of the group. She danced the rest of the night.

A piece about Daniel Cui also provides hope. Cui was the goalie on his high school soccer team. After he was ridiculed on Facebook for his goal-tending skills, teammates banded together and responded via Facebook, starting a movement of support throughout Cui’s school. That support helped give Daniel the confidence to excel in his position and turn the team around.

Other extras fail to accomplish much, as most provide further footage of the kids featured in the documentary. One extra features a rather rambling speech from Meryl Streep, in which she recalls her own bullying experiences as a child. Since the speech fails to provide additional useful information, its inclusion seems designed to say, “Look, even big celebrities support The Bully Project!”

In whole, both the film and DVD extras serve as a good starting point for a national discussion about bullying in the United States, and it can help enlighten both students and school administrators about the devastating effects bullying can have. However, its penchant for one-sidedness makes it a disappointment. Viewers will walk away emotionally-charged, but not fully educated.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/169814-bully/