Bully is an issue-oriented documentary, and for that reason you feel like a cad if you try to apply critical analysis to it as a work of art. Some can do it. There are such things as good critics. I’m not one of them, though, so let me warn you if you’re looking for a reason to see or avoid this movie, I’m not going to be helpful. I’m anxious to get to the chase and discuss the content. I’ll start there and maybe weave some comment in here and there about the film itself.
It’s hard for me to look at the lives of people living in Mississippi and Alabama and Oklahoma and any other place in the Bible Belt. I always want to shout at people. “Hey, you guys in there. You with brains and sensitivity and insight and an appreciation of ideas and a respect for diversity. Get on anything that moves. Plane, train, donkey cart. Get out of there. Get to civilization.”
I know – you don’t really need to tell me – that there are good reasons for staying in places like the three I mentioned. Friends, family, childhood memories. Maybe even good food and fresh air. Whatever. I also don’t need to be reminded that it’s not only places where people attend the Church of St. Stupid where kids are bullied and life is tough. And I do understand – really I do – that there are people with big hearts and intelligence and generosity everywhere. Just because it’s easier for me to find it here where I live than in certain other places I’ve been in this country, doesn’t mean we need to shut those places down (even if we could.)
But I was distracted in this tale of bullying by the fact the people were by and large not well-educated people, living in cultures where the pressure to conform to the village standards was high. My guess is that may be precisely why filmmaker Lee Hirsch chose these particular places to tell the bullying story. He went where the bullying was likely to be most intense.
And maybe his point was the other side of the coin than the one I focused on at first. People missing their front teeth with tattoos on their necks also cry when their children hang themselves in the closet. And they also get good at organizing town meetings to take action when the school board and the mayor and the sheriff fail to be of any use. Done right, asking people to “get theirselves off their butts” can be a powerful call to action.
Two of the stories spoke most directly to me. One was of a boy named Alex. He had been born prematurely and his face was slightly off. Kids called him “Fishface.” His response to the bullying was to withdraw and his parents didn’t know how to draw him out. Only when the filmmakers decided they had to show his parents what they had filmed on the schoolbus did they jump into action. The other was of a girl named Ja’Meya. Things got so bad for her that she got hold of her mother’s gun and took it on the bus and threatened the bullies with it. For which she was arrested for forty felony counts of kidnapping (40 kids on the bus, you see), a sentence which could have led to hundreds of years in prison, if they had not realized in the end the kind of pressure she was under.
A major character in the film is the middle school principle who thinks she’s doing the right thing by asking a bully and his victim to shake hands, as if this was a normal fight between equals – and then takes the victim aside, when he shows a lack of enthusiasm for the handshake, and scolds him for being “just as bad as him!”
I can’t do justice to the arguments that should flow from this film, or from the topic of bullying now being called to our attention bigtime. I’m just glad they’re out there and want to do my best to keep the topic alive. Solutions are elusive because they lie in the larger context of social values and how people learn to behave in any given social setting.
One poignant moment in the film was the mother’s question, “Why is it you can’t control the kids on the school bus! When I was a kid, if you got out of your seat, the bus driver pulled the bus over and you got hell.”
Now there’s a good question. On the surface, it would appear that our fear of doing damage to kids by coming down on them with too much authority and control has led us to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. We have to find a way to bring balance back into child-rearing, if that’s the case.
Others will no doubt explain this violence away by pointing to violence on television, by the presence everywhere of guns, by the narcissistic culture we have created where people routinely sing their own praises, because we’ve come to believe you have to make princes and princesses out of your children. All of these amateur psychology explanations will have truth, no doubt. And possibly if we put them all together and build a program on them we can make a dent in to problem of bullying.
Something else nagged at me as I was watching this film. It was bad enough that there was no adult supervision on the schoolbusses, but the kids knew they were being filmed and they bullied anyway. And then, when it was reported, they denied it. I don’t know what conclusions to draw from this other than that kids are so inured to cameras and media and public exposure they have totally unplugged their brains on the issue.
This, obviously, points out how difficult it is to get a handle on the problem. How do you shame kids who have no fear of being exposed? Or – if you don’t like the idea of shaming kids – how do you make them recognize the ethical gap in their behavior? How do you get them to the Golden Rule?
As with everything wrong with the world, from war to the pettiest of local injustices, you can’t be expected to take it seriously if it doesn’t affect you directly.
But you can go out and have a look at an issue from time to time – the environment, the political and economic devastation in this country, whatever. Bullying has moved front and center in my life suddenly, so this story has come home.
I urge you to have a look at the film if it comes to your area – it doesn’t have wide distribution yet. And to look at as many of the “It Gets Better” videos you can find time and energy for.
And then spout off. This is a tough issue. It needs lots of suggestions, from people of all backgrounds and experiences.
Join in. You might do some kid a very big favor.