Documentarian Lee Hirsch's film Bully, detailing the experiences of bullied youth and parents of children who committed suicide after being bullied, will be released in select theaters March 30. Rather than gaining press for the awards it has received and its runs at multiple festivals, Bully is gathering media attention due to receiving an R rating by the MPAA, due to the use of six expletives. This decision was affirmed by the National Association of Theater Owners. Though courageous efforts are being made by youth to make the institution reconsider its stance, it seems unlikely. I, and many others, would like to use more than six expletives as a reaction to this.
My personal frustrations with this decision stem from a multitude of places. As a gay man, I was bullied when I was young for my effeminacy and my body. As I grew up, I taught myself to be a bystander to bullying as a method of self-preservation. This was a disturbing mistake that harmed others and myself, as I internalized my homophobia and self-hatred. I also know people who have suffered at the hands and words of bullies and who carry both physical and emotional scars from years of peer violence that were unaddressed in schools or at home.
Recently, I have written LGBTQ-focused anti-bullying curricula that has been piloted at a CPS grammar school in sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes. Through this work, I attempt to provide comfort for bullied youth -- a small penance for earlier inaction. The statistics related to school drop-outs, self-harm, depression and suicide are staggering, and schools should respond to them by developing and implementing curricula to address this ongoing problem. What I have seen as the greatest hindrance to doing so is the lack of visibility of the bullying problem and lack of available materials. If it were awarded a lower rating, the documentary Bully would help mend this issue by acting as a tool for visibility and a means for classroom dialogue.
One of the strengths of this film as a potential classroom tool is the different narratives it showcases. Bully addresses not just the lives of young effeminate boys, whose struggles have received the most media attention, but it also follows a black girl, a teenage lesbian, and a "nerdy" boy. These youth come from different locations -- Oklahoma, Iowa, Mississippi, Georgia. Also included is a national campaign started by one of the families -- showing that bullying is widespread, rather than an isolated problem.
I have been somewhat frustrated by the narrowness of the national discourse on bullying. I understand these young men deserve to live safely and know they are supported, but so many others who are bullied do as well; the discussion should not end with them. Bully seems to be opening up the conversation on bullying, again showing more ways and reasons kids are bullied, so that we can find just as many ways to address it.
The second reason for this film's importance is the lack of educational resources available. When I wrote my curriculum, I was fortunate enough to have been provided with usable visual aids and a structure to my work. My curriculum was supplementary to a current set of lesson plans about anger management and empathy. Teachers could choose to use it if they saw fit. The cost of one of the binders I used as a guide was 400 dollars. Likewise, comprehensive trainings for faculty on how to address bullying and videos targeted towards bullying prevention add to the expenses. If Bully was released as PG-13 and sold as just a DVD, it would be a cost-effective method of teaching. Lesson plans could be tailored around it, methods of prevention could be taken from it; this film would be an asset to the school that owned it.
Some schools require parental consent through signed slips, but others simply will not air anything that carries an R rating. Middle, junior high and grammar schools are less likely to screen something rated R or to even think of sending out a permission slip asking parents if they could screen a film with that rating in class.
Yet this is the age, at the beginning of puberty, in which bullying becomes prevalent. It is the point when violence against peers for being perceived as different starts to be normalized, one where the phrase "boys will be boys" and girls being taught to compete for attention are accepted as facts instead of light platitudes, where behaviors begin to set, and what is acceptable is more rigidly determined. Exposure to a film like Bully might not radically alter a path of development, but it can introduce and cultivate more empathy and understanding. If this empathy is instilled and worked upon in the coming years, bullying can be eradicated.
It is aggravating that access to this film is being severely limited because of six words. The youth the film centers on are respectively 12, 16 and 14 -- the two families profiled lost children at ages 11 and 17. The six words are words children have had to endure, have caused harm when directed at them, and now are causing harm in a new way -- by preventing the visibility of shared struggles as well as methods in which bullying can be stopped and damages can be repaired.
If this R rating persists, I have two hopes. First I hope that adults bring their children to see the film, and that it is beneficial for the youth and parents alike. The inclusion of two parental narratives is why I believe this film can be truly powerful and effective. Home culture has a huge impact on school culture; when guardians recognize ways in which they can best protect their children -- by ensuring they can feel safe in their schools and at home -- bullying can be fully addressed.
Secondly, though the reversal of this rating seems unlikely, there is recent precedent and possibility for it. A good friend and fellow writer, Nico Lang, cited the PG-13 re-release of The King's Speech -- with muted and substituted curses -- as an avenue in which this film can reach a greater audience. That it too was produced by the clout-rich Weinstein brothers, who petitioned for and received the necessary waiver for this rating change, does sound hopeful. Though their recent efforts have not been successful, altering the film may prove more fruitful.
Though this film may not fit the guiding principles of a documentary (to present a situation as it was filmed) it would be callous and disrespectful to the hundreds of young people who were denied viewing the film, who more than likely are those who would benefit the most from it. We are at a point in our culture in which we are finally starting to address more holistically the culture of bullying that exists in schools. This momentum cannot and should not be stymied.
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