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A Gay Dad Sounds Off on Tweeny-Vision and the Bully Playground

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Jasmyn Smith committed suicide. According to her family and friends, she had endured "a year and a half of being heavily bullied, both at school and online."

She was... eleven.

I cannot stand that this happened. I cannot stand that she was only a year older than my sons. I am sure that every one in Jasmyn's life is trying to understand what happened, what could have been done... what should be done to stop this from happening again.

We all have to address the fruitful environment where bullying flourishes. Certainly the homophobic and misogynistic voices in our society feed it... they give direct rationalization to those looking to beat up on someone who an "acceptable" target. Parents and school personnel have been lax with the idea that bullying is just a rite of passage and ignorable.

Another contributor to the environment is one that currently enhances the inspiration to bully, when it could be used instead to diffuse it. That contributor is the pre-teen, "tweeny," medium on television and movies.

When my kids were in pre-school, the doled out programming they saw seemed to have high input from developmental professionals. The Sesame Streets, Backyardigans, Mickey Mouse Playhouse and others had deliberate socialization values built into them. As I watched these shows with my boys, I could see them picking up good ideas on how to interact with others. The shows taught them how to collaborate, how to use imagination and how to problem solve.

Now they qualify for a different level of programming and the offerings have no such filter, even age appropriate ones, in place. Mostly set in high school, these shows depict cool, but slightly vulnerable leads around a set of misfits. There is usually one "strong" character that performs humor that should it be delivered without the laugh track, would basically be... abuse. This plays out in both direct and subtle ways and is often set up to give the impression of justification. Those cast in these shows as misfits are the recipients of jibes, remarks and insults. These "misfits" are usually overweight, nerdish, effeminate (if male) and butch (if girls). If the put downs for these characters are not coming from other characters, they are byproducts of the plots themselves in the guise of humiliating situations, demeaning costumes and embarrassing behavior. The shows nod to political correctness by making sure that effeminate recipients are clearly identified as being "not gay" and the quip turning bullies have shots at other "bad" bullies to show that they are in fact...the good guys. Yet the result is the same -- find the acceptable target and denigrate them.

Who is cool is clear. Who is not cool is clear. Who deserves humiliation... is clear.
After watching several of these shows, my one son started to mirror different behaviors. A mantra that I had to repeat over and over as a result was "mean does not equal funny." He got the point, but still the temptation to imitate the cool tough characters kept on. It was not long after that I banned the shows in our home all together.

Ironically, that same son got bullied in his summer school this last summer. A girl, four years older than him, started jeering him with lines from a tweeny show. The words and tone obviously embarrassed him and so not only did she persist in badgering him with them, she recruited more kids to do the same. This went on for two days before my son came to talk to me about it, and I contacted the teacher.

She worked with me, and the kids involved and we were able to diffuse the situation.
Jasmyn Smith's situation was not diffused. Did tweeny television cause her death? I have no reason to think so.

This issue is complex however, and the foundation to impact it is to start with values. Tweeny television contributes significantly to these values, and to the actions around them. In the fabricated world it creates however, those who become victimized by bullying can laugh it off, or have some secret super power, or an even bigger bully best friend to come to the rescue.

Not so in real life. In real life, kids in that situation have depression, lack of self worth and self destruction. Since there is no Hollywood writer who can write their real life happy ending, we need those writers to do a better job up front in the fictional world that real kids emulate.

Bullying, in all its forms, should not be cool.