Over the past two years, a national conversation has developed around bullying. A critical aspect of this conversation is the growing perception of bullying as a real and dangerous threat, as opposed to a normal phase of youth development. At the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention last March, President Obama expressly rejected the idea of bullying as "just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up." While the president should be saluted for his general leadership and this specific observation, another aspect of the conference gave me pause, namely the president's attempt to universalize bully-victimhood, as if each young person is equally vulnerable in this regard. Using his famed charisma, Obama reassured the audience that even he had been teased as a child for his big ears. This moment encapsulates a danger that the conference and the broader conversation on bullying both face: losing sight of the rash of teen suicides, mostly by males who identified as or were perceived to be gay, that originally catapulted the issue of bullying into the national spotlight.
A similar universalization took place last October, at a CNN-sponsored special at Rutgers University entitled "Bullying: It Stops Here." In his opening remarks, Anderson Cooper acknowledged the recent suicide of gay 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, almost a year to the day after the death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who was also gay. Following these remarks, gay teen suicide was never addressed as a distinct or revealing symptom of the problem of bullying, and the program instead focused on bullying as a broad concept, including a Dr. Phil segment on how bullies are victims, too. One illuminating exchange between Cooper and a black high school student offered a chance to reinscribe the particular within the universal: the student explained that his teachers would be more likely to protect him if someone called him "the n-word" than if the same person called him "faggot" or any other anti-gay term. This was not expanded upon.
People can easily agree that bullying for any reason (e.g., race or ethnicity, physical or mental disability, real or perceived sexual orientation) is harmful and wrong. But in the well-intentioned effort to address bullying as a broad concept, specific insights may be lost that can help us understand commonalities behind many forms of bullying and the connection between bullying behavior and our broader culture. The double-digit string of gay teen suicides that launched this national conversation indicate that certain youths are more vulnerable than others to bullying -- or, in other words, there is a real hierarchy to bullying that remains a large, tense, pink elephant in the room. Refocusing for a moment upon these suicides helps to reveal the deeply ingrained ways in which our cultural expectations of what boys and girls are -- and how they should act -- informs every aspect of the bullying problem.
Our culture is ruled by the gender binary, a system to which we all contribute in order to delineate between female and male. While open to contestation, this system frequently preserves a sense of masculinity/power for men, and prescribes one of femininity/submission for women, ultimately securing male dominance. The effects of such a system can be felt beyond the literal image of what a man or woman is; more generally, in a misogynistic culture, every identifiable difference between people is filtered through a misogynistic lens. Indeed, every characteristic for which youth tend to be bullied has been studied in terms of its being "feminized." A quick Google search reveals studies on the "Feminizing of African Americans," the "Feminizing of Asians," of Southeast Asians, of Native Americans, the mentally ill, the mentally retarded, the overweight, and so on. Given these realities, it also holds that a particular group -- or perceived member of a group -- will be more vulnerable to bullying and abuse to the degree that such a group is not supposed to be feminine. This may help to explain why effeminate or gender-nonconforming male youth (i.e., those who are perceived to be gay) are in such regular and tremendous jeopardy, symbolizing as they do a loss of male power and privilege. We may also expect that other targets of bullying singled out for entirely different characteristics may be referred to by terms reserved for effeminate or perceived gay males, because such males are at the very bottom of the cultural barrel.
Lee Hirsch's just-released documentary Bully is an evocative depiction of how the gender binary impacts acts of aggression. The subjects -- several kids facing repeated bullying in school, as well as the families of two boys who committed suicide -- are all seen through a misogynistic lens. The boys are constantly called "bitch" and "pussy," while school administrators try to explain away the harassment, noting that "boys will be boys" and encouraging the youths (at least the boys) to resolve their "differences" with a "manly" handshake. Similarly, though none of the subjects are out, self-identified gay males, the word "faggot" is uttered throughout the film more than any other derogatory term, and in one scene a 12-year-old boy named Alex is threatened on the bus by a peer who says, "I'll shove a broomstick up your ass." According to The Los Angeles Times, this explicitly homophobic scene was the lynchpin in the ratings controversy surrounding the film and was almost cut in order to change the MPAA rating from R to PG-13 -- still another example of the "gay" aspect of this epidemic at risk of being minimized or erased. The two female subjects are featured less in the documentary, and though we do not learn much about them, it is made clear that one of them has deviated from gender and sexual norms, having come out at her school as a lesbian.
The insidiousness of the misogynistic lens even affects how the parents of the children in the film view them. When Alex tells his father how his peers have been treating him, his father's knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that Alex has failed to protect himself and thereby failed to protect his sister, who will be attending middle school the following year. The reaction is clearly borne of love, fear, confusion, and desperation, but it shows just how deeply embedded the gender binary is in our minds, and how we perpetuate it (and its damaging effects) even with the best of intentions. Alex's father unwittingly establishes role expectations for Alex and his sister -- male vs. female, hero vs. victim -- thereby failing to empathize with or validate Alex's experience of victimhood, and instead exacerbating his feeling that he is less than normal.
We may be blind to the misogynistic gender binary in our own country by proximity. Perhaps it is easier to recognize it, and the brutality it inspires, by looking across the globe to the gruesome murders of "emo" youth in Iraq. "Emo," short for "emotional," is an identity adopted from the West, in which tight clothes, piercings, and spiked hair are flaunted as chosen emblems of vulnerability. Since last year over a hundred emo youth, mostly females and gay males, have been stoned to death in Iraq, and the killing hasn't stopped. Scott Long of The Guardian reports, "It's all about boys showing vulnerability in unmanly ways, girls flashing an unfeminine and edgy attitude," and it's causing a "moral panic" in Iraq. The idea of teenagers being massacred for presenting vulnerability and conveying gender-nonconforming expression sounds horrific, but how truly different is it from the bullying currently taking place in our own American communities?
The gender binary and its relationship to bullying may be an elusive and challenging concept for many, because it requires us to self-reflect, examine our own expectations, and perhaps even change some of them. No one wants to feel he or she is part of the problem. But we are, all of us. An awareness of the systems through which we live and perceive the world, and which we maintain everyday, is essential for healing and change to take place.
Part of the solution lies in changing our expectations for how males and females "should" behave, particularly males. We can take a page from the fathers in Bully, all of whom have been forced to walk in the shoes of their victimized, "feminized" children, all of whom now allow themselves to be emotional, to cry, and to take action against this problem. We cannot wait for more young people (and their families) to be destroyed before we too make the necessary adjustments in our expectations of what is "male" and what is "female."