What We Talk About When We Talk About Bullying


For those who haven’t seen it, Bully is that documentary everyone is talking about that focuses on the miserable school lives of (mainly) five adolescents: a lesbian girl living in the Bible Belt, an African-American girl who gets stuck in juvie after bringing a gun to school to confront her tormentors, a dorky guy everyone calls “Fish-face,” plus posthumous tales of two more boys who have, lamentably, already committed suicide due (presumably) to the problems they faced at school.  It’s powerful stuff, and there’s no excuse for how any of these kids are treated.  But I think there’s a big problem with how bullying is constructed in the film, and it’s a problem I’d already been noticing, and continue to notice, in the discourse on bullying in our society.

The stuff the lesbian girl has to deal with is by far the most inexcusable treatment the film presents.  Serious threats are taped up in her locker.  Someone tries to run her over with a car.  Even her teachers call her a “faggot.”  What she has to deal with goes beyond bullying—as many adults are complicit in the abuse as other kids.  And that’s exactly why her story belongs in a documentary about homophobia, not bullying.  As for the girl with the gun, all we know is that somebody did something and she ended up bringing a gun on the bus in response.  We get zero information about how she was treated before the incident, or by whom.

The cases of the two boys who committed suicide are, for obvious reasons, hard to read.  We know they got picked on, and pretty badly, but we don’t know why.  The film, however, somewhat strongly implies that they were gay.  It doesn’t put this in any concrete terms, but it does stack the deck, combining voice-overs about the kids being called “fag” and not liking sports with what seem to be the most feminine-looking pictures of the boys that the producers could find.  Obviously, this is impossible to judge.  Every unpopular kid gets called “fag” at that age, both the actually gay and non-gay alike.  What is it worth to look at a picture of an eleven-year old and say “yeah, he looks kinda gay to me?”  And what does it say about the people concerned with this issue that we apparently have to convince ourselves a boy was gay in order to view his suicide as a tragedy?

Alex, the most prominent bullying victim in the film, is presumably straight.  The documentary even makes this clear by inserting a scene towards the end of him awkwardly and adorably mumbling about some girls he thinks are cute.  But Bully is also careful to “mark” Alex in other ways—a seemingly unnecessary explanation of the fact that he was born prematurely, complete with pictures of him hooked up to machinery as a tiny newborn, is inserted very early on.  In other words, the film takes pains to categorize Alex not merely as dorky, but semi-disabled.

Why mention all this?  Well, as glad as I am that the issue of bullying is finally getting attention, what Bully and all the other recent coverage has made clear to me is this: due to the lingering influence of identity politics, the sympathetic Left in this country is still uncomfortable admitting that there can be such a thing as a straight male victim, at least one who hasn’t been biologically recategorized.

Don’t get me wrong—bullying of gay kids is terrible, as is homophobia in general, and it needs to stop.  But so does bullying of non-gay kids.  I may be making too much of this, but I don’t think so.  There is only one principal victim in Bully presented as a heterosexual male, and the film feels compelled to apologize for his inclusion by painting him as physically handicapped, even though he isn’t.  An eyebrow-raising scene near the end shows us Alex’s mom blaming Alex’s problems on the fact that his dad is too hard to talk to, that he never cries in front of his son, as the camera leadingly focuses on an empty beer can the dad has set down.  There’s no implication whatsoever that Alex’s dad is an alcoholic, or even drinks too much or that often.  But everybody knows what a beer can symbolizes.  Get it, folks?  Masculinity itself is the problem.  The solution to bullying is that straight men need to cry more.

Except that it’s not, because that’s stupid.  Most of the recent focus on bullying has taken the form of addressing bullying against gay kids, either to the exclusion of other forms of bullying, as in the “It Gets Better” campaign, or privileged over it, as in Bully.  I love and support the “It Gets Better” campaign, but it’s about a specific type of bullying, not bullying itself.  Bullying itself is not primarily a gay issue.  It can’t be, simply because of math.  Even taking the most liberal (in the mathematical sense) estimate of gays constituting 10% of the population, that doesn’t put enough gay kids in a given school for them to comprise the majority of bullying victims.  Way more kids get bullied than that.  Yes, the majority of bullies are straight males.  But the majority of bullying victims are also straight males.  This, in a nutshell, is why identity politics is not the solution to every problem.

And I’m not saying this to cry “liberal agenda” or some nonsense.  I’m saying it because I don’t want any bullying victims to get pushed to the sidelines.  I don’t want a repeat of the discourse on teen self-esteem in the 90s, where everybody focused on depressed girls and either ignored or flat-out denied the existence of depressed boys.  The way I saw it, all depressed kids needed help, not just the girls.  And like self-esteem, bullying is—and must be treated as—an individual problem, not a group problem.  It is not about a powerful group and a powerless group.  Some individuals are assholes, and those individuals bully other individuals of all stripes.

The scene in Bully that churned my gut the most—by a wide margin—concerned a boy named Cole, who had just physically defended himself against a bully.  We don’t see the fight, but we do see a female school administrator make the two boys (insincerely) shake hands and then condescendingly lecture Cole as if he had been complicit in his own bullying.  When this happens to a girl, we call it “blaming the victim.”  When it happens to a boy, we call it “school policy.”

This is never addressed in the film, but in my old school—and from what I can tell, in most high schools—there is a standing policy that everyone who was involved in a fight gets in the same amount of trouble.  The school does not even want to hear “who started it,” as if who started it is some sort of juvenile or outdated concern that kids need to learn to get over (whereas, in adult law, “who started it” is appropriately treated as the central concern).  The unwritten—but always observed—corollary to this policy is “as long as everyone in the fight was male.”  If a boy attacks a girl and the girl fights back, the girl does not get in trouble, obviously.  And this is as it should be.  All I’m saying is, when a bunch of guys beat up another guy, the guy they beat up should not be punished alongside them for his failure to be a girl.

By extension, this ties into why it is such a shaky strategy for the discourse on bullying to be framed around gay kids: at that age, most gay kids aren’t yet officially gay.  They may be closeted, or they may not yet even fully know themselves that they are gay.  Once everyone is an adult, the Left can weed out the gay guys during any discourse about gender and power before they start yelling: “oh, we don’t mean you, gay guys — please go stand over there and enjoy some punch and cookies while we yell at the straight men.”  But if we’re talking about a junior high school, it’s not so simple.  A certain percentage of bullied boys will be identifying as gay in another five or ten years, but when we talk about bullying, we are necessarily talking about kids.  How do you apply Queer Theory to people too young to have conveniently separated out into gay and straight?

At my old school, the administrator in charge of doling out punishment after fights was a woman.  At every school in Bully, this is also the case.  I do not know whether this is by design, but it seems likely.  Male faculty, after all, might be blinded by their gender into caring about juvenile things like “who started it.”  A female administrator, on the other hand, is much more likely to see the incident through the “appropriate” lens of “they are all boys, and boys like fighting, so therefore they all agreed to fight and should get in the same amount of trouble.”

But this idea of “agreeing to fight” is poppycock.  The romantic notion of two adolescent boys challenging each other and meeting by the flagpole at three o’clock, backed by audiences of their respective friends who are there to ensure that the rules are observed, in some modern version of a 19th Century duel, happens far more often in the movies than in real life.  Some secondary-school fights are organized this way, but those are almost always instances of a disagreement between two popular kids.  Just as with the historical dueling we compare it to, formality is the prerogative of the upper classes.  An aristocrat who had been slighted by a commoner wouldn’t have challenged the commoner to a duel—he would have killed him where he stood.  Likewise, the formal agreement to fight at an appointed time is a courtesy extended only to boys above a certain level of popularity.

If you think this essay should make something like a specific recommendation about how to lessen the problem of bullying, here’s a good one: end the sexist “everyone gets in the same amount of trouble” policy.  And while we’re at it, don’t put female faculty in charge of punishments after male fights.  I’m sorry, but they just don’t get it.  (A fact hilariously memorialized in the classic Simpsons episode about bullying, where Marge unhelpfully tells Bart “Anyone who beats you up because of a shirt isn’t your friend,” then goes away actually believing she’s solved something.  I realize, of course, that this is a scripted line put in the mouth of a female character by a male writer – but it is put there to exorcise the memories of all-too-real ineptitude on the parts of many female authority figures when it comes to effectively policing violence among juvenile males.  It is no stretch to assume that a TV comedy writer was a nerd as a kid, and that this line is a faithful crystallization of how useless it was whenever an adult woman tried to get involved with his persecution.  It certainly rings true with my own memories, which is why I laugh so hard at it.) 

If a girl were being teased in the girls’ locker room about getting her period or whatever, there is no way in hell anybody would even dream of letting a male faculty member handle that, and with good reason.  I think the boys deserve the same courtesy.  A male teacher can look at a bunch of boys after a fight and tell who the bullies were and who the victims were.  In many cases, all a female teacher sees is a bunch of boys.  This is intolerably unfair to the victims.

Curiously, however, there is very little physical violence shown or even hinted at in Bully.  We see the aftermath of Cole’s fight (then never see Cole again, as if the film felt he “didn’t work” for some reason), and see Alex get deadarmed and so forth on the bus, but on the whole the focus is on teasing and name-calling, not violence—possibly because a primary focus on violence would have excluded the girls.

The issue of girls being bullied brings up another matter that the film—and the nationwide discourse on bullying—would seemingly rather not deal with.  Namely, the fact that girls who get bullied are mainly bullied by other girls.  In the stories of the male victims in Bully, we hear about or even see footage of their specific tormentors; in the stories of the female victims, we don’t.  The upshot of the latter is that the audience is free to imagine male bullies (and in the case of the Black girl, bullies who are white instead of also Black).  But it just isn’t that simple.  Rachel Ehmke, the 13-year-old Minnesota girl who hanged herself last month, was harassed by kids who called her a “prostitute” and wrote “slut” on her locker—but those kids weren’t boys; they were other girls.  And Rachel wasn’t “different” or “marked” in any traditional P.C. “victim” sense—she was a skinny, pretty blonde.

It is a grossly unhelpful oversimplification for adults to be addressing the problem of bullying by trying to paint the politics of junior high as a microcosm of the politics of the adult world.  The two worlds just aren’t the same.  Not even close.  Well-meaning Liberals are going into this debate with an adult bias, looking for victim narratives that make sense to them in their own political terms.  That’s forgivable, of course, but it’s the wrong tack here.  If we as adults want to do something about bullying, then the first thing we need to do is respect the kid world enough to treat it on its own terms, not as a stand-in for our own.  Eighth grade is not about Liberals vs. Conservatives—eighth-graders don’t even know what Liberals and Conservatives are. 

It’s a natural reaction to examine a new paradigm and want to understand it in terms of your old one—to talk about how it should be working instead of how it does work.  Physicists’ first reaction to the quantum world was to go “Stupid quantum mechanics!  Be more like gravity!”  Eventually, of course, they had to admit that it wasn’t and construct a totally different model.  Unlike the power narratives we hear about in college and subsequently apply to adult society, middle school isn’t “traditionally masculine straight men vs. everyone else.”  It’s not the 99 Percent vs. the 1 Percent, or Christians vs. Non-Christians.  In the kid world, the ugly can drive the attractive to suicide, and the poor frequently beat up the rich.  The extent to which adult Liberals are willing to acknowledge this marks the difference between whether they want to help kids or use kids.  I hate bullies and I hate Conservatives, but those words are not always synonyms.

A curious irony, given the title, is the fact that there are hardly any bullies in Bully.  Their presence, with one or two exceptions, is implied, but not shown.  All we see are the victims.  This isn’t a suspense technique, like not showing the shark for the first half of Jaws, so much as a push towards introspection – we are supposed to conclude that we are all the bullies, and that sort of thing.  But this too is problematic.  The construction of bullying in Bully is an inverted pyramid – there are certain designated victim kids who get picked on by everyone else.  This is sometimes the case in broader reality, but rarely.

More usually, it is the bullies themselves, rather than the victims, who have defined identities as such.  There are a handful of psychos, everyone knows who they are, and a victim is whoever happens to be unlucky enough to be in the bathroom when one of those guys walks in (with exemptions for kids above a certain level of popularity).  We can intuit easily enough why Bully made this choice: it would be a far less sympathetic project to focus on five adolescent psychos and make the audience clamor for them to be dragged out into the street and horsewhipped.  But nevertheless, not doing this constructs an inaccurate depiction of real-life bullying dynamics.  It is easier to pity than to punish, but the fact remains: ask people to reflect on bullying in their high schools, and the reflection will take the form of “wow, everyone shouldn’t have been so cruel to poor so-and-so” far less often than “wow, so-and-so was a lunatic and should have been thrown in prison.”

This is another example of the bullying discourse foisting adult politics onto the kid world.  In adult politics, the victims are the ones with identities—they belong to this group or that group.  But once again, the kid world mostly doesn’t work that way.  Yes, kids can and do get bullied for being gay, or handicapped, or whatever.  But these cases don’t account for the majority of bullying incidents—just the ones that adults find it easiest and most useful to discuss.

I feel like this is important to say, because it looks to me like the current discourse is aiming to frame bullying as a Gender-Studies Issue.  For people who aren’t in academia, what “Gender-Studies Issue” means in plain English is “something that women and gay men are in charge of talking about.”  And though this is an appropriate assignment for a lot of issues, I don’t think it is for bullying.  As a straight man who was bullied as much as or more than anyone else I have ever met, I think it’s fair for me to ask: why should feminists be in charge of talking about my experience?  Especially since, as I outlined above, at many schools the fact that women are the ones “in charge of” talking about bullying is a huge part of the problem.

At the end of the day, I’m not upset that it is specifically bullying of gay kids that is finally drawing attention to bullying, and I’m pretty sure the straight male victims in today’s schools aren’t upset about it either.  Getting rescued from a burning building because you happened to be standing next to the person that everyone really wanted to rescue is better than not being rescued at all.  But still, it kind of makes you wonder why nobody thought you’d have been worth saving if you’d been the only one there.

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