It Takes More Than a Movie to Fix a Culture: Why Bully Won’t End School Violence

by: Dominick Mayer

Two prefaces to the following article:

1) This is going to sound remarkably negative, and that’s by design. My dear friend, Patrick Gill, has already said, in more eloquent terms than I could likely muster, virtually everything to be said on this topic about the positives.

2) My aim is to simply communicate my own experiences and the ways in which I’m personally engaging with the whole Bully debate. I don’t mean to denigrate anyone else’s. If you like or dislike it, I’d love to discuss further. Also, Trigger Warning: youth violence, hate speech and the like. 

I’m one of a very few people who doesn’t seem to be particularly polarized by the MPAA’s controversial decision to give Lee Hirsch’s film Bully, about school bullying in its myriad forms, an R rating, despite the best attempts of the Weinstein’s and victims of bullying alike. I was surprised by the indifferent reaction I had for two reasons: that I’ve long been an outspoken anti-MPAA crusader as a whole, and that I was a bullied kid. Terribly so, in fact. I’ve spent the past couple weeks contemplating exactly why this is. As far as I’ve been able to suss out, my argument is largely this: A movie isn’t really going to change anything. It feels petty and callous to write those words, but that’s the God’s honest truth, for me.

Most of my younger life was a veritable nightmare. I was hyper-articulate, keen to things a lot of kids my age couldn’t perceive, and was pretty much never left alone for it. By the time I was six, the common Catholic school (Irony!) vernacular for my Roman nose was “Dick Nose,” a moniker that followed me well into junior high. I was hopelessly romantic, so the freak treatment came early and often. I was underweight, that got me picked on. Most conspicuously, I had a severe hand twitch that I have to this day, which was accompanied in my youth by the occasional facial contortion. This pretty much put a gigantic sign on my face saying “Hey, come heckle me mercilessly on a constant basis.”

Because my parents worked their asses off full-time to take care of me, and thus couldn’t volunteer at every event, teachers turned a blind, indifferent eye to the whole merry lot. My skin was thinner than hell, and I’ll be the first to admit that; this would continue being a problem until way later into my life. Even then, though, I remember the immediate shame, the feeling of “I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to be, I just want to be it already and be left the fuck alone.”

That feeling of wanting to fit in only got worse when I hit junior high. If any of you plan on having kids, and ever get the inclination to tell your 13-year-old that things aren’t as bad as they say they are, take the time to talk to them. Likelier than not, you’ll find out that things are in fact that bad. Girls made a parlor game of  feigning attraction to me, just to shut me down for their amusement of their friends, whether in classrooms, hallways or in the form of an audible announcement to the whole of the lunchroom. I played French horn, and had to drag that unwieldy case home every day, which led to more instances than I can recall of people following me home, shoving me about and playing keep-away.

“Faggot” was the common nomenclature for me, which confused me to no end, because I didn’t identify as gay, but knew they were using that to be hateful. So, to adjust, I became hateful, too. I hated that name, I hated being called a pussy constantly, and I reached a point where by the seventh grade, I spent more days wanting to kill myself than not. I didn’t understand why any of this was happening, and in hindsight I know it was mostly because I went so far out of my way to be friends with these people, because maybe that’d make it stop.

Eventually, all of the contempt I had for myself and everybody around me boiled over. I was constantly angry, hadn’t yet embraced pop culture as my catharsis to bail myself out and just wanted it to be over. I can vividly recall the evening, after a school dance in which the romantic fake-out had been pulled twice in one evening, somehow by the same girl. I sat on my floor, knife at my arm. I’m thankful as hell I didn’t do any more than that, but for weeks after I really started believing all the names for weakness I’d been called. It’d be years before I’d hear those names reclaimed by people stronger than I’ll ever people, people who took that hate and owned them.

In the short term, I just closed off. I had friends, but friends could leave you. Friends talked you into running your mouth. Friends watched you get pegged in the side of the head with a combination lock and didn’t do anything. To this day, I remember the names and the faces and the locations, but the one thing I never figured out was the reasons. Really, they don’t matter. They were just ignorance by one name or another. And I internalized that. At my worst moments of depression or anxiety, I’ll be fucked if those caustic, feral children with their pockmarks and their braces and the sexuality they were just learning to weaponize don’t return anew.

So, with all that in mind, when I hear the debate over Bully creating this framework in which one documentary might just save every bullied kid’s lives and turn adolescence into a shinier, happier place, it’s really, really hard for me to abide that without drawing it into question. To put it nicely, some are creating a really dangerous binary in which too many eggs are being placed in a really small basket instead of addressing larger issues in play related to the social gestations of bullying. To put it less nicely, there’s a kid out there like me who’s getting the shit kicked out of him as you read, emotionally or physically, who’s listening to a bunch of people talk about how we need to stop bullying by getting a movie into more theaters. And he’s livid. And I can’t say I blame him. Instead of addressing the issues of poor education, or indifference on the part of teachers who view bullying as a part of the socializing experience, or the parental and larger social constructs that create bullies, we’ve broken it down into the most simplistic terms possible.

There’s also the fact that I find the idea of a movie ending bullying a little disingenuous to the bullies. By breaking down the whole of the abusive childhood experience into a series of vignettes playing out over ninety or so minutes, and expecting that to solve problems, we’ve reduced the whole of individual experience to a microcosm. The complexity of bullying moves way beyond a movie. There’s also the matter of some kids not being able to take much from that film. Case in point: We were lectured at length on the Columbine tragedy when it happened during my sixth grade year.

However, not to condone the horrible things those two boys did in any way, but we weren’t taught anything about all the kids who beat the hell out of them, who flung hateful slurs at them and were enabled at many turns by the school. We heard about what freaks they were, kids who dressed in black and listened to angry hard rock and lashed out at the kids who pushed them into lockers.

So, as a kid who dressed in black when he could and listened to angry hard rock and frequently entertained violent fantasies against most of the people who surrounded me, my nickname for a while became Columbine. That’s what they learned. I’m not here to say that Bully isn’t necessary; I think it can actually do some good. I just hope this stands as an example of how it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than a movie to fix what ails far too many people.

Dominick Mayer is a graduate student in Cinema Studies at DePaul University, an associate music editor and film critic at HEAVEmedia, an after-school robot class tutor to small children and a partially disgruntled mailman. He’s also really into professional wrestling and hip-hop and will subject you to tirades should you be foolish enough to broach either subject in his presence. He can be found on Twitter at @HEAVEdom or contacted at dsuzannemayer@gmail.com.

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