Go see the film Bully. All of the controversy about its MPAA rating was warranted, because it presents a powerful glimpse into the painful realities young people face in schools across the country. It’s a documentary that everybody needs to see, because we are long overdue for a serious conversation about bullying.
“‘Kids will be kids,’ ‘boys will be boys,’ ‘bullying is a rite of passage’ — these are myths.” Both AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel emphasized this point repeatedly in the panel discussion after Tuesday night’s screening. And it’s true: young people are demeaning, harassing, sexually harassing, and assaulting their peers on a daily basis and there is no excuse for it. Bully‘s most important take-away is surely the brutal wake-up call for just how bad things have gotten: it’s impossible to watch 12-year-old Alex get cursed, beaten, and strangled — and take it — without your heart absolutely breaking for him. Add to that the complete lack of accountability for school administrators to intervene (and the negligence they demonstrate as a result) and you leave the film with a sense of anger and alarm that bullying was ever treated like it wasn’t a big deal.
One concern that has been raised is the film’s portrayal of suicide through the lens of two families who recently lost their sons. Emily Bazelon suggests that the lack of context about Tyler Long’s mental health is conspicuous and misleadingly implies that bullying was the only factor that led to his suicide. This apparent misrepresentation is disconcerting, and Bazelon is right that mental health concerns should always be included in conversations about suicide. Still, she neglected to mention that when Tyler’s parents hosted a town hall about bullying after his death, no school administrators could be bothered to show up. This isn’t a film about suicide — it’s a film about how little we are doing to protect kids from peer abuse. Clearly this was a school that did not see bullying as a problem but that had a lot of parents and students who did. The Long family felt that bullying had significantly impacted Tyler’s life and sought to rectify that lack of accountability to protect other children, and none of the additional context of his story takes away from that reality.
So ultimately, I don’t feel like this discrepancy takes away from the film in the same way Bazelon does. Yes, suicide contagion is a real concern, particularly if suicide is portrayed as a direct or inevitable result of bullying, a point I’m not going to debate. But conservatives who wish to maintain anti-gay climates in schools also emphasize this point to downplay the impact of bullying, so it shouldn’t be treated as an either/or question. Two years ago, a 14-year-old boy named Brandon Bitner committed suicide two towns away from where I grew up in rural central Pennsylvania. He had been bullied for his perceived sexual orientation, but at his funeral, the eulogizing religious leader absolved the community of any accountability for how Brandon was treated, choosing to blame only his depression. The way I felt on that day is the same way I felt leaving Bully — not that bullying causes suicide, but that given bullying can be a trigger for a young person to take his own life, it shouldn’t take such a death for a community to address the problem.
In this way, Bully is a call to action, busting down a closet door of apathy about an issue that intersects all of our lives. There is much we still need to learn about the impact and extent of bullying, but we now have an incredible launching point for the revolution our schools deserve.