If you’d never been a kid, or never been the parent of a child attending school, you’d probably be excused for thinking that bullying has suddenly exploded in the classrooms, hallways and school buses of America and Canada, and that the coddled, complacent and blank-eyed cohort of children we see are hiding a not-inconsiderable minority of feral social predators who begin every school day by scanning the rows of lockers for the kid with the overbite, the unfortunate hair, or last year’s backpack.
You’d definitely have that impression after watching Bully, Lee Hirsch’s documentary set in the middle schools and high schools of red state America. The film focuses on five kids, two of them dead by their own hand before we meet their parents and friends, which gives you some idea of the urgency with which Hirsch wants us to respond to an issue that probably began the first day we put more than two kids in a room without their parents for a few hours every week.
As a onetime bullying victim, I like to think I have a personal stake in the issue, but like everything else that help make up misfit identity, from punk rock to sci-fi to geeky computer culture, bullying has been transformed into something almost unrecognizable under the avid but largely clueless gaze of the mainstream. So let’s just get this straight: Bully won’t stop kids from getting pounded at school, and the earnest and well-intentioned anti-bullying organizations being promoted in its wake won’t discourage a single wedgie, swirlie, sucker punch, titty pinch, lonely school lunch or piss-drenched locker.
According to top psychology schools, bullying is an aggressive behavior manifested by using force to affect others. My bullying began in a largely white, working class Catholic grade school, where being singled out as the smartest kid in the class – and taking no small amount of misplaced pride in it – got you noticed, in the worst possible way. The result was almost five years of almost constant daily bullshit, both physical and verbal, which I did nothing to ameliorate by making Charlie Brown my pre-adolescent role model. It wasn’t helped by teachers whose best short-term solution was to separate my desk from other students, thus guaranteeing that, even when they couldn’t get at me, I would be visibly quarantined in the fifth grade homeroom equivalent of a leper colony.
When the abuse reached its zenith, the authorities reacted by recommending that my mother take me to a child psychologist weekly, whose best solution to having protractors lobbed at me during slide shows was to cut me off from Kolchak: The Night Stalker, my favorite TV show. When the boys got bored of making me their punching bag after a couple of years the girls – newly abuzz with their budding sexual power thanks to the early puberty that hits working class girls like dengue fever – turned their attentions to me, and things got palpably worse.
It’s no surprise that I made it my priority in my first week of high school to get into a fight and beat the tar out of the first kid who didn’t look like he lifted weights. I found my victim and helped make his life miserable for a year, but my heart wasn’t in it, and a desultory summer of caddying, not to mention the discovery of punk rock, saw me return to school visibly lacking bully mojo, quickly demoted to the cadre of school freaks.
I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the three living kids at the heart of Hirsch’s film might end up as bullies at some time in their lives; one of them, Ja’Maya, has certainly made an impressive head start by showing up on the school bus with her mom’s handgun, getting herself charged with multiple felony counts, including kidnapping. For the length of the film, however, we’re asked to consider them as we see them, in their wretched state near the bottom of the social ladder, vulnerable to the tender mercies of not only their peers but plodding school bureaucracy.
Bully serendipitously found a perfect example of administrative indifference in the shape of Kim Lockwood, the assistant vice-principal at the Sioux City, Iowa school where 12-year-old misfit Alex has the misfortune to be one of her charges. Lockwood, visibly brightening in the presence of Hirsch’s camera, tries to act like the conscientious educator she obviously imagines herself to be, which includes a scene where her Solomonic wisdom involves telling a bullied kid to shake the hand of his bully, scolding him when he sarcastically proffers a limp left hand that he’s “just as bad” as the kid who’s just been beating on him.
In another scene, she tells Alex’s parents that the feral pack of snarling thugs who’ve been caught by Hirsch’s camera lunging at Alex on the school bus are as “good as gold,” before proudly pulling out pictures of her newborn grandson and chirping about how much she loves kids while the bullied boy’s parents visibly seethe with frustration. Lockwood was a gift for the filmmaker, but Hirsch seems unable to fully grasp the lesson she embodies, which is that bureaucracies are slow to respond and half hearted in their responses, as concerned with covering their asses as finding solutions and institutionally biased to deal with the average, not the exceptional or the atypical. They’re the last place you want to concentrate your efforts at change, and when the film’s finale builds to a plea by kids and parents for the engagement of school bureaucracy, I found myself shaking my head at all that misdirected energy.
You can’t help but notice that almost all of the kids profiled in Bully are lower-middle class at best, in small towns or rural areas, and are all at the mercy of the public school system. In an interview, Hirsch said that they had shot a half dozen other kids in urban schools, but that they went with the “stories that ultimately were the strongest.” For this city kid, it made the film more of a nightmare, as Bully’s subjects seemed truly trapped, unable to switch schools or find a new group of peers or manage the infinite-seeming social mobility that’s one of the true gifts of being raised urban, regardless of class.
The most heartbreaking scenes of the film, though, were the ones where poor Alex, as obvious a bullying victim as almost any kid who’d ever slouch through a school’s doors, haltingly tries to make friends with his bullies and whatever fellow student gets close to him. As Hirsch’s camera follows him through the crowds of kids loitering between classes, he seems to be searching for a single sympathetic look or gap in the wall of antipathy or indifference, unaware that this show of desperation has made him an even riper target. I wished, for a moment, that I could have made him a gift of the hate that insulated me from the worst of my own bullying, or a bit of the sense of pride and superiority that was both a partial cause of it all and, ultimately, my means of escape.
Ja’Maya has the support of her family and her church, and teen lesbian Kelby has a tight group of friends and even a girlfriend, but Alex seems truly alone, isolated by bad luck, his inappropriate reaction, and his inability to talk about what’s happening to him.
The only kid you don’t worry about when the film ends is Kelby; who, after all, wouldn’t like such a confident, calm, hip and philosophical young person, and one obviously able to create a support group in the midst of so much antagonism? Here in Canada and elsewhere, bullying has become a Trojan horse for gay rights activists with an agenda targeting Catholic schools in particular, and as a result gay kids have become the poster children of the anti-bullying movement, given special status amidst all the dweebs, dorks, spazzes, fish-faces, fatsos, retards, creeps and burnouts clustered at the bottom of the pre-collegiate class ladder.
Kelby’s relative serenity compared to Alex’s pitiful isolation undercuts that special status somewhat, and when the public anti-bullying pageant moves on, how much more hopeless the Alexes of the world will feel in the cold light of each school day morning. When a bully calls someone like Kelby gay, she has the assurance that, outside of her small town and a circle of bigots, she has a growing assurance of the law’s favour and the acceptance of polite society; when a kid like Alex gets called gay, he knows that he isn’t, has the bitter realization that no one really thinks about who or what he is or how he feels about it, and that neither the bigots nor polite society cares.
My biggest problem with Bully, though, begins with the title. At the end of nearly a hundred minutes, we only glimpse the bullies besetting Alex – Kelby and Ja’Maya’s stories are told apart from their schools and peers – but it seems to me that if you’re going to give a film a name, you have an obligation to show the thing the name describes.
Even Hirsch admits that “the thing about the kids that bullied Alex just look like little angels,” an admission that tellingly echoes assistant vice-principal Lockwood’s own assessment, and in the brief moments where bullies are isolated and called in front of a school administrator more motivated than Lockwood, they don’t look anything like monsters. Far from it – we’re presented with a handful of kids that look either pudgy or gawky, struggling to make excuses in their ill-fitting Old Navy t-shirts. Normal, average kids, without a leering, cocky Biff Tannen in sight, and for a moment you’re struck by the realization that all it takes is luck and a sliver of insight into the brute workings of school-age society to separate the bully from the bullied.
You can go from bullied to bully and back again, as my own experience shows, or get stuck anywhere in that pattern, but the worst thing about being bullied is the feeling that you’ve lost control of your life – a sensation no doubt enhanced by the institutional nature of schools, which appear in Hirsch’s film as huge, ugly holding pens for youth, indistinguishable from each other. There are endless good intentions behind Bully and the movement it’s trying to inspire – it’s hard not to be moved by the bottomless grief of the parents of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, the bullied kids who killed themselves before Hirsch’s cameras found their families – but the film ultimately feels like yet another attempt to celebrate and dignify the victim.
It’s shame that makes a bullied kid’s life unendurable – the shame of not having friends, of lacking support, of being unable to be heard or fight back, and it’s a critical weakness that Hirsch’s film is unable to bring a bit of that shame to the bully, which is where it really belongs. Sadly, though, that shame would mostly come from being caught and not choosing to act without dignity, fairness or nobility. Teaching these virtues to a child is harder than teaching them math, and since many parents choose to abdicate both jobs to institutions patently unable to do either, it’s hard not to dismiss Bully as yet another entertainment disguised as a cause, where emotional reactions and expressions of sympathy will be confused with actually doing something.