Recently, I wrote my review of the new documentary Bully, directed by Lee Hirsch. If you have read it, you will know I enjoyed the movie – for what it was. What is it? It’s a work of catharsis; it takes a timely social issue, i.e. bullying, and, through an observational style, documents bullying like it is a thing of causality. As the maxim goes: everything that has a beginning has an ending. Hirsch leaves us on a note of hope, which he suggests, according to an interview on website TC Jewfolk, is meant to inspire advocacy, engagement, and empowerment in victims and bystanders.
The film, in that sense, succeeds. Anti-bullying groups are important, and – above all – victim’s voices must be heard. The suicides, of course, are tragic and schools should be more practical. I sense this documentary could bring out the silenced and afraid (Kirk Smalley’s support group, Stand for the Silent, is thus an important element of the documentary). So I can agree Hirsch’s intentions are noble and, above all, highly accessible. I suspect that is a big part of the reason why Harvey Weinstein signed on to distribute the documentary.
Watching the film, however, I felt a resistance – like Hirsch didn’t quite run the entire lap. Before I wrote my review, a friend of mine mentioned an article in Toronto’s National Post called “Bully Pulpit”, which argued that Bully was in fact no “new-found” discovery. It adds that the documentary is “counterproductive because it punishes bullies by evoking an emotional response by presenting the effects of bullying rather than addressing why bullies actually bully.”
So it hit me. This was the very limitation to Bully that was scrambled in my mind. Ironically, the National Post’s review of Bully, written by its chief film critic Chris Knight, opens with a fallacy: “[Bully] is a rare documentary that makes you want to hiss at the villain.” Hold on. Film have made us hiss at villains since D.W. Griffith. Michael Moore does it every minute in his demurrals. Antagonizing the villain is no phenomenon.
On the other hand, bullying is a phenomenon. But mediascapes tend to view it like some invasion or malignant force, like those monsters in Tremors or the aliens that emerged from beneath the earth in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. Okay, enough about film. But really, bullying is a force as internal as it is external. It is bred by us, and we are all capable of performing it. To mince Knight’s words, the hissers could easily become the hissed.
I think of physicist Robert Fuller, whose theory of “rankism” approaches the reasons for bullying as an alchemy. This means that his explanations of bullying – simultaneously – humanize and rationalize the phenomenon. According to Brazen Careerist’s Penelope Trunk, Fuller suggests bullying takes many forms: it exploits one’s position within a hierarchy of unwarranted benefits, as an abuse of power, a form of security, superior value, and to discriminate.
I admire Fuller because his arguments carry logic and realism. Subsequently, he seems curious about humanity and that bullying, most importantly, is in fact an impulse of the darker depths of human nature. He understands that while there is a difference between the bully and the bullied, both are human. I may sound redundant, but – heck – the media is undoubtedly responsible for dehumanizing bullies and isolating them in their own category as incurable good-for-nothings.
Keep in mind, I am not vindicating the bully. Bullying is definitely a social evil and, one way or another, it needs to be stopped. I merely suggest that, with a documentary like Bully, there is a danger that we are not identifying with how bullying is created. When we do, we wear a monocle of objectivity and distance ourselves from the menace when we, in fact, are completely capable of becoming it.
The most terrifying thing about bullying is its qualities – such as, power, security, and pride – are a part of human nature. We could all be bullies, but why some don’t (perhaps within reason) are raised properly, because – I think – respect and sympathy are inculcated. It also depends on the environment we grow up in and the values we assimilate. Although Bully doesn’t acknowledge it, bullying predominates adult life too and this is where I think Fuller’s rankism really plays a role, because power and success are key elements of adulthood.
So what am I getting at? That bullying is more complicated than we think? Perhaps, in short. But, finally, I allude to my final (and most important) thought: the bully and bullied are a thin blue line. Sometimes, the two can blur. The bullied can retaliate or act out in the future to someone else. I’m not saying the bullied are always complicit too (they usually aren’t), but this can be the case.
I arrive at a gray zone – the thread of ambiguity that precariously resides between victim and perpetrator. This zone, it is important to note, is caused by the perpetrators (this is what separates the bully from the bullied). Furthermore, bullying relies on fear, indoctrination, and conformity. We are all capable of that sort of submission. Believe it or not, we conform everyday. We adapt to our surroundings. That may sound cliché, but conformity can embody any situation – be it standing in the same direction as everyone in an elevator or standing by while someone is teased.
We are all capable of cruelty. No one deserves to be bullied, but bullying is almost a temptation. We inherently desire to feel good. Our means to that end can frequently resort in bullying. What’s essential is for victims to develop resilience and coping skills. Bystanders need the courage. Bullies require guidance. Hirsch’s Bully punctuates the first two statements, but certainly not the third. By the end of the documentary, we discover hope but only for hope’s sake.
If we are to truly find a solution to bullying, we must first understand it.
To read my review of the new documentary Bully, read it on FilmSlateMagazine.com HERE.