March 21, 2012
The battle to get ‘Bully’ seen by those who need it most
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Certainly, the consequences of unpunished bullying are profound: Two boys profiled in the film, Tyler Long, 17, and Ty Field Smalley, 11, both took their own lives after suffering incessant violent intimidation. Their families laid blame on city and school bureaucracies that were too slow to act; one of the film’s major revelations is how strangely subdued school authorities can be in responding to parent and student complaints. Even after Long’s death, a school superintendent downplays the problem: It happens, she allows. But, “Is it a major overarching concern? No it is not,” she says unapologetically.
Just how severe must bullying become to rouse adults from their permissive slumber? How is it that in some schools, the film asks, teachers and parents are unwilling or unable to intervene until a situation has escalated beyond control?
In Yazoo County, Miss., 14-year-old Ja’Meya Jackson is berated with such frequency and intensity, she turns the tables on her aggressors and brings her mother’s gun onto a school bus. After treacherous moments when Jackson walks up and down the aisle, carelessly waving the firearm, she is arrested, incarcerated and charged with multiple felonies. The bullied becomes the bully. The evocations of deep trauma surface in the scenes that follow, during her mother’s visits to the juvenile detention center. It is the pain in her face that is searing and vivid; her eyes full of regret, guilt and desperation.
When I spoke with Hirsch on a recent Friday afternoon, he had just returned home from Washington, D.C., where the film’s distributor, Harvey Weinstein, had partnered with former U.S. Senator and current MPAA chairman Chris Dodd in hosting a screening of the film. Over the past month, a very public battle has raged between the Weinstein Co. and the MPAA over the film’s rating, with Weinstein insisting that an “R” will preclude it from being shown in schools without special permissions, and the MPAA holding steady that parents should have the final say in whether their kids see it. “As a father of four,” Weinstein said, trumpeting his own parent-card in an official statement, “I worry every day about bullying. It’s a serious and ever-present concern for me and my family.” He called on every child, parent and educator in America to see “Bully” and, to further needle the MPAA, added, “It’s better that children see bad language than bad behavior.”
When an appeal for a PG-13 rating fell one vote shy of the needed two-thirds majority, Weinstein responded with his characteristic bravado by threatening to withdraw all future Weinstein Co. films from the ratings system (a more or less empty threat, as a majority of American movie theaters will not show unrated films). Still, Weinstein waged on: “This time it has just been a bridge too far,” he wrote in a statement to the MPAA. “I have been through many of these appeals, but this one-vote loss is a huge blow to me personally.”
It is even more personal for Hirsch, who was bullied as a child and made the film as a corrective to his private anguish. “A lot of it I have sort of put blocks on,” he said about the violence he suffered in grade school. “I tend to remember the daily punches and insults, but the bigger, more violent things I have a block on.” Once the film started being shown, however, some of what Hirsch suppressed began to surface. He said a friend recently reminded him of one incident when “a bunch of kids pulled me into a bathroom and turned on hot water, and they were making Auschwitz jokes and saying, ‘We’re taking you to the gas chamber,’ and they beat me up in the bathroom.”
According to Ron Avi Astor, the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development at the University of Southern California, and an expert in the field of school violence, bearing witness can be a game changer in curbing bad behavior. “Elie Wiesel had a huge influence in how I see school violence,” Astor said. “Because his focus is on the witness and on the bystander. He actually held witnesses more culpable; he always felt that the witnesses could have done something to stop [the Holocaust], but instead, they stood by — there wasn’t a clear directive to what a witness or what a community or a bystander ought to do; what is the moral obligation?
“I think, in some ways, the solution for the common school fight would be for the circle of kids around [where they are usually] watching, cheering on, jeering — if that could be switched around, where the peer group feels culpable and responsible, that energy is then turned around to stop a fight,” Astor added.
Eradicating all human cruelty is an impossible goal, but Hirsch agrees that the bystander effect is where the most change is possible. In the curriculum guide for the film, co-developed by Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit devoted to combatting bigotry, the term “upstand” is taught to describe a bystander who defends a victim. After a recent screening in St. Louis for 500 middle-school students, Max Shiblom wrote on The Bully Project’s Facebook page that he had intervened during a bullying incident on the bus. “If it wasn’t for what I saw today,” he wrote, “I probably would have never stepped in and stopped it.”
Still, the MPAA hasn’t budged, though the screening in Washington last week was reportedly friendly. “There’s no animosity,” The Washington Post reported Weinstein as saying to a packed house that included D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. “We disagree on a rating,” Weinstein said of Sen. Dodd, “but we don’t disagree about life and many other things.”
But the challenge to the MPAA has gone beyond the filmmakers. After seeing the film, 17-year-old Katy Butler, a high school junior from Michigan who has experienced severe bullying, began a petition on Change.org to persuade the MPAA to change the film’s rating. As of earlier this week, Butler had collected nearly 438,000 signatures and enlisted celebrity support from Ellen DeGeneres, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and Justin Bieber, as well as 29 members of Congress.
Hirsch said Butler acted of her own volition. “That had nothing to do with the Weinstein Co.,” he said, acknowledging that Weinstein is a master at drumming up free publicity. “No one could have dreamed that up. It just happened.”