Last week, a trailer for a new documentary called Bully began circulating the internet. It follows five different students and their families as they grapple with issues of bullying as a way to address the epidemic that’s swept the nation.
It’s a powerful film, in a long tradition of documentaries that aspire to create change around a problem by making it something that viewers can no longer ignore. Maybe adults who see it will be motivated to explore how they can make their communities safer for children; maybe kids who watch it will be more aware of how their actions may affect their classmates, and work towards creating a supportive culture in their schools. Or maybe kids won’t have any reaction to it at all, because they won’t be able to see it.
Much to the frustration of The Weinstein Company, the group responsible for the movie’s creation, Bully is being given an R rating by the MPAA, which means that the kids who are affected by the subject the film discusses won’t be able to see it. The Weinstein Company’s appeal to have the R rating changed to PG-13 was just denied — because of the language used by children in the film, the kids who are called those names in real life every day won’t be able to watch it.
A Michigan teen who identifies as a lesbian, Katy Butler, has responded to the MPAA by putting together 165,000 signatures in a short period of time to petition for reconsideration.
“Because it’s rated R, the kids that are being bullied — and the bullies also — can’t see this movie,” Butler said. “Kids hear worse at school. … Kids know the language and they’re being called these things and these words are being used in a derogatory way.” She said that “not being able to see it in a movie theater is ridiculous.”
Cincinnati school administrators had plans to bus 40,000 of their students to see the film, which they now have to cancel. The only way to potentially change the film’s rating is to recut it so that the offensive language is edited out — so, essentially, to remove significant amounts of bullying from the movie called Bully. The director has said he’s unwilling to do so, and Katy Butler agrees: “It wouldn’t have the same baggage and it wouldn’t deliver the same message.”
While some have criticized the film’s creators, saying that with their experience in moviemaking they should have known what kind of rating this would receive, but it’s a real paradox: ratings are meant to protect kids and teens, but so is this film, isn’t it? It’s hard not to be reminded of how some other administrators and school officials are handling bullying issues. For instance, outing students to “protect” them from bullies, or denying students freedom of gender expression to “protect” them from backlash. It truly is well-intentioned, but it’s not helpful to try to prevent students from being or presenting as what they already are in a backwards attempt at keeping them from any awareness or experience of bad things. And it’s not helpful — and is in fact completely nonsensical and self-defeating — to try to keep children from seeing a depiction of the same kind of abuse they suffer in real life. That’s not for the good of the children; that’s the action of adults in complete denial about the reality of what kids experience. It’s the same catch-22 as a student trying to report a bullying issue and being told, as some students at Anoka-Hennepin allegedly were, to “just lay low,” or to stop wearing boy’s clothes or mascara. It’s missing the point. The point is that it’s becoming increasingly obvious that our kids are dealing with things that no children ever should, and grappling with decidedly adult choices. Infantilizing them, or trying to pat them on the head and turn their faces away from what’s happening to them, is exactly the wrong move. If we don’t want kids to see the violence and abuse that they visit upon each other, maybe it’s not because we’re interested in “protecting” them — maybe it’s because we don’t want to look at it ourselves.