Documentary on Bullying Inappropriate for High School Bullying Victims, Because of the Bullying

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.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!


Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. At some point movie studios and producers need to get together and sue the MPAA for more consistent, objective standards about this kinds of stuff. Movies can show torture and graphic violence and get ratings that kids can see, but language and sex get higher ratings. It’s absurd, and doesn’t recognize societies’ values.

    • Violence is okay, curse words are bad, sexual topics are obscene. Hmmm, seems the MPAA is reflecting our society’s values just fine… unfortunately.

    • Have you ever seen the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated? The MPAA is… strange.

      • That film made me furious. I already knew some of the history of rating films, and I knew it wasnt good…but this…this film reminds me just how fucked up things really are.

  2. Why dont they just make the kids get permission slips signed? That’s what we did when I was in high school, simple solution!

    • It’s unfortunate that it’s even an issue, but yes, the school district in Cincinnati should definitely send permission slips home with its students. Perhaps a few students wouldn’t be able to see it, but at least the majority would. If my high school was able to make us watch Saving Private Ryan every time we had a substitute in History, I think they should be able to work something out in this case.

  3. If they felt the need to rate it R, it should be an obvious signal as to how serious and real bullying is and this rash epidemic of douchebag children with no upbringing.

    Regardless, as soon as its on DVD, I’m sure (hoping?) it will be shown in classrooms everywhere.

    • Most school districts won’t allow R movies to be shown in a classroom *period*.

      Which is entirely ridiculous when this documentary should really be shown in all classrooms, I think.

  4. I don’t find the argument that they should have known what kind of rating it would get persuasive because the MPAA has been so inconsistent over the years with the ratings it gives and the reasons it gives for rating one movie one way and a similar movie another way.

  5. This shows how much rating can be ridiculous. It reminds me of the release of Billy Elliot. It the funny how the MPAA and the FCC are willing to censor swear words and omit to see the educational purpose underlying, especially when those words are only taken from the reality exposed.

    Very good read.

  6. Call me stupid but as a citizen of the Netherlands this doesn’t make ANY sense to me.

    Why can’t a schooldistrict like Cincinnati not make other arrangements like showing this documentary in the schools? Or rent a theatre and organise a showing rather than just buy the tickets?

    If parents are going to be a problem, make them see it too, or first if need be.

    • In the US, children under 17 aren’t supposed to see R-rated films without adult (generally parental) supervision. Some theatres get incredibly sticky about this.

        • If a school district can afford to send 40,000 kids to a theatre to see it there are ways to make it possible to view it another way.

  7. why don’t parents just teach their kids not to be assholes? i mean, i understand if parents are assholes themselves, it seems inevitable that their kids will probably be assholes. i know i’m an asshole, and i know my dad is an asshole. i mean, we’re tolerable assholes, but we’re still assholes; so it stands to reason assholes beget assholes.

    seeing this movie or not seeing this movie is likely to have very little impact on bullying. the roots of the issue are deep. first of all, it’s probably intrinsic. i don’t know that bullying is worse today than it was 50 years ago. it’s likely better now, actually. still that whole wealth gap thing is totally fucking with us, so apocalypse being nigh and all that shit, we might see some social regression; you never know maybe bullying is worse now. but the point is, bullying is not going anywhere and it’s surprisingly persistent – adult bullies are everywhere.

    so how do we deal with bullies…teach your kids how to beat the fuck out of people. nobody bullies a bully. some kids are resilient, i’ve always been fat, so bullying is and always has been a real part of my life. but it made me funny. and i guess i’m smart enough to put a bully in his/her place. it made me stronger. and anybody who gets through it, will be stronger for having gotten through it. most of us get through it.

    also, bullies themselves are just troubled kids, probably with low self esteem and who have been bullied as well. i haven’t seen the film. i can’t really say what impact it will have, and certainly the dialogue will only motivate progress. but realistically, we have to teach our kids not to be assholes. i don’t have kids. why would i ever do that to myself?

  8. Why am I not surprised? The MPAA is stuck in a time when Americans would try to light their ears and eyes afire if they heard a “harsher than usual” curse word.

Comments are closed.