“Kids will be kids,”
“Boys will be boys,”
“They’re cruel at that age”
“It’s a part of life,”
“You’ll get over it,”
“Why can’t you just be friends?”
“Just ignore it,”
Anybody who’s been bullied has heard those words. Bullying seems to be expected in school. It’s almost considered a rite of passage. We hear about it on the news, another precious human has taken their own life because of bullying. Everyone stands up briefly and shouts about how wrong it is. They call for change. They agree this should never happen again.
Then the victim blaming begins. The victim started it. They were just as responsible. They should have told someone. Just ignore it and it will go away. It can’t have been THAT bad!
The media stops reporting. The world moves on, and a shattered family is left with the ashes of their ruined lives.
The sad fact is that bullying is not something that ‘goes away’ when you grow up. Adults can be bullies, and be bullied. We live in a world that allows and encourages lying and cheating your way to the top. We watch reality shows that purposely puts awful human beings against each other in the name of entertainment. I can think of at least one prominent example of a bully with a huge platform….
In 2011, Australian teen Casey Heynes became an international hero when mobile footage of him standing up to a bully went viral. After being brutally punched in the jaw, Casey physically lifted his assailant over his head, slamming him into the ground. Despite being suspended, he was applauded all over the world. Today, Casey is still an anti-bullying advocate with no plans to slow down.
2011 was also the year that an American documentary film Bully was released, amid a rating controversy, and became an instant hit. Critics and audiences alike called it “essential viewing” for children. I disagree. It’s essential viewing for every person in the world, regardless of age or gender.
When Bully was released, I wanted to see it, but I knew it wasn’t a good idea just yet. I was 19 and still very damaged by the relentless bullying I’d experienced in school. But now, in my early 20s, I’ve finally seen it. And I’m glad I didn’t see the film in theatres. There’s little doubt in my mind that I would have ended up under the seats in a sobbing mess.
Bully follows the lives of five young victims of bullying. Alex Libby, a sweet-natured 13 year old with social and learning difficulties is tormented beyond belief on the school bus. Kelby Johnson, 16, is ostracised by her Bible Belt town when she comes out as a lesbian. The teachers at her school join in with the tormenting and she tells of being purposely hit by a minivan containing six boys from her school. Ja’Meya, 14, faces felony charges after bringing her mother’s gun on the school bus, attempting to intimidate the bullies into leaving her alone.
But the most tragic of the five are the two children we never meet, as they have taken their own lives. 17 year old Tyler Long hung himself after being harassed and abused for years. He was shoved into lockers and had his clothes taken while showering. Finally, there is Ty Smalley, who committed suicide aged only 11.
Bully is not easy to sit through. During the scenes where Alex is being stabbed while the bus driver doesn’t even look, you find yourself fighting the urge to jump up and do something about it. The filmmakers ended up showing footage to the school and Alex’s parents, only for the assistant principal to give a plastic smile and a promise to do something.
“That’s what she said in the fall,” Alex’s mother says tearfully. “She’s not going to do anything,”
The administrators and teachers at the school are shown to be apparently oblivious/uncaring to the widespread bullying problem. In perhaps the most infuriating scene of all, a boy identified only as “Cole” is pulled aside by the aforementioned assistant principal with a boy who has been bullying him terribly. She orders the boy to shake hands and make up. The bully, who has the smile of a snake oil salesman, sticks out his hand. Cole refuses to accept it. The assistant principal berates Cole for not accepting an apology. “You’re just as bad as him!” she claims. The audience shouts at the screen at this idiotic woman. She simply refuses to see the truth. Instead, she launches into the victim blaming. Why is Cole hanging out with this kid. “I’m not,” Cole says, close to tears. “He comes and finds me,”
Bully isn’t interested in lecturing anyone. It’s not interested in giving a definitive answer. It just wants to show real life, and it wants to give hope. And I love documentaries that do that. Instead of launching straight into scenes of violence, the film is very clever about drawing us into this world, creating connections with these children and their families, allowing us to see the truth.
The biggest lie/misconception is that ALL bullies bully because they feel bad about themselves. And I don’t believe it for a second. The bully who has been tormenting Cole is about as sincere as Kanye West being happy for Taylor Swift at the Grammys. You look at his face. You look at his grin. You see the meaningless handshake. The assistant principal watches the young ones get on the bus to go home. “My little cherubs,” she smiles fondly. The film then cuts to those ‘little cherubs’ stabbing Alex with pencils. Choking him. Punching him. Slamming his head into the back of the seat while others shout encouragement. Later, shown telling outright lies about what went down.
Bullies don’t always have a self-esteem issue. They have a lack of empathy. That is their problem. They don’t care about how other people feel. They’re narcissistic. They only think of themselves. They enjoy the power.
Bullying isn’t just physical. It’s psychological, social, emotion, verbal. Bullying is not just isolated to the school building anymore. The power of the internet has given rise to cyber bullying and the anonymity of such attacks gives even more sense of power. Bullying is everywhere now. In schools, homes, the internet, the workplace. And it needs to stop.
Bully has been criticised for apparently offering no solutions to the problem. And that’s perfectly true. The documentary simply shows what the problem is. It shows the truth, raw and brutal, of how bad bullying can get. But that’s only half the story.
My day job is touring to schools all around Australia, performing anti-bullying plays to primary and high schools. During the Q&A sessions I share my experiences with the kids and teach them how they can stop bullying. And as a prop for one of the shows, I use a book. It’s called Bully.
Yes, it’s the companion book to the film. Several hundred pages of information and strategies to combat bullying. And the best thing about it? It does NOT blame the victim. On the contrary, it emphasises that the victim is not at fault. I want to see a world where bullying isn’t tolerated or dismissed as harmless. I want to see a world where victims can report without fear of being disbelieved or being told they brought it upon themselves.
Bully is five years old now, but everyone needs to see it. It’s raw, hard-hitting and difficult to stomach at times. You’ll be fighting the urge to throw things at the screen. You’ll want to shake those adults and make them come to their senses. You’ll want to rip those brats off Alex while they stab him. But it contains truth that you just don’t see normally. They don’t talk at the kids. They show them the brutality of schoolyard life. But they also show hope. The final moments of the film show the foundation Ty Smalley’s parents set up, Stand for the Silent. Balloons are released for children who lost hope and committed suicide. Ty’s father delivers an emotional speech where he vows to fight bullying forever, because his son “will be 11 years old forever,”
This is an issue that isn’t going away any time soon, and the only way to fight it is by standing up against it as a community.
For more information on the film and the anti-bullying movement, visit http://www.thebullyproject.com/
Next Blog: Bully Part 2-My Story