Anyone who reads the news (or listens to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show) realizes that bullying has become front page news in America. As Limbaugh has so ably demonstrated over the past week or so, even grown-ups who should know better can often be bullies. However, the majority of our recent focus on bullying has been directed toward school-age young people. This only makes sense – the hallways, locker rooms and playgrounds of our nation’s schools are the places where so many kids fall victim to tormentors every day. It also makes sense because the efforts to stop bullying must happen during these formative years, when education and intervention can, hopefully, alter the life paths of both bullies and their victims for the better.
With all that being said, it seems ridiculous that a film about this very subject is being restricted from the audience it could best serve. “Bully”, a new documentary about some of the real kids and families whose lives have been touched by bullying in different ways, is set to hit theaters on March 30. As of now, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has assigned an “R” rating to the film. This would mean that kids younger than 17 would be unable to see it without being accompanied by a parent. It would also mean the movie could not be shown in schools to the very groups of children who would likely benefit most from seeing it. The film is one part of an effort called “The Bully Project”, which includes online apps and websites, teaching materials, and other resources to help communities address bullying effectively. By removing a significant portion of the target audience from the equation, the MPAA’s decision throws an obstacle in front of any efforts to implement the project in an optimal manner.
A 17-year-old student named Katy Butler, herself a former victim of bullying, has started a petition drive to pressure the MPAA into changing the rating of the film to a “PG-13”. Over 200,000 signatures have already been collected and presented to the MPAA, but so far, it hasn’t helped. The MPAA acknowledged the debate and the “commendable” actions of Ms. Butler, but stands by its decision and offers no indication that a ratings change for “Bully” is being considered.
The MPAA, in defending its position, has cited the film’s language as the main factor in the “R” rating. The problem with this defense is that the language in the film is what kids really say to each other. The ugly words are all part of the reality of bullying, and hiding that reality would not serve the purpose of the film. This is a documentary, and the clear and honest depiction of the abuse that bullies perpetrate against their victims is what makes it so educational and effective.
The MPAA’s actions are certainly the product of good intentions, but it’s hard to understand how they actually help anyone. Trying to keep the ugly details of bullying “hush hush” is counter-productive, and representative of the general fear and avoidance tactics that contribute to the bullying problem. A recent story concerning Minnesota’s largest public school system illustrates this very well.
Beginning in 2009, the Anoka-Hennepin School District adopted a “neutrality” policy regarding the discussion of sexual orientation in the classroom. It essentially prohibited school employees from using language that promoted or defended any particular sexual orientation. This, in turn, meant that students who used abusive language to bully gay students could not be forcefully corrected by their teachers. The policy led to an atmosphere that some characterized as hostile toward gay students in the district, and ineffective at adequately protecting students from their tormentors. The point was dramatically emphasized by a spate of suicides among students in the district between 2009 and 2011, in which anti-gay bullying may have played a role.
After things got so far out of control, a group of students took legal action against the district last summer, in the hopes that the policy would be changed. This past Monday, a settlement was reached between the district and the students. Among the terms of the settlement were revisions to the policy, which will now require that teachers take responsibility for maintaining a respectful atmosphere for all students in their classrooms.
Some parents and members of the community were displeased by the settlement and the new policy, and claimed that it opened a door to pro-homosexual “propaganda” being spread in the schools. But the district wisely decided that the safety and well-being of their students was their biggest priority, and that an essential ingredient in creating that safe environment was the removal of the “hush hush” guidelines that turned a blind eye toward anti-gay abuse.
The MPAA is guilty of that same “head in the sand” mentality with regards to the “R” rating for “Bully”. It is an attempt to sweep the realities of bullying under the carpet. But it is the height of absurdity to try and hide from children a world in which they already live. They do exist within this reality, and many suffer (or even die) from exposure to it on a daily basis. How an “R” rating could possibly protect them is beyond me. This film is one that kids truly need to see, and the MPAA should not be standing in their way.
You’re Not Finished: Stop Bullying Now
The Daily What: Canadian Censors Give “Bully” PG Rating