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Film Review: Bully

Bully (2011; Directed by Lee Hirsch)

On its surface, Bully is a document of social dysfunction and a weapon for awareness and advocacy. Lee Hirsch’s documentary focuses on five students from across America’s so-called “Heartland” (more on that hoary, misleading concept in a minute) who face bullying from their peers at school and react to it in different ways. Some try with awkwardness to either fit in or avoid torment or both in fluctuating uncertainty, others demonstrate extraordinary strength of will and moral character in the face of prejudice but ultimately seek out a more accepting milieu, and still others are driven to self-harm and even suicide by the rejection and abuse of their peers. In some cases, parents are highly supportive, in others oblivious or wrong-headed, and in the most extreme and tragic have become public crusaders for anti-bullying action.

Bully is about all of these people, their struggles with a harsh world and their hopes for a better one. But on another deeper and more fundamental level, Bully is about the tyranny of “tight-knit” small communities and the deadening indifference and willful blindness of the institutions that define them. It’s about the failure of social systems as assuredly as (if more microcosmically than) The Wire, with the primary failed system being the schools.

This is not a failure of education, of intellectual and practical preparation for the rigours of a competitive capitalist economy like the standard school-focused liberal social documentary film tends to be (or like The Wire‘s own treatment of schools). It’s a failure of social structure that goes beyond small-town American schools but is magnified terribly in them: the instinctive ostracism of difference, no matter how insignificant, and the punitive measures marshalled against disobedience to that assumed norm. Documentaries like Waiting For “Superman” focus on schools in urban areas because education levels are the primary issue there. Bully finds its resonant case studies in smaller communities because exclusion and enforcement of homogeneity are rife in such places.

A document like Bully exposes the conservative myth of the “Heartland”, a morally upright and common-sensical belt of friendly small towns where everyone gets along (as long as they’re white and straight) and modern anxieties are kept at bay, as the craven and pernicious lie that it is. Everyone gets along in these communities only to the extent that they admit no variation from their rigid set of shared values. Perish the thought that, like one strong-spirited young girl in Oklahoma, you happen to be gay or otherwise marked out from True American microculture.

Bullying is the weapon of school-age socialization in such places, the blunt instrument of conformity to the local order. The most incredible subjects in Bully are the passive (and even active) enablers of the bullying culture in positions of authority in the schools. They shame and blame the victims of regular abuse, gloss over parents’ complaints with plastered-on smiles, and generally protect not the bullied but the bullies from any meaningful consequences for the deep psychological damage that can be inflicted by acts of bullying at such an impressionable age. There are scenes shot at rallies and marches against bullying with large crowds turning out in support, but very few of sympathetic and effective school administrators meaningfully addressing the problem head-on.

Hirsch does not come straight at the reason for this dissembling and avoidance by authorities, but it becomes fairly evident to the initiated and knowledgeable. Confronting bullying does not simply involve punishing bullies, nor does it extend to the uncomfortable position of informing parents that they have raised little people who prey on the weak, the isolated, the divergent (a failure in nurture in social inclusiveness terms, but a measure of success in far too many segments of American life). Confronting bullying means facing up to the unsettling social truths at the core of Middle American life. It means admitting that the close-knit conservative community model encodes certain exclusions and prejudices and basic unfairness by design, that it surveys out social fissures that cannot but open and divide in good time. It means that adhering to this social model will always leave some children behind (as its larger economic model leaves some adults behind) and that, contrary to jingoistic propaganda, these youthful abandonments will not be on the basis of value or merit but upon value-judgements considerably more arbitrary and unjust (also as it is with adults).

Schools and other small-town institutions cannot confront bullying because then they would have to confront the whole panoply of cloaked pathologies that underlie conservative American life. The society they hold dear could not bear up against such scrutiny. The psychological suffering and identity scars of the minority who do not conform to the enforced socialization of small-town American schools are necessary sacrifices to maintain a comforting illusion for the majority of these communities. Bully presses its message into placard-carrying protesting solidarity, but the  image of American society that it presents is not one whose pathologies can be meaningfully addressed by a few rallies. It is a cancer that goes far deeper and cannot easily be cut out.

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Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews
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