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Friday, March 2, 2012

Commentary: The "Bully" Controversy


"Boys will be boys."

"Kids are too soft these days."

"Sticks and stones...."

How about "Ignorance is bliss." The evolution of the schoolyard bully should be alarming to anyone with a close scope on reality. For those who don't have that, a documentary set for limited release this month titled "Bully" has the goal of bringing awareness to a widespread problem that has been ignored by too many for too long.

According to press reports, the film documents a year in the life of five different children who are targeted for physical and mental abuse by tyrannical bullies. The motives can vary anywhere from jealousy to prejudice to simple entertainment. By exposing how far some kids will go to humiliate their peers, the filmmakers hope to shine some light on the moments that are seldom witnessed by those with the power to prevent it. Today's typical bullying has gone beyond harmless hazing or building camaraderie as it's often dismissed to be. We're talking about kids that live with self-hatred so strong that the only way for them to suppress it is to inflict it upon others through physical and mental abuse. The result is an alarming portion of our youth that live in fear and self-doubt every day of their lives.

As someone who has dealt with a lot of psychological bullying through junior high school, I couldn't be more happier that this film has been made. It's far from the first time anyone has used film media to dissuade mean-spirited behavior. Within my own schools, there had been at least a dozen screened for class assemblies. The problem with those serials however was that they came from the after school special variety. Characters were constructed unrealistically because they were written by people who probably never witnessed actual relevant situations and therefore had to guess at the best ways to solve conflict. Some of these short films were so off-base that they ended up inviting further ridicule instead of sympathy for the victimized characters. Bully promises to be the first film to get these scenarios completely right because the footage is real as real as can be. Television personalities such as Dr. Phil McGraw and Anderson Cooper, both outspoken advocates against bullying, have voiced support for the project. It's a long overdue wake-up call and one that should be seen by as many kids and parents as possible. That's why the MPAA's rating verdict has caused such an uproar.

As of now, Bully has an "R" rating due to foul language. Several dozen "f-words" are reportedly audible. It only takes a few to earn that "R" rating; a rule that the MPAA has been consistent about for a long time. The frustration over this decision is both flawed and understandable. Opponents are asking how a film that is meant to be seen by young audiences could have a disclaimer attached that discourages and bars them from watching it? A contradictory practice? Michigan high school student Katy Butler certainly believes so. In protest of the rating, Katy launched an online petition to have it changed to a PG-13. It currently has over 165,000 signatures.

From victim to victim, my heart goes out to Katy. I love her enthusiasm and support for the film. And I love her passionate drive in spreading the word. That being clear, allow me to now explain why I will not sign her petition and why I believe Bully's R-rating is the best possible compromise.

Let's begin with a fact. The MPAA does not exist to tell people what is and isn't appropriate for them to watch. That is left for people to decide on their own. Its purpose is to keep track of words or imagery that is generally considered to be objectionable. The quantity and scale of those things are calculated into a rating that serves to warn people about the amount of objectionable material that's contained in the film. These guidelines help parents decide what films they are ready to expose their kids to. The recent add-on of more specific disclaimers have made that even easier. While it's true that the system isn't perfect nor does it accurately reflect every person's idea about what is objectionable, the MPAA has stayed consistent with how it has scored results; especially within the last twenty-five years. It's extremely rare for any film with more than a few f-words to get away with a PG-13 rating. Any film with identical content as Bully will receive the same treatment. Protesters are calling for an exception because they want this content to be seen by its target audience no matter how unpleasant it may be. It's necessary to be confronted by the ugly truth. A logical plea, but one that has a consequence that's too costly. If Bully is granted the exception, that opens the door for more. Other studios now have leverage to have their own film ratings reversed on grounds of inconsistency. If this occurs, it will lead to further confusion and worse mistrust of the system. A total reform might help, but I'd argue that we've come too far to have everything re-evaluated. And how can we be sure that a new system's terms can be universally agreed upon anyway? Bottom line: The MPAA needs to stay consistent and keep Bully's "R" rating for the sake of its own credibility.

Another fact that's being overlooked is that an R-rating does not necessarily prevent a minor from legally watching a film. By the official definition, a minor can be granted admission to an R-rated film as long as he/she is accompanied by an adult guardian. Because of Bully's commentary on the relationship between parents and tormented kids, it's actually ideal for a parent to watch this with his/her child for educational purposes. This instills mutual awareness of what can occur away from a so-called supervisor's watch and why trust between a parent and child is an invaluable weapon for combating the issue.

Even if Bully is stuck with its original rating, the film has already won in a way. Every documentary maker in the country would kill for the amount of exposure Bully is getting in the press right now. It will be seen by a great number of people which is the goal of any film of its kind. I look forward to writing a full review in the hopefully not too distant future.