First of all, I would like to thank everybody who has commented, both publicly and privately, on last week’s Rant. The subject is one that is important to me. A lot of you have had similar experiences, some much worse than mine. Some have been witnesses of bullying rather than victims themselves. I have heard from nobody who claims to have been a bully, but one of the interesting–and terrifying–things about this issue is that the categories are not mutually exclusive. In a recent Globe and Mail article, a number of kids were asked to speak of their experience; the majority of them identified themselves as belonging to at least two of the three categories of “bully,” “witness,” and “victim.” Some claimed to be all three.
When you’re ten years old and people are hurting you, you want to hurt them back. Sometimes, you want them to die. But the truth of the matter is that they’re not monsters. They’re kids. They’re louder or physically stronger or more charismatic than you are. Often, they’re just as scared, and of the same things: of being singled out. Of being laughed at. Of being bullied themselves.
If we want to solve the problem, we need to stop treating the categories as entirely separate, and we need to stop focusing solely on the victims. Yes, the victims certainly need our help. They need support; they need to know that the teachers are not just “letting kids be kids.” They need some assurance that they are not alone. But bullying is not a natural disaster. If we simply teach the victims to cope, we are accepting bullying as a fact of life, something that will happen no matter what. We have to start talking to the bullies too. Punishment isn’t enough. Punishment doesn’t teach empathy. It also tends to drive bullies to revenge.
Perhaps there will eventually be some way for us to change our definition of “strength.” Our society tends to view the loudest, pushiest people as the strongest; we do not highlight the strength necessary to choose not to kick and shove one’s way into the alpha position. In actual fact, it’s braver to refuse to taunt a classmate–thus risking scorn oneself–than it is to join in on the ridicule.
In the last couple of weeks, I have noticed two sitcom episodes that have dealt with bullying, one on The Big Bang Theory and one on Community. They are worth looking at briefly because they offer, respectively, very conventional and rather unconventional portrayals of bullies and their victims. There will be some spoilers below.
The Big Bang Theory, a traditional multi-camera sitcom, offers a familiar portrait of childhood bullying. The now adult victim, Leonard, is about as typical a Hollywood nerd as it is possible to find: small, weak, smart, glasses-wearing, suffering from various digestive ailments. In the episode, he is contacted by a former bully who wants to have drinks with him. The majority of the episode consists of Leonard describing all the things the bully and various other bullies did to him, to uproarious laughter from the studio audience. The bullying incidents, some of which are genuinely horrifying, are played for laughs. When the bully turns up, he is a large, crude alcoholic who is clearly not very bright. His drinking features heavily, implying karmic retribution for the bullying. When Leonard finally confronts him, he seems remorseful, though it later turns out that the remorse stemmed from the drinking; he has forgotten it by the morning, at which time the bullying–again played for laughs–resumes. The B plot involves Leonard’s next-door neighbour Penny being forced by her much nerdier friends to realise that she was herself a bully in school. She phones her former victims to try to pacify her conscience, but they all reject her overtures. She continues to mock them (for laughs, of course) even as she apologises.
Community is a less conventional comedy, and it takes a less conventional approach. One of the protagonists, Jeff, is bothered by some loud, obnoxious foosball players at his community college, and when he tries to get them to stop, they humiliate him in a game of foosball. He tries to persuade his friend Shirley, who is a foosball genius but never plays, to teach him how to beat them. Neither Jeff nor Shirley has played since childhood; both were once devoted to the game but eventually driven away from it. In the course of their training session, they discover they have a linked past: at twelve, Shirley was the bully who tore into ten-year-old Jeff during a game of foosball, abusing him so violently that she made him wet his pants. He quit foosball because of the bullying; she quit because the incident made her recognise herself as a bully. The coincidence is, of course, contrived, but it leads to a foosball-themed shouting match in which the two of them both scream out their anguish, Jeff pointing out what the bullying did to him and Shirley countering that she was trying to divert attention from her own difference. The interesting bit is that the adult Shirley is a devoutly Christian mother of three, while Jeff is an outwardly arrogant, manipulative lawyer; in most stories, their positions as bully and victim would be reversed. They reconcile at the end of the episode.
Community trumps The Big Bang Theory here by focusing on both bully and bullied without stereotyping either. Both are portrayed as human beings, neither overly kind and good nor ridiculously mean and rotten. Shirley has not been overtaken by karmic retribution, and she is not identical to her twelve-year-old self. Jeff, despite his seeming confidence, has been haunted by the incident well into his thirties; by the end of the episode, the viewer realises that Jeff’s motivation for attacking the foosball players in the first place must have been linked, perhaps subconsciously, to his memories of Shirley’s bullying. In The Big Bang Theory, on the other hand, everything is black and white. The bully is a cardboard cut-out; I watched the episode only a couple of days ago, but I’ve already forgotten his name. The bullying itself is clearly meant to be hilarious. In Penny’s plot, Penny’s obliviousness is mocked, but the audience laughs just as loudly when she is making fun of someone’s stutter as it does when she is demonstrating her own selfishness. Leonard’s lists of the bully’s physically violent treatment of him elicits more laughter, and the episode ends with the bully once more asserting his physical superiority by chasing both Leonard and his roommate down several flights of stairs in their own apartment building. The episode gives us the bully as natural disaster and simultaneously provides us with the false but doubtless comforting fiction that bullies will end up as alcoholic losers (unless they are female and pretty). Community offers no karma and, in the actual bullying scene, no laughter. It’s still a very funny episode, but it doesn’t take the easy way out.
I’m sure I could write on this subject for another year or so, but I’d better stop now. Please do keep thinking about this issue. If nobody thinks about it, nothing will ever be done.