April 2nd, 2012

Where “Bully” Went Wrong

Alex Libby, one of the main subjects in Bully. Screengrab by Wired.

Leaving the theatre where I saw Bully, I felt sad for the tormented children and their families, angry with the adults who blamed victims while ignoring pleas for help—and deeply disappointed in the filmmakers. Of course, I wanted to walk away and fiercely advocate for a film raising awareness about a serious issue plaguing millions of young people every day. But how do you make a movie about bullying in the 21st century and ignore the role of media and technology?

I will be among the first to declare that bullying has been a problem long before the Internet and social media gave rise to the phenomenon of cyberbullying. However, purporting to have an honest, blunt discussion about bullying and say nothing of these technologies is at best tone-deaf and at worst irresponsible. After all, this is a movie—one of our most popular forms of media—and this movie in particular made great use of social media in its own promotion, so the filmmakers can hardly claim indifference to its power.

Indeed, before seeing the movie, I read an interview in Fast Company with director Lee Hirsch, who said, “I’m just awestruck by the power of social media. We’ve reached out to social media companies from day one and asked them to partner with us on this journey and we could’ve taken a very different approach and said, ‘Oh, we’re gonna get them, for the role that they played.’…there’s been so much support, it’s been extraordinary.” Going into Bully, I was hopeful that the producers weren’t going to give media a pass, and instead were going to be candid yet fair in painting a full picture of a complex issue. Yet the most substantial mention of social media was when the father of Ty Smalley, a bullied boy in Oklahama who committed suicide at age eleven, pointed to the solace and support he has received from going online and using Facebook to communicate with other families and mobilize against bullying.

Bullying has been a problem since I was a kid, as it was when my parents and grandparents were kids. But we now live in a world of camera- and video-ready cell phones, online sharing platforms, a 24-hour news cycle, reality television shows which thrive on manufactured conflict, and a culture in which free speech is at once an inalienable right and a shield for ignorance, hate and malice. Despite my disappointment in the film’s naïve attempt to look behind the curtains on the lives of young people, I do still think it should be seen, and hope that people heed its call to action. However, just as we have a long way to go in the fight to end bullying, Bully is itself also woefully incomplete.

–Emily Long

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