Bully: Documentary Review

Bully (2011)

This piece is from Monthly Contributor Carrie Nelson.

Growing up, I was never one of the “cool” kids. Far from it – I had a few close friends, but I also spent a lot of time by myself, reading and writing and daydreaming about movies I wanted to make someday. I also never wore the trendiest clothes, and I was generally awkward in social interactions. As a result, I was made fun of frequently in middle school. Even though I didn’t know how to articulate it at the time, I knew I was different, and my classmates knew it, too. And like many non-conformers, I was bullied because of my differences. But nothing that I experienced is comparable to what kids today are going through. Bullying has existed since the dawn of humanity, but only in the last few years has it become a national news story. Children – some as young as 11-years-old – are now bullied to the point of taking their lives. What’s caused this dramatic change? 
Bully is an important film, because it addresses this critical epidemic. It follows the stories of five young people, ranging in age between 11 and 17: Tyler, a boy who committed suicide and whose parents are suing his school district and holding the district accountable for his death; Alex, a boy who is physically assaulted daily on the school bus and doesn’t know how to talk about it with his parents; Kelby, a girl whose bullying started once she came out as a lesbian; Ja’Meya, a girl who was sent to a juvenile detention center after trying to defend herself and threatening her bullies with a gun; and Ty, a boy whose parents launched the anti-bullying organization Stand For The Silent after his suicide. Though Tyler and Ty are unable to personally share their stories during the film, their parents create vivid pictures of their sons’ experiences. Both families are now significantly active in the anti-bullying movement, and they carry on the legacy of their sons’ through this work. (Aside: It is critical to mention that the specifics of Tyler’s death are unclear, and there are some questions as to whether or not his suicide is directly connected to bullying, though these questions are not addressed in the documentary.) 
Kelby in Bully
We do, however, get to hear directly from Alex, Kelby, and Ja’Meya, and their stories are incredibly moving. I found Kelby’s story particularly poignant, given the pervasiveness of LGBT bullying today. More than any other subject profiled, Kelby expresses a love for her life and a determination not to let bullying determine her future. Though she experiences immense homophobic abuse, she refuses to hide in the closet, and she forms friendships with other outsiders so that she’s never truly alone. Kelby’s story is one of perseverance, and it’s deeply inspiring. I was also awed by Ja’Meya’s story. Her experience highlights the significant disparities in punishment that exist in our justice system. Though Ja’Meya did bring a loaded gun onto a school bus, she did not hurt anyone, and she did it out of self-defense. Yet her bullies have not been penalized for hurting her, and she faces 45 felony charges. Ja’Meya’s story is by far the most complex, and to me it was also the most upsetting – it is so painful to watch her locked away just because she was bullied and didn’t know how to handle it. Ja’Meya’s experiences show the horrifying reality that even when victims do try to defend themselves, they still end up being the ones punished. 
Ja’Meya in Bully
Bully is an important film, and it’s a good film. It’s very well crafted, and director Lee Hirsch did an excellent job of choosing compelling subjects and letting them speak for themselves. That said, Bully is not a great movie. It is a fiercely passionate movie, which is critical, but because it shares its passion exclusively through personal stories, it neglects to explore crucial facts about the bullying epidemic and its dangers. The film doesn’t really explore the phenomenon of cyber-bullying, a relatively new form of bullying that is just as serious a problem as “traditional” bullying. Despite the inclusion of a lesbian subject, the film also ignores the reality that a disproportionately high amount of bullying incidents and bullying-related suicides relate to the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, the only school official profiled is one who is completely incompetent and dismissive of the bullying that occurs on her watch, which renders invisible the positive and progressive actions taken by many educators and administrators to prevent bullying. Exploring these issues and including specific facts and statistics about the changes in bullying over the last decade would have made the film far more empowering. 
In 2009, Sirdeaner Walker testified before Congress in support of the Safe Schools Improvement Act. Walker’s son, Carl, had committed suicide at the age of 11 after being repeatedly tormented by classmates. During the hearing, Walker stated, “I know now that bullying is not a gay issue, or a straight issue. It’s a safety issue. It’s about what kind of learning environments we want for our children and how far we’re willing to go to protect and teach them.” I thought of her words when I watched Bully, because if the film does anything right, it shows bullying as a universal experience – and one that needs to be stopped. The problem is that, ultimately, bullying probably can’t be stopped. Sexual harassment, abuse, rape, murder, bigotry – these are all things that are serious problems and that need to stopped, but because cruelty will always exist in the world, these problems will also always exist in the world. That can’t be helped. What can be helped is the way we address these situations when they do happen. 
I feel the same way about bullying. Bullying may never cease to exist, but we can at least push harder for national safe school legislation, stronger enforcement of zero-tolerance policies, and better support systems for young people who are bullied. I wish Bully had taken the time to address any of these potential strategies directly. Instead, it closes with the message “Stop Bullying,” which is certainly an admirable message but not one that can realistically be fulfilled. I wish more time had been devoted to exploring the Stand For The Silent campaign, but it is mentioned almost as an afterthought toward the end of the film. And while it’s true that the filmmakers have partnered with Facing History and Ourselves to create a educational curriculum around Bully, I wish the film itself had contained the facts and guidelines included in the curriculum. Teaching guides and informational websites are only useful if they are sought out, and the sad truth is that I doubt that everyone who sees Bully will seek out these important resources. Bully sheds critical light on a universal epidemic, but its downfall is that it keeps the message universal, rather than making it tangible and realistic to achieve. There is a difference between powerful stories and empowering messages, and ultimately, Bully relies too much on the former and not enough on the latter.

Carrie Nelson is a Bitch Flicks monthly contributor. She is a Staff Writer for Gender Across Borders, an international feminist community and blog that she co-founded in 2009. She works as a grant writer for an LGBT nonprofit, and she is currently pursuing an MA in Media Studies at The New School.