In the late 1978, America’s television networks broadcast a documentary that showed, up close and without blinking, teens at risk being exposed to the rough realities of prison life. The teens in question were taken to Rahway State Prison, now East Jersey State Prison, in New Jersey, where they were given a short, sharp education in the ways of the inside: Inmates beating one another, raping another, intimidating one another, and all as indifferent guards looked on. The idea was to frighten kids so badly that they would avoid committing criminal offenses. Part of the shock value was the rough language used by the felons, words that included vulgarities such as "rat’s ass" as well as the ne plus ultra of obscene language, "fuck."
Fast forward to 2012, when the MPAA, hearing six utterances of that word in Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen’s documentary "Bully," stamped the movie with an R rating even though its intended audience is kids in school--kids very much like the ones hurling the f-word in the film.
Critics lashed out at the lack of thought, the lack of heart, and the hidebound finger-ticking of the decision. (Evidently, five instances of the word "fuck" would have been acceptable and the film given a PG-13 rating. That sixth "fuck" pushed the film, or rather the censorious ratings board, over the line.) David Denby criticized the move in his review in "The New Yorker," noting that an R rating would prevent those who need this movie the most from actually seeing it.
The film was shown in a few theaters unrated, and was set to be put into wider release without a rating, but that in itself would have been problematic. Unrated films, like R rated films, are restricted; only viewers 17 years of age and older may view them. Theaters in many parts of the country are hesitant to screen unrated films. (One has to wonder whether theaters in certain parts of the country would embrace a documentary about the problem of bullying, for that matter, given that a huge part of the problem lies with the fact that the victims of bullying are often gay or lesbian, or perceived to be gay or lesbian by their tormentors.)
Then there’s the question of showing the film at schools, which is where "Bully" really needs to be seen. But imagine the outpouring of venom from religious and other anti-gay parents and organizations at the very idea of showing R-rated (or unrated) "filth" at "taxpayer expense!" The sort of organizations that have worked so diligently to prevent dialogue in the classroom around issues involving gays (and even opposed state laws that attempt to penalize kid-on-kid violence) would have had a field day with it, and probably still will if anyone ever tries to bring "Bully" to a local middle school or high school. The philosopher Epictetus observed sagely that only the well educated are truly free; but in 21st century America, some lessons are still banned from the classroom.
"Bully," filmed discreetly at a number of schools around the country, captures youthful savagery in progress. Kids verbally abuse and violently assault the outcasts in their midst, and the adults do nothing--until, that is, the traumatized and terrorized victims try to fight back. (Assailants behind vicious school bus beatings are just doing what kids do, apparently, but when a young lesbian brings a gun on board for self-defense, she’s up on charges in a heartbeat.)
Weapons laws are a good thing, mind you, but guns and knives are not the only weapons out there. Pencils can stab; words can cut; terror can wound. The truly shocking thing that "Bully" reveals is how little urgency school personnel seem to feel, even now, even after a tidal wave of gay teen suicides, when it comes to kids attacking other kids.
"The movie makes me want to get these unfortunate children some martial-arts lessons-but thinking this way is itself part of the problem," another writer for The New Yorker, Richard Brody, wrote in the magazine’s "The Front Row" column on March 30. "The idea of schools as places where children have to overcome their physical fear and learn to fight in order to survive psychically and avoid further pain sounds downright hellish, like the sort of Dickensian scenario a modern society would boast of having overcome.
So what is the solution, if there is a solution? Brody suggests identifying and defusing bullying at its source: In other words, making bullying, and bullies, "uncool" among kids.
That might or might not work. Meantime, however, in a deal brokered by MPAA chief, former Sen. Chris Dodd, the filmmakers, together with distributor the Weinstein Company, took a few naughty words out of the film, and the MPAA toned the rating down to PG-13. Anti-gay groups are still going to excoriate anyone trying to bring the film to kids at school (or bring groups of school kids to the theaters to see it), but at least it’s now possible, in theory, for youthful bullies to see themselves on the screen and, hopefully, realize that what they are doing isn’t cool; it’s shameful, it’s ugly, and it’s wrong. Who knows but that young bullies won’t be "shamed straight" at the sight.
All of which begs the question: If kids around the country could hear the word "fuck" emanating from the family TV set in 1978, all to the public good of dissuading youth at risk from turning to crime, why are six (more so than five) f-words going to sear the tender sensibilities of a young generation more than three decades later? Especially when the very same young generation is using such language, with impunity, on the school grounds--"at taxpayer expense," as the anti-gay groups’ sloppily applied mantra goes? Why was the strop between Weinstein Company head Harvey Weinstein and National Association of Theaters Owners President John Fithian necessary? Their feud rages on even now that the contention over the film’s rating has been resolved.
In 2007, a handful of chaperones brought a group of pubic school kids visiting from California to the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend a monologue by Mike Daisey, who works semi-improvisationally from a set of notes and twines together diverse narrative, historical, and philosophical threads into a braided whole that informs and illuminates. Because of Daisey’s style, his shows are a little different at each performance. Most people would call that art and understand that there’s a higher intention at work when Daisey is on stage. But when Daisey used the f-word, the kids’ chaperones (who described themselves as coming from "a Christian community") promptly gathered up their youthful flock and stampeded out of the auditorium. One of them paused along the way to trespass on the stage and pour his bottle of water over Daisey’s notes, an act of vandalism that destroyed the artist’s carefully prepared source material.
The incident made the news, of course, and the statement from the group that had taken such offense was that they had felt a need to get the kids to "safety" once the word "fuck" cropped up in Daisey’s performance. Exactly how, and why, the kids were in danger (Physical? Mental? Were they going to go blind?) from hearing a vulgar, but commonplace, word was a topic not touched up in the official explanation. Nor was any clarification forthcoming as to why the sight of one of these offended guardians of the youth vandalizing Daisey’s property constituted an increase in anyone’s "safety."
One also had to wonder why such "safety" obsessed chaperones had not researched the show in advance. For that matter, even if they didn’t know going in what lay in store, the pre-show announcement might have filled them in: The ART’s sound system broadcast a pleasant female voice warning the audience that the performance would be delivered "in the argot of New York City," before providing an example of things to come: "Shut your fucking cell phones and pagers off or we’ll shove them so far up your ass you’ll never, ever find them again." Some people might take offense at this sort of thing, and if they do, leaving might be a good idea. Right then, not twelve or eighteen minutes later, and certainly not with a detour for a quick water boarding on the way to the exit.
"Bully" is about kids finding their way in a world that celebrates strength, masculinity, and, sadly, the ostracism of those at the bottom of the testosterone heap. If kids are bullies--and the film makes this clear--it’s because the adults in their lives don’t do a very good job of teaching them better. So here we are, aghast at the idea that a kid might hear the word "fuck"--a word he or she probably uses without much thought--one too many times, but, by and large, seemingly unconcerned with that same kid’s brutal impulses and harmful actions. Since when did words speak louder than actions, anyway?
And where are the adults, the sane, sensible, calm, and in-charge people who are supposed to be offering some guidance to the young? Even among the grownups, adults are getting hard to find.