Documentary about bullied teens shows that we have become the bullies


An image from the documentary "Bully." (Courtesy of the Weinstein Company)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist March 15, 2012

Funny, coming to Bully Central to stop bullying.

What else can you call Washington, a city where influence is thrown around like punches in the hallway and legislators routinely gang up on the weak and voiceless just to make their side happy?

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

This week, Washington greeted Katy Butler, a smart and ambitious young woman who once had one of her fingers broken by bullies, who slammed her hand in a locker. She’s the 17-year-old from Michigan who went from being assaulted in her school to catching a movie in the nation’s capital with Harvey Weinstein, thank you very much.

The movie, a documentary produced by Weinstein, is about bullying.

Katy is a minor media sensation at the moment (I was scheduled in a very tight time slot to chat with her Thursday) because she and Change.org are pushing the Motion Picture Association of America to change the movie’s rating from R to PG-13 so kids can see it.

“Bully” appears to be a powerful movie about the lives of bullied kids in the Midwest. The trailer is a tear-jerker.

It’s rated R because of all the cussing in it. And because it’s a documentary, you can’t just reshoot the most gripping scenes and ask the kids to say “darn” and “snap” instead, Katy explained to me.

Usually, an R rating is code for “REQUIRED viewing” by anyone under the age of 18. But in this case, Katy worries that the very middle- and high-schoolers who should be watching the film won’t see it.

“For schools to be able to show an R movie, it’s going to require all kinds of permission slips from parents,” Katy said.

But if it drops to PG-13, it will be more accessible.

I totally get the lasting, repeating cruelty of a bully. Why else did I avoid high school reunions?

That day in junior high when I rode sitting on the floor of the bus because no one would let me on a seat seriously sucked. So many of us have those stories. I heard the fantastic actress Maya Rudolph on the radio the other day explaining how she still carries the scars from a schoolyard bully.

In Washington, we get the pain of being picked on, don’t we? We are a city of dorks. The cool kids are all in L.A. or New York, or pumping gas at the hometown service station. The smart, nerdy kids generally head here.

So when did Dork Command turn into Bullying Central?

In the past month, the malevolent and the mean-spirited have had the run of the place. They pump out campaign ads designed to belittle, malign and deceive. They hold a hearing on the health-care options of 51 percent of our population without allowing a single woman to testify. They hurl vicious insults at anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

In Gaithersburg, a priest refuses to give Communion to a lesbian mourning her mother during a funeral Mass.

In Rockville, a man with a reputation as a bully pursues his ex-wife relentlessly and, according to police reports, shoots her in a van and dumps her body on a busy intersection in the middle of the day.

Maybe bullying is a self-perpetuating cycle of abuse.

My older son was bullied in kindergarten. It was awful, though, in a way, I was expecting it. He has my dork blood in his veins, after all.

I was waiting for my younger son to be a victim, too. I picked him up so many times, tear-stained and snot-covered after he was left in the dust by his older brother and his brother’s big-kid pack.

It felt inevitable. The eternal plight of the little brother.

And then I got a surprise from his teacher. “We’re worried about his bullying,” the teacher gut-punched me.

Horrible visions of my 5-year-old choking, punching or smacking kids ran through my mind.

“No, not like that,” the teacher said. “He’s not including everyone in the playground games. The little kids. Making different rules up, playing games they don’t understand. Running from them.”

I exhaled, but not much. All this while, I was looking over my sons’ shoulder for the bully. And it turns out, the teacher says the bully is mine.

So, we’re working on it, don’t worry.

Turns out all it takes is an opportunity for the youngest, smallest and weakest to have the chance to be pack leader, and it can get ugly fast.

So there you have your answer about the current climate in Washington. A giant vat of dork victims churning the cycle to become bullies themselves.

Thank you, Katy Butler, for being a victim who doesn’t turn on others. She’s got more than 300,000 people behind her now, including Ellen DeGeneres, Drew Brees, Justin Bieber and Meryl Streep.

And if her campaign doesn’t change the R rating? There’ll be plenty of seats in the theater open for grown-ups who could use a good reminder of what it felt like to be on the other end of things.

To read previous columns by Petula Dvorak, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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