Bully on You — Part Two
by James Killough
Please read Part One first.
In between the time I posted the first part of this series and now, Harvey Weinstein managed to browbeat the Motion Picture Association of America into lowering its rating for Bully from R to PG-13 following a petition signed by over half a million students nationwide. This means the film can now be shown in schools, the most appropriate and effective venues to screen it in. In terms of social benefit, this might be Weinstein’s worthiest victory ever.
Gawker.com, one of the more vicious gladiators in the vast free-for-all of opinion websites, was as wantonly unkind about this landmark reversal as it was when it ran a piece a couple of days ago effectively trashing Mike Wallace’s career just after he died. Gawker insists that Bully isn’t really for teenagers, but I don’t agree; as I said in part one of this series, it’s a feature-length public service announcement. Teenagers should be its primary audience.
Gawker does have a point that Weinstein’s motives for getting on his high horse and besieging the MPAA were more business-related in terms of getting greater visibility for a mediocre documentary. He has also used this case to show up how capricious and idiotic the rating board’s system is, part of his and other distributors’ ongoing battle with them; for all of its violence towards teens, The Hunger Games, which was released at the same time, received a PG-13. The problem is, I don’t see anything wrong with Weinstein’s motivations, and furthermore I don’t doubt that, as a father of four, he is genuinely concerned with the culture of bullying in this country, as we all are.
I met a Ghey at a dinner party the other night in Westwood, and for some reason we immediately started talking about gay teens being bullied. Having just been thrust in the middle of a group of people I hadn’t met before, but who all knew each other, my thoughts and conversation were jumping all over the place. I quickly stumbled into the middle of a something I’d blogged about briefly that day without an explanatory preamble.
“What is bothering me,” I said, “is that nowadays gay teens are holding the threat of suicide as a gun to people’s heads when they aren’t serious about it. I mean, we’ve all contemplated suicide before—”
“So you don’t agree with the Trevor Project?” my companion shot back. “You do know that gay teens are five times more likely to attempt suicide than straights, don’t you?”
Now that I had “Major Douchebag” tattooed on my forehead, I tried to back peddle by explaining that I was referring to incidents such as the kid in Virginia who was suspended from school recently for wearing impossibly high heels. I felt he was goaded by the press into saying exactly what they needed to hear to make this incident part of a national bullying cause célèbre: “When they suspended me… I wanted to kill myself.”
I added that the heels in question were hideous and dangerously high even for a girl of his age, but that did nothing to make me sound any less of a douche.
The boy’s school administrators responded as they typically do when addressing the issue of teen cross-dressing: they claimed they were looking after his interests, and thereby trying to prevent bullying and perhaps a twisted ankle in the process. But that is the same as my headmaster changing my name from the “feminine” Jamie to James in an effort to stop me getting thrown in the school fountain several times a week. The irony is, I stopped it myself by knocking the bullies dead with laughter when I appeared in drag in the school Christmas play.
Social interactions among teens are even more complex than they are among adults, shifting as they do so much more rapidly and constantly. Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project is genius in that it taps into the YouTube culture and allows young people to address each other rather that be uncomfortably burdened by guidance from adults, against whom they are in the throes of rebelling and aren’t inclined to listen to no matter how well intentioned the message. The recent video produced by Mormon Bingham Young University students is perhaps the finest example of that effort, and is so much more effective than a million grownups wagging fingers about playing nice:
When we look at the global statistics on teen suicide rates, on the surface the US doesn’t seem to do too badly against other countries. Despite our ruthless “killer” souls, we are only slightly higher that the average teen suicide rate, lower than Finland, which is bizarrely ranked among the top ten happiest countries in the world.
If you break the numbers down by gender, however, a bleaker picture is painted. Three times as many boys in this country are likely to attempt suicide than girls. And if gay teens are five times more likely to do it, then we really do have a major issue on our hands; it’s pretty clear that being gay is a leading cause of teen suicide.
I’ve often felt that the only social group that understands what it is like for us is African-Americans, but that’s at best a tenuous comparison. A Ghey isn’t born into a family and community of people just like him, who can close ranks and defend him if he’s assaulted or worse. He’s alone, often rejected by the people who gave birth to him and are meant to nurture him. No matter where he comes from socially, he is thrust to the very bottom of the pecking order.
We also tend to be more sensitive and introspective by nature, far more self-conscious of our appearance and place in society, which makes us particularly susceptible to taking the instant-pariah thing to heart. “You are so sensitive!” my creative partner Rain Li said a couple of years ago in exasperation during an argument.
And I was very far from being a teenager.
“Are you kidding?” I shot back. “I’m even sensitive about being so sensitive.”
Teen suicide and bullying are two related but distinct beasts. Bullying never really goes away in adulthood, it just morphs into business as usual, part of the continual dog-eat-dog struggles of existence. It doesn’t take much to step back and see that it is a natural part of the order of things, which doesn’t make it right. Humans are constantly evolving, always looking for cures to maladies, and bullying is no doubt one of them. Survival of the fittest might have gotten us to where we are now, but the deeds of the compassionate will get us to where we will be next.
What I tried to explain to my dinner companion the other night is that part of my struggle with the suicide issue is it is bigger than bullying. A teen in Ohio recently attempted suicide by swallowing all of his bipolar meds. It was discovered after he slipped into a coma that he is gay, unbeknownst to almost everyone around him. So was the attempt related to his sexuality or because he was severely bipolar? My feeling is it was a combination of both, with more blame on the bipolar than the being gay.
Bullying is relatively easy to address compared to suicide. The former may contribute to the latter, but it is rarely the entire cause for it. Alexander McQueen was hardly bullied when he topped himself at the height of his career. Whatever the causes of voluntary suicide, as opposed to other forms, in my view they are as much internal as external, if not more so, and therefore a slippery problem to address.
Aside from the broader philosophical and psychological questions about suicide, and however manifestly wrong bullying is, the best thing about Bully, the Trevor Project, and Dan Savage’s initiatives is that it is getting better. We are evolving towards a better world for all kids, not just Gheys. I’ve always said that the best thing about America is that despite our killer souls, we are a self-correcting society. The fact we are scrutinizing ourselves so carefully right now over this issue and attacking it with such force can only lead to a less brutal world for the generations who follow.
And one day sooner than later, DH Lawrence’s assessment of us will cease to be so accurate.
Nicely wrapped up, Killough. I do agree that, even though gay teen suicide is an alarming problem, the threat of it should never be used for sympathy or publicity. It’s a complex issue that the media, of course, attempts to simplify to make more powerful but thanks for bringing us back at least a little bit to the complexity of it.