The film has also catapulted a young woman into the national consciousness who doesn't even appear in the film, 17-year-old Katy Butler of Ann Arbor, Michigan. When she learned the film had been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), she started a Change.org petition to lobby them to change their mind. She wrote:
I can’t believe the MPAA is blocking millions of teenagers from seeing a movie that could change -- and, in some cases, save -- their lives. According to the film’s website, over 13 million kids will be bullied this year alone. Think of how many of these kids could benefit from seeing this film, especially if it is shown in schools?The last part is particularly key, as schools will not screen R-rated films.
I had the chance to ask her a few questions Tuesday night:
Q: You've been on a whirlwind, cross-country media tour, and I hear you're taking meetings on Capital Hill, can you tell us about that?Is there hope yet for an overturning of the rating? Producers appealed once, and lost by one vote. There does not appear to be a second appeal procedure, but there are provisions for an executive over ruling. The MPAA maintains its standards are objective, not qualitative. In other words, an objective tally of the F-bombs dropped—ironically from the mouths of children—demand they sequester the film from the ears of teenagers. Producers are standing firm they will not remove the offending language.
It's been crazy. I talked to Mike Honda, and Leader Pelosi and Kirsten Gillibrand. And it was absolutely incredible they are starting a bullying caucus to create an anti-bullying law nationally, which is absolutely incredible. [There are currently not one, but two bills introduced to congress that could help address this issue.]
Q: You've gotten so much attention and had so many adventures, and yet, you really haven't gotten what you really wanted—a change in the films rating? Isn't it a little bittersweet?
Yeah, definitely, I talked with the MPAA. I had a meeting with them in LA. And they really didn't want to change the rating unfortunately. But the publicity for the movie has been great, because it's showing kids, hey, there's this great movie out there and your idols Justin Bieber and Demi Lavato are saying, "Go see this movie." So I think a lot of kids definitely will who wouldn't have before.
Q: Do you think there is a chance the MPAA will still change their mind?
I think so. I mean we have the support of over 30 congressman, we have submitted a petition on Change.org that has almost a half million signatures. That's a lot of pressure, the MPAA is losing a lot of their reputation.
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"I’m stuck. If we change the ruling in this case, I’ll have 10 other filmmakers lined up saying they shouldn’t be given the R. And who are we to say why this film should be different than the others?”Dodd could remember the MPAA is not a representative democracy and, as it answers to no one, can behave as capriciously and arbitrarily as it wishes, as it well-documented doing many times in the past.
The challengers came away unimpressed. Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-MI) lambasted the MPAA in the Los Angeles Times, citing the easy accessibility the MPAA allows teens to violent movies, such as Hunger Games, which also opens this week, and did not get an R.
“The hypocrisy is that the very movies that contribute to violence can be seen by teenagers because they get a PG-13. And the one film that actually teaches them to respect others is given an R.”Hunger Games was a sore point brought up at the screening as well. In it, teenagers are tasked with fighting to the death on national TV. It received the coveted PG-13, apparently because producers were scrupulous about making sure no kids spoke profanity while they committed graphic acts of violence on one another.
David Denby, writing in the New Yorker, explores further that "hypocrisy." He suggests teens like "Katy Butler... who had a finger broken by kids when she was in middle school … may understand better than their elders what actually threatens them."
“How ridiculous and unfair and damaging it is to have a film of this power and importance that is being censored by a rating system that has got simply no rational basis. You can kill kids, you can maim them, you can torture them and still get a ‘PG-13’ rating, but if they say a couple of bad words you blame them."Boies added, "I hope, for heaven's sake, that they find some rational basis before we have to sue them to revise the rating system."
Boies' Prop 8 partner Ted Olsen said, "Do you really want to give them a reason for us not to sue them? We're finding it works pretty well when people sick the two of us on them."
The crowd laughed, and a second, and thunderous round of applause was initiated by none other than famous curmudgeon film producing titan Harvey Weinstein, whose company is distributing the film. Olsen agreed the MPAA's decision was "irrational" and said, "They better shape up, or here we come." The lawsuit threat has caused ripples, including in The Hill, a beltway news outlet.
After the screening, domestic diva Martha Stewart took to Twitter to encourage her followers to sign the Change petition. Anyone familiar with the lore of Stewart, as illustrated by Jerry Oppenheimer's book Just Desserts, or that of Weinstein, as recounted in Peter Biskind's seminal Miramax tome, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film, knows that "sensitive, people management skills" and "building a supportive work environment" are not often cited as the keys to their respective success. And the bombastic Weinstein, whose public feuds are the stuff of Hollywood legends, has publicly acknowledged there is an aspect of personal atonement that has driven him to throw his weight behind this project.
It seemed a bit ironic that Gucci, one of the most prestigious and costly fashion brands in the business, sponsored the screening, given how often kids are picked on for wearing clothes that insufficiently impress their peers. But if Gucci is onboard with telling the world picking on kids is unfashionable, well, that's an unimpeachable source.
But even the luminous and beloved Meryl Streep described being chased up a tree as a child by her "nemesis" and hit with a stick until she bled. "It was very Lord of the flies," she said.
Kelby's mom, Londa Johnson; Alex's dad, Phillip Libby; producer Cynthia Lowen.
What was surprising to me about the film was how much camera time is devoted to the parents, which is very effective choice by Hirsch.
Speaking with Alex's mom afterward, she agreed that often lost in the conversation is sight of the fact that any child being bullied is someone's son or daughter. The framing adds a special resonance to the film, how the hurt emanates, like ripples on a pond. The film provides a window into the parents' endless frustrations and heartbreak. If parents' one aim in life is to see their children happy and to protect them from harm, it's small wonder Alex's mom cries mournfully, "I feel like such a failure, and on Mother's day."
But the failure to protect Alex isn't hers to own, because it isn't for her lack of trying. She has talked to the schools, the police, other parents.
No parents dream their children will be the school punching bag or a social outcast. Their hearts break, as any parent's would. And yet, they seem to be able to find no avenues for relief or reprieve for their children.
In another segment, she encourages two children to shake hands and make up. When the victim is reluctant to shake hands, the principal chastises him. The child tries in vain to explain he can see through the bully's Eddie Haskell act, and he knows he'll just get picked on once again when the principal isn't around. The principal seems unable to comprehend what the child knows instinctively: just shaking hands in front of the principal will not solve his problem.
It's easy to make this story about the specific individuals, but attempts to substantially address this through protocols and systemic procedures are in their infancy. Educators find themselves in the unenviable position of being psychologist, counselor, disciplinarian and even cop. Many or most may not even be aware of what tools and resources are out there to help them better address these situations.
Director Hirsch was quick to caution the crowd that he respected Alex's school's "bravery" to open its doors to his cameras, saying many other schools turned him away. Alex's school may wish it had too.
The film's website includes this empathic passage among its resources for educators:
BULLY reflects many of the challenges faced by all members of the school community, from bus drivers to teachers to administrators, when it comes to handling bullying. Many of us are still learning how to recognize and effectively respond to bullying in school, online and in our communities. Many school faculty members may not be trained to recognize the range of bullying behaviors, others may not feel equipped to effectively intervene. Some may feel that even if they do intervene, they will not be supported by their administrators. They may think their actions won’t make a difference, particularly in schools where bullying is pervasive or the attitude is “it’s just kids being kids.”There are resource links for students and parents as well.
The movement to lower the rating to PG-13 represents more than just an effort to sell tickets, but rather, to ensure more eyes see it. Producers speak of school screenings and envision the film as a component in a grander public education movement. There are accompanying materials like educators' guides to creating safe and engaging school environments.
People tend to object to the idea of legislative solutions because they mistakenly believe the solutions are punitive in nature and unduly harsh. But in truth, the federal government has tremendous power to influence policy and encourage schools to incentivize strategies other than the "kids will be kids" approach. Who is better positioned to look at the big picture than the federal government? Who has a better view of how and where the system has failed our children most egregiously? Who can better compile and redistribute the programs that work and encourage their repetition elsewhere? GLSEN has done a great deal of work on this topic, see Bridging the gap in Federal Law (pdf). Educators and lawmakers alike would do well to avail themselves of the help of these activists and advocates. They have assembled an impressive body of research and recommendations on this topic.
And of course public education is not free, and Congress may need to set aside some money to help schools help themselves.
Recently, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice proved key in initiating big changes in one of the most notorious stories of schools failing kids, the Anoka-Hennepin school district of Minnesota. In the wake of 10 teen suicides in two years, the district found itself on the receiving end of a federal civil rights lawsuit, contending it had failed to provide a safe learning environment. The stories of negligence on the part of the administration that surfaced were hair-raising and what attracted the attention of the DOJ and the DOE. The district settled last month after the DOE concluded substantial negligence on their part.
In the post-settlement news conference, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez called the settlement a "comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform that will enhance the district's policies, training and other efforts to ensure that every student ... is free from sex-based harassment."
Anoka-Hennepin isn't a fluke or an outlier action by the administration. The Obama administration has consistently demonstrated a commitment to affirming the rights of kids to a supportive and safe learning environment. This week, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett appeared with Attorney General Eric Holder at the White House LGBT Conference on Safe Schools and Communities at the University of Texas at Arlington, with over 400 teachers, students, parents, community advocates, law enforcement officers and officials, and elected officials. Describing "historic steps" the administration has taken, she said, "President Obama explained it this way: 'If there’s one goal of this conference, it's to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. It's not.'"
So in closing, I would share one more story from a leader who is here today. Because change doesn’t begin in Washington. Change happens because ordinary people do extraordinary things … people like Tempest Cartwright.I'm guessing a personal "atta-girl!" from the White House will go a long way to empowering Tempest next time her posters get torn down.
Tempest is from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma – she’s 18 years old. When word first got around her high school that she was gay, she lost friends. Some people stopped talking to her at church. Other students called her hurtful words that no young person should ever hear. For a while, Tempest was depressed. But she refused to let bullies ruin her life. As she put it, “Their attitudes and assumptions need to change, not me. If I don’t help that along, who will?
So today, Tempest is the president of her school’s gay-straight alliance – an alliance that has more than quadrupled its membership since she became involved. It’s not easy. In fact, it is hard. When her organization places posters around the school, they often get torn down. But she and other members keep putting them right back up. And every day, bit by bit, she changes the world around her. As she put it, “When people put me down, it inspires me to stand up.”
Well, young people like Tempest should inspire us all to stand up, and keep standing up, for what is right. To stand up for the safety of our children and neighbors. To stand up for the belief that in America, no one should face bullying, harassment, or violence because of who they are, because that’s not who we are.
Since the film wrapped, the subjects seem to have transitioned to better days. The Libby family reports after moving from Iowa to Oklahoma City, Alex has made friends, and the experience of the film itself seems to brought him out of his shell. His mom Jackie says he enjoys a special connection to director Hirsch. In fact, all the families and Butler seemed particularly close. Kelby Johnson ultimately found school an unbearable environment and her family pulled her out, but has since earned a GED. The Smalley family, whose son Tyler killed himself at 11, busy themselves with a grassroots support network they founded, Stand For The Silent to combat bullying and youth suicide. Roger Friedman has written more on the families in Forbes.
Bully opens in select theaters on Friday, March 30.