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Bully

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May 10, 2012

I recently attended a screening of the documentary Bully— a film that tells the story of five young people and families who have been impacted by bullying. I decided to see “Bully” because of the abuse I experienced growing up, which eventually led me to work within the reproductive justice movement. I’ve seen for most of my life how violence, whether it is physical, emotional, or verbal, can have a profound impact on quality of life. Due to the nature of bullying and the power dynamics involved, victims are often limited in the decisions they can make regarding their own bodies. “Bully” does a great job illustrating these points and lends itself to a larger conversation about how bodies that are “different” are policed and controlled in society today.

Over the past year, the issue of bullying has been catapulted onto the agenda of school officials and legislatures with some highly publicized teen suicides— particularly of young people who identified as queer. One of the students portrayed in the film, Kelby, a 16 year old from Oklahoma, talked about how she was bullied and ostracized by students, faculty and neighbors in her conservative, Christian community after she came out as lesbian. Studies have now been released saying that young people who experience LGBTQ-related bullying are over five times more likely to attempt suicide and over twice as likely to experience depression; but that’s not really surprising right? How is anyone supposed to live a happy, healthy life when combating messages that they are worthless and invaluable?

The thing is, Kelby isn’t just hearing these messages from her community. She’s also hearing it from the media, her religion, and other institutions that place specific gendered expectations on her. Kelby’s story really drives home the need for comprehensive sex education and discussions about gender and sexual orientation to be taught in schools. Although the film doesn’t touch on this, a lot of the fear and anger associated with homophobia is directly linked to the fact that there are certain behaviors that are encouraged in this society and others that are not. In Kelby’s case, she wasn’t acting like a good, Christian girl “should” by looking feminine and dating boys so she was punished by being bullied.

In addition to Kelby, the film also focuses on a 12 year old boy from Iowa named Alex who experienced bullying because he looked and acted “weird.” It was absolutely heartbreaking to see Alex being told, with such conviction, that if he simply tried talking to one of his peers again then that boy would “end him.” And then see Alex laugh it off… just another threat from another boy on another day. As the film follows Alex and documents the bullying that had become a usual part of his everyday life, I couldn’t help but notice that the same victim blaming language used towards him mirrors the rhetoric used against victims of sexual assault. Time and time again Alex is told “you need to stop them from bullying you” and that if he had just “said something sooner” this wouldn’t be happening to him. The reality of the situation is that none of what Alex experienced was his fault and regardless of when or how many times Alex reported it, the school system, bus driver, and police still failed to help him. When Alex’s parents met with the superintendent about the brutal violence Alex faced on the bus, it results in the bullies getting a slap on the wrist and Alex getting removed from his bus. Alex and his parents are then left with the responsibility of preventing him from being bullied and the perpetrators are never held accountable for their actions. We see the exact same thing happen all the time with victims of sexual assault – campuses and the judicial system fail to provide support and justice for victims.

It was absolutely heartbreaking to see the turmoil and violence these teenagers (and preteens) had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. As I was reminded of the hopelessness and sadness I felt growing up, I was also inspired to talk about this issue as it pertains to reproductive justice. If you weren’t already outraged by bullying stories you’ve heard or read, then you will be by the time you finish the film.

Raquel Ortega
Choice USA Field Associate

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