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The bullying of ‘Bully,’ and other musings on screen violence

And so, the war over The Weinstein Company’s provocative documentary, Bully, ends – to use an exhausted cliché – not with a bang, but with a whimper.  Since its release at the end of March, the doc has grossed approximately $3 million; not bad for a reality piece, and, measured against the flick’s $1.1 million budget, it means TWC will go home with some money in its pocket.  But considering the thundering opening bombardments which accompanied the film’s debut, it’s hard not to look at that sum as a bit of a disappointment.   After all, Disney’s warm and cuddly and topically irrelevant doc Chimpanzee, released almost three weeks later to a lot less fuss, has earned over $27 million.

Undoubtedly, there are going to be those who think Bully was hobbled at the box office by its nasty run-in with the MPAA.  But I keep looking at Bully’s $3 mil, and Chimpanzee’s $27 mil, and I have to wonder if it’s that simple.

What happened to Bully with the MPAA, and what happened to the doc at the box office raises more questions than the Bully-highlighted one about how bad a ratings system the MPAA system is (pretty bad).

But, for those of you who’ve come late to the party and are wondering how all the furniture wound up in a bonfire in the middle of the living room, let’s recap…


Bully, directed by Sundance and Emmy-winner Lee Hirsch, and co-written by Hirsch with Cynthia Love, follows five young people through a school year in a powerful, compassionate portrait of the psychological wounds and physical damage wrought by bullying.  Suicide, paralyzing fear, depression…everything you’ve ever heard about the emotional cost of bullying is here.

The reviews were overwhelmingly positive.  According to Rotten Tomatoes, 87% of all critics – and a stellar 97% of top critics – praised the film.  From The Denver Post – “…smart and compassionate…”; “…deeply moving,” according to Newsday; and, from Entertainment Weekly, “…an urgent and moral movie…”

Celebs like Anderson Cooper, Kelly Ripa, and “Dr. Phil” McGraw took up the cause of the doc, declaring it a therapeutic must-see.

The film was prescreened for the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association in Washington.  Afterward, Randi Weingarten, AFT president, declared Bully, “…devastating and compelling and it needs to be seen.”  Local AFT affiliates around the country held screenings of the film for their members, while other affiliates encouraged members to see it.

The Weinstein Company’s Harvey Weinstein was especially keen on getting the movie seen by the young audience the film, in effect, is about.  For Weinstein, that meant showing the film in schools.  At least, that was his plan.

And then the MPAA slapped the movie with an R.

Now, mind you, there’s no nudity or sexual content in the film.  There’s no gore or graphic violence.  What the movie does have are teens using the kind of language teens routinely use.  Yeah, we’re talking about the F-word.  The MPAA didn’t like how many times it was getting thrown around.

What movies this year didn’t get an R?  Well, The Hunger Games, for oneThat just had kids killing kids in a gladiatorial hunt for the entertainment of a TV home audience.  But none of the killing or dying kids said, “Aw, fuck, that hurts!” so it was ok.  Games got a PG-13.

But bullied kids, fully clothed and not shooting anybody, speaking the ways kids in schoolyards across the country speak, in a film about one of the most relevant youth issues of the day, endorsed by the country’s two biggest teachers’ unions…  That got an R.

The ever-combative, bombastic, master showman Harvey Weinstein not only found himself with a promotable, ink-generating contest in the MPAA’s rating, but a legit cause as well.  This was a movie kids needed to see, and the MPAA’s R was getting in the way of that.  Weinstein appealed the rating…and lost, though, in the process, he managed to get damned near every reviewer in the country writing about his fighting the good fight.  Consequently, he chose to release the film unrated, although all that free press didn’t help the film much.  Many theaters won’t touch an unrated film, and others treat it as the equivalent of an R or even NC-17 rating.  In limited release, the movie opened unimpressively, and even after it stepped up to a wider distribution platform, quickly plateaued.

Owen Gleiberman, in his Entertainment Weekly review of Bully, summed up the net result in words which – more or less – were echoed in newspaper and online and magazine stories about Bully across the country:  “…the very audience that Bully was made for still might have a hard time getting near it.”

For a few weeks there in March and April, Bully and its R was something of a cause célèbre in the film community.  Reviews became as much indictments of the MPAA as they were about whether or not the film was any good.

And then, as sometimes happens with cause celebres, the issue seemed to fizz away.  Maybe it was that unimpressive $3 million gross.  Maybe it was because everybody preferred talking about The Avengers.

Personally – and I know I’m in a minority here – I didn’t have a problem with Bully’s R.  Oh, I didn’t think for a moment the film deserved it, and I think the MPAA’s rationale for it was as lame as the rationales for their other regularly-issued WTF ratings,  but I actually thought it wasn’t a bad thing for parents and kids to be made to see this doc together.  Kids already know what the horror show at school is like; they live it every day.  Parents don’t.  It would’ve been nice for a mom and dad and their kid to come out of Bully with the parents asking, “Anything like this ever happen to you?”  Or, better, “If I ever hear you’ve been treating another kid like that, I’m gonna show you what bullying really is!”

But I digress.

I’ve got nothing to add to what a lot of writers with more impressive pedigrees than I do have already said about the MPAA and that insane R-rating and their whole fucked-up (oops!  Sorry, MPAA – screwed-up) system since Bully’s release.  Suffice to say I agree it’s a horrible, capricious, often absurd system; I deplore the MPAA’s lack of transparency in how it does what it does and why; and I remain completely at a loss to understand its defensive obstinacy in ever acknowledging that maybe – just maybe – there’s always room in the system for a little improvement, nor do I understand their acting like admitting their system might not be the be-all/end-all they want it to be is some kind of crucifiable heresy.

For me, the whole mess raises a larger issue, one even going beyond how you create a ratings system which can serve the contradictory, paradoxical, whimsical, and erratic views of an audience as contradictory, paradoxical, whimsical and erratic one as the American masses.  For me, the issue is that contradictory, paradoxical, whimsical and erratic mass audience.

But before we get to that, one more digression…


Saying that young people should see the movie, and that a lesser rating could have made it easier for them to see it, is far from saying they would have plunked down money to see Bully if it just hadn’t been for that obstructing RI don’t think Bully would’ve done any better at the box office if it had been rated G, presented in 3-D, and had a two-burgers-for-the-price-of-one tie-in with McDonald’s.  The legion of reviewers sharing the opinion that the only thing keeping kids from seeing Bully was that nasty R had to have been either painfully optimistic, or unbelievably naïve.

I’m going to go out on what I consider a fairly firm limb and say, I don’t think the problem was that R.  I’ll even crawl out there a little further and say if you were sitting in the audience over the last few months for R-rated fare like Underworld Awakening ($62 million domestic gross), American Reunion ($56 mil), and The Cabin in the Woods ($40.5 mil), and peered into the dark around you, I’m pretty sure you’d find not everybody in the house was 17 and over.

Parents didn’t have any trouble dragging their kids off to watch monkeys snuggle in Chimpanzee, but going by the unimpressive earnings of Bully, they didn’t seem any more moved than their kids to find out what might be going on in their schools…maybe with their own kids.

There’s a lot of things young people – and their parents – should and could do.  They should put their Wiis down, get off the couch and go for a walk together, eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, follow the news, not throw gum wrappers on the ground, crack a book every great once in a while, and make it one that doesn’t involve gushy vampires or zombies and the people who love to kill them.

But they don’t.

Kids slept out on sidewalks to get early tickets for The Hunger Games which shows how far they’ll go to see what they want to seeShort of being hauled off to see Bully by their parents – who evidently didn’t want to see it either – they weren’t going to sit through a shocking, disturbing, and ultimately depressing slice of real life; their real life.  Harvey Weinstein was right to want to get the movie into schools:  that may have been the only way to get it in front of the kids who most needed to see it.

The Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris had written, in his review of Bully, that what the movie needed was “…a young audience open to sharing in that shame.”  That, as it happened, turned out to be a bigger obstacle than the MPAA’s R; there was no such willing young audience, at least not in any significant numbers.  Maybe it was shame, maybe denial, maybe an understandable unwillingness to revisit that which was already acutely painful, maybe it was disinterest.  Possibly, probably, it was a mix of them all.  In any case, it was reviewers and Harvey Weinstein squawking about that R; not the kids.

But, as I said, again I digress.


As bad as the MPAA rating system is – and it is – the bigger problem is the constituency it aims to serve.  “(What’s) fundamentally broken about the MPAA,” wrote Owen Gleiberman in his Entertainment Weekly piece, “isn’t the system so much as the thinking behind the judgments…(They) may be a reflection of ‘American values,’ but that does not make it right.”

The MPAA does reflect American values…and that’s the problem.

I spent the lion’s share of my 27 years with Home Box Office dealing, in one way or another, at one level or another, with the company’s subscribers:  taking their comments, tracking and breaking them down, strategizing responses.  Over the years, we’re literally talking about tens of thousands of subscriber comments.

One which still stands out from that mass was a call-in complaint from a polite gentleman telling me how he’d left his 12-year-old son watching HBO for a moment while he went into the kitchen, then was shocked on his return to see his son watching some naked woman on the service.  This, in prime time on a Friday night!  Mind you, he pointed out, he was a guy he scrupulously used HBO’s content advisories to plan his viewing, and there was nothing in the HBO Program Guide (we still used a printed guide in those days) warning of nudity in the show.

I told him I’d get back to him and started doing some homework.  From the time his son was watching, I determined the show he’d seen had been an encore airing of our then hit series, Tales from the Crypt, a bit of over-the-top Grand Guignol leavened by heavy doses of camp.  The Guide had a number of advisories along the lines of Graphic Violence, Adult Content, etc.  But nothing about nudity.

I checked with the Guide department and they told me they listed advisories in accordance with information provided them by Programming.  I checked with Programming.

According to Programming, what the boy had seen was, literally, a handful of frames of a woman’s breast; less than a half-second of screen time.  They hadn’t flagged the Guide guys on it because they felt that with warnings about violence and adult content etc., an almost subliminal flash of a woman’s breast would be covered.  The working assumption – and I agreed – was that because of the gore quotient alone, a supervising parent wouldn’t be letting their 12-year-old spend the evening with Tales from the Crypt. At least that was our thinking.

When I called the gentleman back to tell him what the story was, our thinking apparently wasn’t his thinking.  He was divorced, a single father, and when his son was with him, it was something of a bonding experience to enjoy the show and its blood-drenched, body-maiming tales of the grotesque together.

In other words, it was ok to watch people get killed in any number of macabre ways (for some reason, I can never forget the episode where Steven Webber has his ear torn off and chomped on like a tasty hors d’oeuvres at a ghoul dining party before the gathered ghouls swarm over him for the main course), but a few microseconds of a woman’s breast…that was verboten.

The Sopranos offered up a parade of similar head-spinning moments throughout its run.  Tony Soprano could be a murderer, a thief, a philanderer, a drug abuser, a ruthless schemer, extortionist et al (in fact, one of the most common complaints we received about the show was “Not enough people are getting whacked!”), but did he have to use the Lord’s name in vain?  Or be racist?  The killing and all that wasn’t offensive; saying “Goddammit” was.

As Gleiberman writes, the MPAA has always been – for whatever reason – more comfortable with even brutal violence, but not sex, and even more tolerant if the violence comes in a big budget flick by an upscale filmmaker.  Anybody remember Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)?  A crazed Indian high priest pulled the living hearts out of his enslaved victims, but it was Steven Spielberg:  PG.  That same year, the first The Nightmare on Elm Street was released…with, natch, an R.  That was also the year The Pope of Greenwich Village hit theaters; a movie about street level wiseguys.  No nudity, the little violence wasn’t particularly strong (certainly nothing on the order of some poor panic-stricken slave watching his beating heart yanked out), but the boys did say “Fuck” a lot:  R.

George R. R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones novels which have been turned into a hit HBO series, spoke with Rolling Stone in a recent interview about the sex v violence double standard:

“It’s a uniquely American prudishness.  You can write the most detailed, vivid description of an ax entering a skull, and nobody will say a word in protest.  But if you write a similarly detailed description of a penis entering a vagina, you get letters from people saying they’ll never read you again.  What the hell?  Penises entering vaginas bring a lot more joy into the world than axes entering skulls.”

There was probably no clearer demonstration of the screwed-uppedness of the adult American moviegoer (and that’s really who the MPAA is designed to appease), then the enthusiastic response to Mel Gibson’s 2004 combination cinematic prayer/bloodfest, The Passion of the Christ.

Passion set out in painfully accurate, graphic detail the grisly punishments – flaying, the crown of thorns, etc. — inflicted by the Romans on Jesus leading up to and including his crucifixion.  Although the film was rated R, tens of thousands of the devout faithful bought tickets and brought their children along with them, too.  People who would never have thought of going to other R-rated flicks that year – Kill Bill:  Vol. 2, Dawn of the Dead, Blade:  Trinity, and Saw – let alone letting their children see them, had no problem trotting down to the multiplex as a family, sometimes as part of a church group, to watch a human being tortured and murdered in hideous fashion.  But, it was ok:  see, it was about Jesus.

Stephen King wrote a memorable, heart-tugging piece for Entertainment Weekly after witnessing the reaction of an eight-year-old girl brought to the movie by her mother.  King overheard the mother tell a friend that the theater manager had warned her the violence might be too much for her kids (she also had two boys with her younger than their sister).  Her response had been “…if it gets too bloody, they can just close their eyes.”

King kept glancing over at the little girl throughout the movie:

“She did okay until the scourging of Christ.  Then she did indeed close her eyes, and buried her face against her mother’s side.  The little body inside the blue dress was all angles, an exclamation mark of horror…(she) hid her face for 15 minutes, but that left another 50 minutes of punishment, torture, cruelty, and death still to go…50 minutes is a long time to hide your eyes when you’re only eight.  So after a while, you see, our sweet little girl stopped doing it.”

Passion went on to earn $370.2 million domestic, making it the #3 movie of 2004 behind Shrek 2 and Spider-Man 2, and one of the top-grossing independently-produced flicks of all time.

Now compare that to the response of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).  The emotional climax of the film comes during Christ’s crucifixion (not nearly as blood-drenched as Gibson’s version) when he ponders what life might have been like if he had turned his back on his role as Messiah and followed a mortal path including the physical pleasure of loving a woman.  But that’s the last temptation Chris does not fall for, and he ultimately accepts his role and his death in fulfilling the prophesies of scripture.

For that movie, the church groups also came out – in protest.  They marched in front of theaters, they wrote letters and signed petitions, and they did it all over again when the movie appeared on pay-TV 12 months later.

Evidently, the Christian church’s opinion is not only is it ok to watch Jesus tortured and murdered in appalling detail, but, hey, bring the kids; it’s as good as going to church.  But Jesus fantasizing about sleeping with Mary Magdalene?  For that, you go to hell.

All that in mind, there are times I almost (not quite, but almost) feel sorry for the MPAA.  The intent of the system to begin with– as with the Hays office and the studio-era Production Code which were its antecedents — was to keep an easily, often arbitrarily offended public off the industry’s back and forestall any public call for government regulation of filmed content (such as the FCC does for broadcast TV).  Owen Gleiberman is right that the MPAA reflects American values, but he’s wrong when he says “…that does not make it right.”

The MPAA system was not set up to make the “right” calls; those public cohorts which do the most screaming about offensive content don’t want the MPAA to make the “right” calls.  That was never the MPAA system’s job.  It was not created to serve the film industry; it was created to appease those sections of the public that do the kind of yelling and screaming that makes movie studios and exhibitors nervous, and provides blood in the water for public officials looking for a cause to use to troll for votes.  The MPAA is expected and designed to do just what it does:  make the kind of half-assed, hypocritical, double-standardized, judgments it does.

To steal and badly paraphrase a line from Shakespeare, the fault lies not with our ratings systems, but with ourselves.

Bill Mesce