One of my great pet peeves is when people treat complicated issues – moral, political, spiritual – as black-and-white, me-vs.you arguments. They take a side, dammit, and scream across the fence at those hollering back. This childlike stubbornness is the primary reason why I find the political landscape so abhorrent; moderation is considered a weakness, failure to take a stand, and issues are boiled down to their most basic and digestible parts. But real life is shaded, intricate, and as reasonable adults in a free(ish) society, it’s our job to consider the context, rather than just wishing it away.
So let’s talk about the MPAA’s film ratings system.
I’m not trying to take a sarcastic left turn here. I’ve never been much of a fan of this ratings system; sure, it nobly tries to give parents the information they need to keep questionable content away from their children, which is a service that provides real value. But in placing moral codes on the work (art, I’ll say it) of others, the MPAA also plays a huge role in actually determining what audiences can and cannot see. (For example, most theater chains refuse to show an NC-17-rated film. If you wanted to see Shame and didn’t live near an arthouse, enjoy the six-month wait for a DVD release.)
But even more frustrating is the arbitrary nature of the ratings. Say “fuck” more than once and you’re guaranteed an “R” rating, no matter the context. Show “graphic” sex (define “graphic,” by the way) and you’re in real trouble. A bloody battle scene should be fine, though. Heads can roll in a PG-13. (For the sake of brevity – and ironically, I admit – I’m simplifying, and these are my own opinions, but for a more in-depth – though occasionally over-the-top – breakdown of the secretive and often infuriating ratings process, check out the doc This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which is streaming on Netflix.)
It’s an absurd prioritization in which violence is preferable to sex and foul language, which is a terrible and inaccurate reflection of the human experience.
Which brings me to the film Bully. A documentary that follows several bullied youths (and families that lost children to bullying-related suicides), Bully received an “R” from the MPAA for the sin of showing real kids speaking to each other the way they do in those gaps between adult supervision: in the salty, show-off way that they think grown-ups talk, less Disney Channel than Showtime. Because that’s the way kids speak. Everyone, even the “good” kids. You spend your adolescence wishing you were already an adult, and that’s an outward manifestation. (Remember?)
But an “R” rating means that these same adolescents can’t see Bully, which is desperately sad. Every teenager, every parent needs to see Bully. Every single one.
I saw it last year, when it was still called The Bully Project, and the film absolutely broke my heart. I was touched by the grief of those who lost a child to bullying, but on a most basic level, I understood the kids who were struggling to stay above water. We’ve all been there; if you weren’t bullied in school, you certainly saw it. The film was easier to see from the other side, with the extra fifteen years of life behind you (and I hoped that the roaring ovation that the audience gave to the film’s subjects, who were in attendance, conveyed that: Thank you for sharing your story, and please know that this won’t always be your life).
But this movie’s not primarily for me. It’s for the teenage bullies, who need to know the daily hell their victims face, and the even more grievous pain of a family’s loss; they need to know that their actions can have unspeakable consequences. And it’s for the bullied, who need to know that they’re not alone; someone is watching, and trying to make sure they don’t have to suffer anymore.
But Bully won’t get to many teenagers, not in theaters or in schools (where the producers most want to see the film screened). Despite the impassioned plea of Alex Libby, one of the film’s subjects, the MPAA rejected an appeal to lower its rating due to “some language.” The decision has caused widespread outrage, and the studio behind the film, the Weinstein Company, is now discussing releasing the film without a rating at all. Meanwhile, an online petition asking the MPAA to reconsider has gained nearly 200,000 signatures (as of this post), and it’s worth noting that the petition was authored by a teenager who shared her history of being bullied, and wants this movie seen.
Full disclosure: I signed it. As I said, I want every teenager to see this movie. And if you’re a parent who doesn’t want your kids exposed to the language in the film, then that’s fair; it’s your decision. But my hunch is that they’ll get a lot more from Bully than the curse words. Most people do.
It’s all about the context.
*Update: I’ve been asked when the film opens, and according to the film’s website, it opens in “select theaters” (read: New York and Los Angeles) on March 30th. I’m not sure when it opens in wide release – and where it opens may depend on how successfully the studio and filmmakers are able to lobby the MPAA to get a PG-13 rating – but I’ll try to keep you posted, folks!