Two Documentaries on Bullying Take Different Approaches



I was bullied. From the third-grade boys who twisted my name up until I hated the sound of it, to the sixth-grade girls who wrote the mean notes about my glasses and braces and left them, quite purposely, for me to find, every time we moved when I was young, I found myself marooned in a new school where I felt neither safe nor happy. If I’m honest, I’d still prefer not to talk about it. What kind of kid was I, after all, that so many other children saw me as a target? How uncool can I possibly have been that I took it all so very seriously, when I should have just brushed away what was obviously unimportant?

Over a quarter of a century later, I’m still blaming myself.

That’s one of many things the current movement against bullying intends to change, but in spite of what may seem like an overwhelming onslaught of anti-bullying messages, it’s an uphill battle. How can we reach children who bully because they feel bullied at home (or for a hundred other reasons), their victims and the children around them? What about adults who believe, overtly or secretly, that bullying is either inevitable, or survivable, or not that big a deal?

Two different approaches are on view this week, as the Cartoon Network premieres its first original documentary, “Speak Up,”  at the Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington with Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, while Harvey Weinstein and the makers and fans of the documentary “Bully” fight to change its R rating.

In “Speak Up,” Cartoon Network stars and young sports figures like Matt Wilhelm, a bicycle motocross champion, share stories of being bullied, and add ideas for bystanders who want to do more than stand by.

I talked to Aaron Cheese, one of the young victims who shares his story. Aaron took obvious flak over his name; he was called “fish lips” because of his appearance; he was ignored; he was never a part of things — but now he’s moving past it, and he’s on message: speak up, help one another and we can end bullying. “It lowered my self-esteem,” he said of the taunting.

“It affected my focus. Instead of concentrating on my school work, or learning, I would put a lot more emphasis on whether or not my peers liked me, and what I could do to change myself, to make more friends.” By sharing his story, and his now more positive attitude, Aaron hopes to help other children in his position and maybe reach the taunters as well.

But  — and this isn’t in any way meant to knock Aaron, a charming young man with the courage to put the words that shamed him out in front of the world — anyone who has ever been called “fish lips” or anything like it knows that you don’t walk away worrying about your self-esteem. You hide. You cry. You boil inside with incoherent fury: why? Why would anyone say that, why to me, and how can I make it stop? And, of course, “fish lips” is probably among the more printable of the taunts Aaron suffered. “Speak Up” doesn’t downplay how hard it is to be a victim of bullying, but it can’t, by virtue of its broad target audience and its PG rating, delve too deeply into how ugly, crude, violent and horrible bullying at its worst can be.

“Bully,” the documentary, no matter how it’s ultimately rated, is far more raw. It follows three victims of bullying, and two families of children (Tyler Long, 17, and Ty Smalley, 11) who committed suicide after abuse at the hands of their peers. The bullying it documents (and its aftermath) is hard to watch, even in the trailer, and the frustration of everyone involved (except the bullying children) is palpable. “Bully” reduces many adults to tears (including me), and although I haven’t watched it with an older child or a teenager, I have to believe that it would leave them shaken. Where “Speak Up” believes that change is possible, and even imminent, “Bully” is far less sure.

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