Did 80s Movies Screw Up Our Handling of Bullying?

We watched Daniel get beaten up by big bad Bobby in The Karate Kid.  We saw Biff intimidate Marty McFly (and his dad) in Back to the Future.  We saw a small boy laughed at in Lucas.  The 80s reveled in presenting mean tough guys receiving their comeuppance from the weak underdog.

Most of ours kids’ educators (and this blog’s readers) saw these movies and were influenced by them.  When we use the term bully, the bad guys from 80s movies are the image we see in our heads.  Is it any wonder that the majority of anti-bullying campaigns focus on the caricature of the big bad bully and the poor little victim?

So What is a Bully?

A recent New York Times article shows that this idea that all bullying is the big kids (physically or socially) picking on the little kids has to change.  The article shows that most of the bullying is happening between kids that are close to each other in the ever-changing pecking order.  They are mean and aggressive in order to propel themselves up the ladder of cool.  Name-calling, rumours, exclusion, humiliation, and old-fashioned violence are tools used to advance one’s status at the expense of another.

Phoebe Prince, who killed herself last year, was not a nerdy kid.  She was not ugly.  She was trying to be popular – dating the cool jock.  She suffered because she tried to break into the popular crowd and no-one in that crowd wanted to lose their spot.

This is hard to accept.  The 80s movies taught us how to spot a bully.  The bullies wear uniforms so we can recognize them – the jocks in Heathers always wore their letterman jackets.  This makes it clear to many that the simple solution is to stop those mean kids or tell the targets to “toughen up”.  As with all misguided efforts, this solution fails.  Every time.  But it makes sense that it should work, so hundreds of schools maintain this sort of approach.

The solution to bullying in schools is to activate the student population – turn bystanders into fixers.  I wrote about it at length here if you need to understand why.  The enormous barrier to activating bystanders is that this behaviour is interwoven into the entire social life of students.  A single misstep can drop a kid down the ladder in a heartbeat.  It’s a depressing state of affairs for those trying to make school a more pleasant place for the thousands of kids who skip school every day due to bullying.

Call In The Cool Kids

The bright point of the NYT article is that there is a small group who can help.  The cool kids.  The top 2% on the ladder don’t use aggressive behaviour – they don’t need to because they’re at the top.  In Lucas, Charlie Sheen’s character is so clearly at the top of the ladder of cool that he has no problem hanging out with Lucas.  Those around him lack that luxury and take every opportunity to get out a cutting one-liner or a quick physical abuse.  If these top 2% could be convinced to help the cause, their influence would be enough to change the environment forever.

If you’re a teacher, take the one kid in your classroom that everyone wants to hang out with.  If you’re a principal, gather the top 20.  Explain what’s happening below – people are doing horribly mean things so they can to climb the ladder.  Ask for help.  What’s the worst that could happen?

P.S. If you’re not seeing the similarities between school bullying and workplace bullying, try re-reading from the start.

2 Responses to Did 80s Movies Screw Up Our Handling of Bullying?

  1. Karen February 22, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    I think your point that the bully and the victim are close to each other on the pecking order is critical. We are told that bullies and victims are not friends. Now, they are not good, true friends – that I can agree with. But I think that plenty of bullying occurs between people who “think” they are friends, or are trying to convince themselves that they are friends. The interesting part of your point is that the role of victim or bully can change rapidly, just as the pecking order does.


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