Is a Documentary About Bullying Inappropriate for Kids?

Illustration for article titled Is a Documentary About Bullying Inappropriate for Kids?

The movie Bully was (at least according to its distributors) intended to start conversations among teens about bullying and its consequences. But now that it's rated R, many teens might not get to see it. And so begins a weird power struggle over a film that was supposed to be uplifting.

Here's what happened: Bully, a documentary about real kids and real bullying, got an R rating from the MPAA for language. In a statement, MPAA spokesperson Joan Graves said,

The rating and rating descriptor of ‘some language,' indicate to parents that this movie contains certain language. With that, some parents may choose to take their kids to this movie and others may not, but it is their choice and not ours to make for them. The R rating is not a judgment on the value of any movie. The rating simply conveys to parents that a film has elements strong enough to require careful consideration before allowing their children to view it.


Bully distributor Harvey Weinstein then flounced off in a huff, threatening to take "a leave of absence from the MPAA for the foreseeable future." But Deadline Hollywood says he's not actually a member of the MPAA, so his "leave of absence" would just mean releasing his movies unrated. And now the National Association of Theatre Owners (confusing acronym: NATO) says that if Weinstein does release Bully without a rating, it will tell theater owners to treat the movie like it's rated NC-17, meaning no kids would be admitted at all, even with a parent. This seems like a dick move, but NATO president John Fithian swears he's just thinking of the children (and their parents):

Surveys of America's parents reflect their very strong concern with the use of harsh language in movies. The vast majority of parents surveyed have indicated that the type of language used in "Bully" should receive an automatic "R" rating. You ask us to ignore the preferences of America's parents and our own ratings rules because of the merit of this movie. Yet were the MPAA and NATO to waive the ratings rules whenever we believed that a particular movie had merit, or was somehow more important than other movies, we would no longer be neutral parties applying consistent standards, but rather censors of content based on personal mores.

Of course, the MPAA's been criticized in the past for applying quite inconsistent standards, including giving an NC-17 rating to another indie film distributed by Weinstein, while a similar Warner Bros. movie got an R. It is the MPAA's job to give parents advice — but at the same time, it seems a little futile to try to shelter kids from the language that actual bullies are using against their actual peers. The point of the movie is that this is the kind of shit lots of kids go through daily. A Michigan high school student has started a petition to change the film's rating — says one commenter on the petition,

I wish I'd been able to see a film like this when I was in the 8th grade & being bullied. It is important for kids who are bullied to understand that they're not alone. And it's important for the bullies to see how wrong & destructive bullying is — to everyone. It diminishes the bullies & endangers the victims. This film should be shown in all middle and high schools. It can save lives.


What's really sad about the movie Bully — and the MPAA and NATO's reaction — is it's unlikely to show kids anything they haven't already seen.

NATO Threatens Weinstein Co With NC-17 Rating For ‘Bully' [Deadline Hollywood]
MPAA Responds After Weinstein Threatens ‘Leave Of Absence' From Ratings System [Deadline Hollywood]
MPAA: Don't let the bullies win! Give ‘Bully' a PG-13 instead of an R rating! [Change]

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The MPAA is terrible. It's sexist and homophobic, has weird hangups, is oddly tolerant of violence, and on the other side of things, encourages animated movies to be more raunchy than their stories require. And it's silly that the actual language used by teenagers isn't appropriate for other teenagers to hear. We should find a different way to rate movies.

That being said, I don't really think this will stop many teens from seeing Bully. Let's be real here. It's a documentary. The kind of kid who voluntarily goes to see a documentary on bullying won't have too much trouble finding an adult to take along, and if it's shown in schools, they can get permission slips like they do with Schindler's List.