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New Movie on Bullying is Thwarted by an R Rating

Updated on March 28, 2012

The prevalence of bullying

Bullying has always been a problem for school children and in recent years it only seems to have gotten worse. Bullying is currently the most prevalent type of violence encountered by students in the U. S. today. The Department of Education estimates that 13 million children in the U. S will experience bullying this year. One filmmaker decided to do something about it.

Filmmaker Lee Hirsch was bullied violently and continually beaten up when he was in elementary and middle school. At the time, his father who had fought in World War II told him he just needed to toughen up. Coming from this background gave Hirsch the impetus to produce a film about bullying appropriately entitled Bully. Hirsch wrote the script and also directed and produced the film.

Bully director Lee Hirsch experienced much bullying in his youth
Bully director Lee Hirsch experienced much bullying in his youth


More recently, Jackie and Philip Libby’s son Alex was experiencing bullying at school especially on the bus but was too embarrassed to tell anybody about it. His parents noticed a decline in his school work, withdrawal from many activities, and thought he was just being irresponsible when he kept missing the school bus. They had him in therapy but it didn’t seem to be helping any. When Hirsch approached them with the idea of following their son around to film what was happening to him every day, they agreed.

Alex is the main character in the film. He was just beginning seventh grade—his first year of middle school—when the filming began, though he was no stranger to bullying before he started at the middle school. He had also been bullied throughout elementary school.

The documentary follows the lives of a total of five kids and their families over the 2009-2010 school year to reveal how bullying affected their lives. The five stories represent different facets of bullying across the different lines of race, class and geographic location. Since it is based on the true experiences of real people, it provides a very realistic picture of this troublesome social issue.

Alex Libby's bullying experiences were filmed throughout the 2009-2010 school year
Alex Libby's bullying experiences were filmed throughout the 2009-2010 school year


Hirsch did most of the filming himself. He embedded himself at Alex’ school the entire school year in order to obtain live footage of real bullying incidents. Amazingly, despite the presence of the camera on the school bus, Alex’ harassers brazenly held back nothing. They had no fear of consequences since they had been permitted to get away with it for so long.

The film is due to be released on Friday, March 30, 2012. See the trailer and more information about the movie at www.theBullyProject.com. This website also has an abundance of outstanding resources for students, parents and educators to help deal with bullying.

Many bullying incidences occur on the school buses
Many bullying incidences occur on the school buses

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has given the movie an R rating due to the language use in the film, particularly the F-bomb which is used frequently. An R rating means children under 17 cannot see the movie without being accompanied by their parents.

Much pressure is being put on the MPAA to change the rating to PG-13. Many parents, educators, and others are protesting the rating saying much of the audience (kids) who most need to see the film will not be allowed to see it. Celebrities are also becoming increasingly vocal about it. Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees are among those who are making their voices heard.

A 17-year-old high school junior from Ann Arbor, Michigan name Katy Butler, who was bullied in middle school after coming out as a lesbian, started an online petition. She was able to collect 200,000 signatures and went in person to the MPAA offices to deliver them. So far the MPAA has refused to change the rating.

Katy Butler, who has experienced much bullying, started an online petition to get the R rating changed
Katy Butler, who has experienced much bullying, started an online petition to get the R rating changed

Butler was asked her opinion about the possibility of removing the offensive language in the film in order to obtain a lower rating. She said the strength of the message would be undermined because it is the exact language that kids being bullied are hearing at school.

Since then, her petition count has increase to almost 500,000. If you would like your voice heard on this issue, you can sign the petition at www.Change.org. As one signee noted, “Why is it that a violent movie can get a PG-13 rating, but a movie aimed at curbing violence gets an R?”

In an interview with CBS, the filmmaker Lee Hirsch said the rating should be changed because the movie was made for kids and belongs to them. He pointed out that many kids have said their parents would never take them to see the movie because they are either too busy or would rather see high action film.

Harvey Weinstein of the The Weinstein Company who is distributing the Bully documentary appealed the MPAA to change the R rating without success
Harvey Weinstein of the The Weinstein Company who is distributing the Bully documentary appealed the MPAA to change the R rating without success

Hirsch has declined requests to tone down the language in the movie and insists the language is essential to portraying the bullying incidences realistically. He said one of the purposes of the film is to help viewers understand what it is like to walk in the shoes of the kids who are experiencing the bullying.

The film’s distributor, The Weinstein Company appealed to the MPAA Rating Appeals Board, but on February 23, 2012 the appeal was rejected. Apparently, the majority of the board members agreed with Weinstein, but they lacked one vote to attain the two-thirds required to overturn the R rating.

There is talk now of releasing the movie without a rating. If the film is released without a rating, it could also limit its exposure. Many theaters will not show unrated films and many newspapers will not advertise it.

In retaliation, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) has threatened the Weinstein Co. that it will urge member theatres to treat Bully as an NC-17 movie if it is released unrated. This means absolutely no one under 18 can be admitted to the movie.

In a letter to Weinstein, NATO cautioned that surveys of parents have indicated that most are highly concerned about the use of offensive language in films. They also suggested that if NATO disregarded MPAA guidelines every time a “worthy” film came out, the ratings rules would end up being meaningless (Some argue that the ratings are meaningless anyway with the degree of violence found in PG-13 movies).

On a positive note, some have noted that an R-rated movie actually attracts more adolescent viewers than a PG-13 rating does. And once the movie is out in DVD, the MPAA has little control over who views it anyway. In addition, the media frenzy that has resulted from the ratings controversy has done much to raise awareness of and provide exposure for the film.

Tyler Long hung himself after experiencing years of bullying
Tyler Long hung himself after experiencing years of bullying

Ironically, several provinces in Canada have agreed to give Bully a PG rating. Canada’s movie ratings are set by each individual province instead by of one board like the MPAA. Perhaps schools in the U. S. will have to consider busing their students to Canada to see the movie.

Meanwhile, the Libbys moved to a new area to give Alex a new start. He is now in a school where he has found friends and is treated with respect. He is doing much better and getting good grades.

Not all of the other families have been so fortunate. Tyler Long’s story is also depicted in the Bully film. Tyler Long hung himself in 2009 at age 17 after years of bullying and suggestions that he hang himself. After, he died, kids came to school mocking him by bring rope tied into a noose to school.

Tyler Long's family: mom Tina, siblings Troy and Teryn, dad David
Tyler Long's family: mom Tina, siblings Troy and Teryn, dad David

Both Alex and Tyler suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger is a mild form of autism and those who have it usually have difficulty with social skills and making friends. Individuals with autism have very high rates of peer rejection to begin with and when bullying is added to the mix, life can become intolerable to both the student and his parents. A survey of parents of children with autism found that 88% have been bullied to some degree.

Children with disabilities in general are frequent targets of bullies. One study found that 60% of students with disabilities compared to 25% in the general population have been bullied. Of 10 studies done on bullying and disabilities, all 10 found that students with disabilities were 2 to 3 times more likely to be bullied than students without disabilities.

Whether or not the rating is changed, the film is still expected to make a significant impact in educating the public about bullying and hopefully in decreasing the incidences of bullying that occur.

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