Blog: The Educated Reporter

`Bully’ Documentary Rating: What Happens in Schools Is Too Much for the Multiplex

A critically acclaimed new documentary about students struggling with bullying will likely see its audience curtailed after its producers decided to release the film unrated, rather than accept an R rating.

“Bully,” which opens in select theaters Friday, earned the R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America for “offensive” language, rather than any scenes of violence or inappropriate behavior. Filmmaker Lee Hirsch told the Associated Press he opted not to sanitize the language because “it’s what the children who are victims of bullying face on most days.”

The documentary, which follows the lives of five students and their families impacted by bullying, has been described by film critics as “a call to action,”  “brave,” and “effective.”

The Weinstein Co., which is distributing “Bully,” unsuccessfully appealed the R rating. Films without ratings typically have an uphill battle to get screen time in mainstream megaplexes. (You know — where exactly the kind of audience who should see this film might actually get an opportunity to do so.)

That’s troubling to Valerie Strauss, who writes the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet education blog.

“The [R] rating is intended to send a message to parents that the film has strong content that they should review, but, as it turns out, it’s not really the violent and painful themes that are at issue,” Strauss wrote. “It’s ‘bad’ language — you know, a word that we can’t publish but that kids and their parents say every day.”

The conservative-leaning Parents Television Council had another view on the controversy, issuing a statement that “either ratings mean something, or they don’t. The MPAA’s job is not to make subjective judgments about the merit of a film or the importance of the film’s message. The MPAA’s sole task is to take an objective measure of the adult content in a film, and apply the appropriate rating.”

Without a kid-friendly rating, schools will be less eager to schedule field trips to see the documentary, and it will be more difficult to show it in classrooms once the DVD is released. Ironically, those are problems “The Hunger Games” has largely avoided with its PG-13 rating, despite relatively graphic depictions of children fighting to the death.

Two big-name theater chains are taking opposing tacks on the controversy. Underage viewers will be able to see “Bully” at their local AMC theater provided they are accompanied by an adult or bring along one of the company’s permission slips. However, Cinemark, which is the nation’s third largest theater chain with 239 locations in 39 states, has opted not to add the documentary to its lineup.

The documentary’s production team launched an aggressive social media campaign to promote the film and respond to the ratings controversy, and the “Bully” Facebook page has over 56,000 fans. Katy Butler, a 17-year-old high school student from Ann Arbor, Mich. who says she was bullied in middle school for being openly gay, started an online campaign to get the R rating lifted. Her petition has collected more than a half-million signatures.

“When I saw this movie I thought it had such a wonderful message and could be such a great tool to change the climate of bullying in the United States,” Butler said during an appearance on Anderson Cooper’s daytime talk show.

The R rating is “horrible,” Butler said, “because it’s taking the movie away from the target audience, which is the middle and high school kids who hear this language and use this language every day.”

Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, told me she doesn’t believe “Bully” warrants a more restrictive rating.

“It’s true that as an unrated film, fewer people will see it, but having an R rating limits the audience as well,” said Englander, who coordinates bullying awareness and prevention training for educators, students and parents. “It’s not a case of good and bad; it’s a case of bad or worse. I think that children could benefit from the film and as a parent I wouldn’t be particularly distressed by the language used – it is realistic, which is the point, after all.”


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