The controversial R-rating of Bully has provoked a lot of discussion on whether (and if so how) to reform the movie rating system. I think the biggest issue here is not what Bully is rated or whether the rating system should be changed but how the Weinstein Company has done some morally despicable acts to achieve it—and getting away with it.
For those unfamiliar with the background of the story, Bully is a documentary on youth bullying. It shows the lives of several children who live in misery because of unfair and malicious treatment by their peers. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rated it “R” because it has six f-words. The movies distributor—the Weinstein Company--appealed, lost, and then sued (and lost again), arguing for a PG-13 rating instead. It eventually released two versions of the film—one unrated and one with three of six f-bombs bleeped out. This feud with the MPAA (which is composed of members from six major film distributors but not the Weinstein Company) has been longstanding , dating back to the days when the company’s big wigs—Harvey and Ben Weinstein—worked for Miramax. So it isn’t something just centering around this one PSA documentary and its message. That isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. However the Weinstein Co. is definitely spinning it thus.
That isn’t the biggest problem here. That is the backstory. The big issue is that to help raise public awareness against bullying (that happens to be resting solely on the number of people who see a very noble picture that just happens to have the potential to make millions upon millions of dollars for the Weinstein Co.), Harvey Weinstein stated his biggest concern was that he wanted it to be played in schools. Theoretically, an R-rating would stop that. Obviously, that is total bologna—my school’s 5th grade class watched Glory in order to learn about the Civil War.
Weinstein—yes, while it is a company decision, it is being spear-headed by Harvey Weinstein, so I have no problem referring specifically to him—approached school executives and teachers and explained how terribly upset he was that children could no longer see this movie that had the potential to reveal the horrible epidemic of bullying (yes, the word was epidemic) because it had six f-words. At one point someone might have let slip that schools play movies with the f-word in it all the f-wording time, because Weinstein—in his typical altruism as a crusader for the greater good—offered to show the movie for free to the students. Some schools said no, but several said yes.
Right now there is a petition signed by 20,000 school children with the support of hundreds of teachers begging the MPAA to reverse its decision because bullying needs to be stopped. This sound noble and all, but the simple fact is the Weinstein Company was just able to get several middle schools to go to a special publicity showing of an R-rated film. Not a normal showing—a special, pre-release screening. Movie screenings have one purpose—to generate publicity for the movie. And sure enough, with teachers bringing the kids out of class and explaining that the purpose of this was to stop bullying—and then emotionally overloading the elementary and middle school children with horrible images of bullying—these kids suddenly need to encourage everyone to see the movie no matter what.
Movies can change people. That is definitely true. But lots and lots of speakers and essays and movies and youtube videos have been made to help stop bullying. I am sure many of them have had at least some degree of success. This one movie is not the one hope to stop bullying. And kids could probably convince their parents to get the movie if they really want it. Yet a sad, bullied kid is not going to see that. And neither is a perfectly happy kid who’s friends all believe that the movie will solve everything. If they are brought to a movie with all their friends and implored to do whatever it takes to stop bullying they will of course feel it is necessary to encourage everyone to see the film and order the dismantling of the entire rating system to do it.
I am sure the teachers and administrators who brought these kids to the movie (and plan to show it to future classes on DVD) are genuinely trying to fight bullying. And the kids who signed that petition genuinely want to as well. But this isn’t just some effort to help the community—it is a product being sold by a multi-million for-profit company. It shouldn’t be this easy to get this product distributed to every child in a district.
When you go to Wal-Mart, they offer you samples of the food. Why? Because they know you will buy more of it, and tell your friends to buy more of it. Yet Wal-Mart will have a harder time coming into a school and giving that food to kids and encouraging them to tell their friends to buy some too.
Bully was likely made with the goal of helping fight bullying. It might have the capacity to do so. But it is also a product being sold. Just because it is linked to a real cause does not mean it should be advertised to young children in public schools.
This isn’t a movie picked out by teachers who think it will be helpful. It was the Weinstein Company that approached the school. By giving permission, schools are letting a business advertise directly to their students—and worse, involving the students with the Weinstein’s Company crusade to take down the MPAA. And the business didn’t even have to pay.