|But sure, let’s all sing an upbeat song about being bullied.|
There is no way I can write coherently about this episode.
Some things never heal.
It’s February 5, 2014. Eleven-year-old Michael Morones is in the hospital after attempting suicide two weeks ago. Doctors believe he likely has brain damage, and may even be blind, but it will be months or years before the full extent of his injuries is known. He attempted to hang himself after prolonged bullying over his love for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.
His parents are taking the attitude that his bullies should not be punished, because it is not in keeping with the principles of the show. They are using the donations the brony community and others have raised to pay for his medical care, but also to set up a fund to combat bullying.
A boy is in the hospital because he did not conform to society’s standards of masculinity. The people who put him there will not be punished, and will most likely go on to do it again.
Welcome to the bully culture.
It’s November 24, 2012. The top song is still Maroon 5 with “One More Night,” and the top two movies are still Twilight and Bond, though at least the surprisingly good Rise of the Guardians debuts at number four. In the headlines, Israel continues firing into Gaza and vice versa, the voice of Elmo resigns in the face of allegations of sexual abuse, and Australian scientists determine that Sandy Island, which is shown on a number of marine charts and maps, including Google Earth, does not actually exist.
In ponies we have “One Bad Apple,” a pastiche of the cartoons of the 1970s and 80s written by Cindy Morrow and directed by James Wootton.
Which is where the trouble starts, really; pastiche is a favored technique of postmodern writing, and so it is no surprise that Friendship Is Magic assays several over its run. The thing is, postmodern art is characterized by processes of decontextualization and recontextualization. The idea is to shed new light on the work or genre subject to pastiche, or to call attention to aspects of the new context that jar with the borrowed elements. “One Bad Apple” doesn’t do that; the elements of 1970s and 80s cartoons are instead treated like the most boring Internet memes, decontextualized and repeated without any recontextualization, as if they have some intrinsic value independent of the change of context.
Which would work well if they did, but unfortunately, we are talking about the cartoons of the 1970s and 1980s here.
It’s some time in the fall of 1989; I am eight years old. I am at a classmate’s house along with four or five other boys, working on a project that has something to do with the local Native American tribes. To ensure that I do not contaminate the project by contributing to it, the other boys take turns holding me pinned to the floor. They have to take turns because they have to hold their breath to do it; breathing air that touched me would be bad. The most striking thing about this memory is how utterly normal it seemed at the time.
In School Bullying: New Perspectives on a Growing Problem, author and bullying expert David Dupper defines bullying as “the systematic abuse of power,” and expands to describe it as “the unprovoked physical or psychological abuse of an individual by another individual or group over time to create an ongoing pattern of abuse against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself.” That is what happened to me, to Michael Morones, to the Cutie Mark Crusaders. It is not what happened, at least on screen, to Babs Seed.
There is very little good about American cartoons of the 1970s and 80s. Due to a number of pressures, mostly lack of funds, tight content restrictions, and an exodus of talent caused by the aforementioned lack of funds and tight content restrictions, most cartoons were cheaply produced, formulaic pap. Much of “One Bad Apple” references these cartoons, particularly the musical number, which both in musical style and in the frequent use of repetitive, simple backgrounds resembles the musical numbers of shows such as Josie and the Pussycats or Jem. The conversation at the end of the episode, in which a child has to explain a (subtly misused, already outdated) slang term to a clueless adult, is another standard gag of the era, with “bad means good” being the most common such slang term.
Even the bullying plot which dominates the episode is, ultimately, just another reference to the “very special episodes” that were a common feature of family and children’s television in the 1980s and, less frequently, into the 1990s.
It’s late 1991 or early 1992. I’m ten or eleven years old. They’re more sophisticated than a couple of years ago; no one lays a finger on me. They don’t even touch my desk if they can help it; if someone brushes against it by accident, they have to immediately go to the washbasin in the corner of the classroom and scrub. I try to tell my parents what’s going on. “It’s just teasing,” my father tells me. “Ignore it and they’ll stop.”
I’ve been doing nothing about it, carefully showing no outward sign that it affects me, for years. They haven’t stopped. Lesson learned: Telling an adult is useless. They don’t know what to do either, and they’ll tell you it’s your fault.
On my father’s advice, I try striking back in kind. I make what I think is a witty zinger against one of them. I will not say what it was, because it was based on the girl in question’s name, and I have no interest in revealing anyone’s identity. Everyone laughs–at me.
Lesson learned: Don’t bother trying to fight back. They can’t be stopped.
“Very special episodes” were a format (frequently preceded with advertising along the lines of “Tonight, on a very special [show name]”) in which a character of a normally much lighter show confronted a Serious Issue of the Day, usually in the form of a new character who suffered from or caused the issue. Substance abuse was the most common topic, due largely to the willingness of the U.S. government to pay makers of popular shows to make episodes that polemicized against drugs, but everything from the Challenger explosion (on Punky Brewster) to abortion (a critically applauded, highly controversial episode of Maude that helped start the trend), racism (a particularly ridiculous episode of Family Ties stands out here), and the apocryphal lurking pedophile (Diff’rent Strokes). Bullying was another common topic, so it’s no surprise finding it here.
Unfortunately, like most “very special episodes,” the topic is horribly mishandled. The myth of the self-doubting, pitiable bully is repeated, all aggression is castigated as bullying, and the solution at the end is that the bully needs more and better friends, all in keeping with the teachings of the bully culture.
It’s 1993. I’m twelve years old. The girls are worse by far than the boys. The boys merely tell me that I’m disgusting, weak, worthless. The girls don’t need words to let me know it, and that makes it far harder not to believe it.
But now there are three or four of us in the same boat. We band together, bottom of the social hierarchy, and bond over a shared love of cartoons, science fiction, and utterly ridiculous, rule-free roleplaying campaigns that we play during lunch and occasionally gym.
The typical bully, according to Dupper, “tend[s] to be easily frustrated, have low levels of empathy, have difficulty following rules, view violence positively, defiant toward adults, break school rules, have poorer school adjustment, and [be] more likely to drink alcohol and smoke.” Contrary to the usual narrative, bullies have average or higher self-esteem. Boys are more likely to be bullies and girls more likely to be bullied, but neither by very much; boys tend to use more direct tactics such as physical or verbal attacks, while girls (as also documented by Rachel Simmons in her Odd Girl Out) are more likely to use indirect tactics such as social exclusion, rumor-spreading, and manipulation of friendships and relationships.
At first the episode proceeds fairly realistically. Babs bullies as a way of asserting her social status, pushing down the lower kids in the hierarchy (the Cutie Mark Crusaders) in order to elevate herself and get in with the more dominant kids (Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon). Though her tactics are almost entirely direct, that makes sense for the show’s main demographic; per Simmons, indirect bullying generally doesn’t start until the preteen years, with even girls preferring direct tactics up to about the age of eight.
But as it progresses, it becomes clear that the episode is largely missing what it is truly like to be bullied. Babs Seed is clearly a marginalized kid with severe self-doubt, which just isn’t most bullies; while the kids at the very top of their schools’ hierarchies generally don’t bully, the kids immediately beneath them are the most likely to bully. Unsurprisingly, bullying tends to coordinate with strong social skills and status; how else would they get away with it? Victim-bullies (that is, bullies who are themselves victims of bullying previously or in another context) do exist, and are often the most vicious bullies and the most likely to continue their aggressive behavior into adulthood, but are nonetheless rare.
Most damningly for the episode, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom reject Sweetie Belle’s suggestions of telling an adult because they don’t want to be “snitches,” but that’s not why bullied kids don’t tell adults.
It’s the fall of 1995. I am fourteen years old. We are supposed to run a mile in gym class. I know I won’t be able to run it, so I walk instead, chatting with a friend I’ve recently made. The gym teacher comes up behind us. He calls me a fat sack of crap who will die of a heart attack before he’s thirty, and tells me that I’ll deserve it for being lazy.
After temperament, the strongest predictor of bullying is the behavior of adults in the environment. Kids bully because they see adults bully, or because they see that bullies get away with it. You can tell kids that they need to tell an adult when they’re being bullied, but unless they perceive that the adults are willing and able to help, they’re not going to bother. As Dupper puts it, “Even when teachers witness bullying behavior, they often fail to recognize it as bullying behavior, and they may even exacerbate the problem by blaming the victim. As a result, very few students who have been bullied report the incident to an authority figure.”
It’s the spring of 1996. I am fifteen years old. For months now, a particular senior has taken it upon himself to torment me. Because I’m short and have a belly and a Jewfro, he calls me “troll.” My shoes don’t fit, so I often walk with a limp, and for various reasons I don’t like using my locker, so I carry all my books at all times in an enormous backpack. My clothes are cheap, shabby, and frequently unwashed. He likes to ask me if I’m homeless, to say I carry my house on my back. In combination with the troll thing, he frequently says that I live under a bridge.
He has a couple of friends–tough-looking boys, slightly shorter and smaller than he–and a spectacularly gorgeous girlfriend. All laugh whenever he teases me.
I don’t know it, but he’s my last bully. After he graduates at the end of the year, I will never be bullied again, though some of my friends still will.
It doesn’t matter, though. It’s too late.
Dupper points out that verbal and indirect bullying have the same long-term neurological effects as physical abuse. Simmons argues quite convincingly that the prevalence of indirect bullying among girls is because girls are encouraged to be non-aggressive, and as such most obvious outlets for aggression (whether destructive or healthy) are closed off. The result is that aggression–which is a natural and inevitable part of living in a community and having relationships with other people–must be channeled into what she terms “alternative aggressions,” frequently vicious, deniable methods of acting out against the targets of aggression.
This is where the episode veers from being merely mistaken to being outright irresponsible and potentially dangerous to children. The Cutie Mark Crusaders have aggressive feelings toward Babs Seed; who wouldn’t after a sustained campaign of many days of torment? They act on these feelings inappropriately, absolutely, by putting Babs Seed in a dangerous situation that could cause her serious harm.
But–and I cannot stress this enough–they are not bullying her.
It’s the spring of 1999. I am seventeen years old. My achalasia–a rare neuromuscular condition in which the esophagus clamps shut, preventing swallowing–has worsened to the point that in any given meal I have better than even odds of throwing up undigested food which has never seen the inside of my stomach. Drinking water sometimes helps, but it will be several years before I hit on the strategy of carrying a large water bottle everywhere I go, and so instead I am dependent on the water fountain in the corner of the cafeteria. When I do throw up I have only seconds of warning, which means it is usually either in the water fountain or the trash can nearby, in full view of everyone. Nobody says anything to my face, but I can feel them watching. I stop eating lunch, and my weight begins to plummet. Occasionally I hear the whispered rumors–that I have an eating disorder, that I have some sort of stomach disease, that I have Ebola or AIDS.
Dupper argues that bullying in our schools is a reflection of bullying in the larger culture, from nation-states using their militaries to pound weaker countries into submission to action heroes that murder with impunity and then mock their victims to audience cheers. Adults often send mixed messages by encouraging bullying in some areas, particularly sports, while decrying it in others. Inaccurate or sympathetic portrayals of bullying in children’s media likewise frequently subtly or outright blame victims while excusing the bullies themselves.
Dupper himself does not draw the analogy, but his depiction is very similar to rape culture, the phenomenon whereby Western culture simultaneously claims to hate rape while finding excuses to excuse rapists, blame victims, and spread false beliefs about who is likely to rape and how rape occurs. Obviously, rape is a much more serious crime than bullying, but they have much in common, being expressions of power at the expense of another, made easier by a cultural milieu that makes it easy to isolate victims and discourages them from reporting what has happened.
The Cutie Mark Crusaders have lashed out aggressively against Babs Seed, yes, but neither in a sustained campaign nor without provocation. They are not bullies, and it is entirely wrong to equate what they did with what Babs Seed did. Both are wrong, but the CMC acted out of fear and desperation; Babs acted out of a desire for status.
The end of the episode has the CMC and Babs Seed becoming friends, of course, because this is Friendship Is Magic. It is also, of course, not impossible for former bully and former victim to become friends. However, Applejack and the structure of the episode strongly imply that they should be friends, that it is somehow a failing if they do not become friends, and therein lies the problem, because it implies that aggressive feelings are inherently bad–precisely what Simmons identifies as the cause of the epidemic of indirect bullying in girls. Good parenting on Applejack’s part–and responsible writing for children about bullying on the part of Morrow–would be for her to help the CMC find a way to express their feelings against Babs nonviolently, constructively, but still aggressively–for example, the way Rainbow Dash confronted Gilda in “Griffon the Brush-Off,” a vastly superior treatment of the topic of bullying.
It’s March of 2000, two days after my attempt. We Adult Non-Violents have lunch at the same time as the Twelve-to-Eighteen Non-Violent Girls. Even being in the same room makes it impossible for me to eat; I get special dispensation to eat lunch alone.
I’m better now. A lot better. It usually doesn’t bother me. But I’ve been reading up on bullying lately, and today while I was in line to pay for my lunch, I heard a child laugh. For just a moment, I wanted to die. I felt sick the rest of the afternoon, and it took enormous effort to do basically anything.
It’s 1989 and 1992 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 9 and 2000. It’s 2012 and 2014.
Some things never heal.
There is no way I can write coherently about this episode.
If you would like to donate to the Michael Morones Recovery Fund, you can do so here.
Next week: Something better. It has to be.