Bullying can have long-term, complex psychological impact. Watching a teen show recently, I wondered at the use of bullying in the plot. On television bullies are an easy source of conflict because most viewers can relate. But if the writer isn’t careful, the subtext becomes twisted.
What troubled me was the way the script normalized the “mean girl” character. The adults facilitated her behavior by ignoring it, and the other kids accepted her dominance because it was easier than challenging her. From the outset she was given tacit permission to act in such a way; only as her actions become more outrageous did anyone respond, or confront her.
That made me think about how common it is to present television stories where the bully is ALLOWED to bully, especially in teen storylines (workplace bullying and bullying at home are also common small screen themes but I thought I’d focus on teen TV).
|Buffy The Vampire Slayer offered a great example of a|
bully who experiences epic personal growth.
As a writer I’ve used bullying in scripts and stories. People identify with the struggles of the persecuted, and a bullying storyline creates an immediate empathetic link with a majority of viewers.
But I don’t want to normalize it: presenting a bully whose viciousness is not just recognized, but tolerated almost endorses their behaviour. In an era where victim blaming is being put under the spotlight, a lot of bullying plots from the past and the present carry disturbing connotations.
What are we communicating to teens? That a bully is a fixed personality type? That someone making your life awful is more about how you deal with it, rather than anyone—adults or peers—forcing the bully to take responsibility for their behavior?
Rarely is the bully expected to grow; in many teen shows the bully is just an enemy to be “defeated” in whatever way the plot chooses. Responsibility for action centers on the victim; the victim’s choices undergo more criticism and censure then the persecuting character.
The bully has become an accepted, and often two-dimensional storytelling roadblock. For me that is problematic. Why are we tacitly endorsing this idea? No adults should turn a blind eye to a youth bullying others‑it is NOT normal. Likewise, teens shouldn’t see avoiding dealing with bullies as the “normal” response. Scripted television should be able to offer better food for thought than that.
|Pretty Little Liars wove some tangled|
(and thought-provoking) bullying webs.
The best scripts present the bully not as a fixed, simplified power tripper, but as complex individuals; narratives should delve into the relationship between the bullied, and the bully. At least try to make us see the bully's perspective. Or more accurately, how they became the persecutors they are, and why they feel compelled to act in such a way—without downplaying the victim’s pain.
In many cases a friendship or relationship evolves from the conflict between bully and victim—but not at the expense of the victim’s self-worth. While the bully’s motivations/issues are addressed, a good writer makes sure it isn’t at the expense of the victim: their trauma cannot be minimized.
|Gossip Girl saw Jenny move from victim|
to bully, in pursuit of social status.
I’ve compiled a list of ten shows where I felt the story didn’t just exploit bullying as a cheap narrative tool, but instead offered food for thought—whether in a good or bad way.
Moral of the story? People hurt each other: they’re flawed, scarred, and worth trying to understand. But bullying is nobody’s right, and victims shouldn’t be expected to handle it alone. Society needs to tackle that misconception.
Veronica Mars: Veronica and Eli/Weevil, Veronica and Logan
The pilot of Veronica Mars sees Eli’s bullying of Wallace evoke a response from Veronica. By choosing to stand up to him, Veronica wins his grudging respect and a wary friendship develops.
The revelation of Eli’s affair with Veronica’s murdered best friend Lily adds complex layers to his character. Other episodes offer insight into the discrimination he suffers. Over the series we see him repeatedly choose to assist Veronica.
Prior to the tragedy Lily’s ex-boyfriend Logan was Veronica’s friend. Now he bullies Veronica, but as the story unfolds they become lovers. The audience sees the domestic abuse he suffers, and how repressing his complex emotions over Lily’s death have skewed his personality. Working to solve Lily’s murder helps both of them heal.
Veronica Mars tackles grief and PTSD, but what I think is fantastic is that in each of these changing relationships, Veronica is never disempowered. She’s not at the mercy of anyone’s whims; she chooses how each relationship progresses.
Brenda’s Sleepover in Beverley Hills 90210
I saw this episode of Beverley Hills 90210 when young but it always stuck in my mind. Brenda has a sleepover party. This is uncool for the crew in the upper zip code, and Brenda is slightly ashamed of her mom’s enthusiasm for what she deems a childish plan.
One of the girls who rocks up over the course of the evening is Amanda, Kelly’s older, sophisticated, biatch of a frenemy. She instigates a truth-based game that soon turns ugly.
Brenda stands up for her friends, and encourages them to do the same. During this conflict Amanda confesses the core of her issue is an eating disorder. Brenda and the gang then invite Amanda into the fold. What was great here was seeing Brenda’s perspective change over the episode, and also how she not only stands up to the bully but enables her friends to do the same, which pushes Amanda to face her issues—and then they all befriend her.
Female Besties in Freaks and Geeks
Freaks and Geeks is popular for a reason. I found the relationship between Lindsay and Kim so well written, in all its messy teen glory. Lindsay’s insecurity is almost disturbing to watch; she veers from sycophantic behavior to repressed frustration. Occasionally, she’s brave enough to be bluntly honest.
Kim, on the other hand, is a mess. Overly aggressive and veering from one outburst of wild emotion to the next, she has no problems bullying but is also prone to random, unpredictable acts of kindness.
The series reveals Kim’s nightmarish home life, a vast contrast to the suburban calm of Lindsay’s existence. Seeing them carve out a friendship, with Lindsay beginning to understand Kim while also managing to set some boundaries, is great writing.
Addressing Toxic Masculinity in Glee
Glee showcased some great teen characters. I also really liked that Glee focused on the harrowing psychological impact of bullying. Openly gay character Kurt is tormented by school bullies, most notably the footballer Dave.
Dave bullies both Finn and Kurt, but it is Kurt whose suffering really engages with the audience. Being gay is already hard enough in high school, so Kurt’s on-going PTSD from the harassment is extreme.
Having Dave kiss Kurt was a twist not many saw coming. Surprisingly, Dave follows up the kiss with more bullying/threats, to the point where Kurt changes schools in fear. The peak of Kurt’s suffering is utterly heart-breaking.
Eventually Dave comes to terms with his own feelings, and confesses his love to Kurt. Kurt rejects him romantically but a friendship develops. At one point Dave attempts suicide, showcasing the idea a bully may be deflecting deep emotional anguish onto their victims.
Pretty Little Liars: “A”lmost Everyone
There are many layers of bullying in the teen gem that is Pretty Little Liars. We also see the PTSD of bullying survivors and how surviving persecution shapes their personalities (especially Mona and Lucas).
Cyberbullying and blackmail by the elusive “A” kicks off the series. The aftereffects of bullying, judging and ostracizing teens propels the story. While Alison—missing for a year when the pilot kicks off—was the ultimate mean girl, the four characters the story followers were her enablers.
Pretty Little Liars excels at highlighting the myriad ways bullying works. I thought showing how over time, victims become bullies themselves was fascinating. All the teens in the show want to feel empowered; how they go about achieving that goal—and how they deal when that perceived power is threatened—fuels the story.
Righteous bullying is also problematic and rarely addressed: it could be argued that the Liars, rather than just being victims, were prone to persecuting of those they believed were “A”. (Over the years, this adds up to a lot of people!) I would argue in their zealousness, they too crossed the line.
The infamous Hanna slapping Jenna scene was a great example of a complex bullying scenario. As a seasoned bully, Jenna did unimaginably terrible psychological damage to Hanna, but when Hanna slapped Jenna, was that the lashing out of a victim, or another form of bullying because Jenna is blind and therefore at a disadvantage in a physical fight?
Since Hanna’s empathy puts her at a disadvantage in psychological conflict with Jenna, was she moved to retaliate via the only avenue in which she has an advantage? Where is the line drawn? At what point when a person who is a victim lashes out, do they qualify as a bully?
13 Reasons Why Bullying Has Consequences
For me 13 Reasons Why is a powerful story but a problematic one. Hannah finds her empowerment through suicide; that is how she makes her voice the loudest, her version of events the truth. Obviously this is a profoundly disturbing choice.
But 13 Reasons Why really communicates that bullying, judging and ostracizing someone isn’t merely a moment of nastiness: that even being vicious for a minute can add up with other people’s viciousness or neglect, and contribute to a devastating event. You don’t know what a person experienced before you crossed paths, and what will happen to them afterwards. The series communicates this emphatically to teen audiences.
During the first season the lead character witnesses sexual assault, and then suffers a sexual assault. Add this to her other traumas, and it all becomes too much. She feels isolated and judged, and obviously suffers depression and PTSD.
I think what disturbed me was trying to interpret how Hannah saw her actions. Her drastic move silenced everyone else’s voices and brought the truth to light, but it also tragically ended her own story. At times the toxic friendships here felt like a competition to define the narrative. In the end it was Hannah who got to outline the events, but what a cost.
Jackson and Lydia in Teen Wolf
When Teen Wolf kicks off, Jackson and Lydia are the high school’s It Couple. They’re also mean af.
Jackson causes so many problems for those around him. We learn his perfectionism is fuelled by insecurities; he’s adopted and on a subconscious level is determined to be the perfect son even if he has to bully and persecute his way to the top. He’s also extremely narcissistic.
Jackson’s world falls apart when he demands to be turned into a werewolf, and the transformation goes wrong: his personality instead sees him become a kamina. His connection with Lydia proves his saving grace. At this point he leaves the show (meaning the character moves to London). At the end of the series he returns to help them fight, now a werewolf/kamina hybrid, and dating Ethan.
Lydia’s transformation from self-serving bully to self-sacrificing leader is one of the shows greatest achievements. She’s outed as a genius hiding her intelligence to remain popular. Slowly drawn into the werewolf world, she eventually discovers she’s a banshee. The murder of her best friend and a series of supernatural threats up the stakes. Self-serving bullying is no longer her instinctive response in a crisis but it's a gradual evolution.
Lydia transforms from a stereotypical mean girl to a dynamic, complex young woman the others look up to and rely on. Lydia would be among my top three female characters in a teen series. She becomes strong without persecuting others, and rather than judging the weak, begins to empathize and endeavors to protect them. She’s also brave in the face of the unknown: her banshee skills are eery, and unpredictable.
Cheer Up! (aka Sassy Go Go), Five by Five
One of the best TV shows to ever address teen bullying, the Kdrama Cheer Up! looks at a school life in South Korea, where academic excellence is a national obsession. When the top five students and the bottom five students are forced into a cheerleading club the contrast in treatment is extreme: bullying and discrimination against the lower five is openly endorsed.
South Korea has one of the world’s highest teen suicide rates, and this series doesn’t shy away from the perspective of the bully, and the victim.
Everyone carries burdens. I think the self-harm storyline here, and associated domestic abuse really highlights the idea “perfect” teens can be living in private hells. The point made here is change and growth can happen, with trust and communication.
The series also looks at bullying in the outer spheres of the teenager's worlds. Parents bully teachers. The teachers bully parents. The teachers and parents bully students. Students bully students. There are so many cycles of abuse at play and at first the toxic relationships seem overwhelming, but the story is one of hope and perseverance.
Gossip Girl XOXO
Gossip Girl is rife with bullying. The Gossip Girl of the title, a nebulous identity for most of the series, is the show's Alpha tormentor. But GG’s online column is really just an avenue for teen followers to cyberbully each other under the cover of anonymity.
What’s interesting is every regular teen character in the series becomes the bully at least once, I think (Even Eric.) On the Upper East Side, power matters. Bullies don’t just survive—in this environment they flourish.
The rich parents are bullies. For the teens bullying is normalized, taught behavior. The family lives of the leads are generally dysfunctional, except (arguably) Dan and Jenny. Jenny goes from a victim of bullying, to “Queen Bee” (head bully) before removing herself from the race.
And that’s the thing: living in this environment is a race. Even holier-than-thou Dan succumbs. Blair and Chuck begin as bullies, and while Chuck mellows with age, Blair’s journey is a lot rougher. Her empowering combo is bullying and intelligence.
As the years pass the series addresses Blair’s reluctance to develop a different way to engage with issues, and I like the idea that transitioning from a life empowered by bullying, while still trying to maintain a sense of power over those around you, is a long-term problem. Her bullying is presented as a form of behavioral addiction.
Twisted: Can You Bully The Guilty?
This show was erratic in quality, but had a powerful premise. Danny returns home after serving time in a youth facility for the murder of his aunt. He attempts to re-friend his two besties, Jo and Lacey.
Both are wary. Jo is more inclined to befriend him, in the sense she stands up for him when he’s bullied and ostracized. Lacey is attracted to Danny but in the early episodes often stays silent while he’s being persecuted.
At the outset of the series the audience is unsure if the lead is guilty. Danny is clever and independent; publicly he shrugs off the bullying most of the time with a flippant response. But viewers sense his loneliness, and hurt.
Almost too soon the series reveal Danny is not the offender; as if the audience were so conflicted by whether or not to feel bad for Danny as a victim of bullying that the show hurried to assure them he was innocent of the crime.
Which begs the question: Would it have been okay to bully him if he committed murder as a child? Or more accurately, be okay to not empathize with his character’s suffering? Twisted made it uncomfortable obvious that in certain scenarios society can rationalize bullying as less offensive.