Thursday, July 12, 2012

Our Bully Culture - Part 1

I don't think it's much of a secret that society and our culture are major contributing factors to bullying. We live in a hierarchical society, one that is often defined by the "haves" and the "have nots". We use language such as "Keeping up with the Jonses" or "the grass is always greener" to describe the idea of one party having or being better than another. This Better-Than/Less-Than factor is a major contributor to the bullying problem. On the one hand, it creates or adds to insecurities in already sensitive people that often attracts bullies. On the other hand, it creates a sense of superiority, even a feeling justified bullying through rankism.

Social Heirarchy We all know what this means. The cool kids, the popular kids, the pretty kids vs. the dorks, the poor kids, the misfits. This social divide has been in place as long as we have had public arenas to host it. Back in medieval times and long before that, we've had peasants vs. royalty or those with status. The movie "A Knights Tale" is a very good example of (our modern interpretation) of how those with no status, in this case a distant royal bloodline, were quite literally unimportant nobodies. In the movie, the protagonist wins the heart of the prince and the people, therefore earning himself a place of value - but only after intense work and suffering. Even though he gains the right to be somebody, the prince actually has to issue him paperwork to make this legitimate. I recently read that the need for status is largely an American phenomenon(1), and found this to be a fascinating idea. 

Our actual social hierarchy is not so severe as that, although to a teenager it can certainly feel that way. Any of those on the opposite ends of the social divide can tell you. Kids who are born from privileged backgrounds very rarely socialize with those from impoverished households. As adults, we do this as well. Those with lesser means may feel inferior or insecure in ways that prohibit them from hobnobbing with those with money or important social connections. And they may well be justified in their belief that they will be looked down on. People with status and money are often perceived (and portrayed in the media) as arrogant, self-absorbed and judgemental. In the movie "Overboard" Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell are from two separate worlds. One very wealthy and the other quite poor. The wealthy character played by Hawn is not only snobbish and rude, she assumes Russell's character to be stupid, unrefined and lacking proper manners.

While both ends of the social divide are often exaggerated in film and in books, this mutual preconception exists and therefore, socially accepted belief. As a culture, we not only relate to it, we believe it to be the standard rule of thumb. Of course this hierarchy finds its ways into schools, it's a huge part of our society and one that we as parents contribute to on a regular basis even if we don't realize or intend to.

Advertisments & CommercialsMarketers are very effective bullies. Companies pay them huge amounts of money to manipulate us into buying their products. Some of this is sneaky and hard to identify: playing up our insecurity by showing an already flawless face to be one that needs anti-wrinkle cream. Or a person with an already white smile as she is embarrassed to show her teeth in public before trying the new Crest White Strips. That isn't necessarily bullying (although it sets near impossible standards for what is socially acceptable and what is not), but I recently heard a radio commercial for Celsius Tannery that outraged me. I have tried to find an actual transcript online, but have been unable to do so. The commercial is of a woman who claims to have looked in the mirror in the spring time and gasped in horror at her pale reflection. She goes on to describe how unacceptable it is to be pale. She used the words "gross" and "disgusting" to describe how white her skin was and expressed that she would be embarrassed to be seen in public in a bathing suit before she went to the tannery to darken up.

When I first heard this advertisement I was shocked and offended. Why? Because I have naturally pale skin that is part of my Irish heritage. I don't tan, and I don't feel like I should have to. But this commercial, and our cultures obsession with tanning, opens it up a new form of racism. If you think that statement is over the top or out of line, just imagine a commercial where a woman who is dark because of her race were to express horror and disgust as she looked in the mirror and realized how black she was. That she was so concerned with the darkness of her skin that she rushed right away to a place of business that would bleach her in order to feel confident enough to go out in public.

While I am a grown woman and I know better than to play into these insults and slights on my natural appearance, there are many people far more impressionable than myself (mainly youth) who are goaded by these sentiments and feel that they have little choice than risk their health to make their skin darker in order to meet societies approval of their appearance. If they don't, they will be looked at as "gross and disgusting"... Even if they are not pale from lack of sun, but pale because they are born that way.

This same type of marketing technique is used for many products - most of them for beauty, and most of them for women, although marketers know where to hit the guys too. Just recently I heard an advertisement for an herbal solution that will enlarge a mans penis size. Listening to it, I thought it would probably make some guys feel pretty bad and send them running to the phone to call in and order. The next time you're watching or listening to commercials, pay attention to the language that is being used and how advertisers play on our  every insecurity to insinuate how Less Than we are and that we NEED buy their product in order to be acceptable.

TV shows & MoviesThey say that art is a reflection of a culture, and culture is a reflection of art. Therefore, it's simply a given that television, movies, and even books not only reflect bullying attitudes but perpetuate it. It can also be an effective catalyst for changing attitudes. Commercials aside, shows like "Glee", "The Middle", "The New Girl", "Raising Hope", and many more not only portray "real" people, with many imperfections, they in a sense glorify them. "The New Girl" features Zooey Deschanel in a very quirky and nerdy role, that exemplifies eccentricity and social awkwardness. "Raising Hope" features a working class family whose poverty is a running theme as is their unconventional family structure, "The Middle" is very similar, though the family is much more average. "Glee", of course, covers this subjects nearly every episode, stigmatizing bully behavior and creating tolerance not only for gays but for kids with disabilities. While these shows are an important tool in creating social tolerance, the concept is not a new one. Any time we have been in a climate of social change, TV shows and movies have existed to work as a catalyst for that change. Look at "All in the Family" or "The Jeffersons." While Archie Bunker said some very offensive things even for the seventies, he was portrayed on his sitcom as a bigot and his mentality often portrayed as incorrect.

Of course, there are many other shows out there that still feed our insecurities and strengthen the social divide. Many of these are reality shows that glamorize those with elevated status or wealth, for example. Shows featuring celebrities are often mere stages for them to parade their endless luxuries and brag about being wealthy and "important". Shows like "Jersey Shore", "Real Housewives", or any of the countless "inside the private life of this or that celebrity..." are entertaining to so many not only because they are often comical characters who do outrageous things, but but because so many people (mainly teens) want to be like them. These shows send a very clear message that if this is how the "important" people are living and you're not one of them, you are not an important person. For most of us, we could care less. However, this does tend to have a large impact on impressionable teens and adolescents who are still trying to discover or establish their own place in the social hierarchy. It is therefore very important for parents to have real discussions with their children about these shows if their children watch them. Television can seriously alter a childs sense of reality if they buy into it too much.


Do you feel that the need for status in our culture is a contributing factor for bullying? In your opinion, what drives this need? As parents, how can we keep our children grounded and prevent them from falling for these sales tactics?

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