We’ve all seen it countless times: the good-looking and talented protagonist goes to school, only to be physically assaulted by villainous children. These bullies don’t like the protagonist because they’re new to the school, or their parent is dead, or they’re different in some invisible and undefinable way. So, they slam the main character against the nearest wall and grab their lunch money. Good thing the protagonist has some magic or a giant robot friend, because otherwise they’d get beaten up every day.
From the recent Aquaman film to the classic The NeverEnding Story, it feels like every movie or TV show with a school-age protagonist pulls out this cliché. Screenwriters seem to think it’s their “get sympathy free” card. Throw in some bullies, and with little time and even less thought, their protagonist becomes an underdog. The cliché is less common in novels, probably because the greater length allows for more nuance.
The problem with this pattern isn’t that bullying is the subject matter; it’s how cheap these depictions of bullying are.
What’s Wrong With These Scenes
Like any cliché, bullying scenes are disappointingly unoriginal. But more than that, bullying is a serious issue. Treating it so thoughtlessly is not helping the real kids who are getting hurt.
It Spreads an Inaccurate Picture of Bullying
The bullies shown in these stories are more physically violent than any kids that ever bullied me, or indeed, any kids I have seen in my life. This is not to say that bullies in real life never use physical violence, particularly against kids that face extreme marginalization in their communities, but that’s not how most bullying manifests. Most bullying is harassment, much of it designed to humiliate the victims and destroy their feelings of self-worth. Bullies don’t have to physically hurt their targets; with enough emotional damage, the victims will hurt themselves.
Screenwriters probably don’t want to use harassment because too many people don’t understand how harmful it is,* and it’s not easy to demonstrate that harm in five minutes. So instead they pull out something they know their audience will react to. But doing this only makes people think that real bullying is physical rather than psychological. As a result, bullies who engage in harassment are allowed to continue, which is probably why it’s their favorite tactic.
Exaggerating bullying isn’t productive either. All kids need to be taught not to wield emotionally abusive language or violate other people’s boundaries. When we spread the idea that bullies are kids waiting to grow a twirly mustache, what parent will be willing to admit their kid is a bully and teach that kid better?
It Perpetuates the Idea That “Kids Will Be Kids”
If an adult protagonist left work every day only to be mugged by the same people, what would we expect to happen? Let’s see, how about… calling the police? In a story where it’s important for this adult to face the muggers on their own, there would at least be a little dialogue or some thoughts explaining why the protagonist won’t report what’s happening to the authorities.
But in most of these cheap depictions, no one even mentions that some adult at the school could intervene. Bullying is just what kids do, and any kid who’s targeted has to face the perpetrator on their own. Or worse, a kid who reports their victimization to a teacher is a “tattletale.” This is convenient for storytellers, because having an adult save the day would reduce conflict and take agency away from the youthful protagonist.
Convenient for us or not, this isn’t okay. In real life, schools absolutely have the responsibility to ensure a safe environment for every student on their property. Intervention and discipline from school officials can stop bullying. But too often schools don’t stop it, either because they don’t think they have to or because students and parents don’t realize that’s something they should demand. This assumption leads to countless kids getting bullied when it could easily have been prevented.
It Exploits Vulnerable Kids to Benefit Privileged Kids
The reasons that most movies and TV shows give for why bullies target their protagonists are patently absurd. Kids aren’t picked on just because one of their parents died, and they certainly wouldn’t be picked on for having superpowers. The reality is that bullies are not interested in targeting kids they think can fight back; they choose victims with the least amount of power and social support. Most often, that means their targets are unattractive, lack social skills, are part of a marginalized group, or all of the above.
But the average studio is unwilling to give protagonists any traits that would actually make them a target. Every protagonist has to be attractive, sociable, able-bodied, neurotypical, straight, cis, and white. Most movie stars more closely resemble a typical bully than a bully’s victim, and the continued over-representation of this narrow group of people only perpetuates the same imbalance of power that allows bullying to flourish.
Instead of giving protagonists some diversity, too many storytellers are appropriating the experiences of marginalized kids to use in stories about privileged kids. If they don’t do it by depicting a super privileged kid being bullied for no reason, they’ll do it by making a sidekick the bully’s target instead. This way the attractive protagonist can prove themself to be an exemplary human being by protecting such a lowly person from the bullies. This latter trend of using a less fortunate side character is just as exploitative.
Ways to Avoid This in Our Stories
As many written works show, there’s a plethora of more thoughtful and original ways to create conflict in a school setting.
Create School Conflict Without Bullying
In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Miles has just left his old public school for an expensive private school he earned a scholarship to attend. He doesn’t want to go. Scenes in the movie show him walking by his former classmates as they head to class without him, demonstrating how well he gets along with them. When he arrives at his new school, his dad embarrasses him the way parents do, the other students don’t understand the culture he comes from, and after losing his way, he’s reprimanded by a teacher for being late.
As a new middle-class black student in a school of upper-class white kids, bullying is actually realistic in this situation. But rather than subjecting viewers to the harsh reality of something they might have to deal with in real life, the movie focuses on Miles’s internal journey. Viewers understand that when it looks like everyone is watching and laughing at Miles, it’s just a reflection of how he feels out of place. When Miles learns how to be who he wants to be and also succeed at his new school, it’s more satisfying than if he had just learned to spiderweb some bully to the ceiling.
School is naturally full of conflict. Kids are often under pressure to get good grades and are forced to participate in activities they’re terrible at – in front of lots of other people. They are made to work on a team with other kids who may be complete assholes, and even students who don’t intend to be rebellious may clash with teachers.
Sure, most schools aren’t arenas where kids battle to the death. And in most stories, it’s a mistake to try to make them one.* Keep normal school conflicts focused on meaningful interpersonal interactions and the protagonist’s character arc. Let your magic or robots bring on the excitement.
Depict Realistic Power Dynamics
In the Harry Potter series, Draco is a bully, but he isn’t usually Harry’s bully. He’s Harry’s rival. Draco doesn’t choose to pick on Harry because he can get away with it; Harry embarrasses him at the start of their first year. Once that happens, Draco’s pride is at stake. Draco has a powerful family and lots of social support he can use as a weapon against Harry, but Harry is famous and talented. While Rowling often manufacturers reasons for Harry’s classmates to be angry with him, she doesn’t pretend that he would be picked on at Hogwarts for being who he is. Because he wouldn’t.
The kids we know are regular targets of bullying at Hogwarts – Neville and Luna – really would be bullied. Neither of them have many friends. Neville is talentless and afraid of everything. Luna constantly states wild theories as though they are facts. Harry is nice to them, but they aren’t in the story just to be damsels for Harry to rescue.
Rowling does describe how Harry is bullied before he attends Hogwarts, and it’s surprisingly realistic. He’s scrawny, and he’s made to wear really old, baggy clothes. His primary bully is his cousin, who’s been taught to be cruel to Harry at home. Back then, Harry couldn’t control his magic well enough to fight back.
The Harry Potter books are by no means perfect in their depiction of bullying; Rowling treats really abusive behavior like it’s just unkindness and lets the school off the hook for keeping kids safe. However, the books do show that it doesn’t take much added effort to break out of this tiresome cliché. The main characters don’t have to be outcasts to be sympathetic, and they don’t have to be bullied to have an enemy in the schoolyard.
Show Bullying for What It Is
This is a taller order. To do justice to real-world bullying, it’s important to not only show what it really looks like but also to demonstrate to audiences that it is harmful. In a cultural climate where too many people dismiss bullying as just a normal part of life, it will take time and care to teach them otherwise. If it’s not important enough to your plot to fully address the issues you’ll raise by depicting bullying, it’s better to leave it out. Otherwise, you risk normalizing the behavior instead of challenging it.
For an example of what real bullying looks like, I’d like to point to a few scenes in Spider-Man: Homecoming. In the movie, Peter Parker’s best friend tells some classmates that Peter knows the famous Spider-Man, hoping to help him make a good impression. A bully in class instantly seizes on this perceived foible. Assuming it’s a lie, he makes fun of Peter loudly in class and, later, over a microphone when he’s DJing at a party. His loud, public comments are designed to humiliate and socially isolate Peter. He also chooses to focus on something real he thinks Peter will be embarrassed about, making it more likely that Peter will internalize the abuse.
Of course, in the context of the movie, it doesn’t actually hit so hard. Peter is actually Spider-Man, and as an attractive white boy with a Stark internship, he’s unlikely to be bullied. Depicting bullying correctly would mean focusing on a character who would actually be targeted in real life. It means communicating to the audience how the protagonist dreads going to class, how they lose confidence, and how everyone else watches and does nothing. Then the story must have constructive messages about how this abusive behavior can and should be stopped in real life.
It’s not a light topic, and it would be best handled by someone with personal experience being bullied who wants to do the issue justice.
As fantasy and scifi geeks, there’s one more thing we should keep in mind. People aren’t bullied for being geeks anymore. Today our interests are cool, or at least mainstream. So let’s not pretend our protagonists would be picked on because they like Narnia or Star Wars. Our depictions matter, and we can do better.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?