Kids aren’t dumb. Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. Sure, they get way too caught up in Justin Bieber and don’t understand why we have leap days, but from the perspective of language and their experiences with bullying, kids sure as hell aren’t dumb.
But that’s not the message the good folks at the Motion Picture Association of America’s classifications and ratings board put out when they labelled Bully, a documentary that deals with the bullying epidemic from a frank and realistic perspective, as an R-rated movie. Yes, the movie that could have shown kids the destructive force of bullying cannot actually be shown to kids because they might learn some bad words they probably already know.
I’m all for keeping adult content from being forced on kids. No one has the right to push sex onto people who aren’t old enough to be sexualized, and kids have a right to a proper childhood before the soul-crushing, day-to-day monotony of adulthood sets in. That being said, there’s a difference between mature themes and adult themes, and the MPAA couldn’t have missed it any harder if they tried.
Does Bully have swearing in it? Of course it does. That’s because they filmed real teenagers, rather than shooting kids from some sort of idealized alternate reality where foul language is bleeped out. The reality is that teenagers live in a mature world, where ideas and opinions tend to deviate well beyond what an insular, guarded group of adults generally regard as “PG-13."
The world of teenagers is much more severe than just the occasional F-bomb. Bully would have taken a frank and honest look at the reality of being a modern-day teenager, one replete with foul language, sexual themes and violent moments. The fact of the matter is that the world as it exists is rated R, and part of being a teenager is being responsible and level-headed enough to comprehend this without retreating into a puritanical fantasy-land where everything is clearcut and astringently whitewashed of things one doesn’t agree with.
We live in a world where we are free to express our opinions and beliefs, but that’s a two-way street. The price for being able to say and listen to what we want is that we also have to accept those who think the complete opposite. With beauty must come ugliness. With day comes night. For every good comment we get, we must also accept that someone will think differently, and every once in a while, we’ll even have to tolerate a weirdly personal attack.
Teenagers may not be adults, but they are still mature enough to make their own decisions when it comes to the ideas and opinions they will actively seek. It’s no one’s place to dictate what knowledge they can or can’t absorb, especially if, as in the case with Bully, it’s knowledge that can ultimately save a life.