Entertainment’s War on Bullying

Adam Amel Rogers is a Project Specialist at the Norman Lear Center.

Our nation’s young people are living in a war zone. School bullying is at epidemic levels, educators largely lack resources to intervene and cyberbullying ensures that the tormenting continues well after the school bell rings.

No one has the silver bullet answer, but the search for solutions has launched anti-bullying efforts from the White House, Facebook and numerous education groups at every level. However, the most visible soldier in the battle against bullying has indisputably been the entertainment industry. While being visible is not necessarily synonymous with being effective, there is no doubt that the entertainment industry has brought unprecedented awareness to the issue.

In recent weeks, this entertainment-induced awareness evolved out of Dan Savage’s celebrity-laden It Gets Better campaign. Harvard University hosted the official launch of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, which serves as “a bottom-up movement to try to make it cooler for young people to be nice.” Gaga has been a leading voice in anti-bullying efforts-including her notable lobbying of President Obama for stronger anti-bullying legislation. Also, an upcoming documentary from the Weinstein Company titled, Bully has created a major buzz with a haunting trailer and a growing battle with the MPAA, which has produced over 300,000 petition signatures to reduce the film’s “R” rating so young people can actually watch the movie.

One entertainment event that has already had a major impact is the emotional climax in the teen bullying storyline on Glee. The show forces audiences to suspend disbelief a bit more than most shows, and it has addressed many important issues in arguably problematic ways (e.g.,teen sex, disabilities, etc.), but Glee has handled each step of the bullying storyline with extreme care. Most recently, in a beautifully shot three-minute sequence, high school football player Dave Karofsky was outed as gay, bullied and cyberbullied, which caused him to attempt suicide. Though many have criticized the show for jamming so much important content into an episode that also contained a singing competition, a teenage wedding (almost) and a texting-while-driving car accident, the suicide attempt was portrayed in a realistic and powerful way. Max Adler, who plays Karofsky, brilliantly conveyed how hopeless and scary the situation was and how the character could have thought there was no other way out. Thankfully, after the longest commercial break ever, it was revealed that Karofsky’s father found him before it was too late. The choice to have the suicide attempt fail is extremely important because the real life situation is already so hopeless that it would have been irresponsible for the show to resolve the storyline with tragedy.

The episode also displayed the aftermath of educators and friends searching for what they could have done to prevent it. Administrators proceeded cautiously out of fear of copycat attempts and the lack of acceptance from Karofsky’s mother was shown to play a role in his suicide attempt. Perhaps most importantly, a public service announcement about The Trevor Projectfeaturing Daniel Radcliffe aired during the episode. A leading suicide prevention hotline, The Trevor Project reported a 300% increase in phone calls and a 667% increase in web traffic on the night the episode aired. Overall, the episode delivered bullying and suicide prevention awareness to 7.4 million people in one fell swoop.

At the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, we study how entertainment impacts society and in our recent study of the film Food, Inc., over half of respondents said the film “changed their life.” This is the latest in a long list of scholarship showing that entertainment can cause behavior change. This is why it is so important for shows like Glee to tackle important issues in poignant ways.

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