From playground cruelty to the online rumor mill, we’re hearing more about bullying than ever, but are we getting better at helping kids and teens cope? TIME looks at the facts behind all those sensational headlines — what we know and don’t know about why bullying happens and what we can do to minimize its effects.
- Mean Girls
Cady has been home-schooled for her first 16 years, so when she enters a public school for the first time, the movie introduces her (and us) to the complicated interactions of adolescent girls. She initially bonds with two social outcasts, who devise a plan for Cady to infiltrate the Plastics, a trio of popular girls led by the vindictive Regina.
After she gains acceptance in the clique, Cady begins to subtly undermine Regina by trying to make her gain weight and turning the other Plastics against her — in essence, the bullied becomes a bully. As she is more and more successful, Cady loses her sense of self and morphs into a new version of the queen bee. What started as a joke becomes real as she turns just as spiteful and mean as Regina.
Mean Girls brings shades of gray to the typical bully/victim paradigm. Everyone here is a player in an endless cycle of bullying and being bullied. When Cady succumbs to the pettiness and vanity of the Plastics, the movie shows how intoxicating popularity can be, and how easy it is to switch from victim to bully, and back again.
- Dazed and Confused
Bullying is an institutionalized ritual that one Texas town implicitly endorses in Richard Linklater’s 1993 coming-of-age film. It’s the last day of school in 1976, and upperclassmen are hazing the incoming freshmen as they leave junior high.
The boys are subject to physical assaults and, despite futile attempts to escape, most agree that it is better to just submit and get it over with. Meanwhile, the girls are verbally abused and humiliated: after they are rounded up in the school parking lot, they are forced to suck on pacifiers, propose to senior boys, and be doused with ketchup, mustard, eggs, and flour at the behest of the merciless ringleader Darla.
Dazed and Confused reflects ’70s culture, when this sort of teasing and initiation was seen as a natural part of growing up. To escape hazing, the logic goes, would be to miss a key character-building experience in one’s adolescence. Small acts of rebellion or revenge are permitted, but opting out of this ritual is never seriously considered: After the initial hazing, many kids begin to bond and form friendships with those who have just tormented them.
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