Today I caught my first glimpse of the trailer for the latest Bullying-genre movie in the offing—an indie film called “A Girl Like Her.”
*(not to be confused with the documentary of the same name by Ann Fessler, which is also being released this month).
The trailer reveals a plot-line deeply entwined with the context of the action: “bullying as ‘normal’ behavior perpetuated by a ‘normal’ girl next door.” While my daughter shook her head (“why don’t they get teens to check their scripts—no-one would ever say that—no-one is that obviously mean”) I recalled a NY Times piece by Ada Calhoun entitled “Geekdom revisited: Was junior high really that bad?”
Somehow, my mind connected the movie (or, what is to be surmised from the trailer) and Calhoun’s piece, and that connection seemed worth teasing out.
The common denominator between the two seems to be ‘perception.’
A Girl Like Her promises to play with this element. As regards the bully, the movie appears to want to have it both ways—a bully who does not perceive herself as a bully (hence the ‘new perspective’ the film promises??) yet, (like most American films), an antagonist who is, nonetheless, unambiguously positioned (to the audience) as a bully. Perhaps this is deliberate.
If the devil is in the details, then bullying is not only in the nuances, but in the way that behaviors are perceived, experienced, and remembered.
This, I suspect, is what triggered my recall of Ada Calhoun’s article. In "Geekdom Revisited", Calhoun’s memories of junior-high victimization are challenged, years later, by a peer’s recollection of her social status and popularity.
Juxtaposing the two is hardly meant to suggest that the victim in A Girl Like Her, Jessica Burns, is mis-perceiving the social abuse directed at her, but rather, that bullies may misperceive their own aggression (no less than victims may deny it, or over-exaggerate it). Adolescents are moving into a social world where parental restrictions are outgrown and falling away, and it is unclear which ‘guidelines’ should be retained. Young people are tasked with finding their moral center (with peers and video games for guidance). In a society that rewards winners, actions are often as legitimate as those around us tolerate them to be. If no-one is mirroring back—to a bully, to a victim who acquiesces to abuse, or to a popular girl who perceives she is bullied—that her perceptions and behaviors are skewed, even out of line, how is she to fully grasp and re-align them? (Where bullies are concerned, we must remember that defiance of authority is the norm at this age—suggesting that defiance of norms to ‘be nice,’—and an awareness that one is in violation of them—might well be put on a par with the defiance that challenges other boundaries, e.g. sexual, substances, etc).
A Girl Like Her seems to highlight the importance of such mirroring in the character of Brian Slater, who mirrors to Jessica that her pain is legitimate; that the abuse should not be tolerated. He thus heads off a double-victimization—her disenfranchisement from peer culture, as well as from her pain. Mirroring, as both he and Calhoun’s piece suggest, is important in how we perceive, remember, and respond to an experience. If no-one is mirroring victimization to victims, aggression to bullies, or weighing in on the slights s/he we all (regardless of social position), have experienced, there is no room for movement, for re-adjustment, for re-evaluation (even atonement and forgiveness).
Simply put, without the mirroring of those around us, we cannot catch a glimpse of ourselves, and adjust behaviors, beliefs, and perceptions. Feedback endorses, rejects, or modifies our interpretations of events and experiences. Too often, bullying co-opts and perverts feedback, and bystanders, not unlike victims, are also expected to ‘take it’—to reflect the status quo, or to mirror nothing at all (despite how their own ‘mirror neurons’ might be firing). In the face of social aggression, silence tacitly endorses psychological violence, undermines victims, and denies alternative interpretations of events.
Consequently, feedback is is key in challenging bullying—or in determining whether one has, in fact, been victimized. And, not unlike bullying itself, mirroring can occur in innumerable nuanced ways.