Thursday, August 4, 2016

On Why People Get Bullied

I've taught four courses on comics, animation, and live-action film in the past two years. My courses concentrate on formalism. What strategies do comics artists use that live-action filmmakers also use? What's different? Can we ever draw a clear border between these media? It's been a rewarding experience. I may not be the one who should be saying so, but I think my students have gotten a lot from the many hours they spend with me, reading, talking, and writing about comics, watching, talking, and writing about movies. 

Most of my students did not grow up reading comics. I always ask for a show of hands at the beginning of the quarter and at most, maybe one student says they were really into superhero comics back in elementary or middle school. I had one student who loved Jeff Smith's Bone. Those students like to geek out, and they know they can do so without fear of ostracization.

Does anyone still get bullied for reading comics? I can say that I read comics growing up, but only at specific times in my life, in fifth grade and again during my senior year of high school. I returned to Marvel Comics in time for the Ultimate line when I was in college, and also discovered the world of Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly. Now, I took a lot of bullshit during those years, mostly related to general weirdness, awkwardness, and lack of athletic ability. You adapt to your role in life, I guess. No, I can only remember one person who made fun of me for reading comics, but I didn't much care for her anyway. 

Who were the bullies? I can remember a few mean girls in middle school, one of whom went on to a career in Gawker, where she honed her skills into a pretty successful writing career. She's published three books, two of which were widely publicized and poorly reviewed. There was an ugly little twerp in high school who figured out that the best defense was a good offense. When we were voting on senior superlatives, he campaigned to get a well-built female athlete the "best male body," and an awkward chubby boy the "best female body." No one else thought this was funny, but he just couldn't stop. There were others, who could be decent folk in other facets of their lives, I'm sure, and who hopefully grew out of their youthful dalliance with sociopathy. And then there was everyone else, who, frankly, at some time or other, made fun of people they shouldn't have made fun of, and who joined the howling crowd even when they knew it was wrong. I can force myself to admit that I have been the member of this latter crowd, at least a couple of times in my life.

Who were the people getting bullied? The autistic and the mentally disabled were always the primary victims. I have a sense that I got it worse than others due to, as I said, weirdness, awkwardness, lack of athletic ability, inability to dress well, and pseudo-autism that wasn't actually autism. In sixth grade, I was called a fag by a lot of people who didn't actually think I was gay, because the '90s. The bullying was subtle, the leading question here, the vague suggestion there. But I'm sure, plenty of people got the same to varying degrees. That horrendous video of the middle-school boys humiliating a school-bus aide that made the rounds on the Internet four years ago brought back awful memories. Nothing about it shocked me.  

I've seen this garbage as an adult. Someone once described academia as the home for people who got bullied by mean girls in middle school who are now all grown up and out for revenge. ("God, he totally doesn't get Walter Benjamin. Yeah, he'll never get a job." - near-accurate quote [accompanied by disgusted expression.])  

People get bullied for being gay or effeminate. It takes a hell of a lot more balls for the average 13-year-old to study ballet than to walk into school with a Spider-Man comic. They get bullied for being fat, for being small, or for being big. They get bullied in locker rooms. They get bullied for smelling. It's not that people get bullied for being weak. Everyone has weaknesses. It's just that the bullied are more sensitive to their weaknesses than others. And bullies always know who those people are.

I can't say bullying hasn't fucked up at least part of my life. I'm haunted by night-thoughts. And when I have problems in my writing life/dissertation work/teaching career/personal relationships, I hear the many voices who've reminded me through the years about my inadequacies. But it's something of a comfort to know that there isn't a single bully I remember who I would have wanted to have had as a friend even if I hadn't been his or her victim. It's not been that much of a comfort to know that many others have suffered similar abuse. I know that the pastimes I've enjoyed and have continued to pursue were not the cause of the abuse. Even if they were, it wouldn't matter.

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