'Bully' documentary's scarlet letter: 'R' rating for film on middle school reality

Published: Friday, March 23 2012 11:39 a.m. MDT

Katy Butler, 17, a high school student, from Ann Arbor, Mich., poses by the petitions she delivered to the Motion Picture Association of America, Wednesday March 7, 2012, in Los Angeles. Butler is urging the MPAA to change the "R" rating to a "PG" for the "Bully" film. With her petition, Butler said that she was speaking out for all students who suffer every day from bullying.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

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Slated for limited release at the end of this month, "Bully" is a new documentary that depicts the brutal bullying experienced middle-school-aged students.

Seemingly everybody who has seen the film agrees it's the rare kind of media that can significantly benefit teens and parents alike. What they can't agree on, though, is what the film should be rated. On one side of the issue is the Motion Picture Association of America, which decided "Bully" should be rated R for strong language.

"Strong language (including a brutal, profanity-laden scene ...) earned it an R rating, but none of the swearing is gratuitous," wrote Common Sense Media, a watchdog group that helps parents navigate media choices. "Like it or not, it's a realistic portrayal of what every middle schooler and older hears every day. This gives the film veracity and credibility with kids, and it will justifiably shock parents."

NPR's Monkey See blogger Linda Holmes added this clarification: "The rating is for language — meaning that the reason the (MPAA) is taking the position that ('Bully') isn't appropriate for kids to see without their parents is not that it depicts violence and trauma and the aftermath of the suicides of children, but because an environment full of teenagers, when realistically portrayed, includes swearing."

On the other side of the matter, though, are the film's distributor, the Weinstein Company, and a growing groundswell of activists who are strongly protesting the MPAA's decision. Their rationale: All the language is realistic of what teens experience, and an R rating would prevent a lot of teens from seeing the film because most teenagers wouldn't be caught dead at the movies with a parent.

"It's absolutely heartbreaking to receive this kind of a rating," director Lee Hirsch said in an interview with NPR. "In essence the irony is, in a way, they're saying kids can't see the real life that they actually live. ... I can promise you that that language is nothing new for any student or child in this country."

Katy Butler, a 17-year-old from Michigan who was bullied in middle school, has gained national notoriety by starting an online petition in late February calling for the MPAA to reconsider its rating. More than 300,000 people have signed it. In just the last month she has met the director and producer of "Bully" in New York; had an audience with the MPAA in Los Angeles; lobbied lawmakers in Washington, D.C.; and even appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

The MPAA already heard and denied an appeal of the R rating assigned to "Bully." Now, despite all the voices of protest, Hirsch and the Weinstein Company are essentially left to decide whether to edit the film and resubmit it to the MPAA, or ride with the R rating.

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