Lucy’s Football ‘Joke’ and the Problem of Bullying

Perhaps the most enduring gag from the Peanuts cartoon strip involves Charlie Brown, Lucy van Pelt, and a football. Year after year, Lucy would offer to hold the ball while Charlie kicks it; year after year, Charlie would convince himself that this time would be different; year after year, Charlie would wind up on his back as Lucy pulls the ball away at the last moment.

Poor old Charlie Brown.

We laugh because we see him as a gullible idealist (i.e., “sucker”) who thinks that Lucy will ever change. We see him as responsible for his situation: Lucy is who she is; she will always pull the ball away; why can’t he realize that and just avoid putting himself in that situation?

Meanwhile, in the real world, we scold childhood bullies and pretend to support their victims.

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October is National Bullying Prevention Month, a campaign originally founded in 2006 by PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. In the decade since then, other organizations have joined in, including Disney, TLC, Bystander Revolution, and STOMP Out Bullying.

I applaud the sincere efforts of any individuals or groups who want to end bullying. Bullying is a terrible blight on society. According to PACER, more than one in five students report being bullied; my own talks with students suggests that this number is probably closer to one in one. Nearly every student has told me they’ve felt bullied at some point in their lives.

Bullying is a major contributor to teen suicide: Yale University found that victims of bullying “are between two to nine times more likely to consider suicide,” while a separate British study tied bullying to “at least half of suicides among young people.” Bullying in school also leads to other problems, such as truancy, emotional trauma, and reckless behavior.

One theme that repeats itself over and over on these sources: Bullying is something that kids do to each other. Let’s “STOMP Out” bullying.

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There are a few problems with this.

Let’s look at some of the organizations listed above. Disney Channel has used its corporate heft to extend copyright law to make sure that Mickey Mouse will always be protected and has sued daycare centers over trademark violations.

Bystander Revolution was founded by the wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; Amazon is known for allegedly undercutting the competition using questionable business practices, such as deliberately using a proprietary format in the emerging market of e-books.

STOMP Out Bullying, meanwhile, doesn’t mention PACER at all. The site acts as if National Bullying Prevention Month is their own campaign (from their site: “Every October, schools and organizations across the country join STOMP Out Bullying™ in observing National Bullying Prevention Month.”).

The United States government defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior … that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” I’m not stating that corporate leveraging or failing to give due credit are acts of bullying, but they do contribute to its climate.

There’s been a lot of talk of “rape culture”: In our society, we have a culture that actively breeds rapists by creating a climate of degrading and objectifying women and of valuing sexual conquests by men of women. That’s not to say that all men are rapists, it’s to say that anyone who engages in certain sexist behaviors is allowing or even encouraging rapists to act.

In the same way, I contend that we have a “bully culture”: Corporatism, maliciously leveraged white and male privilege, rape culture, and similar streams are the fertilizer for childhood bullying.

Those ellipses in the US government quote leave out the words “among school aged children.” The implication is clear: Adults can’t engage in bullying, by definition. J. Edgar Hoover (known as a bully in his own right) once declared, “Juvenile delinquency is always rooted in adult delinquency.” Teen bullying does not occur in a cultural vacuum.

We adults absolutely bully each other. Sexual harassment is a form of bullying. Fictional movies like “Office Space” and “Horrible Bosses” are reflections of real-world workplace bullying. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are filled with apparent adults using words like “libtard” and “rethuglican” in order to win political arguments. And I don’t even want to talk about the President’s behavior anymore.

We are a culture of bullies.

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Last year, I wrote about how using the word “bully” allows us to create an “other” group. If I’m not a “bully,” then how can my behavior be a problem?

It’s the same semantic game as with “racist” or “sexist” or any other term: If we focus on labels instead of words, we allow a dodge. The US government even helps us out by excluding adults from the word entirely.

But even if we wrongly limit our discussion to children, are we sending a consistent message?

Lucy bullies Charlie Brown. We laugh. Charles Schulz died seventeen years ago, but we still chuckle over the kick. A few years ago, Slate went so far as to defend Lucy’s repeated and relentless bullying based on that one time Charlie bullied Lucy. (To its credit, the article is excellently researched and written.)

We don’t accept “He started it!” in the real world, but even if we did, it ends with a tit-for-tat. Decades of torment in response to a single act of misogyny is not tit-for-tat.

Our ready dismissal of Lucy’s bullying is part of a cultural motif. We say we want bullying to end, but repeatedly, we treat actual acts of bullying in younger children as funny, adorable, or par for the course.

When it comes to boys, it’s even worse. We’ve created a blanket excuse: “Boys will be boys.” Boys behaving badly is just what boys do, goes the trope. “You know, stronger boys shouldn’t really stuff weaker boys into lockers, but you have to admit, it’s kind of funny when it happens.”

And of course, when boys are bullied by girls, it’s the fault of the boys. They need to “man up” and “grow a pair.” This is a message that will later evolve when boys become actively sexual men: Men who are sexually assaulted should be grateful, and if they complain, their gender identity is questioned.

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So let’s review the narrative we’re giving our youth.

Adults can’t bully. Adults are “just” aggressive against each other because that’s how you succeed.

Young children can’t really bully. They play-bully, and it’s adorable when they do.

Girls can’t really bully boys. Because we infantilize girls, teen girl bullies are doing the same cute play-bullying that younger boys are doing. Besides, the boy probably did something to deserve it.

When teen boys bully teen boys, it’s funny until someone kills themselves. Then we feel bad for a little while.

No, no, no, and no.

Bullying is wrong. Every time. Every age. Every situation.

Originally published at The Good Men Project.

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