Live Through This

An Earnest Attempt to Humanize Bullies, Part 1

Trying to talk seriously about bullying is hard. The word alone sounds cheesy. This is the first in a series of posts in which we try to have that conversation.

Collage by Sonja

Bullies! Hot topic! Trendy right now! Whether Lady Gaga is giving an interview about how she was born that way or Taylor Swift is victim to a bunch of laughing jerks in the video for “Mean,” everyone has been talking about these terrifying and technologically savvy creatures. But the real questions remain unanswered. Who are these mystery people? Where do they buy those giant combat boots, the better to stomp through school hallways with? What bushes do they hide behind? Where do they keep their safes full of stolen lunch money? What technology have they been confidentially developing with Steve Jobs from the privacy of secret lairs to be able to write cruel things on their classmates’ Facebook walls in Instant HD HQ Real Time?

The reality is that bullies are me and you and everyone we know. Not in an X-Files way—I’m not saying we should all live in fear of the 7-Eleven guy insulting us at random while we’re paying for our Slurpees. But humans can be really stupid and cruel, and pretty much everyone has bullied another person at some point. Out of insecurity, out of pressure, for so many reasons. I have. You have. If you deny it, you are either lying or an infant. Of course, just because I think bullying is human doesn’t mean that I don’t also think humans can control their actions, or that when they know they’re being a bully, they should let themselves off with, “I’m JUST a human being!” But I don’t really see this reality I’m talking about represented in pop music or in the most news coverage on the gay teen suicides of last year. And I’d like to.

Here’s why: At my middle school, they told us to think about if we were bullying anyone and just didn’t realize it—but no one is going to look at this popular caricature of a bully as some evil, mugging Regina George and think, “Oh god, that’s me.” Because—with the exceptions of people you read about in the news who really misinterpreted the messages of Jawbreaker and Heathersno one is an evil, mugging, Regina George. (THREE POINTS TO ME FOR SO MANY HIGH SCHOOL MEAN-GIRL CULTURAL REFERENCES IN ONE SENTENCE.) Likewise, no one is a completely innocent, doe-eyed victim, either. People bully in different ways, for different reasons. But so long as they’re not going to the extremes of tripping kids in the cafeteria and posting a video of it to YouTube, they might not realize that they’re actually causing harm, and they might continue. Like, hey, pop culture, can I get a really normal high-school character who does a shitty thing one time because they feel bad about themselves, and then regrets it?

This introductory post is part of an ongoing series we’ll be doing here at Rookie for a few months in an attempt to humanize bullies. Not to garner sympathy for their actions nor to defend what they do, at all. But when I think about this National Discussion, I think it’s important to acknowledge that bullies aren’t cartoon characters. If we make bullies into cartoon characters, no one is able to relate to them. And when no one relates to them, no one realizes that they’re being a bully to someone else. Plus, bullies are way easier to ignore when you realize they’re human—they’re insecure, they’re weak, they’re all of those things. See this as a “BULLIES: THEY’RE JUST LIKE US!” kind of thing. Only not as lame, hopefully.

If I sounded too much like your own middle school principal just now, slap me. ♦


  • stellar September 20th, 2011 3:11 PM

    from experience (and actual feedback), i’ve learned that bullying comes from a desperate need to dump what a person feels they cannot deal with in themselves. and it can happen to anyone who happens to seem ‘available’ for that. hope that’s reassuring to anyone out there!!

  • puffytoad September 20th, 2011 3:32 PM

    I guess everyone is a bully every now and then. Yet some people seem to make bullying their full time job. And others get to be full time victims. Victims are blamed for looking too victim-y and bringing it on themselves. I agree with that in some ways. I was a target for bullying because I am quiet and I suppose I looked scared in general.

    Bullying is a serious problem. It is not just people messing up now and then. It creates a caste system in schools where the bullies may not be at the top but the bullied are at the absolute bottom. I have self esteem issues to this day because of bullying. Thinking of yourself as scum for 12 years can do that.
    -to be continued-

  • Rita Unicornia September 20th, 2011 3:34 PM

    I’m bullied every single day for my style… But I’ve realised I care too much, I think they seem to care too much for me actually, they just need to have something to talk about… rghhh

    I also have a blog… I’m a teen, my spelling is kinda different, but I want it to be international! it’s: :)

  • puffytoad September 20th, 2011 3:42 PM

    I know that you made this post because we already know that bullying is bad, and we need to make people realize that they might be bullies even if they are not mass murderers. I agree with that. I agree that bullies have no idea the kind of damage they are causing.

    I’m not sure why I felt the need to write this except to say that people say a lot of things about bullies. Like, if you are nice to them they will stop bullying because all they needed was some love, or if you ignore them they stop, or if you tell a teacher they will put a stop to it. In my experience, none of these things work. Maybe because they are ways the victim can stop the bully, rather than the bully stopping the bully. I think your idea of making people stop and think in order to discover if they often bully people is a good idea. If bullies want to stop bullying, that seems like something that will actually work.

    And I guess I needed to tell you that I’m damaged due to bullying to argue that bullying is not just a small thing, and also because I’m a compulsive over-sharer, apparently.

  • sdradical September 20th, 2011 3:57 PM

    I am long out of high school (not Heathers old, but Jawbreaker old) and it was interesting to me how many of my friends posted to FB about being bullied when a lot of this bullying talk started making headlines. While I was certainly never part of the ‘popular’ crowd, I couldn’t ever remember being picked on or pushed around. On the other hand, I did remember things I did and said to those ‘popular’ folks, that had it been a cheerleader doing it to a band geek, would absolutely have been called bullying. I justified it at the time by telling myself I was standing up for little guys, giving those stuck up ‘preps’ and ‘jocks’ a taste of their own medicine, but now I wonder if I was just a bully in a Hole tshirt instead of a cheerleading uniform.

  • Ruth September 20th, 2011 4:21 PM

    I had a “frenemy” in my group of friends back a couple of years ago. In the end the only thing that actually stopped her from constantly attacking me and anything I said or did was dropping away from that group. I lost a lot of close friends, (I couldn’t stay close to them and avoid her at the same time) and I guess in some ways it was the “coward’s way out”, but nothing else worked, so it was just something I had to make up my mind to do.

    It is true though that it’s futile to paint all bullies with the same brush. No-one is all good or all bad, so thank you for recognizing this :)

  • NMHfan September 20th, 2011 4:22 PM

    I didn’t think I was a bully in high school until my parents commented on the fact that I bullied them (and I’ll admit–sometimes I still do through I try to be mindful).

    The problem we face is that bullying can become second-nature to the point that you don’t realize that you are even doing any harm. When you know someone well (parents, close friends, ex-close friends), you know their emotional pinpoints (like a voodoo doll) and you can easily manipulate their feelings with a few gestures or carefully placed words. If it seems like anything, it first seems harmless, but can have repercussions later.

    The fact of the matter is that we are all selfish people, and sometimes bullying is out of spite and insecurity, and sometimes out of self-interest. The latter is much more difficult to recognize, but far more important to your personal relationships.

  • Marguerite September 20th, 2011 4:28 PM

    Everyone is a bully, some more often than others, but what i see most is people bullying their bully without realizing it, which just starts a cycle. Both people will go to extremes to hurt the other more, it’s very upsetting to watch, especially if one of them is your friend. It’s hard to help…

  • Bren September 20th, 2011 4:29 PM

    Infants bully too, with their “crying” in order to make you do things. So over them.

    Just kidding. This is so true, we all bully, and the best we can do is apologize and try our best not to do it anymore. Also call out people in a respectful way if they bully.

  • Sonja September 20th, 2011 4:44 PM

    I will be so interesting to see what discussion comes from this column. Two bits: we need to stop blaming others and taking responsibility for ourselves and our own actions. Ultimately. Or wait. Let me take it to the ‘I’. I need to stop blaming everyone and everything around me and start taking responsibility for myself and my own actions. Victimlessness – A Utopia. A lifelong quest. We create our own realities. We have that power.

  • Pashupati September 20th, 2011 4:46 PM

    Also, sometimes you believe your bullying is just teasing, because you met other people who bully/teased you, and so on…

  • linnea September 20th, 2011 4:46 PM

    This is so true. Where have you been all these years Rookie?! I wish I had read something like this or that someone had told me something like this when I was younger…

    When I was about thirteen I became ostracized from all of my friends just when we were moving onto a bigger school and through the years that came I was both bullied and a bully.

    The new friends I made were the kind of people that also were going through shitty stuff or that had a tough background – and we all just kind of wanted “revenge” in some way, but we only ended up taking it out on other people and often eachother.

    So my friends bullied me when they felt like it and then they decided we were friends again and then they did it all over again and I just swallowed it. And being the “victim of choice” most of the time when my friends felt like being mean just made me so angry, frustrated and confused but it also took a torn on my selfesteem – so I started being mean sometimes to those “below” me in the foodchain, to somehow prove my own worth. And boy were there so many times (EVERY TIME) that I just felt even worse of a human being after having bullied someone.

    Thankfully enough I started thinking about this, why am I hurting other in the same way that I’ve been hurt? How does that solve anything? And so I grew stronger, got rid of the “friends” that pushed me down and encouraged the bullying, I stopped being a bully.

    Now I have wonderful friends and we all support eachother but we also keep reminding eachother that there is nothing to be gained from being mean. Or from thinking that pushing people down somehow will raise you up. Because it wont.

    Thanks for bringing this issue up from THIS ANGLE. I think it is really important. I mean when I grew up I never saw myself as a bully, I thought I was only being bullied.

    I had my eyeopener years ago but this article could be the eyeopener someone needs right now!

    (PS. If some of you read the whole comment – congratz! Haha sorry for the novel.)

    LOVE // Linnéa

  • I.ila September 20th, 2011 4:55 PM

    This was so insightful, and somewhere along my train of thought on this topic. Great writing!

  • Hunter September 20th, 2011 5:06 PM

    Raise your hand if you have been personally victimized by Tavi Gevinson…
    *raises all limbs*

    • Tavi September 20th, 2011 8:18 PM

      cute army pants n flip flops

  • Sphinx September 20th, 2011 5:09 PM

    This is really spot on!
    When I was younger, I was bullied all the time, in little (like “friends” telling me I was ugly or stupid, etc) and big (nobody talking to me for about 2 years + spreading nasty rumors) ways.
    And even though I knew how horrible it felt to be bullied, I was terrible to some people on more than one occasion.
    I think the main problem no one seems to know how mean kids can be, and how peer pressure can make even the nicest kid a bully.
    And nowadays, this topic is so trendy that everybody’s using the word bullying as a joke.

  • junebuglove September 20th, 2011 5:53 PM

    In all my years of schooling I have never met a Hollywood style bully. Ever. I have met mean girls: but they usually just ignore me, and I have never had my lunch money stolen. I do not understand how in so many movies and shows they always show the bully as this evil kid that’s bad ALL the time. That’s never really happened in life. I have only met the bullied. Never the bullies.

  • fullmetalguitar September 20th, 2011 5:58 PM

    I’m always really worried about being a bully to the people I love and care about. (I worry less about the people I don’t know as well, but that’s mostly because I’m picking my battles one at a time). I mostly worry because I like to be the brutally honest friend, and I’m pretty bull-headed and loud when I get fired up about certain things, and sometimes I worry that my friends or my boyfriend will think I’m not appreciating them. But whenever I worry about that, I try to pin down what I think might have affected them and make sure they know how much I love them and how much I appreciate them being in my life. I tell them that they’re beautiful and amazing because I really do think all of that, and try to make sure they know I’m always on their side.

    So I guess my contribution is that sometimes you can accidentally hurt someone close to you and not realize it, because you trust that they “know what you mean”, so don’t always assume they know.

  • Whatsername September 20th, 2011 6:13 PM

    Don’t worry, you don’t sound at all like a school principal.

    We had a presentation on bullying where a girl was walking down the hallway and a clique of generic “popular” girls that honestly didn’t look any different than the victim were calling the victim names. Every time “loser” or “freak” were uttered the words would come out in text form and dramatically slap the girl in the face or drag her into a locker.

    Even my English teacher said it was incredibly stupid.

    I can’t wait for the rest of these posts, to better understand bullies instead of the incessant “being mean is bad we need to be good and have happy rainbows everywhere” mentality the school forces on us. Maybe understanding them will help stop them, instead of just constantly antagonizing them.

  • broguishrogue September 20th, 2011 6:39 PM

    augh, this is so perfect. bullies are constantly made out to be exact replicas of Roger from Doug, and i always get irritated for that reason. there aren’t bullies, but there are people who have bullied. i can’t wait for the rest of this series.

  • videoclub September 20th, 2011 6:52 PM

    Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) is an interesting movie that deals with a lot of issues in weird ways including people being bullied or bullies and also real people. I would also say that in Freaks and Geeks, Lindsay bullies Millie, often by accident.

  • unicorn September 20th, 2011 7:23 PM

    the only person i know who has never bullied someone is my friend (jane doe?), whose main goal in life is to save the sea turtles and stop the meanness.
    its gotten to the point where event the people who make fun of stuff like that leave her alone, because if someone was mean to her, she would just be like, are you okay? your hair looks nice today! and everyone near her would look at the person like, you have committed a crime as heartless as killing a puppy.
    she is just the most cheerful, amazing person ever.
    and i think that the bullying would get better if people realized that not only are bullies regular people, so are the people who stand up for those being bullied. and if we recognized that those were regular people, maybe more regular people would stand up for people.

  • Rabia September 20th, 2011 7:35 PM

    Love this! Go Tavi!

  • MichyMich September 20th, 2011 7:50 PM

    I have to admit that I’ve been bullied for being “different” when I was in middle school. I remember that when I first wore a pair of cowboy boots to school, a group of guys called me “Boots” and they did it in a negative way. I was being picked on and I didn’t know how to stand up to it. Another time I got bullied was when I was in 8th grade. I don’t know the exact reason WHY I was picked on, but I remember that this guy took my monkey pencil case, DESTROYED my pencils, VANDALIZED by notebook for Spanish class and I was so passive to ever tell on him (which I should have). Until one day, he passed by me, said “hi” and muttered “Big tits”. I snapped at him and said, “Hey, I heard that”. He absolutely denied it. So, I reported this and the past incidents done by this boy to my counselor.

  • EveyMarrie September 20th, 2011 7:51 PM

    I will personally admit that I am a hypocrite when it comes to “bullying.” Back in high school, I hated how people used to tease me and my friends, but when they had to act cordial to me (because of assigned group projects), I was rude by often ignored their conversations and then afterward, I would throw a slew of insults about them with my friends and we’d laugh about it.

    I still make fun of people despite knowing it’s wrong though. Since high school has been done for me, now it’s just when people annoy me. I won’t say it to their face, but I’ll rant to anyone near by so they understand how much that person annoys me or pisses me off.

    I’m not saying it’s right to do or anything, I’m just being honest about my role as a bully. I’m not a “straight up, in your face attitude” person, I’m the “behind your back gossiper.” Once again, totally not cool on my half since it makes me seem more two-faced than I want to be.

  • AmandaLouiseHobba September 20th, 2011 8:07 PM

    You know it has taken me years to figure this out – even into my early twenties I continued to allow others to put me down, without realising that at times I said and did things that hurt people too.
    As I am currently working on my first novel, I have been thinking quite alot about the mean girl/antagonist/villian, and how I am going to make this character/group of characters realistic and human. What is really going on to make them treat people like they do? How is the antagonist different from one of my protagonists who is actually just as much of a bully herself?
    Without giving away my story, all I can say is I appreciate these posts, as is giving me greater perspective on the situation. It is also making me think about all the times in which I am a total cow too!

  • sparkyee September 20th, 2011 8:35 PM

    great post! it’s really difficult to put these things into words without sounding like an obnoxious authority with too much lipstick on her teeth or a sweaty combover with a piece of paper towel sticking to it.. but you did it!

  • missmadeline September 20th, 2011 9:15 PM

    This is wonderfully insightful writing. Thankyou <3

  • September 20th, 2011 9:22 PM

    As I was reading this, one 1/2 of my brain was concentrating on your words, and certainly laughing at the jokes, whilst the other 1/2 was asking: Am I a bully? What I did to so and so – was that bullying? etc. Reminds me of that kind of ‘Russian nesting doll’ technique used in “Heart of Darkness”. Really clever and very effective, Tavi.

    P.S Upon finishing your article the other 1/2 of my brain concluded that I wasn’t particularly a bully (hopefully), but I’d better watch myself!!!

    PPS. Taylor Swiftian :-)))

  • saranev September 20th, 2011 9:57 PM

    This is the best form of an anti-bullying campaign I’ve ever seen. They’re painted out to be such monsters, especially in the media. Though what they (you, me, and everyone we know) do is not acceptable, it’s important to UNDERSTAND why… without compassion, there’s no hope for change.

  • Mariana September 20th, 2011 10:17 PM

    Yes, this states exactly what bullying campaigns miss in their many messages! I think this same dilemma–thinking about situations complexly and not as cartoon characters–also applies to subjects like peer pressure, etc. (Drug situations never work out to be sketchy kids on a street corner beckoning you over. It’s often a friend just asking.)
    So thank you for clearing up what is usually middle school BS! I love Rookie.

  • kookaburra September 21st, 2011 4:55 AM

    Finally, an insightful perspective on bullying…I can’t really say I’ve ever been bullied (I have a strong personality) but this got me thinking about how I treat and have treated people. Yay Rookie, you guys nailed it yet again!!!

  • Illusen September 21st, 2011 12:44 PM

    As a kid, i was pushed around a lot because i was fat and a have always been a little bit strange.

    I use to show that strangeness to the world and be proud of it, but years of humiliation from various sources (i never had One particular bully) made me shy, quiet, and made me come of as a little sarcastic and cold to the people i don’t know. I never pick on anyone but only because i give most of the people around me as many value as i give to a leaf on a tree, and recently i have started to realize that can be terrible too and make me come off not as a bully but as a stuck up bitch. I completely agree with this article, we all occasionally bully people and there is always two sides to the story. I remember one particular girl who used to pick on me a lot, she was kind of a tomboy and everyone in school knew she was adopted so she was also a target of bullying. I remember she used to complain about how her colleagues treated her but when she had a birthday party she purposely left out not the ones who were meaner to her, but the ones who were weaker than her, and i remember the times when she bullied me with her colleagues seemed to be the only times where she belonged instead of being the freak.

    Did this make it better? I don’t think so, because two minutes later the girl was back to being the class punching bag. However i never even tried to be nice to her, i just looked at her like she was shit and walked away, i was mean to her and tried to make her feel as bad as i did. I was a bully.
    ps: sorry about the Looooong text..

  • serena September 21st, 2011 1:33 PM

    This reminds me of this book I had when I was little where this little boy throws this girl’s coat in a puddle and then she wants to be mean to him, but instead she has compassion for him and thinks good thoughts about him and the next day she’s nice to him and then they’re friends. The end.

  • Meadow September 22nd, 2011 3:10 PM

    I think this is all well and good for verbal harassment, but I know kids who have been physically hurt by bullies to the point of needing surgery. Not only that, they are forced to go back again and again to the place where this trauma occurred with no other option than to pay for private school. I think you are missing the point here that there are real consequences to these behaviors, and that the school environment needs to become safer for learning and living, whether or not we humanize the bullies.

  • September 22nd, 2011 7:26 PM

    I was never bullied much in high school but that was a much needed respite from my years in elementary school which were pretty much hell.
    I feel the very worst things that contribute to bullying are the attitudes we carry around with us every day about who deserves to have the shit kicked out of them. We mock people for being “fat” because it’s “for their own good,” we mock nerds because they obviously don’t have any social skills, we mock lgtb teens because god disapproves of their lifestyle. Frankly I could go on all day and most people would recognize themselves somewhere on that list. We’re mocked for our “weirdness.”
    The problem isn’t having to understand bullies, that’s victim blaming, the problem is that bullies need to understand that it takes all kinds to move a world.

  • SammyBrrr September 22nd, 2011 7:46 PM

    Oh! It’s like the episode of 30 Rock where Liz Lemon goes to her high school reunion thinking that all of her friends missed her, but when she gets there they were all mean to her saying that she was a huge bully and the whole time they were just trying to get on her good side.

  • judYth September 25th, 2011 3:32 AM

    I cheer the editorial direction behind this discussion!

    I was a terrible bully to my younger brother, probably until the day he flipped me over. I remember it thrilled me, so I must have looked on the abuse as a game, though I feel very guilty to this day. I get the psychology of the bully who is dumping on someone because he feels bad about himself.

    Otherwise, I was always really non-confrontational and NICE. In school, I was a wall-flower, and I didn’t get picked on. I just picked on myself. Picking on my brother was obviously a pressure-valve situation.

    Lately, I have had experience with a few real-life grown up bullies. I have two different friends who were married to someone who bullied them.

    Who are these bullies? Apparently, they skate through life getting away with it a lot, getting off on it, enjoying it, being unaware. What are they thinking?

    On a recent discussion on an NPR talk show, you just keep hearing victim after victim after victim coming out. I got the idea that of all these victims, some were better, some worse for the adversity… but that the bullies generally just blindly engaged in this abusive behavior and continued on their path of ignorance.

  • judYth September 25th, 2011 3:38 AM

    And yeah, I agree. Or rather I disagree with the notion that this article seems to suggest, that “we are all bullies.” Sure, we may have experiences that give us insights into bullying, but there are some really mean F-ers out there.

  • natasha September 29th, 2011 10:54 AM

    I sometimes try discussing bullying with myself, but I always start with the question “What defines a bully?” and I fail to find an answer.

  • AineFey September 30th, 2011 9:05 PM

    I was bullied all the time growing up. I was teased and made to cry because I was a little overweight. One year, there was a boy in my class who was more overweight than I. (This was in maybe 3rd or 4th grade.) The other kids teased him for being overweight. I teased him for being overweight. The other kids teased me for being overweight. He never teased me.

    Now, twenty years later, I am embarrassed and angry at myself for picking on him. I remember, at the time, being really happy that there was someone else being picked on. Not that it meant I was teased less. I certainly wasn’t. Looking back, I wish I had been nicer to him. Been his friend. It would have meant having a friend who got how much it hurt to be teased by everyone at school.

  • decemberflower April 2nd, 2013 7:13 PM

    This is perfect. I can’t stand the way schools are addressing bullying. They give us these ridiculous roleplay scenarios and show us these ridiculous videos that carry no resemblance to real life and real situations. It’s so much more complex and so much harder to pin down than people want to think it is. As much as I would never wish bullying on anyone, I’m not much of an idealist, and I always thought it was ridiculous that my middle school called itself a “bully-free zone.” It never will be. Of course they should try to raise awareness and work to prevent it, but when you have a building full of insecure, hormonal, pre-teens, they are going to say and do mean things to each other.