I’ll be embarrassed, shamed, disgraced, mortified, humiliated… (One Bad Apple)

But sure, let’s all sing an upbeat song about being bullied.

There is no way I can write coherently about this episode.

Some things never heal.

It’s February 5, 2014. Eleven-year-old Michael Morones is in the hospital after attempting suicide two weeks ago. Doctors believe he likely has brain damage, and may even be blind, but it will be months or years before the full extent of his injuries is known. He attempted to hang himself after prolonged bullying over his love for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

His parents are taking the attitude that his bullies should not be punished, because it is not in keeping with the principles of the show. They are using the donations the brony community and others have raised to pay for his medical care, but also to set up a fund to combat bullying.

A boy is in the hospital because he did not conform to society’s standards of masculinity. The people who put him there will not be punished, and will most likely go on to do it again.

Welcome to the bully culture.

It’s November 24, 2012. The top song is still Maroon 5 with “One More Night,” and the top two movies are still Twilight and Bond, though at least the surprisingly good Rise of the Guardians debuts at number four. In the headlines, Israel continues firing into Gaza and vice versa, the voice of Elmo resigns in the face of allegations of sexual abuse, and Australian scientists determine that Sandy Island, which is shown on a number of marine charts and maps, including Google Earth, does not actually exist.

In ponies we have “One Bad Apple,” a pastiche of the cartoons of the 1970s and 80s written by Cindy Morrow and directed by James Wootton.

Which is where the trouble starts, really; pastiche is a favored technique of postmodern writing, and so it is no surprise that Friendship Is Magic assays several over its run. The thing is, postmodern art is characterized by processes of decontextualization and recontextualization. The idea is to shed new light on the work or genre subject to pastiche, or to call attention to aspects of the new context that jar with the borrowed elements. “One Bad Apple” doesn’t do that; the elements of 1970s and 80s cartoons are instead treated like the most boring Internet memes, decontextualized and repeated without any recontextualization, as if they have some intrinsic value independent of the change of context.

Which would work well if they did, but unfortunately, we are talking about the cartoons of the 1970s and 1980s here.

It’s some time in the fall of 1989; I am eight years old. I am at a classmate’s house along with four or five other boys, working on a project that has something to do with the local Native American tribes. To ensure that I do not contaminate the project by contributing to it, the other boys take turns holding me pinned to the floor. They have to take turns because they have to hold their breath to do it; breathing air that touched me would be bad. The most striking thing about this memory is how utterly normal it seemed at the time.

In School Bullying: New Perspectives on a Growing Problem, author and bullying expert David Dupper defines bullying as “the systematic abuse of power,” and expands to describe it as “the unprovoked physical or psychological abuse of an individual by another individual or group over time to create an ongoing pattern of abuse against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself.” That is what happened to me, to Michael Morones, to the Cutie Mark Crusaders. It is not what happened, at least on screen, to Babs Seed.

There is very little good about American cartoons of the 1970s and 80s. Due to a number of pressures, mostly lack of funds, tight content restrictions, and an exodus of talent caused by the aforementioned lack of funds and tight content restrictions, most cartoons were cheaply produced, formulaic pap. Much of “One Bad Apple” references these cartoons, particularly the musical number, which both in musical style and in the frequent use of repetitive, simple backgrounds resembles the musical numbers of shows such as Josie and the Pussycats or Jem. The conversation at the end of the episode, in which a child has to explain a (subtly misused, already outdated) slang term to a clueless adult, is another standard gag of the era, with “bad means good” being the most common such slang term.

Even the bullying plot which dominates the episode is, ultimately, just another reference to the “very special episodes” that were a common feature of family and children’s television in the 1980s and, less frequently, into the 1990s.

It’s late 1991 or early 1992. I’m ten or eleven years old. They’re more sophisticated than a couple of years ago; no one lays a finger on me. They don’t even touch my desk if they can help it; if someone brushes against it by accident, they have to immediately go to the washbasin in the corner of the classroom and scrub. I try to tell my parents what’s going on. “It’s just teasing,” my father tells me. “Ignore it and they’ll stop.”

I’ve been doing nothing about it, carefully showing no outward sign that it affects me, for years. They haven’t stopped. Lesson learned: Telling an adult is useless. They don’t know what to do either, and they’ll tell you it’s your fault.

On my father’s advice, I try striking back in kind. I make what I think is a witty zinger against one of them. I will not say what it was, because it was based on the girl in question’s name, and I have no interest in revealing anyone’s identity. Everyone laughs–at me.

Lesson learned: Don’t bother trying to fight back. They can’t be stopped.

“Very special episodes” were a format (frequently preceded with advertising along the lines of “Tonight, on a very special [show name]”) in which a character of a normally much lighter show confronted a Serious Issue of the Day, usually in the form of a new character who suffered from or caused the issue. Substance abuse was the most common topic, due largely to the willingness of the U.S. government to pay makers of popular shows to make episodes that polemicized against drugs, but everything from the Challenger explosion (on Punky Brewster) to abortion (a critically applauded, highly controversial episode of Maude that helped start the trend), racism (a particularly ridiculous episode of Family Ties stands out here), and the apocryphal lurking pedophile (Diff’rent Strokes). Bullying was another common topic, so it’s no surprise finding it here.

Unfortunately, like most “very special episodes,” the topic is horribly mishandled. The myth of the self-doubting, pitiable bully is repeated, all aggression is castigated as bullying, and the solution at the end is that the bully needs more and better friends, all in keeping with the teachings of the bully culture.

It’s 1993. I’m twelve years old. The girls are worse by far than the boys. The boys merely tell me that I’m disgusting, weak, worthless. The girls don’t need words to let me know it, and that makes it far harder not to believe it.

But now there are three or four of us in the same boat. We band together, bottom of the social hierarchy, and bond over a shared love of cartoons, science fiction, and utterly ridiculous, rule-free roleplaying campaigns that we play during lunch and occasionally gym.

The typical bully, according to Dupper, “tend[s] to be easily frustrated, have low levels of empathy, have difficulty following rules, view violence positively, defiant toward adults, break school rules, have poorer school adjustment, and [be] more likely to drink alcohol and smoke.” Contrary to the usual narrative, bullies have average or higher self-esteem. Boys are more likely to be bullies and girls more likely to be bullied, but neither by very much; boys tend to use more direct tactics such as physical or verbal attacks, while girls (as also documented by Rachel Simmons in her Odd Girl Out) are more likely to use indirect tactics such as social exclusion, rumor-spreading, and manipulation of friendships and relationships.

At first the episode proceeds fairly realistically. Babs bullies as a way of asserting her social status, pushing down the lower kids in the hierarchy (the Cutie Mark Crusaders) in order to elevate herself and get in with the more dominant kids (Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon). Though her tactics are almost entirely direct, that makes sense for the show’s main demographic; per Simmons, indirect bullying generally doesn’t start until the preteen years, with even girls preferring direct tactics up to about the age of eight.

But as it progresses, it becomes clear that the episode is largely missing what it is truly like to be bullied. Babs Seed is clearly a marginalized kid with severe self-doubt, which just isn’t most bullies; while the kids at the very top of their schools’ hierarchies generally don’t bully, the kids immediately beneath them are the most likely to bully. Unsurprisingly, bullying tends to coordinate with strong social skills and status; how else would they get away with it? Victim-bullies (that is, bullies who are themselves victims of bullying previously or in another context) do exist, and are often the most vicious bullies and the most likely to continue their aggressive behavior into adulthood, but are nonetheless rare.

Most damningly for the episode, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom reject Sweetie Belle’s suggestions of telling an adult because they don’t want to be “snitches,” but that’s not why bullied kids don’t tell adults.

It’s the fall of 1995. I am fourteen years old. We are supposed to run a mile in gym class. I know I won’t be able to run it, so I walk instead, chatting with a friend I’ve recently made. The gym teacher comes up behind us. He calls me a fat sack of crap who will die of a heart attack before he’s thirty, and tells me that I’ll deserve it for being lazy.

After temperament, the strongest predictor of bullying is the behavior of adults in the environment. Kids bully because they see adults bully, or because they see that bullies get away with it. You can tell kids that they need to tell an adult when they’re being bullied, but unless they perceive that the adults are willing and able to help, they’re not going to bother. As Dupper puts it, “Even when teachers witness bullying behavior, they often fail to recognize it as bullying behavior, and they may even exacerbate the problem by blaming the victim. As a result, very few students who have been bullied report the incident to an authority figure.”

It’s the spring of 1996. I am fifteen years old. For months now, a particular senior has taken it upon himself to torment me. Because I’m short and have a belly and a Jewfro, he calls me “troll.” My shoes don’t fit, so I often walk with a limp, and for various reasons I don’t like using my locker, so I carry all my books at all times in an enormous backpack. My clothes are cheap, shabby, and frequently unwashed. He likes to ask me if I’m homeless, to say I carry my house on my back. In combination with the troll thing, he frequently says that I live under a bridge.

He has a couple of friends–tough-looking boys, slightly shorter and smaller than he–and a spectacularly gorgeous girlfriend. All laugh whenever he teases me.

I don’t know it, but he’s my last bully. After he graduates at the end of the year, I will never be bullied again, though some of my friends still will.

It doesn’t matter, though. It’s too late.

Dupper points out that verbal and indirect bullying have the same long-term neurological effects as physical abuse. Simmons argues quite convincingly that the prevalence of indirect bullying among girls is because girls are encouraged to be non-aggressive, and as such most obvious outlets for aggression (whether destructive or healthy) are closed off. The result is that aggression–which is a natural and inevitable part of living in a community and having relationships with other people–must be channeled into what she terms “alternative aggressions,” frequently vicious, deniable methods of acting out against the targets of aggression.

This is where the episode veers from being merely mistaken to being outright irresponsible and potentially dangerous to children. The Cutie Mark Crusaders have aggressive feelings toward Babs Seed; who wouldn’t after a sustained campaign of many days of torment? They act on these feelings inappropriately, absolutely, by putting Babs Seed in a dangerous situation that could cause her serious harm.

But–and I cannot stress this enough–they are not bullying her.

It’s the spring of 1999. I am seventeen years old. My achalasia–a rare neuromuscular condition in which the esophagus clamps shut, preventing swallowing–has worsened to the point that in any given meal I have better than even odds of throwing up undigested food which has never seen the inside of my stomach. Drinking water sometimes helps, but it will be several years before I hit on the strategy of carrying a large water bottle everywhere I go, and so instead I am dependent on the water fountain in the corner of the cafeteria. When I do throw up I have only seconds of warning, which means it is usually either in the water fountain or the trash can nearby, in full view of everyone. Nobody says anything to my face, but I can feel them watching. I stop eating lunch, and my weight begins to plummet. Occasionally I hear the whispered rumors–that I have an eating disorder, that I have some sort of stomach disease, that I have Ebola or AIDS.

Dupper argues that bullying in our schools is a reflection of bullying in the larger culture, from nation-states using their militaries to pound weaker countries into submission to action heroes that murder with impunity and then mock their victims to audience cheers. Adults often send mixed messages by encouraging bullying in some areas, particularly sports, while decrying it in others. Inaccurate or sympathetic portrayals of bullying in children’s media likewise frequently subtly or outright blame victims while excusing the bullies themselves.

Dupper himself does not draw the analogy, but his depiction is very similar to rape culture, the phenomenon whereby Western culture simultaneously claims to hate rape while finding excuses to excuse rapists, blame victims, and spread false beliefs about who is likely to rape and how rape occurs. Obviously, rape is a much more serious crime than bullying, but they have much in common, being expressions of power at the expense of another, made easier by a cultural milieu that makes it easy to isolate victims and discourages them from reporting what has happened.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders have lashed out aggressively against Babs Seed, yes, but neither in a sustained campaign nor without provocation. They are not bullies, and it is entirely wrong to equate what they did with what Babs Seed did. Both are wrong, but the CMC acted out of fear and desperation; Babs acted out of a desire for status.

The end of the episode has the CMC and Babs Seed becoming friends, of course, because this is Friendship Is Magic. It is also, of course, not impossible for former bully and former victim to become friends. However, Applejack and the structure of the episode strongly imply that they should be friends, that it is somehow a failing if they do not become friends, and therein lies the problem, because it implies that aggressive feelings are inherently bad–precisely what Simmons identifies as the cause of the epidemic of indirect bullying in girls. Good parenting on Applejack’s part–and responsible writing for children about bullying on the part of Morrow–would be for her to help the CMC find a way to express their feelings against Babs nonviolently, constructively, but still aggressively–for example, the way Rainbow Dash confronted Gilda in “Griffon the Brush-Off,” a vastly superior treatment of the topic of bullying.

It’s March of 2000, two days after my attempt. We Adult Non-Violents have lunch at the same time as the Twelve-to-Eighteen Non-Violent Girls. Even being in the same room makes it impossible for me to eat; I get special dispensation to eat lunch alone.

I’m better now. A lot better. It usually doesn’t bother me. But I’ve been reading up on bullying lately, and today while I was in line to pay for my lunch, I heard a child laugh. For just a moment, I wanted to die. I felt sick the rest of the afternoon, and it took enormous effort to do basically anything.

It’s 1989 and 1992 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 9 and 2000. It’s 2012 and 2014.

Some things never heal.

There is no way I can write coherently about this episode.

If you would like to donate to the Michael Morones Recovery Fund, you can do so here.

Next week: Something better. It has to be.

10 thoughts on “I’ll be embarrassed, shamed, disgraced, mortified, humiliated… (One Bad Apple)

  1. That post was coherent enough. Sure there was a non-linear sense of time in the flashbacks, but it served the greater point.

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  2. I don't really find it incoherent. It makes sense that an episode about bullying would mess with your head, given what happened to you.

    I watched the episode and was focused entirely on Babs trying to “start fresh,” and if that meant dealing with Diamond Tiara in a way that mirrored her own situation, so be it. What bugged me was, why weren't they treating her the same as the CMC, since she's also a “blank flank.” That tip of inconsistency hit me early on, and kept coloring my own judgement of what I was watching.

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  3. In preschool, I was dropped into a specialty class (at a center run by the UW for research on disabled kids), due to an early diagnosis of Asperger's. The kids there were very, shall we say, “diverse” in terms of development. I had no idea anything was weird about the setup. I learned early on that the world is a quirky place. I assumed everyone knew that.

    Then I got dumped into the public school system for kindergarten, and that's when the fun began.

    Word apparently got around that I'd come from the “special school.” They never said anything about it directly to my face… which is why I didn't even realize (until years later) what had actually happened on That Day, the day that will live in infamy.

    At recess, some of the kids walk up to me and ask if I want to play Bambi, specifically, if I want to play the scene where Bambi is fighting with another deer over Feline. I agree, thinking it's a game. So, while I'm play-fighting with this one kid, the other kids run over to the adult on the playground and claim I'm picking fights with other kids. Every adult at the school believes them, primarily because I can't even defend myself since I don't even know what I'm even being accused of, since none of the adults can be bothered to tell me what was said about me or what they even think happened.

    I spent grades 1-4 in another specialty elementary school, this one for more advanced kids. Then one year, in gym class, we're playing some variant on tag (I don't remember the exact rules, but I remember that whoever is it is only chasing one kid at a time), and I'm being chased. I don't know if I was winning by too high a margin or what, but a teacher whom I hate suddenly grabs me when I run by and shouts, “I've got him! Here, come and get him!” I'm startled and scared, and wind up biting her to get her to let me go, after which I'm suspended for a week. The next year I get tossed back into the public school system for 5th grade, my last year of elementary school.

    In 5th grade, apparently it's also clear that I'm weird, since some of the kids enjoy approaching me in the halls or at recess and telling me about this amazing place called the “Funny Farm” full of magical horses and tigers and such, and tell me I should totally go there. I'm shocked, and pretend for a while that I don't know what that phrase means. I get some revenge one day when mom arrives to pick me up, and in full view of those kids, I go up to her and say, “Mom, my classmates are telling me about this amazing place called the 'Funny Farm,' can we go there sometime?” Just to see the look of horror on those kids' faces.

    (the rest of my school career would probably be more appropriate for the comment thread of Griffon the Brush-Off than One Bad Apple)

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  4. Speaking as someone who had a very similar experience growing up with bullying, I can see why this was a difficult episode for you to write about. I want to reiterate that the reason I’ve asked about this entry was because I was interested in what you’d say, not a displeasure in the rate of your output.
    It can be difficult to offer an olive branch or forgive the people who tormented you. There are some people I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive. As I get older though it’s just stopped mattering as much. It takes too much energy to stay angry. Really the closure is really more important for repentant bully than for the victim. They need to know that what they did was as trivial for the victim as it was for them. Victims are forced to move on to just live.
    The idea of forgiveness, of befriending the bully is symptomatic of the idea that victims should never strike back against their oppressors. The idea that it is somehow wrong to fight back and to stand up for yourself is pervasive, from elementary school to elder care facilities, and it has been marketed to everyone from women to the mentally ill. It goes without saying that the prerogative of the oppressed to use whatever means at hand to free themselves, but that was a lesson I had to learn for myself, and I still struggle to reconcile it with the ideal of pacifism that my religion calls for.

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  5. I don't think my experience was as bad as yours, but I certainly sympathise.

    My two strongest memories of primary school are lying on the floor of the cloakroom while a teacher tells me that maybe three other boys wouldn't have kicked hell out of me if I wasn't such a wimp, and – even worse – cheerfully and innocently telling Mum about some amusing banter I'd had with a different teacher, only to learn from her reaction that I'd just been humiliated in front of the entire class. So no, no point talking to them about anything. Mum would later tell me that she spoke to the headmistress, and was told that I should be homeschooled, and if Mum ever told anyone she'd said that, she'd deny it.

    Towards the end of my time at primary school, I began lashing out – every so often I would have temper tantrums where I genuinely couldn't control what I did. This did not reduce the bullying (if anything, it became a “dare” amongst the bullies, eqivalent to poking a maddened but weak bear with a stick) but by secondary schhol it got me labelled as a “problem kid”. Which meant, of course, a “not letting us ignore the problem” kid.

    I end up in a School For Children With Special Needs (and, at 12, am rather sarcastic about “not being bulied” being a Special Need). To my horror, one of the bullies, who disappeared after primary school, turns out to already be there. I quickly realise that, actually, about half the kids here are ones where the state school couldn't conveniently ignore their bullying. The staff are more understanding and helpful than the teachers at my primary school, but they can't be everywhere.

    Actually, the bully from my old school turns out not to be so bad any more, but others are worse – they *know* that every kid who gets sent here is either a bully or a victim, and it's fairly obvious which one I am. On the other hand, as a clique, we “victims” can support each other. And as the staff teach me to channel my anger, I'm less likely to give the bullies the rise they want (no, ignoring it *doesn't* make it go away, but calmly making it clear that actually, I don't care what they think at least stimmies them for a moment – of course, it probably helps that by this time I'm one of the older kids there.)

    But I still have a social phobia and panic attacks. And they get worse when I'm around kids, immediate relatives excepted.

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  6. I understand how my comment could be misconstrued as victim blaming. I should have rephrased it better and I apologise. But I do not believe I was promoting bully culture. You said yourself: Telling authorities doesn’t work, ignoring it breeds complacency and doesnt work, Witty zingers dont work. Even assertively constructive behaviour like Rainbow does successfully in “Griffon the Brushoff” and fails to do in “Newbie Dash” may work, but what if the bully ignores it. Then violence is the answer.

    When the vast majority of schools showcase that they’d rather sweep the issue of bullying under the rug and refuse to address it in any meaningful way, what are these kids supposed to do? What possible reason is there to give that they shouldn’t beat their tormentors into the dirt? Because it’s wrong? I mean that’s the reason. Because it’s wrong. Assault is certainly illegal except in situations of self defense and we’ve all been taught that diplomacy is a morally superior option to physical force. Sure, it’s morally wrong. That’s not exactly an argument that speaks to the value of being on the moral high ground, though does it? It doesn’t sell me on anything. If you have an alternative solution, I’d love to hear it. Problem is: A lot of people don’t. Whenever it’s suggested that children deal with their bullies by getting physical, social media is full of the cries of “VIOLENCE ONLY BEGETS MORE VIOLENCE” and other similar platitudes that are easy to make when you’re sat comfortably at home, privileged to not have to be around those kind of people. But whenever anyone asks for an alternative what do you get? More platitudes. More vaguery. No concrete, practical solutions that would work better than just clobbering someone in the head. That’s not selling me on anything, that’s just appealing to morality. And it’s Conservatives appealing to morality too, which is rich.

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