Forgive Your Monsters

Mild spoilers for two movies and Steven Universe below.

This week I saw two movies that dealt with childhood bullying.  One was Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice and the other was J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls.

Both show middle-grade children getting bullied, but their points of view are almost exact opposites.  A Silent Voice is told from the bully’s perspective.  We watch our confused young boy playing rough-and-tumble with his friends, meeting the new girl, who is deaf.  He is flummoxed, unable to react to her.  He teases her. Others join in but over time he becomes her chief bully.  It gets out of hand. We can see it get out of hand, but we also see his remorse and the culpability of silent supporters.

The main character’s path from childhood bully to full adult who forgives himself and seeks forgiveness from the object of his bullying is the arc of the movie. It’s gorgeous and I highly recommend it.

Then I watched “A Monster Calls” and… okay so the bullying is not central, it’s presented as just another horribleness in the misery of our main character’s life. His mother, his sole caretaker, is dying. He has no friends – that we see.  He has to take care of himself and, of all things, these random kids beat him up after school for NO REASON.

I was a bullied kid in school. I was bullied relentlessly. I know: It never happens for no reason.  I kept waiting for the scene that revealed the bully’s motivation.

Near the end of the movie, the bully approaches our protagonist and says (I’m paraphrasing from memory here), “I think… you want someone to beat your head in.  I’m not that guy anymore.” He shakes the kid’s hand and walks away.  “You’re invisible to me now. Hope your mom gets better.”

It’s clear from other events in the movie that this boy HAS been driving others to “punish” him as he suffers guilt over his mother’s sickness, but it’s an unreliable narration.  A lot is left out of the camera’s frame.  Was the bully jealous of the careful treatment given by adults to a kid in a hard situation?  Did the main character do something to provoke this bully?

I imagine some people right now have their fists shaking. I’m victim-blaming! How dare I! Ease up a sec… I’m not saying it’s the victim’s fault. I’m saying that there are REASONS.  A reason isn’t an excuse.  I was bullied because I was poor and because I was poor I dressed badly and had poor personal hygiene.  I was bullied because I was precocious and I clung to the self-worth academic achievement gave me, which made me behave like a little snot in class.

I was bullied because I was broken.  And the kids who bullied me were broken, too.

We need to step away from the myth of the Bully and the Victim.  They are not separate species. They are one and the same.  Decades of TV and movies and books about The School Bully have hardened this worldview where you are either wholly innocent or wholly a monster.  Sometimes bullies are humanized, as in “A Silent Voice” where we can really feel how he ended up being a bully and then see him bullied in turn for his actions, but the little deaf girl does everything right. She reacts to all abuse with kindness.

There’s a mythology that there is no reason, that there are bullies and there are saintly victims chosen at random.

Paradoxically this exoneration of fictional victims leads to victim-blaming. I’ve been at the brunt end of it.  Having been caught fighting back, I would always get, “I thought you were a Good Kid. Apparently you are Just As Bad.”  These stories with patient heroes who just absorb and absorb abuse they did nothing to provoke SICKEN ME because they are held up as models for behavior and anything less – anything achievable by flawed humans – is disdained.

Real bullies are themselves bullied.  Real victims are also bullies sometimes.  It’s hard to watch the other kids turn on the main character of “Silent Voice” – eventually leading him to attempt suicide – and not imagine the same thing – no, worse! – happening to the bully in “A Monster Calls” who picks on the kid everyone knows has a mom dying from Cancer!  That kid is limping home every day, right?  He’s been doxxed. He has death threats.  And the people doing that? Probably don’t realize that their actions make THEM bullies, too.

Which brings me to Steven Universe.

Steven Universe is the best fucking thing to happen to Western Civilization in my lifetime.  Come at me, Internet.

One of the many glories of Steven Universe is their metaphor for mental or emotional damage.  Steven and his friends battle a series of monsters, who are revealed later to be the same species as his Space Amazon caretakers – the Crystal Gems.  Gems who have suffered extreme emotional or mental stress turn into “Corrupted Gems” and take on monstrous forms. They lash out.

Bullies are not monsters. They are corrupted gems. They are the same as the rest of us, but they’ve been damaged, and that damage causes them to lash out.  The goal on Steven Universe is not to defeat the corrupted gems, but to find a way to heal them.

Steven Universe as a show is not afraid to show its heroes behaving badly, and being bad in real ways.  Love leads to jealousy, insecurity leads to punching down.  It shows real love and real forgiveness from real wrongs.  The relationships in the show are complicated and even when a character is clearly in the wrong, there’s not an easy answer with how to deal with it.

Stories are so often cleaned up to be one-sided.  How refreshing and even brave it feels to present reality as it is – and how it almost has to have immortal Space Amazons to do that, because perhaps we would judge ordinary humans too harshly to let them be, well, human.

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