How Bullying is Portrayed in Media

Guest post by contributor Frankie Wallace.


Bullying has been portrayed in movies, television shows, plays, and more for years. There’s a reason for that, too. Simply put, “art reflects reality.” Bullying is such a popular topic in media because it’s so prevalent in today’s society. Just how much of a problem is it? According to the Bureau of Justice, about 160,000 teens in the United States have skipped school due to bullying. 

A person sits on a concrete floor alone, their head is hidden in their arms. They're wearing a maroon beanie, black long-sleeve shirt, and jeans. They are barefoot.
A person sits on a concrete floor alone, their head is hidden in their arms. They’re wearing a maroon beanie, black long-sleeve shirt, and jeans. They are barefoot. Source: Pixabay

The prevalence of bullying is likely what makes it so easy to watch in movies and on television. Bullies are framed in a negative light on these mediums—after all, who could ever forget Biff Tannen in Back to the Future or Regina George in Mean Girls? While these bullies often get what’s coming to them by the end of the movie, that isn’t always the way it works in real life. 

So, how is bullying really portrayed in the media? Is it an accurate depiction of reality? Furthermore, how can the underlying issue of bullying be helped? 

A Classic Picture—A Dangerous Reality

As stated above, there are many movies with an antagonistic bully—usually in a high school setting, or even younger. Some bullies in movies and television shows have even become pop-culture icons. 

There’s a glaring problem with the way traditional media platforms portray bullying on the screen: it’s not always accurate. We tend to buy into it as entertainment because many of us aren’t certain of the real definition of bullying. But, if you take a look at the stories being shown on the news instead of on the big screen, you’ll get a clearer picture of what bullying really is, especially in schools.

Everything from drawing or writing threatening statements on lockers to “whipping” someone with a towel in gym could be considered bullying. There’s a fine line between bullying and what could be considered a “practical joke,” which is why it’s so important for the media to portray every side of bullying, so everyone gets an accurate depiction of what’s really going on. 

Keep in mind that not all depictions of bullying in the “entertainment” industry are designed to make you laugh or make sure the good guy wins in the end. For example, in 2011, the documentary Bully followed five young teenagers around to see the type of bullying and torment they had to go through each day. It was real, raw, and eye-opening. It showed in feature length what short news clips can only scratch the surface of. 

The Fine Line of Bullying—Who is Affected? 

Bullying can happen to anyone. While most people tend to focus on it as a problem with kids and teens, adults can experience bullying in relationships, friendships, and their workplace. 

Certain groups and individuals may also be at a higher risk of being bullied because of who they are, the things they’re involved in, and more. While there is bullying within certain communities, like among cosplay circles, bullying often comes from one group of people targeting another. 

Students, in particular, tend to be bullied based on things like race, religion, or sexual orientation. In fact, 64% of LGBTQ students have reported feeling unsafe in school simply because of their sexual orientation or preferences. Movies like The Karate Kid focus on bullying due to classism. 2015’s The DUFF is about the role of a “designated ugly fat friend.” And, taking a page from the news, the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry follows the story of Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was bullied, beaten, and killed in Nebraska. 

Bullying creates a culture of fear, which can lead vulnerable kids and teens down a road to depression, thoughts of self-harm, or even worse. Victims who are bullied in school are between 2-9 times more likely to consider committing suicide than those who aren’t regularly bullied or discriminated against. 

How Schools Can Help

Schools all over the country can get a better handle on the bullying problem by putting certain safeguards in place. It starts with school administrators recognizing some of the signs of bullying, including how both victims and aggressors might act. Victims of bullying may show some of the following warning signs: 

  • Visible injuries
  • Damaged personal items
  • Low self-esteem
  • Frequent absences from school

Bullies, on the other hand, may show signs of aggression. They might try to pick fights with other students, and have disciplinary problems in school. There is, perhaps, no better depiction of this on film than in 1985’s The Breakfast Club. The movie showcases five very different individuals from different backgrounds and cliques. A few of them are known to be “bullies” in the school, both verbally and physically. But, what the film eventually shows is that even the popular kids or the tough kids who pick on others can have serious issues of their own, including parental pressure or abuse. 

Students, teachers, and other faculty members all need to be well-educated on the ins and outs of bullying and how to spot it. Every school in the country should have a bullying policy in place in order to protect victims and even get aggressors the help they might need.

It’s not enough for us as a culture to sit back and soak in the way bullying is portrayed in the media. If you see something happening in real life, especially to someone you care about, take active steps to make bullying stay in fictional stories, instead of showing up in your local school system and beyond. 


Frankie Wallace is a freelance journalist interested in all things pop culture. Wallace resides in Boise, Idaho and contributes to a variety of blogs across the web.

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