Bully For You

‘It can’t just be a coincidence that so many of the best films of the year are about bullying and abuse’

With Prejudice
Donald Trump: Pandering to paranoia but his poll ratings just go up (Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0)

To frighten, menace, terrify, alarm, overawe, subdue, unnerve — all synonyms for the verb “to bully”. In the 16th century, though, the word meant “sweetheart”, deriving from the Dutch word “boel”, meaning “lover”. In time, through over-use, it came, like “wicked” and “sick”, to mean its opposite. By the 17th century, a bully was simply a “harasser of the weak”.

Bullying is big these days. It affects women in the workplace, trans men and women in jail, children at school; it’s rife in politics, the army (131 deaths in training in the past 15 years), and perhaps the most bully-prone arena of all, social media. Cyber-bullying makes it so easy to be vicious. The bullies don’t have to see their victim’s face.

In the US, 160,000 students a day skip school because of bullying. Should you be overweight, disabled, asthmatic, lousy at sport, unpopular or, dare I say it, ginger, you’re probably in for it. In my day a teacher could pull the bully out of class by one ear and clout him on the other. Now the bully is liable to be offered mindfulness lessons and anger management counselling. “You can’t talk to me like that,” said one such school thug. “My mum pays your salary!”

Kids learn from what they watch, and   television is one long assault course in ritual humiliation. The infantilised are judged by the inane: “You have nine seconds to complete your task! 9, 8, 7, 6 . . . PUT DOWN YOUR OVEN GLOVES.” Or: “You let me dahn. You let your team dahn. You’re innumerate, you’re not telegenic and you’re faaaared!” When asked to appear on such programmes I turn all such offers dahn on the grounds that I would a) cry and b) remodel the nose of my critic live on air.

Meanwhile, that nice-guy Mr Corbyn — who voted 500 times against his own party (bringing a new and kinder politics to our sceptic Isles) allegedly fires, by phone, a member of his cabinet who disagrees with his views. An MP who voted in favour of the UK bombing Syria is threatened on social media with being bombed in her home. The former wives of Simon Danczuk blast each other in print as to exactly how disgusting their ex-husband is, was or might be. Sir Tim Hunt may leave the country after being savaged by the PC mafia for a jokey observation on the sexes. Freedom of speech is abandoned on university campuses because Germaine Greer expressed an opinion. And God help Charlotte — “maybe black actors didn’t give award-winning performances this year” — Rampling’s nose in the Oscar stakes.

Nigel Farage, who one might think of as  an oppressor, not a victim, is convinced someone loosened the wingnuts on his car. Certainly a wheel flew off his Volvo on a French motorway, and the mechanics declared, without irony, that there was simply a screw loose. Donald Trump unabashedly flaunts his racism, panders to paranoia and his poll ratings just go up.
It’s so easy to turn a blind eye to bullying. The Christian world ignores the terrible persecution of fellow Christians, Yazidis and Copts in the Middle East. Countries under sharia whip or stone women for wearing their burkas too tight, because, as it is said, a tight burka equals loose morals. And that’s just the tip of the Isis-berg. I hardly dare mention Little Big Man Putin who controls Europe’s gas supplies and may possibly poison people with polonium.

DJ and author Paul Gambaccini’s flat was raided at 4.30am, courtesy of Operation Yewtree, his computers and diaries confiscated, and his life put on painful hold for a year, on the testimony of two men he had never met. 

The so-called victim remained anonymous but Gambaccini’s name was leaked to the press. Throughout his ordeal the Labour party, for whom he had laboured for decades, Amnesty International, and Stonewall (which he had helped found) shunned him. No charge was ever brought.

But perhaps on some level we like to be bullied. We buy the magazines. We allow ourselves to be ticked off by Gwyneth Paltrow for all those years we didn’t know our vaginas needed steam-pressing — and there was me thinking it was meant to have a permanent crease. Paparazzi still chase post-partum celebrities to capture a tiny pinch of cellulite, and while we theoretically laud Nigella, Cheryl Tweedy-Cole-Fernandez-Versini remains our slender pinup.

And as the first all-women’s political party is established, the phenomenal sales of Fifty Shades Of Grey suggest that a large proportion of have-it-all women really want to be dominated by men who tie them up in dungeons and spank them. Apparently, calculated submissiveness will lure these men into marriage. They also want them to stack the dishwasher, bake ciabattas and arrange the playdates, so hey, no pressure. Men are confused, women conflicted. It seems much easier these days to be gay than heterosexual.

Even in The Archers, sociological soap guide to our times, the ruthless Rob Titchener is steadily reducing his new wife, Helen Archer, to a whimpering apologist. The poor actor Tim Watson, a very nice, friendly guy, is receiving sacks of hate mail as every listener in the land screams “Helen! Kick him a) in the balls and b) out of your house!” at their DABs. But the simple, scripted farming folk of Ambridge are too busy upgrading milking techniques to notice the malevolent misogynist in their midst.

To my reckoning one of the best movies of the year is Room, a harrowing account of a mother and son held captive for seven years by an abusive maniac. Watch it with your knees in your eyes. The back-stabbing backstage world of Bolshoi Babylon comes a close second — a riveting documentary in which ballet itself emerges as the bully. It can’t be coincidence that three other superb screen offerings, The Revenant, The Big Short and Spotlight, are about bullying and abusive behaviour in the Wild West, the banks, and the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, Mark Clark, of the Tory party’s “Road Trip 2015”, has disappeared from sight and sound since his alleged tyrannising was exposed. Good riddance — except that the celebrated “dossier” of his offences, allegedly sent to Grant Shapps and Baroness Warsi (whose accusatory letter to the Guardian broke the story) has still never been produced. Nevertheless, unproven allegations brought down  Shapps and  they’re still baying for the blood of Lord Feldman. Harasser of the week? J’accuse.