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Reality TV meanness is not bullying

My friend Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times wrote a commentary for NPR about reality TV rewarding bullying. As he writes in an accompanying blog post, “I realized the irony of seeing the actors on Glee decry bullying in one evening on Fox, only to see the network air a show starring one of the biggest bullies in reality TV — bombastic chef Gordon Ramsey — the next night.”

I find this comparison to be inaccurate and, at worst, dangerous. That’s especially interesting because I think Eric and I come at this from the same place. In his piece, he says, “We’ve heard of bullying in so many Public Service Announcements and TV shows, that the words have less meaning.”

But he goes on to argue that “reality TV loves bullies like [Abby Lee] Miller. Think about pugnacious Chef Gordon Ramsay. … This guy earns millions insulting contestants on Fox’s Masterchef. … Their bullying is rewarded with fame and fat paychecks. …It’s a seriously conflicted message: Bullying is bad when kids do it in school, but insanely profitable when adults do it in front of a TV camera.”

That comparison dilutes the term too much, I think. And I find it to be an incorrect use of the term. Here’s how the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines bullying:

“Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power–such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity–to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.

Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

The National Bullying Prevention Center defines bullying with these three points:

  • The behavior hurts or harms another person physically or emotionally. Bullying can be very overt, such as fighting, hitting or name calling, or it can be covert, such as gossiping or leaving someone out on purpose.
  • It is intentional, meaning the act is done willfully, knowingly and with deliberation. The targets have difficulty stopping the behavior directed at them and struggle to defend themselves.
  • Bullying can be circumstantial or chronic. It might be the result of a situation, such as being the new student at school, or it might be behavior that has been directed at the individual for a long period of time.

It’s clear from these definitions that adults who volunteer to go on a reality TV show where someone yells at or is mean to them does not make them victims of bullying. It may make them ignorant, or famewhores, or morons, but not victims. It’s voluntary. They can leave any time. They usually have the opportunity to defend themselves, in the moment and later. It’s not systemic.

Gordon Ramsay, Simon Cowell, and others may verbally berate people, but that just makes them assholes who yell, not bullies.

Now, there actually may be bullying portrayed on reality TV shows, primarily those that are docudramas and capture real people’s lives (from Teen Mom to The Real Housewives), and it can even surface in the context of competition shows. (Colton on last season’s Survivor is one example.)

But I wouldn’t want to label strategic decisions as bullying, either: excluding someone or voting against them in a game because they’re strong or don’t fit in is not the same thing as bullying. It might not be nice, and it might be mean, but it’s behavior in a game–although again, it can cross the line, as it did with Colton.

In the case of Dance Moms, which Eric cites in his NPR piece, Abby Lee Miller is an awful person sometimes, and her behavior may not be healthy for children. And I’ve made the argument that Dance Moms and similar shows are child abuse because the shows expose this humiliation to a wider audience. But is she a bully, as defined above? No.

Bullying is serious. As a victim of bullying as a kid, I know and understand that. But, like Eric Deggans, I don’t want us to water down the definition so that bullying seems so commonplace we become desensitized, especially since kids who are bullied need our help and protection.

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