24 May How Credible Can A Bully Be?
Regarding our latest episode, Teenage Crush: Part Two, I feel I can empathize with Travis in his experience with harassment. Especially involving his sexual orientation and sexual health status; not to such extremes as you see in the story, but most fiction, I find, is just dramatized non-fiction. So, naturally, I wanted to explore those themes within this article and do a breakdown of why I condemn the actions of our deeply flawed, lead character, Brittany.
This story touches upon two subjects I am deeply passionate about: sexual education and LGBTQ+ inclusivity.
In Brittany’s case, I do recognize her blunders of corrupting these concepts through the impaired judgment of adolescence, as it is a confusing time for a human. We undergo years of a consistent stream of raging hormones as our bodies develop. Teenagers are learning important social skills as their stakes heighten with the responsibilities that come with maturity. And, while they’re struggling through all this, they are finding out about social mores of sexual attraction. It’s an impairment I recognize, however, it is not an excuse for her behavior.
If anything, I would hope that if any rational person were confused by sexual health concepts or perspectives they would actively seek to learn about these subjects in order to better understand the circumstances and act with human compassion for both themselves and others when experiencing conflict.
However, that is not the case for many people.
Arrested development is a widely used term for reasons applicable to labeling status quo behavior in some social circles. People still harass each other through video games and online forums with homophobic and ill-informed opinions. People still spread misinformation for their own egotistical reasons.
And, so, characters in fiction, like Brittany, can exploit the laziness and ignorance inherent in human behavior.
Throughout the entire three-part story of Teenage Crush, I have left Travis’s sexuality vague for a reason. Because it doesn’t matter what his sexual orientation is. Sexual orientation is a facet of a person’s life where they get to choose who they celebrate it with. Privacy is a human right. And it is meant to protect us from danger.
What I see as most important within this story arc, is questioning the validity of Brittany’s actions and opinions as she lashes out as our flawed lead character, plotting out her revenge and, in the process, hurting people: Travis (her childhood friend), her community and herself.
Through her failings, we learn that Brittany spreads a malicious rumour that Travis is a homosexual who has AIDS. Her rumour is based on little-to-no evidence, and it is fueled by her insecurity about fitting in after she felt embarrassed by Travis’ public rejection of her kiss.
The only reason Brittany’s revenge scheme is at all effective is because of their small town’s poor sexual education program that is offered through their public school system. Abstinence is still taught in schools today which I find profoundly ridiculous and can lead to nothing but the instability of ignorance.
By exploiting the student body’s naivety in Teenage Crush, the foundation of ignorance that their sex-ed program, hosted by religious figures preaching abstinence, has established, Brittany is able to ‘destroy’ Travis’ reputation within their high school.
If the fictional student body knew the truth about HIV/AIDS, they would understand that it is a treatable disease with several preventative measures now that we have PrEP, condoms, antiretroviral therapy (ART) and education on our side.
The fact that Brittany works at a clinic and recognizes the difference but continues to manipulate the uneducated just makes her actions crueler.
It’s her gossip about Travis’ sexual orientation that initially turns his reputation on its head in a town known for its homophobia. His reputation of being a jock Football player who just hasn’t had any known sexual encounters with women, once a nagging mystery, becomes solved for the school populous once Brittany defames him. His friends won’t even high-five him. Girls who were once interested in dating him weep at his presence. And his favourite teacher shuts him out.
Gossip always makes for a complex situation. It’s tough to consider any healthy solutions as to how to handle situations such as this, particularly, when you’re a minor living in a small town in a school brimming with bullies. What do you do, become anti-social until you can move away after high school? Do you switch school districts? Do you just accept some people are mean and not worth your time?
I have experienced my own personal journey of being called gay as if it were a bad thing. In my youth, a person vandalized my family home with a derogatory word about what they assumed was my sexuality. In my college years, I’ve been pushed around by angry, violent men who used their presuppositions about my sexuality as a weapon. In all honesty, I don’t believe it matters if I am gay or straight. As they say, that’s for me to know, and for you to find out. In the end, harassment and violent behavior is unacceptable. Shaming anyone for their sexual preferences, health status, or body is something only a crude person would do.
What got me through my experiences was questioning the credibility of the people who spread gossip about me, vandalized my home, or the actions of those men who attempted to harm me.
So, if I were face to face with a teen, like Travis, who had been relentlessly bullied, and they asked me what they should do about it, I’d ask them to consider the validity of the source of hurtful rumours. If a person, like Brittany, can’t be trusted to tell the truth then what value do any of their opinions have? And if anyone believes a bully’s word-of-mouth, then should not the worth of their words also be questioned?
Brittany turns out to be homophobic, even when she knows it’s wrong, which makes her even more dangerous than an ignorant person. Her revenge plot is based on the feelings of rejection she felt when the popular crowd at her school witnessed it, she didn’t even consider asking Travis if he wanted to kiss in a clear, consensual manner. So, why in the hell, should Travis or anyone with a polite, respectable demeanor consider a bully’s opinion valuable at all?
After considering all of that, I’d say to Travis, “Just keep yourself safe. Protect your boundaries. And do your best to de-escalate conflict. Then move far away from these toxic people the moment you can.”
This school of thought is the same reasoning that I use when I think back to all those times people tried to insult my sexual orientation when I wore tight clothing throughout high school or did my hair a certain way. I think about that advice when I remember those people who tried to physically hurt me because they thought I was gay.
I would hope that the Travis’s of the world, no matter their gender, are able to explore those similar coping techniques when they grow upon their social skills or finds ones that are beyond my foresight and better for them.
After writing this story, I found in my exploration of a bully’s mindset that they are people who are most likely traumatized like the trauma Brittany experiences when people gossip about her drunk father. Or make fun of her because she was rejected in front of everyone. And these people are dangerous and deserve support systems offering rehabilitation. Also, it’s not my responsibility to take care of them or try to change them. I feel my only duty is to protect myself, and if I can, support innocent folks trying to live their lives peacefully.
If you’d like to read or listen to ‘Teenage Crush: Part Two’ click here.
If you have any comments or questions, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment on our social media or DM us on Instagram @fallingforstories.
Josh Ackermann escapes his desk job by writing in his free time. One of his short stories, One Helluva Headache, was published in the English Bay Review. He’s currently revising two of his first novels. And he’s is the creator of the Falling For Stories podcast; among many other titles.