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Lesson Plan Booster: What Message Do Movies Send About Bullying?

As long as there have been films about children and teens, bullying has been depicted on screen. Despite the plethora of movies that include scenes of bullying, it’s relatively rare for a movie to show how, or even whether, a case of bullying is resolved. Also rare are depictions of positive actions, on the part of peers or adults, that serve to support the target of bullying.

Filmmakers certainly are not responsible for creating practical solutions to the problem of bullying within the context of their stories. After all, they are entertainers whose main goal is to create an engaging drama. That, however, leaves the viewing audience, of which educators and students are a sizeable portion, to consider the message that these scenes send, along with the possible impact of those messages.

When young people examine the messages communicated by movies, they gain the media literacy skills needed for them to become thoughtful media consumers. Films are also an engaging way of opening class discussion on whether on-screen bullying reflects reality or reinforces the kinds of bystander and adult actions that actually help stop bullying.

Grade Level:         4-12

Student learning objectives

Students will examine several films that depict acts of bullying and discuss whether (and how) the characters addressed the problem. They will generate possible alternative actions on the part of the target of bullying, as well as adults and peers. Students also will learn about the bystander actions that targets of bullying report are most helpful.


1. Choose a movie or movies on which to focus. Suggestions for PG-rated films include A Christmas Story, Wreck-It Ralph, Napoleon Dynamite and ParaNorman; plot synopses of these movies appear below.

Watch a film in its entirety before showing and/or discussing it in class. This will allow you to fully grasp the movie’s take on bullying, screen content for appropriateness, select relevant scenes, and locate the time points during the movie when these scenes appear. Plan in advance the amount of class time you can devote to showing clips, and select/time those clips accordingly.

If you can’t access the full movie or choose not to show it in class, you can use the synopses below, perhaps supplementing them with snippets found online (try doing a Web search for “[name of movie] bullying scenes”).

Follow up viewing of clips with a class discussion based on the discussion questions below. To save time, you might give students the homework assignment of watching the entire movie and answering the questions, then coming into class prepared to discuss their answers.

2. Get a handle on the “right message” to give kids regarding how to stop bullying.

First, consider how bullying situations tend to be resolved in the context of a movie.

Often bullying is resolved as a result of:

  • The target fighting back with violence; or
  • The target using a magical ability to win acceptance.

But how well do these scenarios match real life? Are the scenarios feasible, and do they really work to end bullying?

In the 2010 study referenced in the EducationWorld article Ask Bullied Kids What Helps Them, researcher Stan Davis revealed students’ reports that “fighting back” made bullying worse half of the time, and resulted in no change another 20% of the time (so fighting back was unhelpful 70% of the time).

Davis also noted that some of the most common adult-recommended actions for students who are targets of bullying—pretending it doesn’t bother you and telling the aggressor to stop—were actually experienced by kids to be some of the least effective strategies. Specifically, only 12% of young people reported that “pretending it didn’t bother me” made things better, and only 14% of children reported that “telling the bully to stop” made things better.

In contrast, more than twice as many young people said telling a friend (32%) or telling an adult at school (34%) made things better.

In addition, although many have advocated for bystanders (kids who witness mean behavior) to confront the person who did it, targets of bullying said they would prefer that someone:

  • Walk with them or sit with them;
  • Call them at home; or
  • Help them tell an adult.

So the kind of peer support that targets found most helpful centered not necessarily on peers interacting with the bully, but more on peers:

  • Communicating to the target that s/he was not alone; and
  • Helping him/her feel connected and valued in the school.

In terms of reporting bullying to adults, targets reported that it was most helpful when adults:

  • Took the problem seriously;
  • Took responsibility for solving the problem; and
  • Emphasized the fact that the bullying was not the target’s fault.

In the course of previewing your chosen movie or movies, make note of whether the target of bullying told anyone about the problem and/or received help from anyone, or whether s/he was left to solve the problem by him/herself. Also watch for the presence or absence of Davis’ research-identified helpful bystander or adult actions, since they are later referenced in the discussion questions.

3. Review synopses of movies that depict bullying. The following films are good examples of Hollywood’s take on the issue:

A Christmas Story (1981- rated PG)
Airing in December every year, this film chronicles the attempts of a nine-year-old boy named Ralphie to procure a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. A sub-plot that goes on for nearly the entirety of the film involves a bully named Scott Farkus. Farkus routinely bullies Ralphie and his friends, often twisting their arms behind their backs and forcing them to cry “Uncle.” As the film progresses, Farkus is seen injuring students in front of their elementary school and chasing them through the streets.

At the climax of this storyline, Farkus hits Ralphie in the face with a snowball. Seeing that this causes Raphie to cry, Farkus mocks him, demanding, “Cry for me, baby! Cry!” Enraged by the near-constant tormenting and the seemingly endless mocking, Ralphie lunges at Farkus and tackles him to the ground. As a group of classmates watches, Ralphie proceeds to violently punch Farkus in the face while screaming obscenities. The fight is broken up when Ralphie’s mother arrives and pulls her son off of his tormentor. The other students, now realizing that the bully isn’t that tough or scary, shrug their shoulders and move on, confident that Farkus’ bullying days are over.

Wreck-It Ralph (2012 - rated PG)
Set in a fictional world where video game characters interact with each other when they are not being played, this film follows the titular Ralph as he tries to gain status among his digital peers. Along the way he encounters a young, female character named Vanellope von Schweetz, who is from the candy-based racing game “Sugar Rush.” Von Schweetz is known to her peers as “The Glitch,” because she is afflicted with a condition called “pixlexia,” a computer coding error that causes her to twitch and briefly disappear.

Von Schweetz wants nothing more than to be a driver in one of her game’s official races. She even builds her own vehicle in an effort to accomplish her goal. She is then confronted by Taffyta Muttonfudge, the best racer in the game, and the other drivers. They torment her, calling her “an accident waiting to happen.” Then they destroy her vehicle to prevent her from racing, before tossing her in a mud pit.

It isn’t until after a series of adventures and a lot of support and coaching from Ralph that von Schweetz finally gets to race and dramatically crosses the finish line. At this point the game resets, and it is revealed that von Schweetz is actually a princess and the rightful ruler of the “Sugar Rush” kingdom. All of the game’s characters are discovered to have had their memories erased by the villain Turbo, which is why they did not know von Schweetz’s real identity. Now, fully aware of the past, they embrace her as their monarch.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004 – rated PG)
Depicting the high school experience through the eyes of an over-the-top outsider, the film shows some of the coping techniques used by bullied students. Napoleon is a high school student who lives with his 32-year-old, unemployed brother and his outrageous grandmother. He is supremely awkward in his appearance and daydreams his way through school, doodling ligers (lion-tiger hybrids) and fantasy creatures while reluctantly dealing with the assorted bullies who frequently torment him.

To make himself appear more interesting and dangerous, Napoleon frequently makes up fantastic stories about himself and responds to being questioned with unprovoked anger.

Napoleon becomes friends with two students at his school: Deb, a shy girl who runs various small businesses to finance her college career; and Pedro, a transfer student from Mexico. The three quickly develop a close bond strengthened by their shared outcast status. After a series of dubious decisions and misunderstandings, the three end up happy, with Pedro being elected class president and Napoleon and Deb forming a relationship.

ParaNorman (2012 – rated PG)

Norman is able to speak with the dead, including his late grandmother and various ghosts in his small, New England town. Almost no one believes his ability is genuine and as a result, he is isolated emotionally from his family while being ridiculed and bullied by most of his peers for his seemingly strange abilities.

Norman finds a friend in Neil, an eccentric, overweight boy who is bullied himself and who finds Norman’s abilities as a medium intriguing.

Norman is tasked with saving his town from a witch who wants nothing more than to destroy it. He learns that the witch was once a little girl who, like him, was a medium. The townsfolk, scared of her ability, tried and convicted her of being a witch.

In the film’s climax, Norman tells her that he understands how she feels as an outcast. As she struggles to drive him away, Norman endures her attack and eventually convinces her that, despite her legitimate grievance, her thirst for vengeance isn’t accomplishing anything except inflicting more pain. He tries to convince her that even in the darkest times, there must have been someone who was kind to her. Focusing only on the tragedies and forgetting the good things in her life is what reduced her to a malevolent force.

Recalling her true personality and happy memories with her mother, the girl is able to find a measure of peace, knowing that she is not alone and that one person in the town understands her. This allows her to let go and move on to the afterlife. The locals regard Norman as a hero, even when the outside media tries to explain the disturbance as merely a powerful storm.

Introducing discussion to students:

We’ve all seen films that show bullying in one form or another, but have we ever thought about whether the victim’s response (or the response of those witnessing the bullying) is realistic or helpful? Even though movies are fiction, we should be aware that they still send a message about what is “normal” or acceptable. When we gain the skills to be aware of, and to be critical of, these messages, we gain media literacy.

So while we go to the movies to be entertained, we can use films as opportunities to (1) become aware of potentially harmful messages about bullying and (2) learn about what we can do to stop bullying in real life.

Options for student discussion questions:

These questions are followed by sample potential answers based on some of the movies discussed above. The questions can be discussed in class and/or given to students as a homework/writing assignment in advance of class. Try assigning different groups of students to different movies so that more of the films can be covered in class.

1. How closely did the movie match real life?

Napoleon Dynamite: It matched real life in that students who are different often become the targets of bullying. It’s also believable that a target might invent a dramatic persona in an attempt to protect him/herself from bullying. While targets of bullying are often depicted as silent, passive victims, Napoleon’s anger is probably more realistic, since many targets do respond aggressively or attempt to “counter-attack.”

ParaNorman: It matched real life in that students who are different often become the targets of bullying. Less realistic is the idea of special powers that allow communication with the dead, as well as the notion of convincing a witch by helping her resolve her emotional baggage with regard to bullying.

2. Did the bullying stop? If so, how was the situation resolved, and what message does that send?

Napoleon Dynamite: It’s unclear whether the bullying stopped for good, but with strong peer support, the bullying became much less relevant. This is probably a fairly realistic view, although some may view this as a message that “bullying can’t really be solved.”

ParaNorman: The bullying stopped due to Norman’s special powers, which allowed him to convince a witch to stop causing mayhem in town. This is a situation that couldn’t be duplicated in real life, so the questionable message is that only special powers can overcome bullying.

On the other hand, in the conclusion of the movie, Norman sends some great messages to the witch about resolving anger in healthy ways, rather than bullying:

Norman (to the witch, Aggie): Sometimes when people get scared, they say and do terrible things. I think you got so scared that you forgot who you are. But I don’t think you're a witch, not really.
Aggie: You don’t?
Norman: I think you're just a little kid with a really special gift, who only ever wanted people to understand her. So we’re not all that different at all.
Aggie: But what about the people who hurt you? Don’t you ever want to make them suffer?
Norman: Well, yeah. But what good would that do? You think just because there’s bad people out there that there’s no good ones, either? I thought the same thing for a while, but there’s always someone out there for you, somewhere.

A Christmas Story: The bullying stopped when Ralphie fought the bully, so the negative messages are that (1) targets are responsible for solving the problem of bullying, and (2) physical violence solves the problem of bullying. In reality, physically attacking a bully most often ends up making things worse. In addition, if they fight back at school, targets will most likely get in trouble, since the school can’t allow kids to physically assault each other, and since an environment of frequent physical assaults will damage the school’s climate, leading to kids not feeling safe.

3. Did adults know about the bullying? If so, did they help?

Napoleon Dynamite: The bullying does not seem to have been reported, nor did adults appear to help solve the problem.

ParaNorman: The adults were skeptical of Norman’s powers—mostly they simply viewed him as odd. They didn’t seem to be very aware that Norman was bullied, and Norman likely doubted that he would receive help even if he reported the bullying.

Wreck-It Ralph: While the ages of the characters in this movie are unclear (it’s anyone’s guess whether Ralph is older than Vanellope), Ralph does help Vanellope—not specifically with the bullying issue, but with winning the race, which ultimately (through a kind of video-game “magic”) ends the bullying.

4. Did peers know about the bullying? If so, did they help?

Napoleon Dynamite: Peers did not confront the bullies, but two of Napoleon’s friends did provide emotional support (although the support was not specific to bullying).

ParaNorman: Norman’s one friend, Neil, provided emotional support (telling Norman, “You shouldn’t let [bullies] get you down”) but did not directly help him with the bullying situation.

A Christmas Story: Peers witnessed the bullying but did not seem to help Ralphie.

5. Were any of the “helpful bystander or adult actions” depicted?

Napoleon Dynamite: Peer support from Deb and Pedro was depicted, although that support did not directly address Napoleon’s bullying problem.

ParaNorman: Neil’s peer support was depicted, although that support did not directly address Norman’s bullying problem. Norman’s interaction with the witch also could be considered a kind of peer support, and that support did directly address (and resolve) the witch’s bullying behavior.

A Christmas Story: No helpful bystander or adult actions were depicted.

6. What could have been done differently by adults? By peers? What difference might these actions have made?

Napoleon Dynamite: Reporting the bullying to adults might have resulted in the teaching of better behaviors to the bullying students. Adults also could have helped Napoleon find a way to stay connected to the school—perhaps through extracurricular activities, peer mentoring or leadership opportunities.

Peers (other than Napoleon’s two friends) could have supported him verbally and through actions, sending the message that the school was a welcoming and accepting place.

A Christmas Story: Ralphie could have reported the bullying to parents or teachers, who could have helped to keep him safe and assured him that the bullying was not his fault.

Peers could have reported the bullying to adults and after the incidents, could have asked Ralphie if he was OK. Peers also could have made an effort to socially include Ralphie, perhaps inviting him to sit at their lunch table or play at recess.

Extend the lesson:

Here are some additional questions you might use for class discussion.

  1. Is physically attacking a bully a good method for stopping bullying?
  2. (A Christmas Story) Why do you think none of the bystanders intervened in Ralphie’s fight with Farkus?
  3. (A Christmas Story) Apart from lunging at Farkus, what could Ralphie have done to stop the bullying?
  4. (Wreck-it Ralph) Why do you think the other racers viewed Vanellope von Schweetz’s “pixlexia” disability as something to be mocked? Do students who are different often get teased?
  5. (Napoleon Dynamite) Napoleon Dynamite often invented stories about himself and lashed out at others. Is this a good way of coping with being teased? What else could he have done?
  6. If Napoleon were a student at this school, how do you think kids would treat him, or respond? What about Ralphie, Vanellope and Norman?
  7. (ParaNorman) What do you think of Norman’s way of convincing the witch to stop attacking the town (he tells her that there are others like her, and that she is loved)?
  8. (ParaNorman) What do you make of the fact that Norman’s special ability is the reason for his bullying, but also the reason he is later considered a hero?
  9. Are there any common themes among these movies’ depictions of bullying?
  10. In what ways were each of the bullied movie characters isolated from others? How does it feel to be isolated, and what can we do to make sure that students don’t feel isolated in this school?
  11. Name some aspects of these movies that are examples of what not to do when it comes to addressing bullying.
  12. If we see or hear about a peer being bullied, what are some things we can do that will really help the person? (Refer to the helpful bystander or adult actions in the Preparation section above.)


Related resources

Lesson Plan Booster: How Can Students Help a Bullied Peer? - Grades 6-12
Speak Up: A Video Lesson on Bullying - Grades 6-12
Public Speaking Lesson: The Impact of Bullying - Grades 9-12
The Best Bullying Prevention Schools Aren’t Doing
Creating School-Wide Anti-Bullying Strategies
Bullying Prevention Resource Archive (includes lessons and activities for the younger grades)

Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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