Facing Up To Bullies, Everywhere But On Reality TV

Simon Cowell in his early days as an American Idol judge. The success of Cowell and others shows that bullying is acceptable, says Eric Deggans, so long as it's done on reality TV. i i

Simon Cowell in his early days as an American Idol judge. The success of Cowell and others shows that bullying is acceptable, says Eric Deggans, so long as it's done on reality TV. Kevin Winter/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Simon Cowell in his early days as an American Idol judge. The success of Cowell and others shows that bullying is acceptable, says Eric Deggans, so long as it's done on reality TV.

Simon Cowell in his early days as an American Idol judge. The success of Cowell and others shows that bullying is acceptable, says Eric Deggans, so long as it's done on reality TV.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Over the past couple of years, the topic of bullying has come to the forefront of public discourse: on TV, in social media, in newspapers and in movies.

So it only makes sense all this talk would eventually seep into the nation's largest Rorschach test: prime-time television. From Law and Order: SVU to The Simpsons, from House to Nurse Jackie, the word "bully" gets thrown around a lot these days, even when it's describing behavior that's less bullying and closer to rudeness.

It's wonderful to see anti-bullying messages featuring the stars of Fox's high-school drama Glee, but when a baker on the Food Network makes an anti-bullying cupcake, I'm not sure the message is really translating. Will a sign dipped in raspberry glaze stop a kid from getting shoved in a locker?

We've heard of bullying in so many public-service announcements and TV shows that the words may start to have less meaning. We're encouraged to see bullying as something only terrible people do; so disconnected from its reality, that people don't even realize when they're doing it.

For proof, look no further than Lifetime's combative reality show Dance Moms, where in-your-face instructor Abby Lee Miller stunned her students with an announcement on the next dance she's choreographing. "I am putting art on the stage," she tells the girls in her studio. "It's going to be about a bully."

It was stunning, mostly because Miller regularly bullies her students. She calls them lazy and boring. She yells at them to stop crying. These girls are 9, 10, 11 years old. When one of their mothers gets in Miller's way, she takes it out on the daughters.

But the truth is, reality TV loves bullies like Miller. Think about pugnacious chef Gordon Ramsay. This guy earns millions of dollars a year insulting contestants on Fox's MasterChef.

And the list goes on: Jon and Kate Plus 8's Kate Gosselin, Flipping Out's Jeff Lewis, the Real Housewives' Bethenny Frankel, and the king of TV bullies, ex-American Idol judge Simon Cowell.

Their bullying is rewarded with fame and fat paychecks. That cash buys lots of spin from flunkies insisting they're just too honest for most people.

It's a seriously conflicted message: Bullying is bad when kids do it in school, but hugely profitable when adults do it in front of a TV camera. Small wonder we're all a bit confused when an earnest celebrity faces the camera and tells us "bullying kills." Because, too often in Hollywood, it's just a really good career move.

Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

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