Saturday, June 24, 2017

Bullies and Bystanders

Tomorrow June 25, St.Petersburg, FL celebrates diversity with its Gay Pride Parade. I am reminded of two old movies, Tea and Sympathy and Rebel Without A Cause, from a time in which diversity was not so celebrated.

Tea and Sympathy (1956)(directed by Vincente Minnelli, based on Robert Anderson’s 1953 play of the same name) is oppressive to watch when viewed from the 21st Century.  Difference is taunted and ostracized. A prep school senior, Tom Lee (John Kerr) is called “sister boy” [for what could be worse from the hypermasculine POV than being compared to a woman/girl] because he prefers music, theater and poetry to baseball and mountain climbing. He is bullied to suicidal thoughts. The coach and house headmaster’s wife Mrs. Reynolds (Deborah Kerr) takes Tom’s part. Defending Tom to her husband (Leif Erickson) and chastising him for being a bystander, she says “‘He’s not like me, therefore he’s capable of all possible crimes.’ ... [T]he tribe has to find a scapegoat to reaffirm your shaky position... If he could be manly, then you had to question your own definition of manliness.” Eschewing the false dichotomy, she rails against her husband’s black and white thinking. [Twemlow and Sacco write about bullying in their ebook Preventing Bullying and School Violence].  But should one mistake Tom for a homosexual, as his classmates do, one only need note the foreshadowing in Tom’s reading of Candida to confirm his love for Mrs. Reynolds. [Wikipedia’s author writes it is Voltaire’s Candide, but I think this is a mistake, for it is in GB Shaw’s play that a young man falls for, and seemingly desperately needs, the older, married woman. Candida chooses the man who needs her more, her husband, who must so desperately dissociate his need for her. Mrs. Reynolds, however, a modern woman, I suppose-- or perhaps riddled with the shame and guilt her constraining contemporary society demands -- chooses neither man.]

Also painful to watch is how women are treated in this film. Mrs. Reynolds, her opinions interrupted and disregarded and spoken to by her husband as if she were a child, is relegated to the keeper of men’s emotions and the one who attempts to smooth over painful feelings in her husband and Tom. The local soda shop’s server Ellie Martin, a former ‘a-dime-a-dance gal, is unrelentingly sexually harassed by the “regular guys” from the local prep school.

Rebel Without A Cause (1955) (directed by Nicholas Ray) also portrays the bullying of boys who are Other or different. In the 1950’s, a gay theme could appear only as subtext, but the bullying of Plato (Sal Mineo) was undoubtedly, in part, about his homosexuality (noted by the photo of Alan Ladd in his locker, and by his crush on Jim Stark (James Dean)). His torment ends with possible suicide by cop. Mineo, hailed today by the LGBT community as one of their own, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this role and, at that time, was the youngest actor (16 years old) ever to be nominated for an Oscar. James Dean, himself posthumously nominated for this role (and for Giant), was purported to have ‘experimented’ with homosexual liaisons, as well as to have been sexually abused when younger by a pastor. Dean, also an auto racer, died prematurely in a car accident at age twenty-four.

Here's hoping for better days, days when bystanders stand up to bullies and difference is celebrated.

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