I sort of hate Steve Colbert’s ‘it gets better’ message, but I’m glad he did it
July 22, 2011 | 1:41 pm
(Updated: February 25, 2013 | 10:27 am)
It’s rare for Steven Colbert to break from his character as a lovably-shallow pseudo-conservative pundit; not only is he consistently Colbert-y on his own Comedy Central program, he maintains character during public appearances elsewhere, including the White House Correspondents’ Dinner where he roasted President Bush in 2006.
So it’s touching to see the funny iconoclast – who I am personally a big fan of – put aside a schtick he’s so committed to, to speak straightforwardly to lesbian and gay teenagers for the It Gets Better movement.
Here’s Colbert’s video:
It can be tough to admit that you’ve been a victim of bullying, even as an adult, so Colbert deserves credit. Sometimes those scars hang around, along with a plague of lingering self-doubts: What was it about me that made me a target when I was a kid, on so many unrelated occasions? Did I do something? Was I awkward? Did I look weak?
Am I still awkward? Do I still look weak?
There’s even a fear that admitting you used to be bullied will cause people to think less of you today. You imagine they’ll say to themselves, now that he mentions it, he does seem kind of odd….
That’s because bullying is far more than just a conflict between two kids. Bullying uses the force of the majority, and the force of widely-held prejudices, to try to turn you against yourself. A troublemaker might say “you’re a dumbass.” But a bully says “everyone knows you’re a dumbass,” and then “everyone” either laughs along, or says nothing to defend you.
And bullying doesn’t randomly pick it’s targets; it hones in on someone society has ongoing animosity for. The overweight girl. The boy with autism. The girl who got pregnant in 8th grade. The boy with a peculiar “flair,” and an effeminate tone in his voice. The girl who cut her hair short and wears jeans. The boy who keeps having nervous breakdowns in class, who even the teachers complain about to each other and are constantly sending to the principal’s office.
The bully is not some insecure fat kid (with red hair and freckles, right?) like they portrayed them to be in movies from the 1980s. The bully is probably not a kid from a troubled home, with an alcoholic father or a parent who recently died. Troubled teens may often “pick fights” but they’re rarely bullies; the bully is popular and well-liked – a cheerleader, an athlete, a “rich” kid – probably attractive, and really, really savvy at making-good with teachers, administrators, and her or his parents. The bully is smart.
The bully has more power and more options – and when the victim is an LGBT kid, the bully is armed with hundreds of years of historic attitudes towards gay people as well as continuing, widespread prejudice. Bullies are not ballsy people; they only pick fights when they know they’re going to win.
When I was in 8th grade, I was closeted – but was still often accused of being gay. It was the year that Matthew Shepard was murdered, just a couple hundred miles away across the state line. The sentence that has stuck with me through the years: “ask anyone in this school; nobody is sad they killed Matthew Shepard and nobody would be sad if it happened to you too.”
Colbert’s message is that the words bullies use to hurt you are only words. He brings up a childhood friend who, when called “queer,” went right along with it – and and the bully, robbed of ammunition, didn’t know what to do. I suppose it’s an empowering message, for those close enough to self-empowerment and brave enough to take advantage of the strategy. But it seems like Colbert may not realize what bullying really feels like to an LGBT kid.
Every bullied kid has already heard adults offer a litany of contradictory suggestions: “kill them with kindness,” or “hit them back,” or, yes, “just ignore them and don’t let what they say get to you.”
But for queer youth, they’re not just “words.” LGBT youth – at least the ones who take bullying so badly they consider suicide – believe the words, and fear the physical violence and intimidation that comes with them. They’ve heard for so long and from such an early age that a guy should be masculine, a girl should be feminine, that they might have even bullied others for “seeming” gay. Now they’re overwhelmed, nowhere near the cusp of getting a handle of it.
And the whole immense psychological burden and dilemma – the self-hate and doubt, and a fear of a problem that is far too beastly and complicated to puff away with a few encouraging words – gets wrapped up and packed tightly into a few cruel ones.
Faggot. Dyke. Queer. Fag.
I don’t want to give straight teenagers any excuse to keep using that language around their peers. Those words should be over in schools now, gone. Not tolerated. Heard only through dramatic reenactments or films that challenge the hate from an era that must end now. Yes, it’s “just a word.” And yes, words can be psychologically, emotionally and socially destructive.
So, yes, Colbert’s “it gets better” message could, in fact, in itself be better. And I forgive him for that; I know his intentions were good.
But I think there is still a lot of work to do, and a lot of change to push for, to put out the right kind of message and really convince our scared LGBT youth (and other marginalized kids) that there is hope.