March 22, 2012 at 7:26 am EDT | by Juliette Ebner
Showdown over an ‘R’ rating

A promotional still from the film ‘Bully.’ (Photo courtesy the Weinstein Co.)

Katy Butler, 17, launched a petition to change the rating for the upcoming documentary “Bully” and was in D.C. last week to bring attention to her cause.

“When I saw this new movie was coming out, I thought it was so awesome, because it was about bullying and had such a great message, and then I saw that it was rated ‘R’ … it’s missing the entire target audience of the film, which is the middle and high school students,” Butler says about why she started the petition.

Filmed over the 2009-10 school year, “Bully,” directed by Lee Hirsch, follows three students who have been bullied, including one who brought a gun to school and is now in juvenile detention awaiting the outcome of her case, and two sets of parents whose sons committed suicide after being bullied.

The film’s website,, states that more than 13 million American kids will be bullied this year and three million students are absent each month because they do not feel safe in school. A disproportionate number of them are LGBT.

According to, a website the Motion Picture Association of America links to, “Bully” received an ‘R’ rating for “some language.” The word “fuck” is used multiple times in the film.

According to the MPAA’s classification and rating rules effective, Jan. 1, 2010, “a motion picture’s single use of one of the harsher sexually derived words … initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context.”

One of the complaints about the rating is the difficulty pre-teens and most teenagers will have in seeing the film. While an R rating does not keep them from seeing the movie altogether, it does restrict when they can see it, since they will need a parent with them.

It is also more difficult to get schools to show R-rated films, as it requires permission slips to be signed in many school districts.

“The R rating is not a judgment on the value of any movie. The rating simply conveys to parents that a film has elements strong enough to require careful consideration before allowing their children to view it,” Joan Graves, chairman of the classification and rating administration, said in a statement released after receiving the petition.

Butler, who came out as a lesbian in middle school, has been the victim of bullying herself.

“My school didn’t really like that, they called me names … pushed me into lockers and into walls, they ended up slamming my hand into my locker and breaking my finger,” Butler says.

Some have asked why the filmmakers don’t just remove the scenes with the expletives, or censor just the word, since many say if the word was used more sparingly, the film would have received a PG-13 rating, but Butler doesn’t think that would help matters.

“They can’t take out the word, it won’t have the same message. It won’t have the same effect on the kids, parents and teachers who see this movie,” Butler says. “Those are the words that kids used everyday in school to bully each other … no one goes into schools and takes out those words.”

The MPAA also hosted a screening with D.C.-area principals and educators on March 15. The screening was followed by a panel discussion on the challenges educators face in dealing with bullying and how to best ensure that students feel safe when they are in school.

MPAA Chairman Chris Dodd (a former U.S. senator), “Bully” distributor Harvey Weinstein, “Bully” director Lee Hirsch, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Joseph Wright, senior vice president and head of the Child Health Advocacy Institute at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, were on the panel.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Butler’s petition had garnered about 439,000 signatures.

Graves’s statement said that the MPAA shares Butler’s goal of highlighting the problems with bullying.

“Katy Butler’s efforts in bringing the issue of bullying to the forefront of a national discussion in the context of this new film are commendable and we welcome the feedback about this movie’s rating,” Graves said in the statement. “We hope that her efforts will fuel more discussion among educators, parents and children.”

Butler has met with the head of the ratings board, when she hand delivered the signed petitions.

Katy Butler was in Washington last week to encourage the MPAA to reconsider its R rating for the new documentary ‘Bully.’ (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Butler’s efforts to change the rating have been noticed by many, including Ellen DeGeneres, who had Butler on her talk show and has asked her viewers to follow her lead and sign the petition.

“Ellen is wonderful, she is one of my roles models,” Butler says of the comedian. “I definitely couldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now without her.”

DeGeneres is not the only celebrity to push for the MPAA to change the rating. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees has Tweeted for his followers to sign the petition. A bipartisan group of 26 members of Congress has thrown its support behind the petition.

Younger celebrities, such as Justin Beiber and Demi Lovato, have also been pushing for people to sign the petition, Tweeting about it to their many followers.

“I think [Bieber and Lovato] especially are hitting the preteen, middle school age group because those are their fans,” Butler says. “If your role model is supporting something as important as bullying, then a lot of the time, these kids are going to look at it too.”

Butler will receive a special award, presented by Harvey Weinstein, whose production company is releasing the film, at GLAAD’s 23rd annual Media Awards in New York City on Saturday.

“The MPAA made a mistake in restricting this film to adult audiences. Everyone — young and old alike — needs to see this film and the devastating impact that bullying can have on today’s young people,” says GLAAD spokesperson Herndon Graddick. “Katy has bravely used her voice to take a stand and has inspired countless Americans, including so many members of Congress and public figures, to show their support for the safety of all our children.”

All the advocacy toward changing “Bully’s” rating is just the beginning for this high school junior. Butler plans on studying political activism once she finishes high school. She would like to attend the University of Michigan or a school in the D.C., New York or Chicago areas.

“Bully” opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on March 30 and D.C. and other cities on April 13.

  • This is a nightmare , Bullying I mean , We need to have our children see the destruction it causes and try and give them so avenues of escape . This movie may have some fowl language in it but its not like our children haven’t already heard it themselves in school today . Please change the rating to a G rating. So at least it may give a sign to our children that we are aware of this going on and that we care enough to try and stop it from happening .

  • Robert, since the ratings are apparent;ly related to language it’s really unlikely that a G rating is even possible; the movie currently doesn’t meet those standards.
    I That being said, however, it would be great if the MPAA could carve out an exception for this movie and push its rating down to PG-13; while it might cause some pain in the future, with varied groups (Including quite possibly movie companies) Arguing that their particular movie deserves to bend the rules, in this case the accessibility of the movie is paramount and I believe such an exception should be made.

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