Reframing Bullying: Not Popular, but Powerful.

Image © Michael Verhoef, 2010

Lies Told to Bullying Victims Over the Years: A Compendium

The people who torment you are popular, a word that means “well-liked.” If people whom everyone else likes find you unacceptable, then the problem is obviously you.  Of course, physical and verbal assault and harassment are strictly against the rules of our school, but we adults are powerless to stop it. Besides, kids will be kids, and what you’re suffering isn’t serious. If you ignore it, it will stop.  Bullying is a normal part of growing up, which is also the best time of your life– trust us. However, if you were really a good kid, you would feel sorry for bullies because they have low self-esteem and a lot of problems at home. The damage that bullying is doing to your self-esteem does not cross our minds, but if you complain too much, you’re a whiner, which is why you’re bullied in the first place.  If you attempt to commit suicide, or even mention suicidal feelings, then you’re clearly mentally ill, and we are absolved of any responsibility for you. We’re not a mental hospital, are we?  If only you would change.

Every one of those lies did unspeakable harm to generations of bullied kids. Some of those kids killed themselves quickly, others slowly, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol and other addictions. Some have post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition which places them, emotionally, right back in the moment of their greatest helplessness whenever the memories of abuse are triggered.  Some survived.

I could write torrents of words about each one of these myths, but other people are all over it. The myth no one else is addressing, though, the one that really gets inside the heart of the bullied child, is popularity.  Ask even a kindergarten-aged victim, “Who picks on you at school?” and the child will probably answer, “The popular kids.”

What does it mean to be popular?  The most popular restaurant in town buzzes with people who love the food. Disney World is a popular vacation destination. The world’s most popular soft drink is Coke.  Popular places and things are easy to understand: they’re the ones a plurality of people like, even love. But popular people, particularly in school, are not necessarily the best-beloved.

I remember a boy and a girl in my junior high and high school who were universally liked for all the right reasons.  Kim and Craig (names changed to protect the evolved) were clear-eyed and kind.  Kim was (and remains) vivacious, interested in others, quick to laugh, generous with a compliment.  At an age when most of us were criminally narcissistic, Kim knew what people needed to hear and had the magnanimity to say it.  Craig was an all-around good kid with the warmest smile I’ve ever seen on a teenage boy (he still has it as a grown-up).  He was an athlete, but not a jock; an excellent student, but not a grind; an Eagle Scout, but not a prig.  He had friends in every social group, every academic level, every part of town.  Yet, if you had asked anyone in my graduating class to name the most popular boy and girl in our year, their names probably wouldn’t have come up, because “popular” means something different from “widely admired and beloved” among children and teenagers. (The song “Popular” from the musical Wicked is a witty, knowing take on the kind of popularity that counts in school.) The best-loved kids are never bullies, but the popular ones sometimes are.

The popular clique can mean the kids who are wealthy, good-looking, athletic, confident, and entitled, in some schools.  In others, it can mean the tough, defiant kids no one messes with.  It’s the group that many other kids long to join and try to emulate, but its mystique depends on exclusivity.  You can’t apply for membership.  You can’t ask them if you can play.  If you have to ask, you’re not in.  Kids outside the group may feel a variety of emotions about them: envy, resentment, contempt, longing, and self-pity, but not love. Definitely not love.

The word “popular” in this context, then, is a misnomer.  These kids aren’t widely admired, like Craig and Kim, or enjoyed by the masses, like Coke and Disney World, because they are not exactly popular, but powerful. In some communities, even the adults don’t dare to cross them.  Like a multinational corporation headquartered in the Cayman Islands, this group plays by its own rules with no court of appeals.  But in a language in which we famously park on driveways and drive on parkways, what difference does it make if we call them “popular” instead of “powerful”?

It might make all the difference in the world to bullied kids.

Imagine their perspective.  It’s bad enough to be unsafe, deprived of one’s dignity in a thousand ways each day: mocked, beaten, tripped, stolen from, lied about on the Internet, humiliated.  It’s worse if those who engage in the behavior are labelled with the word used to describe something the whole world loves.  If a criminal robs and beats up a 12-year-old on his way home from school, everyone’s outraged sympathies lie with the victim.  If kids regarded as “popular” abuse the 12-year-old, some people wonder what’s wrong with the victim, himself included.  After all, if the kids who are the social equivalent of Coke and Disney World hate you that much, what is wrong with you?  Can it ever be made right, or should you just commit suicide, as some of your tormentors suggest?  Connotations kill.

Bullying is the exercise of power against a person who doesn’t have any.  Powerful children understand this very well, and bullied children are bewildered by it.  A young man recently told me about two girls in his high school science class who would steal school supplies out of his backpack or off his desk, scribble on his immaculate notebook, destroy his homework, flick sharp objects near his eyes. When he objected, the girls would tell him that it was their right to take whatever they wanted, that it was a free country and that he had no right to stop them from doing anything they wanted to do to him.  His rights, of course, were nonexistent. The girls flummoxed this polite, intelligent boy. He was physically larger than they, but helpless to stop kids so assured of their own power. Bullies act from exactly such a position of entitlement, as if to say: I do this to you because I can, and because there is nothing you can do to stop me.  The classic advice to punch the bully in the nose, though ill-advised in the post-Columbine, zero-tolerance era, remains correct in its theory of power, sending the message that this victim is no longer safe to victimize, and that a new, more pliant one will have to be found.

The power dynamic also explains why the politically correct and well-meaning attempt to teach “conflict resolution skills” to address bullying is so utterly misguided. Conflict resolution assumes equality, a situation in which peers whose objectives are at odds can work out a compromise. But bullies and victims have no issues to work out. The bully would like to use his or her power to abuse and dehumanize the victim. The victim would like to be treated as a human being possessed of rights and dignity.  There is no ground for compromise.  The correct analogy is domestic abuse, for which not even the most starry-eyed optimist recommends conflict resolution.

New Jersey’s new Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, as well as new anti-bullying laws passed in Connecticut and Massachusetts, finally takes the power dynamics of bullying seriously.  Schools can no longer dismiss bullying as a normal part of childhood or pin the blame on the victim for being too sensitive, too opinionated, too gay, too fat, too ugly, too smart, too stupid, or just too strange. The law forces school administrators to challenge bullies and their sometimes equally powerful and aggressive parents.  It requires schools to initiate an investigation at the first incident of harassment, bullying or intimidation, and to take a series of forceful actions to ensure that the bullying stops immediately, whether it occurs in school, off school grounds, or even online.  The law threatens consequences stopping barely short of the wrath of God. Some administrators worry that the new policies are too extreme, but it will be refreshing to see schools forced to err on the side of victims, at least until the litigation begins.

The subtext of the law is, finally, an acknowledgment that bullying is about power and that only a show of power greater than that of the bully can end it. Administrators, parents, and the police are presumed to have enough institutional power to overcome the social power of the bully.

Do they?  Will the new policies work?  I don’t know.  They will certainly work better than the old policy of ignoring bullying, which doesn’t work at all, as generations of victims can attest– those of us who survived, that is.

The new anti-bullying laws may not be popular, but I hope that they are powerful.


Julie Goldberg is writing a novel about, in part, the psychological trauma of bullying.

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About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon and In the Meat Department: A Novel, one of which may even be published someday! She is a former candidate for New York State Senate and Rockland County Legislature, and would be only too happy to tell you all about it. You could at one time follow her on Twitter, but she's done with that all that now. Please connect with her on Mastodon instead: Mastodon
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16 Responses to Reframing Bullying: Not Popular, but Powerful.

  1. God I love you.
    Yep, went through all that, every rationalization. Mom’s advice was to do what Jesus would do and turn the other cheek.
    Punching the bully, which I also tried, works only if the bully doesn’t then just punch you back twice. They like that, when you’re feisty. It’s more…sporting.
    The things that came the closest to working?
    1. Pretending I had a huge, mushy, soppy crush on my attackers. Asking to carry their books home, loudly and in public. Telling them they were so pretty. Batting my eyelashes.
    They’d hit me, of course, but I’d just keep on doing it, as if I knew that they were “protesting too much”. I’d tell anyone who’d listen that was the case.
    Eventually, they realized that the only way to stop their buddies from cracking wise on them about their “new girlfriend” was to *not ever be seen near me*.
    Of course, this cost me a huge amount of sexual self-esteem. I was, apparently, so undesirable that people would do anything rather than be thought of as my partner. Ugh.
    And, of course, in this age of cyber-bullying, having to maintain a physical distance doesn’t much stop the bullying.
    2. Figure out their weaknesses. In 7th grade, I figured out the reason the kid behind me was always making jokes about my hair (along with sending me sexually-explicit threats, and book-timing me every day) was that he was worried about his own hair. Specifically, *dandruff*. So I told him I’d tell everyone he secretly had dandruff unless he stopped.
    He stopped.
    Ugh. Anyway. Yes. Bullying is a crime most analogous to domestic violence, and until people start taking it seriously, we are going to continue raising people who think this sort of thing is ok.

    • Wow! You were doing a lot more strategic thinking than I was at that age! I’m glad you found something that worked.
      About Jesus: Yes. And Gandhi. And Martin Luther King. I kept telling myself that I must not fight back, that nonviolent resistance was the purest, noblest path. Maybe it was, but it certainly was not an effective strategy to make it stop.

  2. Julie – very powerful stuff. A very original perspective that I have not heard anywhere else… I eventually found the courage to push back when being pushed (luckily, nothing ever came to actual blows..)… The last time I had to deal with real bullying was in 9th grade – turns out they were real psychopaths – I got off easy that day with some taunts and threats – they got expelled the next year for basically torturing people with broomsticks and fire extinguishers – I think you can make the mental picture..

    Anyway.. great stuff

  3. Thank you, Dan! I have my own horror stories, but fortunately, nothing to do with broomsticks or fire extinguishers.

  4. Alexandra says:

    This is really excellent, my mad librarian. It is really making me think. –Herself.

  5. M Evans says:

    Great article, I will try and help spread it wider and will share it with the schools my kids attend.

    I was actually much like Kim and Craig growing up, and always felt terrible and tried to intercede when bullies were pushing around weaker kids. I always used to say as a kid “I hate hard-ass kids” and I felt so sorry for those that were excluded or mocked. I still hate hard-asses and negative people and have told my kids since they were 2 “life is too short to deal with negative and mean people” as one mantra to live by.
    I now have kids of my own, one of which is a target of bullies. Such a frustrating experience to go through as a parent.

  6. Thank you, Michael. So sorry to hear that your child is a target. Life is too short to deal with mean people, but no matter how mature the child is, the realities of school schedules and buses make it impossible to avoid bullies or tune them out. The “It Gets Better” campaign promises kids that if they can hang on a few more years, they can get to a place where they can choose with whom they associate, but in some senses, that’s a pretty depressing message for a bullied child. They shouldn’t have to wait to grow up to feel safe! I hope your child’s teachers and administrators are taking the problem as seriously as they should. Good luck!

  7. I was one of the lucky ones. My parents and my school administration took bullying seriously. I was bullied pretty hard in 3rd grade. (I don’t remember it well — I’ve blocked it out, I suspect.) Mostly it was verbal, and I had trouble fighting that, because I wasn’t trained in how to respond or react. But the first time it escalated to physical attack, the bully, his parents, and my parents were in the headmaster’s office the next morning, and the bully was immediately disciplined. So the lesson I learned was that you can fight bullying.

    But I wonder sometimes what would have helped with the verbal attacks. How could teachers or parents have taught a young kid about what’s inappropriate or wrong, and how to respond to such attacks.

  8. Larissa says:

    Ah, the memories. For me “punching them in the nose” (or in my case, a pretty nice roundhouse kick) stopped it. My parents tried the teachers, bus drivers, guidance counselors, vice principal, principal, and town cops… to no avail. Then they sent me to karate, and suddenly, when I was hitting back and not just taking it, when I wasn’t the same ol’ easy target… it stopped. Personally, although it won’t work with every bully, I think sending every kid to some sort of martial arts or other self-defense class is a good idea.

    It’s interesting that you equate it with domestic violence. I’ve said the same thing for years. And the legislative history is similar. Used to be victims of domestic violence were seen as the wrong ones. If your husband is hitting you, it’s because you’re not keeping him happy. You’re not keeping a proper home. You’re doing something wrong. Finally, the legislature wised up and realized the truth, and the domestic violence legislation swung the other way, protecting the victims, sometimes even more than they want to be. It took longer for the cops to get it, of course. They had to be forced, and some still look the other way. Then again, so do some judges.

    In one case, where the parties had mutual temporary restraining orders (husband’s based on harassment, wife’s based on assault – I represented the wife) the judge took me and the husband’s counsel into chambers and asked if we couldn’t just dismiss both restraining orders, “because neither was that serious.” Um… what? Did she need to be in the hospital for it to be deemed serious? We went to trial on it, and they both were granted mutual Final Restraining Orders. That was an older male judge in Bergen County. In another case, I represented a different ex-wife. She and her ex were exchanging their teen for parenting time. They got into an argument, and he swing his fist into the vehicle, narrowly missing their daughter’s nose, and aiming at my client. She managed to duck and avoid being hit. I was unsuccessful in obtaining her a Final Restraining Order, as the judge in that case decided there was no violence, no assault, since he hadn’t actually made contact. So apparently if she defended herself successfully she was not in need in protection. Again… what? That was a younger female judge in Essex County.

    So back to your question: Will they work? Yes and no. They’ll work as well as the school administration and law enforcement make them work. And yes, they’re better than nothing, just as the laws protecting victims of domestic violence are better than nothing.

  9. Peggy White says:

    Great article, Julie. You are absolutely right that the word “popular” should be replaced with”powerful” in many cases. It is certainly a more accurate description of the dynamics.

  10. Bill Phelps says:

    Wow, wish I could have heard this 26 years ago. This is deep, Julie. I just recently began even talking about my experiences being bullied as I was growing up. I know the term has been over-used, but it seems that this is another “silent majority” I have been surprised to find out that in fact the percentage of people that haven’t witnessed bullying, experienced it, or knew about it growing up is quite small.
    I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised though in light of the idea of it being about power. Powerless and silent victims continue to suffer.
    Thank you,
    Bill Phelps (@sccmathspec)

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  12. science geek says:

    Thank you so much for this excellent analysis. I am glad I am not the only one disturbed by the “mediation” aspect of current bully policies. I call it a “unilateral disarmament” of bully victims.

  13. DearMe says:

    I agree on the power. Power is based on fear. A bully finds his victim by sensing who fears him the most. If you fear, you don’t fight and you give the bully power. If you fight, you don’t fear. The bully usually looses his power if you put up a fight, or he picks out an easier target. A fight does not necessarily mean fists. You may loose a verbal fight because you use your fists.

    The kid’s world is a reflection of the adult world. Bullying exists among adults just much as it does among kids. Learning how to deal with a potential bullying situation by yourself is part of growing up. The hard truth is, that if you are being bullied in highschool and you don’t solve it by yourself (i.e. someone else solves it for you), you will probably be bullied later in life. The reason for this is that you havent learned how to deal with the situation by yourself. And the situation WILL appear over and over again. It did for me, several times, until I learned.

    For me I realized that, in fact, it was my own fault that I was being bullied in highschool. In hindsight, I can see that I was kind of an egocentric and irritatingly know-it-all during highschool. I also refused to do all the “normal” stuff other kids did. So, basically I stood out pretty much. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of self esteem to back that up, and I lacked it. So, I made myself an easy target for bullies. Of course it doesn’t justify anything of their behaviour, but since then I’ve stopped seeing myself as a victim of that time. “If it’s my fault, I am not a victim”. Only after realizing this I learned that you either adapt or you build a self esteem solid as a rock. If this sounds a bit to harsh, you can try this out for yourself: Don’t laugh when everyone is laughing, don’t sit when everyone is sitting, don’t eat when everyone is eating, don’t drink when everyone is drinking, don’t agree with what the rest is saying, don’t dress in the same manner as everyone else… soon people will start look at you weirdly, and start criticising what you say etc.. people who feel a need to seem powerful will of course start bullying you. But if you then pull out your rock solid self esteem, people will start standing when you stand, start eating when you eat, start agreeing with what you are saying and start dressing in your manner…

    • I disagree that young people have to solve bullying problems by themselves. Bullying is not just a problem for the victim. It is a community problem, best solved with the support and strength of that community. The ones who feel that they are completely alone with the problem are the most vulnerable.

  14. Donna says:

    Excellent article! It’s very important to distinguish those who are well-liked from those who appear powerful because they intimidate others into doing their bidding or, at least, staying silent. My only quibble is that branding bullies as powerful can be a reinforcement for bullying. Not that school bullies are reading your article (although they might be) but messages about bullying become part of the conventional wisdom and that impacts how the bullies see themselves. If they think that bullying is equated with power, they’ll only be more encouraged to continue.

    The truth is that bullying is based on fear. As powerful as they may seem, bullies are secretly weak, possibly even weaker than their targets. That’s why they almost always act in a group and choose targets who are isolated. It used to be thought that bullies were fringe element types, with low self-esteem….the kind of kids that nobody liked but everyone feared. Now the conventional wisdom has become that bullies are popular, well-liked and have HIGH self-esteem. Both views are incorrect.

    Bullies may appear to have all the advantages but if they truly had high self-esteem, they would not need to attack others to feel good about themselves. They do so because they are afraid of losing their position. They don’t have real power, only perceived power. The moment someone stronger comes along, their power evaporates.

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