Our ‘Must See TV’ Bullies

Janice Harper left a comment on my last post that stands on its own and really deserves to be read. She’s a cultural anthropologist and writes regular articles for the Huffington Post.  She’s one of the few bloggers out there who dares to raise insightful questions on the topic of workplace bullying: 

Nurse Jackie herself is quite the bully at times and frankly, I’d be hard pressed to find any show that centers on the workplace that doesn’t have a bully among them. In so many cases, these “bullies” are the favorites of the audience. But when bullies begin to recruit others to join in, that’s when the going gets rough. Film has explored this collective mobbing phenomenon fairly often, but t.v. not so much. But I’m left wondering, is Kalinda from Good Wife with her baseball bat and spy thing going on, a bully in stilettos? What about Don Draper or Roger Sterling or Pete Campbell, from Mad Men? Or buxom Joan who rules over the roost. Switch to Dexter, the serial killer who kills serial killers; he’s certainly not a bully, at least not in the workplace, but what about his sister now that she’s promoted, or Maria, now that she’s in charge? But the real prize goes to Glen Close in Damages. Now she takes the bull right out of bully. That woman is the real thing!

My point is, bullies abound, in work and in the big screen. When the bullies entertain us, we like keeping them around; we applaud them. When they bully the people we don’t like, we like them even more. When they’re Steve Jobs, we make him a saint, and when they’re Anna Wintour, we lampoon them and then buy their fashion magazines. We learn to live and work with bullies, but once they persuade us to mimic their bad behaviors ourselves – by gossiping, excluding, tattling, insulting, shunning, betraying, etc. — because we’re convinced the person has it coming, they “did it to themselves,” then it’s time to stop pointing fingers because it’s not so entertaining any more. The more we fail to recognize the bully within us, the more likely we have mistreated others and excused it.

One crucial difference is to what extent do they have other qualities that we value? To what extent are they simply tempermental or inpatient (qualities that can be tamed and put under control). Is the perceived “bullying” long-term, or situational? Maybe they are just under tremendous stress. And to what extent are others telling us they’re bullies, and shaping our perceptions because it’s in our professional interest to see them the way management wants us to see them? The bottom line is, one size does not fit all. We see what we set out to see and exclude those facts and details that don’t conform to our predetermined image. So maybe if we change our frames, imagine new possibilities for who they might be and what might be motivating them, focus on those qualities about them that we do like, and reflect on what qualities of our own that they don’t like and we might find ourselves turning the bullies into our friends. I know this is possible. I saw it on the Mary Tyler Moore show, with Rhoda. Which reminds me, wasn’t Mr. Grant a bully? And a good case could be made for Barney Fife . . . Does it never end . . .

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