On the final day of the San Diego Comic Con 2014, a special, second annual panel titled “End Bullying!” capped off a circus like weekend at the downtown Convention Center. Although much of the four day Con’s festivities revolved around massive panels on TV shows, long lines and comics, there were a few salient panels addressing issues pressing in entertainment and our society.
The panel discussion, was spearheaded by the Pop Culture Anti-Bullying Coalition, represented by Chase Masterson. Masterson, a longtime actress known for her roles in Doctor Who and Deep Space Nine, enthusiastically introduced the members of the panel and the topics to be discussed. As the title of the panel makes clear, the discussion covered issues such as geek bullying, cyber bullying, LGBT bullying, and analyzing how the entertainment and media industry “affect our attitudes toward bullying and aggression.” The panel consisted of authors, writers (Brad Brown and Jane Espenson, writers of the show Husbands), a psychologist (Dr. Andrea Letamendi), actors, representatives from the United Nations Association, the Anti-Defamation League, and Cartoon Network. Each panelist got an opportunity to speak on their occupation and how they are utilizing their role to affect change.
One of the first panelists to speak was Ashley Eckstein of the animated series Star Wars: Clone Wars (2008-2014). Aside from her role as Ashoka Tano on the Cartoon Network owned show, Eckstein runs a successful clothing line site called HerUniverse. The idea of the clothing line is to promote fashionable apparel and accessories for fangirls of science-fiction and comics. However, the feature of her clothing line she emphasized the most was something surprisingly difficult to find on clothing sites: plus sizes. In a country where 68% of all adults are either overweight or obese, society seems to continue to turn a blind eye to the necessary plus sizes on most retail goods. Eckstein’s point that the lack of clothing for plus size women can have drastic effects on a person’s psyche, and encourages eating disorders simply to fit into a desired pair of clothes. Conforming the woman to the clothes, and not the way around is the problem Eckstein wants to address, understanding that largely ignoring plus sizes is essentially another form of bullying against a certain demographic of women.
Anthony Breznican, a reporter for Entertainment Weekly, discussed his advocacy to end bullying in reference to powerful testimony to his own personal experience and in the form of his debut novel, Brutal Youth. While the book itself is a dark, fictional reversed coming-of-age story, the events that take place and the bullying that is inflicted from administrators to students were influenced by Breznican’s own childhood experiences and people that he knew. Breznican expressed that the bullying comes down to having the friends and strong support be there to influence any kind of bully’s potential actions. From his perspective, the best way to make those friends that you want to have is to be that friend to other people. That way, you are making positive and meaningful steps to building strong relationships and that support system down the road.
The last panelist to speak was Alice Cahn, the Vice President of Social Responsibility for Cartoon Network. Despite the stigma of being the representative of a larger body of network executives, she expressed gratitude and happiness to be associated with a network that she feels is acutely aware of its role in affecting attitudes towards bullying in society, especially with regard to children. “Cartoon Network is about great storytelling, great characters and great animation. We work very closely with the writers, animators, and show runners to make sure they know exactly who young people are. We would be foolish to ignore 50 percent of the audience.” Alice Cahn spoke at length about Cartoon Network’s Speak Up campaign, focused on stopping bullying and “giving kids the confidence and the competence to speak up when they see someone get picked on.” She characterized the campaign as a microcosm of what the Cartoon Network brand is trying to do as a whole, making social-emotional learning fixture as one of their goals and objectives. “Our work is really to take that realm of social-emotional skill, those things that kids really need to be kind, good people, and put content on the plotline. What I really love about our brand and about the creatives that we work with is that those goals have become a part of our branding.” While acknowledging her network’s efforts in teaching children how to deal with bullying, she recognized the significance entertainment can play in facilitating change overall, “Our industry really can create a change. The entertainment medium has the ability to inspire and motivate people to change their behaviors and learn new behaviors.”
The panel concluded with a final heart breaking question from a bullying victim in the audience, a twelve year old girl who having got no help from school administrators or teachers, asked what is she supposed to do when she felt that she had no friends. Several panel members including Brad Brown and Anthony Breznican replied with emotional responses advocating the importance of turning the bully’s actions on them with empathy and using that hurt to help someone else you see being victimized. In Breznican’s words, it’s “easier, I think, to stand up for somebody else, when you are hurting as bad as you are, than it is to stand up for yourself…but if you stick up for them, stick your neck out and take some of that heat, you’ve made a friend”
As routine as it may have seemed for the panelists to respond in kind to the bullying victim’s inquiries, the seriousness with which they treated the situation reflected awareness that comes with genuine passion for a subject that has manifested itself in so many ways that generally go unheeded. While the panel was in a room that was less than half attended (compared to the TV panels that had thousands packed into the rooms), I couldn’t have felt luckier to be in attendance and was proud that such an incredible panel was held at such a massive event that Comic Con has become. There are real people and real efforts being exerted to stop bullying, all we have to do is stick our necks out and be the change we want have.
Watch the video in the link here to see the Speak Up special video, along with links to the rest of the Speak Up series.
Dr. Andrea Letamendi