The New Bullies

Sometimes it takes a stupid argument over a stupid thing to
reveal a greater truth. After a week of “Oh, hey, you still live here?” chaos
that meant seeing my wife for about three minutes a day, we finally had an
evening to catch up on some together time. We decided to watch a few episodes
of “Project Runway” we had gathered on the DVR, which isn’t as tortuous as I
thought it would be when she asked for a season pass to this thing.

If you haven’t see this over the ten seasons it’s been on, the
concept should at least be familiar: Gather about 12-14 people from all over
the place with an interest in being famous at X job. Put them together in a
living space and force them to do all sorts of impossible work-related
challenges. Have three or four assholes on a panel judge them in some of the
meanest ways possible.

They shit-can one of them each week and we all listen to the
person who got shit-canned say, “I learned a lot and I know you haven’t heard
the last of me.”

We then officially never hear from that person again and
move on to the next week to start the process all over again.

This week’s fashion challenge was to move away from
designing clothes for people that anorexics call thin and try to design
something for a “real woman.”

(I hate that phrase, despite its constant use in the
program. It’s like models turn in their vaginas when they take to the catwalk.
Or like we’re trying to come up with a nice way to say “size four is too
fucking heavy.”)

These were all women whose friends had sponsored them. They
were too short, too heavy, too “fuck fashion” to be fashionable and the
challenge was to create a look for them that took who they were and translated
it to fashion.

One of the designers is named Ven. Ven is a talented guy and
doesn’t fit the stereotype of “male fashion designer.” Most of the guys on the
show seem like they’re picked based on number of tattoos, tightest Daisy Duke
shorts and how catty they can be. It’s like they went to Fire Island and hired
life coach Jerry Springer to conduct a “Gay Off.”

(I talked to one of my good friends who watches the show and
who also happens to be gay. He said, “I finally understand how my friend (Name
of an Italian lady he know) feels when she watches the Sopranos and Real

In any case, Ven has the body shape of a potato with a
half-sucked Milk Dud stuck on the top for a head. He’s the kind of guy who the
mean joke “Have you see his new shoes? No. Neither has he” applies.

His model for this challenge was a woman who was about a
size 12-14. She didn’t like the way she looked so she wore things that were
comfortable. And speaking comfortable, she clearly wasn’t comfortable in the
world of high fashion.

I get it. When I had to buy a suit for the Cardinal Reunion,
I felt like I was walking into “Jimmy’s House of Get Ready for a Random Anal

I was tense. I needed help but I didn’t want help. I felt
like something at the Westminster Dog Show. I was afraid to touch something to
have the sales guy say, “That? Are you kidding?”

So, of course, the first thing Ven does is complain about
his plus-sized model, right in front of her. He then starts talking about how
they’re going to do certain things because she’s a plus-sized woman. Again,
right in front of her. He then proceeds to fuck up his design (a common theme
on the show: Try something, fuck it up, bitch about it.) and complain both on
camera and to her that if she weren’t such a plus-sized model, this would be

The woman breaks down, Ven almost gets kicked off the show
and the show ends with this guy still saying, “I’m not designing for people
like her.”

Thus, the argument.

My wife, someone who loves fashion but hates clothes because
of designers like Ven, is arguing that he wasn’t being that big of an asshole.
I, someone who could probably be a lot more fashion-forward because everything
for dudes is somehow in my size, am losing my mind about this guy being a
complete bag of dick. We argued about this for an hour, went to bed and woke up
arguing about it again. The Missus said she was DREAMING about this and wanted
to continue the argument because of it.

That’s when it really hit me why this bothered me: This guy
was the new bully.

Bullies have been around for forever. They usually were big
and strong and demanded lunch money if they were guys. The girls bullied in
more subtle ways through power gained by beauty, money and status. However,
bullies were bullies. They were the top of the evolutionary food chain and they
used their power and your fear to make you something less than you were.

I find it highly likely that people on “Project Runway”
including Ven were victims of bullies. The word “fag” keeps coming to mind as
the insult de jour. For some of these guys, I’m sure it was even worse that
they were coming to grips with being gay and doing so at a time when even the
most well-adjusted kids teetered on the edge of insanity. Ven probably was the
fat kid in the class as well. He liked fashion. He was quiet: The perfect
target for the loud, boisterous assholes among us.

He probably found solace in being good at something and eventually
realizing that being able to throw a ball for a high school team wasn’t the end
all and be all of life. He left high school, left college and began to find
himself in a world where different was embraced. He was chosen for a show that
celebrates that in its own way and allowed him to create his own power.

The first chance he got to take his skill and his power and
give some hope to someone else, he turned into a bully.

Earlier this month, I got a phone call from home. Mom was
having a week that feels like you fell off the top of a giant pine tree and the
branches are smashing into you constantly. You hope to hit the ground and die,
if only because you want this shit to be over.

Problems with sick family, bad kids, weird administrators and
general bullshit were beating her up. She had the grace and strength to handle
all of that.

Except for one thing.

The district had decided to install new computer programs to
chart and track kids. Even more, it mandated that the faculty members all have
their own personal websites that could be used to contact parents and provide
homework information and such. The district hired a guy to help oversee the
training of the faculty and this guy was supposed to be an expert on the topic.

The in-service day of training turned into what you would
expect: Faculty fumbling around, computers that were older than my car not
being fast enough to do things right and general mayhem. Of course, the expert was
an expert, not a teacher, so this became a lot of “Well, that SHOULD work.”
When it worked for a few people, thanks to their previous knowledge and the
fact they had faster computers, his sense that failure was based on human error
appeared justified.

Of course, when you coupled my tech-phobic mother with the
slowest machine out there (a PC, no less for a Mac person), you have the
makings of trouble. She couldn’t get things to pull up, she couldn’t get things
to link and she had trouble making her stuff work.

She became the perfect target for a bully.

The man kept saying, “Well just do what I told you to!” When
it didn’t work, he mocked her in front of the class. When someone asked for
help, he nodded in my mother’s direction and noted “Why don’t you ask her?” as
others laughed.

I could feel her pain. I could feel her embarrassment. It
just seeped through the phone in that broken, crippled way.

“I just… I SWEAR to you…” she said as she broke down in
tears. “I am NOT stupid! I WILL learn this and I WON’T retire until I do…”

The computer guy should have known better than to be like
this. From every account, he was probably the guy other kids picked on. He
probably liked modems instead of models, SCSI instead of sports and programming
instead of playing. Of all people, he should have been the one to say, “I know
how it feels when it seems like everyone else is laughing at you. Let me help

Instead, the instant he had the upper hand, he played it in
the most merciless and mean-spirited way possible.

I could feel it building. I wanted to grab my Louisville
Slugger and drive two hours and fuck this guy up. I wanted to just rage against
him and scream, “See if you can .html code your way out of this you FUCKING
FUCK!” It was the same way I wanted to stick Ven on a treadmill and say, “Let
this lady watch you run until you’re the size of the models you think are worth
designing for, asshole.”

Then, I realized why that wouldn’t work. To beat a bully,
you have to beat him at his own game. The reason kicking the unholy shit out of
the bully I faced in sixth grade worked was because he was using violence to
perpetuate superiority. I out-violenced him and thus was left alone.

I couldn’t out-design that turd in a striped shirt, but I
sure as hell could do something to help my mother. I told her everything was
going to be all right and that we would fix this somehow.

The next weekend, I headed to Milwaukee for a card show and
basically locked myself in The Computer Room with Mom for about four hours. We
slowly went through each program and we got her website to work. I helped her
add images, links, email references and more. We used her scanner to grab
photos and homework. We found references online to her previous awards. We
built it together, slowly and scholarly. We also managed to get her classes
updated, her kids added and her parents emailed.

“You’re really a great teacher,” she said with a smile. “If
he had been able to explain things this way, I know I could have gotten it.”

Later that week, I called Mom to tell her my book had
finally published. Before I could get excited and share my news, she
interrupted me and said, “I’ve gotta tell you something first! I updated all my
classes homework by myself! I got all the kids over there and everything!”

She sounded elated, a mix of triumph and giggles.

She then told me that they had another session and she was
one of the few people to have a website done.

“I wasn’t going to show my site,” she said. “I didn’t want
to make a big deal out of it, but then that asshole said, ‘Well, maybe we
should look at HER site!’ and it got a big laugh. So I told him to open it up
and the room fell silent. He mumbled, ‘Nice job on adding those photos. How did
you do that?’ I told him it was because he was such a great teacher.

“People laughed.”

15 thoughts on “The New Bullies

  1. A few off-topics:
    1) Per A’s post today on the fund drive, you’re into herps?
    2) Size 12-14 is normal? I know that MO has one of the highest percentages of Obese folk. I’m no beanpole myself. But to picture 12 as “normal” sized?
    In all seriousness, I’m overweight (by BMI I don’t fit the obese but I am overweight). I don’t give a lot of attention to fashion/etc. Just so I don’t get arrested for indecent exposure, I’m OK. But I have to agree with (as I remember hearing on TV back to my childhood and can even remember a line from “Hazel” (?sic, the series/sitcom about the maid who makes everything work out right) mentions of how the designers need to develop lines for people of all body types. There are times when anybody (including myself) want to dress in a way that is complementary. All morals aside, simple economics should tell you that there are more people out there who are plus sized and just waiting to be exploited. The market is barely tapped.

  2. More about your point – bullying:
    As elementary/high school I wore a bull’s eye target for bullies. Overweight. Found academics easy. Thin skinned. Not good at team sports. Out of fear, parents kept me away from opportunities for free social interaction…
    Seeing a lot that is coming out about bullying now backed up by the TV you mention (Simon Cowl berating auditioners, Hell’s kitchen bullying the prep staff, the designer complaining about the model standing defenseless right in front of him…) we **LIKE** seeing bullies. On the playground, rather than the bullied banding together, it is much more common to see the rest of the playground to smell red meat and form ranks behind the bully (supposedly, it lets the rest of the playground vicariously gain a sense of power by being on the winning team. Dare I scream USA! USA! USA! and we Americans are bad MFs because we have the bomb?
    I don’t know if it is more accurate to say that Bullies gravitate to certain atmospheres or if the training for certain professions brings out the bully on them. So the Hells Kitchen guy is really typical in the upperline, cultured food industry. In medicine, Surgeons come to mind (though they can turn on the charm for their patients. Ignoring the literature showing that even while put under, patients absorb some of the OR atmosphere and the quality of that atmosphere influences the outcome).
    You describe what sounds like a late elementary to high school teacher. No question that the quality of the interpersonal interaction influences the efficacy of teaching.
    All this to say that I still don’t know how to take computer folks giving tech support. In my case, by degree and job, I am a librarian. Part of the Librarian training is to drill in to verify that you have correctly understood what the patron is looking for and always go back to the patron and give them a chance to ask for further assistance. A good reference librarian will get you started. Then in a little bit come back and give you an easy opening to tell them that you want more help / their original instruction didn’t work. It is as simple as observing their body language (with electronic remote access, alas, a lot of this is much more difficult). Simply say Howz it going? Let me know if you need anything else. Are you finding what you need?
    I also have a strong technical background on computers starting with Bachelor of Engineering using Fortran IV on punch cards. As a librarian, today’s electronic media mean that you work closely with IT – when helping the patron there is always the initial question on if the problem is on using the library resources or a problem traceable to the technology.
    I have hear computer bullies. I even lost one position where a significant portion of it was that a computer prima donna felt threatened by me as I could understand what he was saying and even suggest alternatives. But for the most part, what I see happening with IT people giving help is lack of skills in providing assistance/frustration with explaining something which is relatively simple to them to someone who just isn’t getting it / etc.

  3. I got “totally unaware of social norms and regular person manners” from Ven, which of course is a thing that happens to you when you’ve been bullied. I don’t think he was actually intentionally trying to be mean. I just don’t think other people are real to him in any sense, so the idea that this girl heard what he was saying was a total surprise, like, hey, you really exist? That’s asshole behavior, absolutely, but I didn’t see it as bullying so much as arrogance.
    I have a whole thing about this that I think needs to be a separate post.

  4. I think A was touched by a dominatrix nanny with a Nazi/leather fetish. That’s the only possible explanation for this…

  5. First off, don’t read too much into reality shows. They’re edited to make caricatures of the contestants. Whoever Ven is in real life, he no doubt seldom resembles the character the producers have created for him.
    Second, a really interesting study a while back (having trouble finding the link, read it in Science News’s print version) noted that bullies aren’t aware that they’re bullies. They report considering the people they bully as friends, but the bullied people do not likewise rate them the same. If asked, the computer instructor might say that he was using humor as a teaching tool, or simply not comprehend that he behavior was hurting a student.

  6. I can’t help it, I may disagree sometimes w/Michael Kors, but otherwise I ADORE him… 🙂 I think he reminds me of some of my snarky friends.

  7. Mrs Aaaargh and I watch this show religiously. It’s just so catty. But yes, Ven is a total dick and Elena is some kind of psycho.

  8. Bullies believe that bullying is the normal form of human interaction.
    That is the lesson that they teach many of their victims.
    And I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong.

  9. Thanks for this story Doc. It’s been a weird dysfunction junction week at work and this helped to put it into perspective.
    Also, you and your mom rock.

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