Is the Bullying in "Whiplash" Actually Bullying?

[Author's Note: spoilers for Whiplash are contained within. If you haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for? Go today!]

How much abuse would you be willing to withstand if you knew that it would pull greatness out of you? Would you consider yourself a victim or a willing participant? Those are the questions posed by the exhilarating Whiplash, a film where a young drummer gets the holy hell beaten out of him on a regular basis by his teacher under the pretense of turning him into a great musician.

Nineteen year old Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) is an aspiring jazz drummer at the fictional Schaffer Music Conservatory. He’s got a lot of talent but Nieman doesn’t JUST want to be great. He wants to be one of the all-time greats. He wants to be remembered in the same breath as Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker, and Count Basie. And to do that, he needs to join the school’s elite, award-winning jazz band, presided over by the monomaniacal Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons who is rightfully winning all the awards for his performance this year). Fletcher has a reputation for making great musicians, and Nieman is willing to subject himself to Fletcher’s barbarous tutelage if it means he has a shot of achieving his dream. Fletcher believes that in order to draw true greatness from musicians, he must treat them with contempt and wanton brutality. Mercy is for the weak and Fletcher won’t suffer any pantywaists in his band.

When Fletcher isn't physically assaulting Nieman, he's hurling a string of creative invectives at him:

"If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will fuck you like a pig. Oh my dear God - are you one of those single tear people? You are a worthless panty-ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a nine-year old girl!" 

Fletcher makes Nieman the centerpiece of a constant stream of physical and psychological abuse; forcing Nieman to practice until his hands bleed; calling him a faggot and questioning his manhood; pitting Nieman against other drummers to undercut his confidence. And Nieman puts up with it... no, he revels in it because he believes that Fletcher's grueling instruction will result in great artistic achievement.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle smartly avoids trying to definitively answer whether Fletcher's methods actually work (late in the film, Fletcher admits they haven’t). He's more interested in the abuse Nieman withstands because he and everyone else BELIEVES they do. No one believes what Fletcher is doing is actually legal, they’re all just willing to look the other way. In fact, Nieman doesn't see himself as a victim at all. He sees the torture as a necessary evil. That may explain why Fletcher has remained at the school all those years despite a reputation so intimidating that most of his own students can't look him in the face.

The film's focus on their dysfunctional relationship got me thinking about the nature of bullying. If the recipient welcomes the abuse and in fact wants it because he believes it's a means to an end, does that make it bullying? Does that take away the power imbalance normally present in a bully/victim relationship? The law, as you might imagine, doesn’t quite have an answer since most bullying legislation is so new and hasn’t delved into the issue. But there are some areas we can look towards for guidance. For starters, there are no federal anti-bullying laws, but the Department of Education has at least defined bullying as:

"any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated."

While the definition's focus on youth means it isn't applicable to this situation, it's instructive to know how prominently “unwanted" factors into the equation. New York (where the film takes place) has an anti-bullying statute as well, but unlike the federal definition, it's silent on the unwantedness issue. New York defines bullying as:

"the creation of a hostile environment by conduct or by threats, intimidation or abuse, including cyberbullying, that (a) has or would have the effect of unreasonably and substantially interfering with a student's educational performance,opportunities or benefits, or mental, emotional or physical well-being; or (b) reasonably causes or would reasonably be expected to cause a student to fear for his or her physical safety; or (c) reasonably causes or would reasonably be expected to cause physical injury or emotional harm to a student; or (d) occurs off school property and creates or would foreseeably create a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment, where it is foreseeable that the conduct, threats, intimidation or abuse might reach school property."

Clearly Fletcher's actions could fall into at least a few of these categories. Lucky for him, the state law only applies to public schools, and Schaffer is almost certainly a private institution (most art schools and conservatories are).

But that's all I found. In fact, the more I looked into it, the murkier everything got. To date, I've found no case-law and no literature on "wanted bullying." Which makes sense really... who starts a legal action to prevent bullying if they want the abuse?*

Of course, even in a private school setting, the school could still be held accountable under vicarious and premises liability claims for letting Fletcher go unchecked for so long. Fletcher himself could be slapped with assault and battery claims in both civil and criminal courts. Ultimately, Fletcher is expelled from Schaffer after a lawsuit is brought against the school by the family of a former student who developed depression under Fletcher’s tutelage and committed suicide as a result. So even if legislation doesn’t provide a clear path, action can always be taken in civil court.

At the end of the day though, with Nieman willing to subject himself to Fletcher's abuse, the calculation under the law is dramatically changed. If Fletcher had been a lesser teacher, he would have gotten his comeuppance long ago. But if you can summon greatness, or at the very least people believe you can, I suppose it doesn't matter if you're a colossal prick.

*If there are any Ed lawyers out there who want to enlighten me on the issue, I’m all ears.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA