Wild About Viral: What ‘The Duff’ Says About Cyberbullying

In the new teenage comedy The Duff, Mae Whitman plays a high school senior who comes to discover that she has been the DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) in a small clique that includes two friends that are prettier and more popular than her.

The term “DUFF” (or “duff”) gives the impression that a person need to be ugly or fat when this isn’t true. It’s just another label to pigeonhole someone. If it had existed during the days of Ferris Bueller – the ultimate school slacker that everyone (except educators) loved – Principal Ed Rooney’s secretary, Grace (Edie McClurg), would have called them out as she did with “the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, and dwebbies.”

After a few weeks in theaters, The Duff has been met with praise, and has become a cultural touchstone of time and place in the lives of today’s teens, much like Clueless was in the 1990s, Mean Girls in the 2000s, and, of course, the John Hughes movies of the 1980s. The comedy is a celebration of idiosyncratic behavior, of how being different is not a flaw in personality but rather gives you the permission to be what you want to be.

The film also carries with it the subtext of something that is all too familiar with today’s youth: the effects of cyberbullying. When video of Whitman’s character, Bianca, swooning over a secret crush at a department store is shared among the students at school, it becomes viral and casts her in a negative light. It is an embarrassing moment for Bianca that is shared and shared again at such a rate that its reverberations are louder than scuffed sneakers on linoleum floors. It’s only after the fact that administrators go on the offensive to assuage the situation. Their solution isn’t the wisest of choices.

Most teens probably never envisioned a world where they weep for the current generation. They made silent promises that they would never grow up. They would be Toys ‘R’ Us kids forever. Now, they’re adults and read about the severity of today’s bullying. It wasn’t uncommon to see one student insult another with verbal putdowns, put a “Kick Me” sign on his back, or shove him in a locker — but the act was usually reserved to school grounds exclusively. Nowadays, though, bullying is not just about physicality. In fact, a person can be ripped to shreds without being touched. All one needs is a smartphone and a Facebook or Twitter account.

Cyberbullying is an all too real occurrence, and the movie The Duff, though fictional, shows how videos or comments on social media can be damaging to someone. It’s not just about what is written or shared online, but the whispers from person to person the next day at school.

Sarah Harvard, an intern at Slate, wrote a piece about The Duff, applauding how it captures how cyberbullying and hallway bullying co-exist and interact.

“When I was in high school, though, the administrators did absolutely nothing about cyberbullying. The higher-ups mostly seemed bewildered by how, exactly, cyberbullying works. And these days, with the right technical skills — which many teens have now developed (have you seen Pretty Little Liars?) — it can be difficult for local school administrators to track the culprits of cyberbullying.”

Even if The Duff seems familiar to most who have ever watched a high school movie (seriously, it feels like today’s version of She’s All That or a female version of Angus, for those who can recall that forgotten gem from the 1990s), its whip-smart dialogue — with memorable quotes and quips — will become a part of this generation’s vernacular. As Harvard expresses, “the film is basically one big inside joke for anyone born after 1990.”

The Duff will likely become the next classic teenage comedy, and part of the reason is its honest depiction of how cyberbullying works and how little we know about how to prevent its preponderance among students.

[Image via CBS Films]