4 things I learned from Top Chef about bullying

Recently, Bravo aired a marathon of Top Chef Season 2, which I eagerly watched during late nights with the baby.

In addition to featuring fun cooking challenges and great food, this particular season of Top Chef focused on the relationships between contestants, in particular, on people's relationship with one contestant, Marcel. Marcel was young and cocky throughout this season. He said a number of things and even did a few stupid things that irritated others. Early on in the season, the show's editing highlighted the ongoing conflict between Marcel and one of the older contestants, Betty, who openly despised Marcel. Each episode, things seemed to escalate between the contestants and Marcel until eventually, ALL the contestants seemed to hate Marcel. Things came to a head one episode when a bunch of contestants decided to shave their heads. Not surprisingly, Marcel was not among them. As usual, he was alone, isolated from the other contestants. In this particular episode, he'd fallen asleep when another contestant, Cliff, grabbed him off the couch, held him down, and invited the other chefs to shave his head. Cliff was kicked off the show for his behavior; Marcel came in second place.

As I watched this season of Top Chef, my youth worker (and parent) heart plummeted as I realized I was witnessing bullying. Watching it taught me four important lessons about bullying.

1. Bullying often starts small, so small that it might be tempting to ignore or worse still, justify it. Had I only watched the first few episodes of this season of Top Chef, it would have been easy to see the interpersonal conflict between Marcel and Betty as just that. Because of the show's editing, it would have been temping to side with Betty. Marcel was often portrayed as a jerk. As a result, the ridicule he received from Betty at first appeared almost justified. How often, I wonder, do we as youth workers do the same thing? How often do we excuse the early signs of bullying by telling ourselves that that's not what we're seeing among our Christian kids? How often do we excuse poor behavior by saying, “Teens will be teens” or “Sometimes, people say mean things about one another”? We shouldn't. The best time to STOP bullying from occurring is before it begins. The second best time to stop bullying from occurring is when it's in its infancy.

2. Bullying tends to escalate. In each episode of Season 2 of Top Chef, the contestants' treatment of Marcel worsened. The more contestants saw other people ridicule or mistreat Marcel, the more it seemed as though they felt they had the right to do the same. In the same way, people's treatment of one another in our youth ministries is contagious. If you work hard to establish a culture of welcome, it will permeate your ministry. But failing to proactively deal with bullying and/or cliques will result in more bullying and cliques.

3. To the person being bullied, there is no such thing as a joke. In the Top Chef episode in which Cliff physically restrains Marcel and invites the other contestants to shave his head (without his permission), person after person says something along the lines of, “It started off as a joke.” “We never meant for things to get so out of control.” As I heard these comments, I couldn't help but think about the times I've heard youth workers say similar things:“I never meant for her to get hurt” or “I was just trying to get a laugh.” Here's the thing, though. When someone gets hurt, your intent doesn't matter. As youth workers, we need to be careful – with our words, our actions, and even our programs. When deciding whether or not to do something, our gauge shouldn't be “How will most teens react to this?” it should be, “How will the person being singled out react? How will those on the margins of our ministry react? How would an outsider perceive this activity? What would parents think of this activity?” If a joke, activity, or illustration wouldn't be acceptable to all four of these groups, then it shouldn't be done.

4. It takes intervention for bullying to end. It would be nice if eventually, bullies would just come to their senses, realize that they're hurting someone, and stop. Unfortunately, that won't happen. After all, bullying is about power. As bullying escalates, bullies typically receive more – not less – power. Thus, it takes intervention for bullying to end. That's the power of the bystander. In Top Chef, it took bystander and head judge, Tom Colicchio, kicking Cliff off the show for his role in restraining Marcel to halt the bullying. In the same way, it takes our intervention to end bullying in our youth ministries. Our youth ministries should be places where bullying is unacceptable. Thus, whenever we see even a hint of bullying, we need to intervene and deal with it. We need to stop the bully, equip other bystanders to respond, and provide support and care to the victim. Doing so will ensure that our ministries remain a safe and loving place where all people can encounter Christ.   

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the Minister of Youth and Family at Atonement Lutheran Church in Barrington, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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