TW: The following contains sensitive material such as sexual assault and bullying.
There I am scrolling, desperate to find a podcast episode I haven’t seen or a video analysis on something interesting. And then there I see it, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse trailer with a young Heather Matarazzo. Watching the minute and twenty-six second trailer, I was engrossed and I had to watch it. A coming-of-age story I was all too familiar with. The ponytail, the glasses, the plain outfits, and the torture that was elementary and middle school.
Like Dawn, the middle-school protagonist, I often had difficulty making friends. I didn’t know how to socialize with kids my age because at home I was met with exhausted parents from work and left with my toys and Nintendo Gamecube to play with. Dawn is met with mostly all negative encounters with her peers all the while she tries to understand why they are doing this to her.
As I watched the film, repressed elementary school memories came trickling back into my hippocampus. Getting bullied in school is gruesome, you hate waking up in the morning knowing you’re going to have a difficult day and there’s nothing you can do about it except wait. I was the butt of many Hispanic racial jokes, boys called me ugly, and many kids avoided to be seen with me. I even had a few teachers throughout elementary and middle school that solely added fuel to the fire (you would expect the adult in control to alleviate the situation in these circumstances but you’d be surprised).
The thing with this film is that it seems to be the closest portrayal to the real thing. Dawn is pushed around, told not to fight back, even the kid she defends from his aggressors tells Dawn to hit the curb. The profanity is also an easy trigger for me as I’d hear all kinds of obscenities being yelled out across the lunch hall and these child actors in the movie do not hold back.
Dawn also deals with a tormentor named Brandon who continuously threatens to assault her and almost does. What’s devastating about this is that Dawn and Brandon are learning the connotation of these threats, meaning they themselves may not fully understand the full implication of sexual assault but have mirrored the behavior learned from the adults that surround them.
I also once had a bully that would do his worst to me and yet have moments of having an interest in me. One day he asked me out and everyone in my class pressured me the whole day to say yes until I went home and thought about it. Of course I said no, the bullying still continued.
There is another scene where the principle is having a discussion with Dawn’s parents about her behavior. She was caught shooting a spitball back at her bullies during an assembly and the principal asks her if she is having social problems. This scene for some reason brought back a time where my school officials wrote a note to my parents that I had “low self-esteem.” I was confused by that remark that I wondered what I could do to not have low self-esteem. That comment alone alienated me even more, made me feel like I definitely was never going to be normal or fit in with my peers, I was around ten at that time.
To be honest, I’m not quite sure what could’ve changed for me to not be tormented almost everyday by kids who didn’t genuinely care for me. This film definitely brings back all the trauma you’ve endured as a kid twelve or fifteen years ago. I remember the times I’ve faked being sick to stay home or asked to go to the bathroom often to escape the classroom. As a twenty-four-year-old woman now, I am living a good life surrounded by great people who love me the way I am. In high school, my life turned around as the bullying diminished to a complete zero as we all were getting prepared to move onto the next chapter of our lives and many grew out of that phase.
Before watching this film, my thoughts on these brutal adolescent moments that one goes through was gratitude in that I endured the trials of my peers that were set on me. I feel like based on what I’ve endured, I can sympathize and defend others in certain situations. I’ve learned to fight back, to not accept any more of that, to have a voice that is heard, but you can’t help but relive the past trauma like you’ve gone back in a time machine when you watch this film.
The hotness of your neck, the absolute horror of not knowing how to make it all stop, it all comes back to you like it just happened yesterday. I think the hardest truth out of all of this is that the oppressors that do all these awful things to you don’t go through any repercussions for the trauma they’ve inflicted onto you. I know I’ve inflicted pain as well in my pre-adolescent days as I was lost and confused as to why it was happening to me. I think if I had watched this film during those times, maybe I wouldn’t have felt so lonely. I understand her pain and frustration, her loneliness and desire to fit in simply because I am Dawn.