Anderson Cooper acted like a bully. As a fan of Anderson Cooper’s career and the mother of a teenager who deeply respects Cooper, I was surprised that someone who has sought to raise the consciousness of bullying was behaving no better than a middle school student shoving a frail kid into a locker and spewing some foul insult. Recently, Cooper invited Sarah Burge on to his stage presumably to discuss her choice to have numerous cosmetic procedures. Before the interview was completed, Anderson Cooper deemed his guest “dreadful” and ceremoniously and self-righteously ended the interview, repeatedly accusing her of being disingenuous.
Cooper was clearly apprised of Burge’s outlandish behavior prior to her appearance, and yet he expressed disgust and publicly shamed her by dismissing her from his stage, saying that he had nothing more to say to her. The audience applause of course supported Cooper as the ringleader in this act of degradation. Bullying frequently engages the support of a mob or audience, which serves to elevate the bully’s ego and status as a threatening presence to be feared by others.
Burge, who had been a victim of horrific domestic violence requiring reconstructive surgery, went through a period of social isolation before discovering plastic surgery and developing an obsession with her image. It doesn’t require a medical education to ascertain that this woman, who holds the world’s record for cosmetic procedures, suffers from Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Her condition compromised her power in the dialogue with Cooper, who is an experienced award-winning journalist. Burge was ill-equipped and ill-prepared for the attack and nervously exited the stage, murmuring in a shaky whisper, “Fine, that’s fine.”
To be sure, Burge’s behavior, which included allowing her 15-year-old daughter to be injected with Botox to avoid sweating on stage during her dance performance, and giving her 7 year old a gift certificate for future plastic surgery was indefensible to any reasonable viewer. But that’s just it, Sarah Burge isn’t reasonable, she is clearly a woman in need of help, not humiliation.
As a mother and a woman concerned about the issues of women and self-image, I could not be more troubled with the choices Burge is making as an individual and parent. However, I see her as fractured, struggling for identity, acceptance, and meaning while being exploited by the media as a villain and freak.
While Cooper accused her of using the media for publicity and self-promotion he was, in fact, exploiting her for his own benefit, setting her up to be in the limelight only to tear her down. Not much different from the iconic prom scene in Carrie, where the bullied teenage girl is crowned prom queen only to be bathed in pig’s blood as chum for public humiliation. The scene is perhaps the most recognizable and disturbing expression of bullying and collective adolescent emotional violence in American film.
When we use our power to diminish those weaker than ourselves we are bullying. Bullying is not relegated to the playground or school hallways. Adults are guilty of bad behavior as well, and it is incumbent upon us to take ownership of our own agency in relationships where we are abusing our power. If we want to create meaningful change on the schoolyard then we must begin by looking inward. As Robert Fulghum says “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; they are always watching you.”
If Anderson Cooper is going to use his show to discuss his outrage about bullying in schools and call for national change he needs to check his own behavior. Using his power and national platform to degrade a guest with name-calling is egregious. Cooper victimized someone who was emotionally weaker, and if that was not enough, he did it publically under the guise of afternoon entertainment.
Perhaps Anderson Cooper was simply not delivering his best and highest self , but it was a teaching moment that proved that even well intended, educated, compassionate people have the capacity to bully. At every age and stage in life we can elevate or degrade civility. I hope this was merely a lapse for Cooper that will inspire him to reflect and make a different choice in the future. It is important to note that Anderson Cooper did acknowledge that he regretted having Burge on in the first place as well as how the interview ended. This was measured however with a statement contending that Sarah Burge wasn’t being emotionally honest during the interview, which served to justify Cooper’s behavior. Apologies are perhaps most authentically delivered minus the rationalization – at least, the honest apologies.