One in 13 children has a food allergy, according to Food Allergy Research and Education. That means that there's a very good chance that every time a movie aimed at children shows up in a theater, many in the audience will have food allergies. Some of those allergies could be life-threatening.
So when the film "Peter Rabbit" opened last weekend, many kids and parents left the theater stunned and angry. The film contains a scene in which Peter and friends purposely send a human with a food allergy into anaphylactic shock by pelting him with blackberries (one made its way into his mouth).
Kids with food allergies grapple with anxiety
"The Unhealthy Truth" author Robyn O'Brien posted a letter by a 9-year-old girl on her website that said "Peter Rabbit is rated PG, but it should be rated R for reckless." The girl, Anna Coleman, was diagnosed with a life-threatening peanut allergy when she was 2 and says she lives with always worrying where the allergen could be hiding. She has friends who tell her they have peanuts in their lunch and laugh. She lives her life not feeling safe because food can kill her.
Movies are a way to help Anna forget her anxieties. But when she went to see "Peter Rabbit" and saw that "food allergies are shown as a way to hurt others" and that they were "joked about as being not a big deal," she was upset.
Anna called for Sony Pictures, the studio behind "Peter Rabbit," to remove the two scenes where food allergies are mocked and used as a way to attack someone.
I think Anna is a bright girl who should be applauded for speaking out and letting the world know how scary it is to live with a food allergy and how difficult it is to know that some people think it's a joke. It's important to hear how a child who saw the movie felt while watching it, before going down the social media rabbit hole (no pun intended) of the #boycottpeterrabbit movement that arose quickly over the weekend.
Those who are voicing their concern on social media are taking Sony Pictures to task.
@SonyPictures What a disgrace - teaching children it's okay to bully and harass others with food allergies. You obviously have no staff with children who could DIE from food allergies. #attemptedmurder #foodallergies #boycottpeterrabbit— Allison Wells (@OrangeAlli) February 10, 2018
Peter Rabbit movie mocks anaphylaxis and food allergies, and encourages bullying. Please don’t spend money on this awful depiction of a beloved childhood book. #boycottpeterrabbit https://t.co/qzRmEOoGY3— Emily Potter (@emily0918) February 11, 2018
As a mama who has to ALWAYS make sure she has an epipen to make sure my kid can breathe in case he accidentally ingests nuts, this enrages me that they purposely include a scene that portrays food allergies as funny and not deadly. #BoycottPeterRabbit #tonedeaf— Eva Wong Champi (@evaywong) February 12, 2018
Plenty of parents are tweeting their disappointment, but some say that the boycott is ridiculous. I think they're missing the point.
Just read this drivel today, #boycottpeterrabbit people getting offended over kids films. I remember violent cartoons as a child and I don’t recall brutally killing anyone growing up. Have some faith in your kids, breathe, and remember its just a stupid film about talking rabbits— Nick (@nicknogger) February 11, 2018
Sony Pictures issued an email apology, according to Entertainment Weekly, which said, “Food allergies are a serious issue. Our film should not have made light of Peter Rabbit’s arch-nemesis, Mr. McGregor, being allergic to blackberries, even in a cartoonish, slapstick way. We sincerely regret not being more aware and sensitive to this issue, and we truly apologize.”
There has been no announcement about editing the insensitive portions out of the film, meaning many families may end up skipping "Peter Rabbit."
The anxiety is real
"The anxiety can be quite severe because there can by a time in any given day when a child can come in contact with an allergen that can kill them," says Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network. "They're having to play defense about accidentally eating something or being near someone with an allergen all the time."
It's not just the anxiety about coming into contact with a food allergen. It's the fear of being made fun of or being bullied, too, as the teens in the above video explain.
"There is a sense that this is not a real illness. That children and adults are making it up, that they are weak, or they are making excuses," says Parikh. "For some people this is life or death. We see people die in this country because of food allergies every day."
When "Peter Rabbit" portrays food allergies like they are something to be made fun of, "it's almost condoning that type of behavior," she says. "Kids might see this as funny, but it's life threatening."
Parikh mentioned a real life example from last year of a student in London who had an allergen — in his case cheese — flicked into his mouth at school, allegedly on purpose. He died two weeks later from the allergic reaction, and a 13-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.
"It shouldn't be belittled or downplayed. Anyone in that situation would feel the same way," says Parikh. "Kids shouldn't be made to feel badly about having that anxiety. It's a real fear."
A parent weighs in
Usually when I write about food allergies, I ask my neighbor Betsy to weigh in. She has three daughters, and two of them have severe food allergies that can be deadly. Her family's daily life centers around reading ingredients, asking tons of questions whenever anyone offers them food, and finding a balance between putting enough concern in her girls about the dangers of nuts, milk, eggs and other foods without making them live a fearful life.
"Why as a society do we make fun of people who have a medical condition?" Betsy asked me when I brought the film up to her. "I can think of a few movies that try to make a severe allergic reaction funny. The reality is it is very serious, and scary. We will not be seeing the movie, my children have experienced anaphylaxis and don't need to see it being taken lightly in a movie."