Parents of children with food allergies have a tough job keeping their kids safe. According to the CDC, approximately 3 million children suffer from some sort of food allergy, and some are very serious. Nearly 10,000 children are hospitalizedeach year because of bad reactions to food.
So it’s confusing that the just-released movie “Peter Rabbit” has come under fire for highlighting the seriousness of this condition. One would think parents would cheer a major Hollywood studio deciding to demonstrate the danger associated with food allergies.
Yet, instead of praise, food allergy activists and parents of children who have food allergies have attacked Sony Pictures and “Peter Rabbit.” They claim the movie mocks the condition and encourages “food allergy bullying,” which, they explain, is when children use food to bully and even assault children with food allergies. Naturally, there have been calls to boycott the movie.
The scene in this updated version of the classic book involves Peter’s nemesis, Tom McGregor, the son of Mr. McGregor. Tom’s raison d’être is to kill Peter and all the other “vermin” in his late father’s garden. So, after learning that Tom suffers from a severe allergy to blackberries, Peter and his friends decide to pelt Tom with the berries and actually aim for Tom’s mouth. As predicted, Tom has a dangerous allergic reaction and things start to look pretty grim. But just before Tom keels over, he administers medicine from his EpiPen, which saves his life.
One might interpret this scene as a good demonstration of the danger of food allergies. Yet, in an open letter to studio executives, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America claimed that the scene, “featured the intentional attack of the McGregor character with the food he is allergic to — the implication being that the rabbits wanted to kill or harm McGregor with this method.”
Well, that’s true. Peter did want to kill Tom, and there’s certainly a conversation to have about whether it’s appropriate to take Beatrix Potter’s sweet story of childish misadventure into Tarantino movie style territory. Yet, it’s also worth noting that cartoon characters have a long tradition of trying to kill each other — wickedly and violently. In fact, devising disturbing ways in which to seriously injure or even murder one’s enemy has been the prevailing theme in cartoons since the medium was created.
While modern cartoons have become softer and gentler and often carry social justice messages about inclusion and kindness, classic cartoon characters like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, or Marvin the Martian spent most episodes insulting one another while simultaneously trying to knock each other off. Perhaps that was the biggest mistake Sony made: trying to update the mode of murder to something more au courant — like food allergies.
The good folks at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America also seem a bit confused about the literary concepts of protagonist and antagonist. In their letter, they advise Sony Pictures executives to “examine your portrayal of bullying in your films geared toward a young audience.” Yet, in “Peter Rabbit,” Peter isn’t the bully. Peter is the good guy — the one we root for and the character we want to see survive. Tom is actually the antagonist or the “bully.” He’s the one who is out to kill sweet Peter and all his furry friends. What Peter did with the blackberries wasn’t bullying; that was self-defense.
Sony Studios can learn a lesson from this latest outrage and consider what parents really want in children’s programming. Perhaps it’s time to cut it out with the unnecessary violence and disturbing images. People and kids desire simpler, family-friendlier content, not scenes that invoke — good or bad — how people react to food allergies.
And in today’s overly sensitive culture, Hollywood studios would be wise to stick to the classic and less real-world way of killing your cartoon enemies — throwing them off a cliff, setting them on fire, running them over with a truck, or hitting them over the head with a hammer or frying pan. But never, ever use a slingshot to lob a piece of fruit into somebody’s mouth — that apparently is too close to how the real world works.