Food allergies are not a joke, as the makers of "Peter Rabbit," an adaptation of Beatrix Potter's classic tale, learned the hard way. Since the film's release on Friday, parents and advocacy groups have spoken out about a scene in which the mischievous Peter and his animal friends attack their human archnemesis, Thomas McGregor, with the very thing he's allergic to: blackberries.
It was one attack in a series of takedowns between the critters, who were trying to sneak into Mr. McGregor's garden, but reflects a potentially traumatic event for kids with life-threatening food allergies. While the forest friends pelt him with fruits and vegetables, a blackberry flies into the man's mouth, causing him to choke and inject himself with epinephrine.
The backlash was swift.
Kids with Food Allergies Foundation tweeted a warning about the scene, which noted that it might be disturbing to young viewers with food allergies, and wrote a Facebook post, saying, "Parents should be aware of this before your children see the movie so you can talk with your child(ren) about it. KFA believes that food allergy 'jokes' are harmful to our community. During a reaction, patients require the life-saving drug epinephrine and must go to the nearest hospital for follow-up treatment. The very real fear and anxiety that people experience during an allergic reaction (often referred to as an impending sense of doom) is a serious matter."
The KFA and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America also wrote a letter to Sony and the filmmakers, noting that Sony has used food allergies as weapons and punchlines in children's movies before, including "The Smurfs" and "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," and calling on the studio to work together to promote safe environments for those with food allergies.
Angry parents say that the scene pokes fun at a condition that many people already don't take seriously, but should. From a 5-year-old classmate trying to shove a strawberry into an allergic girl's mouth to the preschooler who died from a grilled cheese sandwich, stories of food allergies taken lightly are still common.
Brayden Drey, a 7-year-old with severe allergies, told the New York Times that he didn't like the scene and was afraid and upset that Mr. McGregor had to use an EpiPen to inject himself with epinephrine.
"People that don't deal with this don't understand," said his mom, Nicole Drey, who has spent years helping Brayden deal with bullying and everyday food allergy challenges.
Sony issued an apology yesterday: "Food allergies are a serious issue. Our film should not have made light of Peter Rabbit’s archnemesis, 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."
But not everyone thinks the studio should have apologized in the first place.
"Sony shouldn't have apologized for pretty conventional storytelling in the service of a standard character arc. Yes, Peter uses Thomas’ allergy against him in a moment of cruelty, but the emergency is quickly solved ... and Peter’s behavior is not remotely viewed as positive or becoming of a true onscreen hero (Paddington would not have approved). He’s a flawed onscreen hero acting in a poor way who later changes his behavior and becomes happier as a result," wrote Scott Mendelson for Forbes.
Others also say that some parents are taking it too seriously. Slapstick violence between two enemies has been a part of children's shows for a long time (e.g., Tom and Jerry, or Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny).
Looks like Peter Rabbit dug up more controversy than he thought in the garden.