By MANI THANGADURAI
The week of Feb. 9 saw the release of the Peter Rabbit movie, a 3D-animated rendition based on the classic and beloved children’s stories written by Beatrix Potter. For the people who grew up reading these stories, the film is expected to stoke their collective excitement and anticipation of a trip down memory lane. The story’s adaption to a modern time frame provides an extra level of satisfaction while still portraying the iconic title character as the same lovable rascal he was in the book series, up to the same high jinks and stealing vegetables from his neighbor’s garden. In this edition, the antagonist is the nephew of Peter’s long-time nemesis Mr. John McGregor, who dies early in the film.
Almost immediately after the release of the film however, a huge controversy arose from a scene in the film where Peter escapes an attack from Tom McGregor by throwing some blackberries in his direction. Tom is highly allergic to blackberries, and ends up accidentally ingesting one thrown at him. He is saved from going into a near-fatal anaphylactic shock thanks to an epinephrine injection he carries on his person and administers immediately. The scene in question brought about a huge backlash from many horrified parents of children with food allergies along with support groups for allergy sufferers. The hashtag “Boycott Peter Rabbit” rapidly became a hot trend on social media with many people criticizing the creators for supposedly making light of food allergies and the people who suffer from them.
For certain, the people outraged by this scene had some reason to be so, since the act of throwing the berries was done in knowledge of McGregor’s strong allergy towards the fruit. For many franchise enthusiasts, this choice displayed an almost evil side to the beloved children’s figure. As a credit to the film, though, the protagonists were quite well-developed with elaborate backstories. There is no doubt that Sony Entertainment lacked the foresight to understand the potential negative impact of that scene on some families. In a time when theaters and directors are quick to add disclaimers on the ill-effects of smoking and alcohol consumption before the beginning of a film, Sony and the people responsible should have been quick to do something similar. Instead, they were guilted into issuing an apology almost immediately after the film’s release.
However, aside from the fact that the scene in question was quite important in terms of the context of the film and the evolution of Peter’s character from bad to good, the blackberry incident also provided some important information on how to cope with an allergic reaction. Just as asthmatics are always told to have a working inhaler with them at all times, the EpiPen which Tom uses to prevent himself from going into shock is shown as an essential accessory for people with food allergies or allergies of any sort. It certainly emphasizes the importance of making sure one is prepared, especially since it hardly makes sense for the antagonist to be working with fruits and vegetables while being allergic to one of them.
Furthermore, this isn’t the first time that allergies or other medical conditions have been dealt with on television and in film. In many ways, the prevalence of said allergies has been used as a part of the appeal of certain characters in question, comic or otherwise. Over the years we have seen these characters have allergic flare-ups on screen, but for the most part there has been a marked improvement in how those flare-ups are treated. With a pertinent example from a children’s TV show, Raven-Symone’s character Raven Baxter was portrayed as having a severe mushroom allergy, and in one episode of That’s So Raven titled “Chef-Man and Raven” she developed a terribly adverse reaction after accidentally ingesting some mushroom slices. She ingested them after her opponent in a TV cooking contest threw some into her pan while she wasn’t looking, an act which can just as easily be construed as violence or bullying the way the blackberry scene in the Peter Rabbit movie was. And she didn’t get it treated until after the end of the show. Yet her allergy was used to enhance the comic value of the episode and there was hardly any outrage at the time. More pertinently, the Disney Channel, which produced the show, wasn’t forced to apologize the way Sony did.
Several other TV shows like Friends, How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory have also had episodes where one or more of their characters have had their food allergies overplayed for comic effect. A notable example is that of Simon Helberg’s The Big Bang Theory character Howard Wolowitz who in an episode titled “The Peanut Reaction” deliberately ingests a peanut bar to prevent his friend from going home immediately. The scene where he is completely swollen and in need of urgent medical attention is one which fans of the show will not forget. Because he is at a hospital, Wolowitz is able to receive urgent medical attention instead of going into severe shock and dying.
Over the years, we have seen many TV shows and films deal with a plethora of individual medical conditions ranging from AIDS to bulimia to cancer to diabetes to epilepsy. The way I look at it, these shows and films serve a purpose of informing people that these conditions exist, that they can be severe, and that they should be effectively treated. The challenge here is to make sure that the message is effectively conveyed, and I will agree that it hasn’t always been done well in the past. An episode from Season 3 of Hannah Montana had to be pulled and renamed, in addition to having a pivotal scene reshot following some complaints about an inaccurate portrayal of people suffering from Type-1 diabetes.
I grew up reading similar beloved children’s stories like Paddington Bear and Postman Pat while also watching them on television, and I am always happy with the adaptation of these stories into a more modern context. It comes with its challenges, namely to try and incorporate more modern elements like computers, mobile phones, internet and so forth while also staying true to the same rustic character which accentuates its appeal. I firmly believe that while the reaction of those families and allergy groups is indeed understandable and justifiable, it has been a little over the top with regard to Peter Rabbit. Hopefully with a greater understanding of context, the scene in question will be better appreciated, along with the rest of the film. Having apologized for their lack of foresight, Sony Entertainment would do well to add a permanent disclaimer to the film as a means of smoothing over tensions from movie buffs who might still be put off. I definitely plan to see the film, and I’m sure that I will enjoy the story and its development. It might just make me want to go back and read those old stories again and rediscover my childhood. As a self-confessed nostalgic, I don’t think there can be anything better.
Mani Thangadurai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org