Growing up in a food allergy family, I lived in a world where people barely knew what a food allergy was, let alone that it could be life-threatening. It wasn’t always easy to explain to my friends that they couldn’t bring candy or snacks with peanuts or tree nuts over to my house, but this rule was always met with curiosity and compliance – not eye-rolling or jokes.
Today, as someone whose work is dedicated to increasing awareness of food allergy as a serious, potentially life-threatening and growing public health issue, I know there is still much work to be done, but I am heartened by the significant progress that’s been made in ensuring people with food allergies are safe and included. From advances in research and improved laws and regulations at the federal and state levels to national education initiatives, grassroots advocacy movements and nationwide news coverage – all of these efforts have contributed to greater awareness, empathy and action in support of the food allergy community.
One area that’s lagging behind, though, is the portrayal of food allergies in movies and television. These mediums are so powerful in tackling tough issues, shaping our cultural conversations, and shedding light on societal trends in ways that make us think, discuss, question and laugh.
But when it comes to food allergies, many movies and television shows are still living in the Dark Ages. In the last week alone, at least three primetime television shows included scenes that made light of food allergies.
All too often, food allergies are played for a cheap laugh – they’re the topic of a prank or the target of a joke. Reactions are portrayed unrealistically and in such a way that could cost characters their lives, and characters who don’t have food allergies are disproportionately depicted as people who are strangely excited at the possibility of sending someone to the hospital. These portrayals are not only untrue and hurtful – they are dangerous.
Some will say that the mere presence of food allergies and anaphylaxis in popular culture is a sign that the disease is gaining ground in the national consciousness. It is, and that is important. It’s also true that there are many different ways to broach a topic and bring attention to it, including using humor appropriately to educate and raise awareness.
But as a society, we can do better. And as a community, we can help by pointing people in the right direction.
In that spirit, for the producers and writers of movies and television shows who are interested in including food allergies in their story lines, I’d encourage you to keep the following in mind:
- Food allergies can be life-threatening. The most insidious fact about food allergy is that there is no way to know how severe a reaction will be until it happens – which means that every reaction has the potential to lead to a hospital visit, or worse. Today, without a cure or preventive treatments that can reduce the risk of life-threatening reactions, avoiding the food completely is critical (and much harder than it sounds). A person with a diagnosed food allergy should also be prepared for a severe reaction (anaphylaxis). That means having two epinephrine auto-injectors with them at all times, and knowing how and when to use them (for young children, it’s important for a responsible adult to carry and know how to use the auto-injector). When a severe reaction does occur, the person must be treated immediately with an epinephrine auto-injector and then 911 should be called to transport them to the hospital for further treatment and observation for at least four hours to ensure the symptoms don’t return.A recent episode of a network television sitcom depicted a character self-injecting epinephrine and then remaining at her desk while co-workers laughed about the incident – in the real world, this scene could have ended in tragedy. To treat it so lightly is irresponsible and could be dangerous. If you’re going to show a reaction, then show what it’s really like – not an unrealistic version that downplays the severity and potential consequences.
- 15 million people in the U.S. have food allergies. That’s enough people to be our fifth largest state. Since this is a common disease, it makes sense to incorporate characters with food allergies into your work. But it doesn’t make sense to play into a stale stereotype. Food allergy is an invisible disease that doesn’t discriminate based on race, geography, economic status or any other factor. It affects a diverse array of adults and children throughout the country, disproportionately affects African Americans, and is a reality for professional athletes, scientists, actors, musicians, and even those who live at the White House. When you determine which character will have a food allergy, it’s important to keep these facts in mind.
- Food allergy bullying is real and can have dire consequences. Movies and television have taken on the broad topic of bullying and explored the issue in meaningful and poignant ways. So what makes food allergy bullying different? A third of kids with food allergies have been bullied specifically because of them, and half of those kids didn’t tell their parents about it. Watching popular shows model ways in which to bully kids with food allergies is terrifying – for adults and children alike – and for what? A lame filler laugh? If exploring food allergy bullying is important to the story you are trying to tell, avoid showing exactly what happened and be sure to show the consequences the bully faced. Don’t make bullying look cool or even acceptable. You can learn more about this subject via FARE’s “It’s Not a Joke” campaign to address food allergy bullying.
- Approach this topic in the same way you would other life-threatening medical conditions. Humor can be excellent for softening difficult scenarios and supporting the healing process. And food allergy certainly isn’t the only disease that movies and television shows poke fun at. But when you’re writing a scene about food allergies, I’d ask you to consider this – would you make the same joke about cancer, or diabetes, or a heart attack? More often than not, the answer will be no. This isn’t about special treatment – it’s about being evaluated by the same standard.
Next Monday, March 31, the food allergy community will remember those individuals who have lost their lives to anaphylaxis, and this spring, we as a community will be promoting events like World Allergy Week and Food Allergy Awareness Week to help increase understanding of and support for our cause. Despite these tragedies and the need for greater understanding, food allergies still face skepticism in a way that other diseases rarely seem to.
We are at a critical time in the national discourse around food allergies. Movies and television shows are in a unique position to shape the cultural conversation about the disease. My hope is that they will continue to include stories about food allergy – because food allergy does touch all of us, and it needs to be better understood – and that they do so in a more realistic and empathetic way.
Veronica LaFemina is Vice President of Communications at Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). Her father and younger sister have food allergies. You can learn more about food allergies on FARE’s website – www.foodallergy.org.