We’ve all seen that movie—really, there are many but it always goes something like this: there’s the protagonist and there’s the annoying, laughable allergy kid who’s attention craving, socially outcast and ultimately worth nothing more than comic relief to the plot itself. I was surprised, even in a show as recent as Ginny and Georgia disguised some disability shaming comments. You may recall the scene where Georgia and Ellen are hosting the “sophomore sleepover” night? The scene stars the “concerned” allergy mom whose kid is allergic to “….” and “doesn’t get out much.” After laughing off the stereotypical character, the mom’s throw the epipen in a bin of over ten others. MANG (Max-Abby-Norah-Ginny) is a popular group on campus, allergy kids in contrast are not. For some of us, we may have paused at the blatant use of a stereotype by this scene. More concerningly, some of us never batted an eye. We are so used to this perpetuated social dynamic, we don’t notice it anymore.
Movies also depict scenes where a person is exploited by their allergies. For example, the laughable Peter Rabbit, found comedy in the idea that the bunnies shoot blackberries—which they know McGregor is allergic to—to gain access to the coveted garden. While this scene may have different connotations to a more mature audience, this film is marketed toward children. Thus, in an undeveloped lens children interpret this act of life-threatening violence justified—even funny—because it was done to a “bad” person. But who are “bad” people to a child? An act as innocent as cutting a person in line can condemn a peer to “badness” when you’re in kindergarten. Planting the idea of exploiting a very real, and common disability in a child’s mind, invites the possibility for discrimination and deadly actions.
Making billions in revenue each year, the film industry should not use disabilities as their comedic relief. Sony publicized an apology, regarding their “insensitive joke,” but making the mistake in the first place, and their demeaning apology illuminates a deeper societal prejudice at play. Parents and teens with allergies are not being “sensitive” when they address a disability joke with Hollywood, they are being advocates for future change. Unfortunately, allergies and food-diseases are not the only disabilities the media victimizes. A myriad of other invisible and visible disabilities, such as mental health conditions and physical disabilities are rarely portrayed accurately or by actors who possess the disability in real life.
Ableism in the media comes in many forms, for instance, have you ever seen a “anaphylaxis” trigger warning? It isn’t on Netflix’s list of trigger warnings, and is absent on most streaming platforms, yet, anaphylaxis is becoming ‘popular’ in recent media portrayals. Anaphylaxis is characterized by a severe allergic reaction in which the immune system attacks itself against an unrecognized substance which is perceived as a threat. This causes nausea, hives and swelling of the face, mouth and throat, constricting the airway. Within minutes, if untreated, anaphylaxis can lead to cardiac arrest and respiratory failure. Recent media (spoiler warning) such as You placed peanut oil in an inconspicuous latte to premeditatedly murder Benji. In The Glass Onion, Miles used pineapple juice as a murder vehicle to kill Duke. In Love Hard, Natalie is laughed at for her appearance during anaphylaxis as nobody helps her until she is passed out. As someone who has experienced anaphylactic shock several times, I can attest scenes such as these can be very triggering and are not at all funny to people who have personally experienced similar circumstances. I can still remember the first time I saw a show with a (wildly inaccurate) scene of anaphylaxis: the evil character who explodes after eating cheese, from The Boxtrolls.
A 2015 study showed that “participants exposed to more humorous portrayals of food allergies were expected to have more negative attitudes towards those with food allergies, perceptions of food allergies in general, and be less likely to take lifesaving measures in an emergency” according to Opper. Not only is the media mocking individuals with allergies, they are dehumanizing them when they portray them as laughable, dramatic or annoying. Like they’re not worth saving. 2,458 people died from anaphylaxis in the United States in 2022, instilling ignorance in the general public rather than educating them it is dangerous. We can’t construct an accepting society when we demean groups in the media. Instead, let’s deconstruct the “allergy kid”: they’re just a kid who wants to stay safe so they can enjoy many days to come. Let’s be allies, and bring awareness so people know how to keep their peers safe. Let’s acknowledge the disability, but see the person.