The Trivialisation of Anaphylaxis in Cinema

In film, allergies are frequently understood to be a character’s flaw, as a comedic imperfection that can be used as a plot point, as someone’s weakness, and their potential downfall. The seriousness of anaphylaxis becomes belittled in such a way that it poses a threat to the life of the allergy-suffering character and, as a danger many of us face in real life every day, this trivialisation is no laughing matter.

Many genres of Hollywood films have included allergic reactions as either an instance of comic relief or as a pivotal moment occurring within their narratives. One example of this is the 2018 adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, and a specific scene involving rabbits throwing blackberries (the allergen) at McGregor, who then requires an EpiPen and collapses from exhaustion as a consequence of his allergic reaction. In response to this scene, many parents have expressed their concerns over the potential negative influence this “bullying” attack may have on young viewers, for both potential victims and potential future bullies. Seeing a weakness and taking down their opposition in this way could prove lethal in classroom and playground environments, and consequently these parents’ fears are not unfounded.

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Allergy activists have also called for the film to be withdrawn from cinemas, and have criticised the production and distribution companies for not having warned parents about potentially triggering and upsetting allergy-related scenes. The film demonstrates how a severe allergy may be used in conflict as a weapon against the enemy target, and if this scene influences its youngest audience members, the tactic could prove very problematic and even fatal under certain circumstances.

Two semi-recent popular Hollywood comedies, Hitch (2005, Tennant, USA) and Horrible Bosses (2011, Gordon, USA) treat allergies in similarly unserious and outlandish ways. When Will Smith’s Hitch shows signs of generic ‘food allergies’, as he struggles to breathe without snorting and half of his face swells up, he should have been taken to an A&E. Instead, Eva Mendes takes him to a pharmacy for some antihistamines, when he is clearly in need of medical assistance to bring down the swelling in his throat. The supposed hilarity of his swollen face negates the severity of the situation, as he chugs some allergy medicine syrup, staring at his reflection in distress (pictured below).

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In Horrible Bosses Kevin Spacey’s character suffers an allergic reaction to peanut butter, and Dale (Charlie Day) saves him by stabbing him with an EpiPen in the chest (see GIF below). EpiPen guidelines state to inject the pen into thigh muscles for the most effective application, (intramuscular injection gets the medicine pumping around faster). Not only is the film wrong in its depiction of Day saving Spacey, but it could be a dangerous influence for viewers uneducated about EpiPen protocols.

Hopefully, unrealistic depictions of allergic reactions such as these, and the heightening anxiety surrounding these issues, can continue the discussion and increase awareness, education, and understanding of life-threatening allergies. These films’ problematic representations are uninformed and exaggerated for laughs, which is understandable considering their genres, but not good enough when it comes to raising awareness about the sensitive nature and serious threat of anaphylactic shock. 

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Images: Sony Pictures/Warner Bros Pictures/Columbia Pictures/moviegifs.net

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