I was saddened but not surprised watching a recent Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit that made light of peanut allergies. In the March 5 sketch, a father cops to crushing peanuts into his son’s lunch to prove he was faking an allergy. The scene then cues into the audience laughing as his son comes on the set, his swollen tongue sticking out of his mouth, and barely able to speak.
It was abundantly clear that the segment was about this TV home repair star father’s incompetence in general. But my experience wasn’t at all funny when my then 2-year-old begged me not to let him die as his throat was closing after a bite of my peanut butter sandwich. Akin to what the audience deemed hilarious in the SNL skit, my son Josh’s tongue swelled to double its size and he began having trouble with speech. He clutched his throat and was so scared. Seeing the light slowly fading from his eyes did not inspire laughter from me. No one asks for this condition.
The SNL skit questioning the veracity of a peanut allergy-triggered memories for me of a birthday party approximately 11 years ago for one of my son’s friends. While taking the time to talk with some of the moms in his class, I had my back turned when little cups of cereal were passed out. Josh had already put a handful of the snack in his mouth and my heart raced because I had not vetted the snack as safe for his peanut allergy.
I relaxed momentarily when I realized that the cereal handed out appeared to be from a brand we’d used before. But as I inspected the package, I realized that this was a special edition, with a “may contain peanut” warning on it.
Murmurs of ‘Maybe It’s Her’
I immediately called the company and spoke to a manager who told me this holiday product was made on a line that also manufactured a cereal with peanut flour in it. However, they did a thorough cleaning between runs and the manager concluded it was unlikely peanut flour was in the product Josh had eaten.
Still, I hovered over Josh, watching him like a hawk for any symptoms. I could feel the eyes of all the other moms on me and, as the party went on, Josh had no reaction. I even caught wind of low murmurings of “maybe Josh isn’t that allergic after all.” I tried to explain that the product turned out not to have peanut in it, but if it did, Josh could have had a life-threatening reaction.
Today, I still vividly recall the looks of the other moms, as if to say, “maybe it’s her.” It was my first taste of the skepticism that others can sometimes feel toward another parent and their child with a food allergy.
Encountering skepticism is common when living with a food allergy. When all is well, you are not reacting to your allergen and visible symptoms of the condition do not appear. We don’t question the need for people in wheelchairs to use a ramp to get on an airline. But the testimonials I collect at Nonuttraveler.com show people with food allergies often face ridicule from both airline staff and passengers when they ask to pre-board to clean the seat area, or inform others about the allergy to ensure safe travel. Those living with food allergies have also faced cynicism when asking for legally appropriate accommodations in schools, camps, and workplace environments.
Skepticism’s Real-Life Dangers
Some in the medical and patient community worry that calling out comedians could lead to additional disconcerting behavior, or to our community being regarded as against free speech. I do not take issue with the comedian’s role of pushing social boundaries. In many cases, comedians use offensive discourse to force us, the audience, to look inside ourselves and spark conversations that lead to change.
But I have found that with the topic of food allergies, these discussions don’t ever happen. Instead, what gets reinforced is a societal disconnect where making light of food allergies (a legitimate medical condition) has become acceptable, and that can put those with a food allergy in harm’s way.
In Ohio, a teacher with a known severe allergy to banana had banana smeared on her doorknob and other surfaces in her classroom by pranking students. She ended up in the hospital with anaphylaxis. A young teen in the U.K. with a dairy allergy had cheese thrown at him, also as a prank. It landed against his broken skin and he died. The list goes on…
Among those who don’t live with them, a perception often exists that food allergies are not a real medical condition, or that the dangers of food allergies are greatly overblown. This is what leads to the disconcerting behavior faced by those who have this condition. I contend that these false perceptions are fueled and normalized by this kind of comedy. (In the SNL skit, the father even says of his son: “I still think he might be exaggerating.”)
The only way to counter these bad food allergy jokes is with good speech. Speaking up, commenting, and writing about such skits often ignites ire from the comedian and their fans. But it often also leads to someone else being educated – and that can change attitudes. There is value in providing people who know nothing about the dangers of living with a food allergy both an opposing and an informed opinion.
If more people object to than laugh at food allergy ‘jokes’, the TV networks will stop lobbing them. Maybe they’ll turn to the condition instead as serious material for dramatic shows.
After all, there’s no mileage in a ‘gag’ that doesn’t hit its mark. So I encourage you to stand up and call out the food allergy ‘jokes’ as they land. I believe I just did.
Lianne Mandelbaum is Allergic Living’s airlines correspondent, and the founder of NoNutTraveler.com.