In Netflix’s 2019 premier of the drama series You, we all got to cringe as Dan Humphrey (as he shall always be known) murders a man who is allergic to peanuts by poisoning his drink with peanut oil. In all fairness, I didn’t watch the show. I read the book several years ago, and aside from that one terrifying moment, I thought it was a compelling thriller. Part of me wants to watch the series, but the other part of me is torn. I’ve already seen some negative reactions from allergy bloggers and Instagrammers who I will assume did not read the book beforehand. Had I not already known, I would also have been shocked. The scene is basically our (and I use the word “our” as in, us as the food allergy community) worst nightmare. And while I lamented that a show I otherwise would have already binged was still sitting in the suggested carousel, another thought came to mind; what if this is a sign of progress?
Hear me out.
When I look back at examples of food allergy in the media during my childhood, the 90’s and 00’s, it makes me flinch. Allergy kids were portrayed as the nerdy kids, the losers, the ones with braces and glasses and a fanny pack (and back then none of those things were cool). Anaphylactic reactions were inserted as fluff content, something to jazz up an episode, and the character would always recover quickly, sometimes in the school nurse’s office.
Rewatching old episodes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch is a fabulous example of such miseducation. In season 1, Libby, the cheerleader bully, has an anaphylactic reaction and is healed simply by getting an epinephrine injection from the school nurse. Life goes on as usual. And in season three, the feeble and mousy teacher’s corn allergy is leaned on for quick laughs on several occasions.
Kids, myself included, loved this show and ate it up. No wonder so many of my peers didn’t realize my allergies could be life threatening.
But here we are in 2019, with a show that doesn’t portray the allergy guy as a social outcast. He’s good looking, impossibly hip, someone that the main character is jealous of. Although its difficult to watch such a sadistic crime that hits close to home, the allergic reaction plays out in a realistic way. It’s no laughing matter. His actions have consequences and they leave an impact.
This isn’t the first time in recent years that a show or movie has depicted an allergic reaction in way that’s true to life (big shout out to the show Working Moms for their realistic depiction of a parent’s panic and fear at her daughter’s allergic reaction), but it is still a rarity (I think we’re all familiar with the Peter Rabbit movie issues). Scenes in movies like Hitch or Monster in Law that depict characters with comically swollen faces are hopefully becoming a thing of the past.
Truthfully, those movies irked me more than the scene in You. They made a mockery of my disease and I worried that their downplaying of the severity of anaphylaxis would register with viewers. There is no way I’d drink Benadryl through a straw instead of going to a hospital and using my Epi Pen, and if I had been intentionally poisoned with peanuts before my wedding you can bet I would have reported it to the police.
I can’t tell you how many people have asked me if my allergies “are like Will Smith’s face in Hitch”, or how annoyed I felt when a friend’s mom told me she thought Jennifer Lopez’s puffy lips were so funny in Monster in Law.
This leads me to wonder, why? Possibly because the massive cohort of 80’s/90’s babies with food allergies is all grown up (check out the Demetri Martin special on Netflix), there are more of us out there in the world sharing our experience and educating others. Nearly everyone knows someone with a food allergy, and it’s no longer just a kid thing. If you know someone who has had a reaction then you know how severe it is. You might not consider it a laughing matter because you’d know it’s not.
Maybe the portrayal of food allergy as a real and serious thing with potentially grave consequences, in a mainstream TV show, is something worth noting. A sign that we’re making progress, that educating others about the severity of anaphylaxis is getting somewhere, and finally sinking in.