Monday, January 02, 2006

The Year in Food Allergies on Film

When kids go back to school tomorrow, it will be the first day that Ontario's Sabrina's Law -- an act that requires that school administrators have a plan to protect anaphylactic students -- is in effect. In celebration of this good news, here's my National Post article about the advances made in Hollywood's depiction of people with food alergies in 2005 movies. Sort of.

Hollywood is not usually kind to those who suffer from food allergies. In big-studio comedies, characters who are allergic to nuts or shellfish are almost always pale, near-sighted, socially inept and in constant need of their asthma pumps. They are gawky, likely to stutter and unimportant to the plot. They are disposable dorks who rarely get the girl - and who are even less often the girl to be got.

So a series of mainstream comedies released in 2005 that featured sexy stars as characters with food allergies came like gluten-free manna from heaven to EpiPen carriers everywhere. First up was the rom-com Hitch, which starred Will Smith as a professional "date doctor" who experiences an allergic reaction while wooing Eva Mendes over dinner. Then, in Monster-in-Law, Jennifer Lopez's character is both engaged to Michael Vartan from Alias and has a serious allergy to nuts. Finally, to cap off the year, The Family Stone featured Dermot Mulroney as a character who may not be able to stomach mushrooms, but is more than capable of catching the eye of such classy dames as Sarah Jessica Parker and Claire Danes.

With schools, restaurants and workplaces becoming more and more conscious of the dangers posed by food allergies, the social stigma of living with anaphylaxis has become a more central concern to the estimated 2% of Canadians who have life-threatening allergies. When a 15-year-old Quebec girl died this fall after kissing her boyfriend who had recently eaten a peanut butter snack, it was a tragic reminder of the serious consequences that being shy about or embarrassed by your allergies can have.

Though it featured a nut-allergic character played by an actress who was voted the sexiest woman in the world two years in a row by FHM magazine, most allergy awareness groups ignored the possible positive impact Monster-in-Law might have had and instead focused on the comedy's irresponsible depiction of an anaphylactic reaction. Monster-in-Law, which premiered during Food Allergy Awareness week in May, showed Jane Fonda's character trying to bump off her daughter-in-law-to-be Lopez by lacing a gravy boat with mashed-up nuts; and all that happened to J. Lo was that her lips grew to a comical size. Organizations like the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network lambasted the filmmakers for making light of allergic reactions and potentially inspiring copycat "practical jokes."

While FAAN's reaction was reasonable, Hollywood comedies do routinely make jokes about things that are not funny in real-life: heart attacks, incontinence, footballs in the groin. Filmmakers need not always have allergic reactions lead to tragedy as they do in My Girl; sometimes the best way to broach a serious topic is through humour.

Still, there's no reason why allergies can't be both funny and true. When Smith had his restaurant reaction in Hitch, there was a whole wealth of real-life comic material left unmined. Anyone who's debated whether or not you have to pull down your pants before injecting an EpiPen into your thigh, or has had their limbs twitch involuntarily after being pumped full of adrenaline and Benadryl knows that there's plenty that provokes giggles in this life-or-death situation.

So while allergic film buffs should count their blessings that they were given less demeaning roles in 2005 films, we're still waiting for the moment when sexy and silly combine with verisimilitude. That's the moment when Rachel McAdams turns to Heath Ledger in the middle of a romantic dinner scene and says, "Is that an EpiPen in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"

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