Well, that was fast.
On Friday, the live-action/CGI animal comedy Peter Rabbit hit the theaters, finishing second at the weekend box office with a better-than-expected $25 million. By Saturday, the movie was besieged with letterheaded outrage and a #boycottpeterrabbit tweets over a scene in which title character and his siblings, in the midst of a protracted struggle against their new neighbor Mr. McGregor, successfully slingshot a blackberry into the man's mouth, knowing that he has a severe allergy to the fruit. By Sunday, the filmmakers and Sony Pictures had issued a mea culpa: "Food allergies are a serious issue. Our film should not have made light of Peter Rabbit's archnemesis, Mr. McGregor, being allergic to blackberries, even in a cartoonish, slapstick way. We sincerely regret not being more aware and sensitive to this issue, and we truly apologize."
Before everyone moves on to the next hashtag nontroversy, it's worth taking a step back and observing just how bonkers this (successful!) complaint was, and what it says about the growing consumer demand to be shielded from artistic expression that carries even the faintest whiff of danger for an identifiable outgroup.
According to a Change.org petition from the Australian allergy-awareness group GlobalAAI, the movie is guilty of depicting "blatant food allergy bullying putting an innocent allergic individual at risk." I don't know if I'd call McGregor precisely innocent, but: "To spread a message that condones such victimising and dangerous behaviour amongst children is grossly offensive to worldwide viewers especially those who live with severe allergic disease." OK.
For starters—SPOILER ALERT, though about half of the movie had already been revealed in literally every movie trailer I've seen in theaters over the past 12 months—Peter Rabbit and McGregor spend the better part of the movie actively trying to murder one another. This involves tit-for-tat attacks with heavy iron traps, low-level explosives, and electrical shocks so severe they blast bodies backwards by more than 10 feet (the most reliable gag in the film). Peter brags hyperbolically about murdering McGregor's uncle (in fact, the man has a fatal heart attack while trying to kill the rabbit, just like he killed—and ate—Peter's father); laughs heartily at his compadres hurtling his injured foe in a wheelbarrow down a staircase, and expresses satisfaction when one attack leaves McGregor lifeless and presumably dead. This is all in addition to the constant and mostly unprovoked trespassing, theft, and pillage.
Even if you believe that the allergen-deployment is the most likely tactic in this movie-long war to be aped by gullible children (moreso than, you know, constantly breaking into and stealing from a cranky man's garden, which is kind of the entire point of the source material, and a go-to activity in kiddie lit from Tom Sawyer to The Fellowship of the Ring)…or you at least worry that the potential harm from even rare acts of mimicry is greater than, say, what would happen if kids tried to distract a driver by launching a surprise attack from the back of his moving pickup (as also happened in the film), here are a few reasons to swallow your panic.
1) Slingshotting forbidden fruit into a non-cooperative mouth is an awfully ineffective poison-delivery method. As my eldest daughter noted when I asked her about the scene (on which more below), the chances for success seemed unrealistically far-fetched. 2) Severe allergic reactions to blackberries are almost vanishingly rare. I found one awful story of a 9-year-old girl dying on first contact last year, but that thankfully was just about it. 3) For the less literal minded, the general notion of using allergies to induce anaphylactic seizures among disfavored classmates does not come off as an attractive option in the movie. Why?
Because Peter was clearly going way too far. (Not long after, he destroys his own home with dynamite, inadvertently wrecking the property of the woman he was ostensibly fighting for.) The last act of the movie is all about Peter realizing that he had Gone Too Far, and so now it was time to Make Things Right. Watching McGregor's seizure and desperate jabbing of the EpiPen antidote comes off much more as cautionary tale than mischievous aspiration. The moral of the story isn't murder-thy-neighbor, it's check yourself before you wreck yourself (and others).
I can hear some of you saying: But Matt, if only you knew what it's like to have a kid with a frightful allergy! Ah, but I do—my aforementioned daughter has seen way too many emergency rooms and urgent clinics based on taking just one or two wayward bites. It sucks, the eternal vigilance can be a drag…and we both liked the movie just fine. I'm not worried in the slightest that even the most malevolent boy at her school will slip her an unsound ravioli, and in any case she knows not to put unvetted food items in her mouth.
Peter Rabbit is far from a great movie, but the best thing about it is arguably the fairly open streak of malevolence, a la the super-violence of old Tom and Jerry or Road Runner cartoons, only with more jokes and references aimed at the parents. It could well be that, as in the re-make of The Bad News Bears, even a winking rendition of such underlying nastiness no longer plays the same, in part because we've all gotten a bit nicer over the years.
That's the positive interpretation. The negative one is that fretful parents have helped midwife what Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt have coined as the "fragile generation," who start by receiving elaborate over-protection from potential physical harm and end up becoming pre-emptive enforcers against speech they might find personally upsetting.
It's just a movie, yes, and a popular one at that, and this minor private-sector spat might be that rare win-win where nobody really suffers and the broader community of humans becomes marginally more conscious about the ingredients they put in their kids' birthday brownies. But I'd prefer not to live in a world where the majority of culture products have been scrubbed clean of Problematics and the remaining sliver consists mostly of transgressive reaction against the prevailing if ever-changing rules about what can be said about whom. Keep art weird, man.