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Bullying for Laughs Onscreen: I Blame a Lack of Creativity

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I come from a line of serious cooks — women who prepare three times the food required for the occasion and who are so skilled that limitations are simply an opportunity for creativity. Half our family can’t eat flour, so in lieu of the bready, mealy fried okra ubiquitous in the South, my grandmother slices okra thinly, merely dusts it in cornmeal and fries it up. A shake of salt later, Gammi’s fried okra is as crisp and enticing as popcorn, and we inhale it by the handful. Crunchy when hot, I suspect it wouldn’t keep well, but we’ll never know. There have never been leftovers.

Gammi inherited her skill from her mother, Nat, who catered weddings when she wasn’t busy feeding elementary school students in rural South Carolina. I wasn’t around yet, but I have a feeling Nat’s cafeteria trays were a sight more appetizing than the monochromatic mess kids are fed in school these days. In the 60s, my father was a student at the school where Nat cooked, which was lucky for him.

Except that he refused to eat her food.

You see, my father has severe food allergies and couldn’t eat the food provided for the other kids. So his own grandmother – the professional caterer whose amazing recipes we still use  – made him a special lunch each day. He refused to eat that special lunch, preferring starvation to bullying for being different.

My dad told me this story just a few years ago, after my own kids’ diagnoses with Celiac disease. I was floored. My dad made a long career as an opinion writer by daring to think differently, by rejecting conformity and always maintaining a studied objective, outsider status. I had never seen him apologize for his food issues (or, for that matter, for any of the many eccentricities he’s adopted voluntarily). I just could not wrap my head around the idea of my father rejecting his own grandmother’s lovingly crafted food just to fit in.

Since then, I have learned a lot about bullying and the effect it has on kids. I’ve also learned that bullying children over their food allergies and intolerances is considered socially acceptable in many spheres.

The brouhaha over the Peter Rabbit movie is only the latest in a long and steady stream of bullying-as-entertainment.

You might have missed another recent example of food disability bullying, which is, to quote Party City’s travesty of a commercial, “gross.” (Party City has been scrambling to erase the commercial from every corner of the internet). The transcript:

Girl #1 (Looking over table spread for party): This looks incredible, right?

Girl #2: Yes!

Girl #1: What is that? (Gestures to sad stool topped by plate of sad little crackers).

Girl #2: Those are some gluten-free options.

Girl #1: Do we even know people that are like that?

Girl #2: Tina?

Girl #1: Oh. Gross. Yeah.

Note that it is not the snacks that are labelled gross (which they shouldn’t be, if one is skilled at cooking or hosting). It is the gluten-free person who is gross.

As reported on the Gluten Dude, the ad aired on Nickelodeon. A children’s channel. For the generation who, according to a recent study, may have Celiac disease at a rate three times that of previous generations. (Celiac disease is a permanent, genetic autoimmune disease that causes intestinal damage and for which the only treatment is a 100% gluten-free diet. Before gluten was discovered as the culprit, children died of malnutrition. They can still suffer the effects if they eat gluten to fit in and avoid bullying.)

Bullying of people with disabilities is not a new thing. But activists have made strides in recent decades. Outside of our president, most people now consider it unacceptable to mimic or insult people with physical disabilities. Decent people consider the R-word taboo when describing people with intellectual disabilities. But somehow, folks haven’t realized it is also cruel to make fun of people with disabilities related to food intolerances, allergies or even asthma.

Look at movies. If a character is given allergies or food intolerance in a film, we know we aren’t meant to root for him. Think of Bill Pullman’s Walter in “Sleepless in Seattle.” As soon as he sneezes at supper, we know he can’t be the hero of a Meg Ryan love story. He is, as Party City would put it, “gross.” Giving a character an inhaler is such typical shorthand for establishing “weakness” that some researchers actually studied the effects of Hollywood’s stigmatizing portrayal of asthma. (Conclusion: stigma bad.)

When children with Celiac are exposed to this kind of bullying, it doesn’t just hurt their feelings. It hurts their intestines. My twins’ doctors have spent years agonizing over growth charts, always worried they aren’t quite where they should be. Are the twins cheating to avoid bullying, thus compromising their absorption of nutrients? Or are they just petite? It’s hard to tell, but there are clues, like the Twix wrapper I once found at the bottom of the shorter twin’s backpack.

Pervasive bullying dehumanizes the targets — with life-threatening consequences. Three kids in Pennsylvania are facing charges after a plot to send a schoolmate into anaphylaxis in December. Knowing the victim was allergic to pineapple – the school even banned the fruit to protect her – the bullies sneaked in a can, and one bathed her hands in it and “high-fived” the allergic child. The victim went into anaphylaxis but lived. In another school, teens pulled a similar “prank” with peanut butter. One study found over half of children who reported being bullied for their allergy were physically threatened with the food that was dangerous for them. And it isn’t just students: the same study found 21 percent of bullying incidents in school were perpetrated by the teachers or staff.

To my knowledge, no one has intentionally tried to sicken my kids. But in a world where eyes are rolled at disability, where illness is questioned by armchair gastroenterologists who “don’t believe in gluten intolerance” – something we’ve been told repeatedly – it’s a matter of time before a hostile restaurant cook throws in a dash of flour, just for fun.

In the meantime, we eat out as rarely as possible. And I try to protect my sweet twin girls from hateful media portrayals, but bullying comes at us in places that seemed safe. They are musical theater geeks, so I took them to their first Broadway show last summer. We saw “School of Rock,” which they loved, but they looked at me quizzically after two lines: both times the teacher dismisses a kid’s gluten-free snacks as gross. That’s better than calling the kid gross, of course, but it puzzled my kids. Why would gluten-free food ever be gross? Mommy gives them awesome snacks. And why repeat the joke? Because it was so funny the first time? It didn’t get much of a laugh.

In part, I think what we’re dealing with here is a creativity deficit.

To be clear, I’m not interested in trampling on anyone’s first amendment rights. You have the right to find me gross and say so. And I have a right to never enter your store or your theater or stream your movie. I am interested, though, in making my children’s world kinder and better. One way to do that is with a dose of creativity. Researchers who study creativity have long known that constraints — such as, say, avoiding gluten in cooking or jokes about gluten in advertising — actually result in more out-of-the-box thinking, producing better results than those achieved if all options are on the table.

Hollywood, Broadway, ad agencies: take a page out of my grandmother’s recipe book. Think your way around the temptation to bully disabled people for laughs. The result will never be as popular as Gammi’s naturally gluten-free fried okra, but it will be better than what you’re producing now. Note: Party City has apologized and claims they will donate funds for Celiac research. Further note: those of us with Celiac disease are not impressed.

Getty image by Rawpixe

Originally published: May 3, 2018
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