Thursday, January 12, 2012

Portlandia - Allergy Pride Parade: Ignorant, Inaccurate and Ill-Timed

I saw this clip from the show "Portlandia", called "Allergy Pride Parade" on the Allergy Moms Facebook page and I was so upset by their ignorant mockery of a life-threatening condition.  

Here is a link to the video:

My first thought was to not re-post it, so as not to give it any more attention that it deserves, but on second thought, I realized that this gives us an opportunity to educate others.

First off, this video could not come out at a worse time, given that 7-year-old Ammaria Johnson recently died from an allergic reaction to a peanut, while at her school.  I understand that this skit was written and taped well before this recent incident, but sadly, Ammaria was not the first person to die from an allergic reaction.  Food allergies are, and always have been, a serious issue, with potentially fatal results.

I was just thinking the other day that before my own daughter had food allergies, I, too, had many misconceptions about what food allergies were, and how they worked.  The only thing I really "knew" about were shellfish and peanut allergies.  I understood that they could be severe and swift and cause life-threatening reactions.  I even had a professor in college who told me the most horrifying story about a reaction he once had to an accidental peanut ingestion.  Other than shellfish and peanuts, I didn't think other allergies really existed.  A few years ago, a met someone whose daughter had an allergy to peanuts and eggs, and I remember thinking, "how can someone be allergic to an egg?"  It's not that I didn't believe the allergy was real, but I was just shocked and surprised to know that people could be allergic to other foods.  My point is, I do understand that if you don't have personal experience with food allergies, you probably have a lot of misconceptions.  Even if you "know someone" with food allergies, you might not really know much about them.

So, let's take the video, which is rife with inaccuracies.  I'll go "joke by joke"...

"Some people called in sick..."
First off, this is just not nice.  People with food allergies are not always "sickly" people.  They can be perfectly fine and healthy most days.  The only time they get "sick" is when exposed to one of their allergens.  If they have a mild reaction, it might just cause a rash or hives.  If it's serious reaction, they're headed to the hospital and not merely "calling in sick".

The "Lactose Intolerance" group walks by and the caption reads, "Allergy: Dairy"
Sure, "tolerate lactose intolerance" might seem like a pithy thing to say, but the main thing that bothers me about this is that they are completely confusing lactose intolerance with a true milk allergy.  Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose.  It can cause stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea and cramps.  That is certainly uncomfortable and not to be taken lightly, but it is simply not the same as a milk allergy.  I know it can be confusing because a milk allergy can cause some of the same symptoms as lactose intolerance, but a milk protein allergy has the added risk of causing wheezing, breathing problems and potentially anaphylaxis.  Also, those with a milk-protein allergy have to watch out for "non-dairy" and "lactose-free" products, which can still contain milk proteins and therefore are not safe.  Not to downplay lactose intolerance, but the basic difference is that a lactose intolerance cannot kill you, but a severe milk allergy can.  (Long-term undiagnosed lactose intolerance can certainly cause health problems, though, but it just won't cause a swift, deadly allergic reaction, like a milk allergy can.)  My daughter has a severe milk allergy and I've seen what it can do to her, even with a small amount baked into a food.  It's not funny.

"Bread hurts my head" was on the Wheat Allergy banner, with a caption that reads, "Allergy:Wheat"
Again, I think they are confusing intolerances with allergies.  It is true that wheat and/or gluten can cause migraines and other health problems, but that is still very different from a wheat allergy.  Wheat allergy can cause the same reactions as any other true food allergy: wheezing, hives, stomach cramps, and anaphylaxis.  For someone with a severe wheat allergy, even a small crumb can cause a severe life-threatening reaction.  So, for those with a wheat allergy, a headache is the least of their concerns.  (Again, I am not trying to downplay the seriousness of migraines, which is very different from a simple "headache".  I think they are absolutely horrible and I feel for those who suffer from them.)

He says something like, "Maybe 20 years from now we'll see an allergy sufferer will be sitting in the White House..."
I'm not sure what to say about this...It's an allusion to a racist/sexist comment along the lines of "maybe one day we'll see a black man/woman in the White House".

The next group that walks by is the "Soi Punks" whose chant is "Oy, Not Soy!"
I don't appreciate that they try to make all the groups looks like a bunch of misfits and weirdos.  People with food allergies don't look any different than anyone else.  People of all kinds can have food allergies and they're not "freaks".  People with a soy allergy don't have anything "against" soy and it's not a lifestyle choice.     They aren't trying to "rebel" against any particular food.

"The perfect storm of allergies - Pad Thai" and "For some people, a Thai restaurant is a death trap."
Now, I must say that I have had these exact same thoughts. My daughter is severely allergic to peanuts and eggs.  This is probably the only joke I could chuckle at, but with the kind of nervous laughter that comes from feeling uncomfortable.  It's not so funny when it applies to you or your child.  Calling pad thai the "perfect storm of allergies" is something that would be funny amongst those in the food allergy community, when discussing the issues internally.  It's like certain groups can crack jokes about themselves, but it's not OK for outsiders to make the same joke.

The last part had a man on stilts, "acting out" an allergic reaction.
My first comment is that this part was just plain stupid.  I appreciate witty humor, but this just wasn't funny.  The commentary was also not very nice, either.  "He's writhing in pain, spastic..."  How is describing the pain and suffering of an allergic reaction supposed to be funny?  It's basically re-enacting the death or near-death of a person.  It's a slap in the face to any of us who have seen our loved ones suffer a reaction.  Fred Armisen comes from Saturday Night Live, so he's no stranger to controversy, but I just think this is not what we, the food allergy community, need right now.  We work and fight to raise awareness and help people understand that this is a very serious issue and along comes this video to set us back a few years.  Food allergies are on the rise.  More and more people are going to be affected and the last thing we need is the perpetuation of myths and misconceptions.

So, I ask that you educate yourself and try and understand why we take this so personally.  For us, it's about our children and it's a matter of life and death.  It's not the least bit funny to us.

Pertinent reading:


  1. Both actors (Brownstein and Armisen) have food allergies. This is not to say they are educated about all types of food allergies, but they are at least empathetic. Maybe with that in mind, you can appreciate the humor. It's a joke about how most people don't understand allergies, not about people with allergies.

    For the record, I suffer from a lot of food allergies (9 in total) - including hard to avoid things like rice and milk (whey and casein - not lactose intolerance). For a current project, I've interviewed a number of allergics and received survey responses on peoples experiences from about 70 people with food allergies.

    I appreciated the episode. People really don't understand allergies or respect the seriousness. Comedians make jokes about serious things. These guys realize that allergies are serious to a lot of people. They're bringing levity, which I think is needed for us.

    Everyone in Portlandia is weird. Of course allergy sufferers are going to be potrayed as weirdos. They create caricatures based on a stereotypes. They don't REALLY think these things! THAT'S THE JOKE! They are intentionally exploiting the stereotypes people have to MAKE FUN OF THE STEREOTYPES!

    They also make a joke on allergy suffers here and there. For instance, "Maybe 20 years from now, we'll see an allergy sufferer in the White House"...This joke equates the struggles of people with allergies to women and black rights issues. This is an exaggeration. That's why it's funny. And yet, there is some truth...people don't understand or take our allergies seriously. I struggle everyday to make sure people understand that I'm not just being picky. And yet I don't want to identify myself by my medical condition...but I have to. The joke is that sometimes we feel like we're oppressed...and in a smaller way we are. It's a simple joke. It's funny. It's not disrespectful.

  2. Wow, I can't believe I missed a post comment from so far back! I saw a few recent ones I missed and checked the whole list and there was your reply back from 2012! This was obviously a post from a long time ago, but I just wanted to say that my feelings about this episode were prompted and amplified by the circumstances, at the time. Ammaria Johnson had just passed away, and I just wasn't having any of it. I wasn't in the mood for as much as a knock-knock joke about food allergies. Frankly, I still don't have much of a tolerance for joking where anaphylaxis and food allergies are concerned, as you kinda lose your sense of humor when it comes to life of your child. I think it's sometimes different with adults. If I, myself, had food allergies, perhaps I'd have a thicker skin about it, but when it comes to my daughter, everything changes.

    I agree with you that I took the "White House" joke the wrong way, and I understand what you mean about it.

    I appreciate the perspective that you have provided, as I suppose it mitigates things a bit, but I just see that video being used against those with food allergies, as a tool of mockery, and again, my thoughts turn to my daughter, and my sense of humor goes right out the window.