I’m often surprised by what people are offended by. Like the makers of Peter Rabbit, the new animated feature from Sony Pictures, I could not have predicted that a scene in which Peter and his friends pelt another character with blackberries in the hope of triggering an allergic reaction would provoke a storm of protest. Yet that is what has happened. A petition demanding an apology has attracted thousands of signatures, a charity called Kids with Food Allergies has condemned the film as ‘harmful to our community’ and #boycottpeterrabbit started trending on Twitter shortly after the film was released in America.
I wonder how many people objecting to this scene have actually seen the film? Do they realise that the character being subjected to the blackberry barrage is Tom McGregor, nephew of Mr McGregor? As anyone familiar with Beatrix Potter will know, Peter and his friends were terrorised by Mr McGregor, who tried to catch them so he could bake them in a pie, the fate that befell Peter’s father. Surely, if you’re trapped in a walled garden with the nephew of a notorious serial killer – a young man who is trying to kill you and, for all you know, eat you – it’s morally acceptable to exploit his weakness in order to escape? I would have thought that inducing anaphylaxis is well within the rules of engagement in such a situation. After all, it won’t actually kill you provided you have an EpiPen to hand, which, as it happens, Tom McGregor does in this version of the story.
What’s truly mystifying is that the scene has been condemned for endorsing bullying, with a chorus of the easily offended claiming it will send children a message that picking on other children with food allergies is acceptable. But Tom McGregor is a mean and nasty grown-up. If anyone is a bully in this story, it’s him. I would have thought the message of the scene is that kids should band together to stand up to bullies, not team up to bully other children. Any child who comes away from Peter Rabbit believing it is OK to throw food at another child in the hope of provoking an anaphylactic reaction is probably going to be a bit twisted to begin with.
The surprising thing about a Beatrix Potter adaptation being targeted by the Twitchfork Mob is that her books are quite closely aligned with contemporary left-wing thinking. The society that Peter finds himself in is essentially a matriarchal one, with a dearth of male authority figures. His father has long since been digested, Mr McGregor is a hapless rube who’s under the thumb of his wife and Benjamin Bunny’s father is a sadistic disciplinarian who whips Peter and Benjamin with a switch. Indeed, the underlying message of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and its three sequels is that boys who behave like boys — following their appetites and venturing into forbidden zones — are risking life and limb. Better to stay indoors doing needlework with the Flopsy Bunnies.
When I used to read bedtime stories to my children, I struggled to find books that portray men as positive role models, particularly fathers. Forget Grimms’ Fairy Tales — it’s just one deadbeat dad after another. In ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella’, the fathers do nothing to protect their daughters from their wicked stepmothers, and the gutless wonder in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is actually a co-conspirator in the plot hatched by his wife to kill their children. The Harry Potter saga isn’t much better. You know Harry’s stepfather Mr Dursley is a pathetic excuse for a man because he’s a salesman: J. K. Rowling’s snobbish way of signalling her contempt for him.
Having said that, I’m not expecting a bunch of worn-out, middle-aged dads to launch a #boycottharrypotter campaign on Twitter. Like the affable, roly-poly father in Peppa Pig, we know that it is our lot in life to uncomplainingly soak up all the punishment meted out to us. We are practically the only remaining demographic whom absolutely no one cares about ‘triggering’, which is just as well given how negatively we are portrayed in virtually every film or television programme coming out of Hollywood. The only exception I can think of is Daddy’s Home, but even there it takes two men to play the role of a good father, presumably because such a demanding job is beyond the capacity of just one man.
Peter Rabbit comes out in the UK on 16 March and I dare say my three youngest will pester me to take them to it. If only they had an allergy to popcorn, our trip to the cinema would not be so ruinously expensive.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.