Whether you follow football or not, whether you watched the Super Bowl or not, if you’re gluten-free, this past weekend it was hard to avoid the controversy surrounding the commercial from NBC Sports promoting the new season of NASCAR. One line in particular raised the ire of the celiac/gluten-free community: it poked fun at America for getting “weak” and “soft” because we have a problem with gluten.
The backlash from the celiac community was swift and decisive. A change.org petition calling on NBC to pull the ad quickly amassed more than 18,000 signatures. The sentiment largely seemed to be that the commercial constituted a form of anti-celiac bullying; that NBC was making fun at the expense of people with a very real and very serious medical condition. But of course, for us celiac disease is no laughing matter.
Meanwhile, others suggested that the celiac community’s upset was inappropriate and misplaced. For example, one argued that the NBC commercial was poking fun at hipster fad gluten-free dieters, and that no one was making fun of the celiac disease community, acknowledging and sympathetic to the legitimate medical issues we face. In other words, they’re saying we can’t take a joke, even when the joke isn’t about us.
By the time the Super Bowl aired on Sunday, this public spat had caught the attention of Adweek, which cited NBC Sports as saying the gluten line in question was online only, and would not appear in the nationally-aired commercial during the television broadcast. When the anticipated commercial finally ran, and nary a mention of gluten was to be found, the celiac community declared a victory.
As I watched this saga unfold, I felt torn. I could see the arguments from both sides of the aisle. The critics of the celiac community’s anger had a point. If you look at the landscape of the gluten-free community in America today (see my semi-scientific pie chart above), you have those with celiac disease, which account for about one percent of the population. If you take liberal estimates for the number of Americans that have gluten sensitivity and other non-celiac forms of gluten intolerance, that adds another 14 percent. Then let’s say that another 35 percent of the gluten-free community are those folks who are sincerely exploring the gluten-free diet in the hopes that it might help to alleviate a real health problem they’re facing. That still leaves another 50 percent … the fad dieters who are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon because it’s the national diet du jour, like South Beach was a decade ago.
It’s these fad dieters that the media is frequently poking fun at, and when it happens, I for one can take a joke and laugh at it. Like Jimmy Kimmel’s “Pedestrian Question” segment when he asked people supposedly on a gluten-free diet “What is gluten?” and their answers were hilariously uninformed. I like to believe that celiac disease awareness is rising enough and we’re a smart-enough population of Americans to understand the meaningful difference between fad dieters and those with celiac disease. And if the Kimmel segment had instead asked those with celiac disease “What is gluten?” he wouldn’t have had a segment at all, because the answers would have been direct, informed, and comprehensive.
But the celiac community does have a good and valid point when we get upset about media portrayals of the gluten-free diet. Because even when the joke isn’t about us, it can have implications for us.
First, there is the issue of appropriation. Usually you hear about cultural appropriation, like the accusations that Iggy Azalea—a young, white woman from a comfortable Australian suburb—is appropriating black culture via her rap and hip-hop persona. For the celiac community, what’s instead at stake is dietary and medical appropriation. When members of the celiac community point out that it’d never be OK to make fun of people with, say, cancer, they’re overlooking an important nuance. Cancer is a serious medical issue with an exclusive treatment. You don’t see large numbers of Americans voluntarily “trying out” radiation and chemo therapy because they believe it will be a health silver bullet. Nor do you see the non-diabetic community injecting themselves with insulin “just because.”
Celiac disease, on the other hand, is treated through the gluten-free diet. And as a diet, it’s free and open for any and all to try if they so choose. Treatment is not exclusive. Which opens the door to appropriation, and it’s there that the celiac community gets rightfully upset. This is not about being territorial. It’s not that the gluten-free diet is “ours” and not “yours.” It’s that the gluten-free diet has been appropriated and disassociated from the community for whom that diet can be a literal matter of life or death.
Second, jokes in the national media—even though they’re not about the celiac community per se—importantly shift the default national perspective. Once upon a time, if you walked into a restaurant and started asking a series of pointed questions about gluten-free menu options, food preparation in the kitchen, and cross-contamination concerns, it would invite a brief conversation about celiac disease at best, or at least be taken as a serious inquiry by the server and kitchen staff.
But what has happened in America today is that now the default perspective is of the fad dieter. That when you ask about gluten-free menu options at a restaurant the server immediately assumes you’re “one of those” fad dieters. You have an additional hurdle to overcome to re-educate that, no, this is for someone with celiac disease. And even then, you hope the kitchen takes the inquiry seriously and doesn’t cut corners because the gluten-free diet has become a national joke separate from celiac disease a serious national health issue.
And those two reasons—appropriation and default perspective—are why the NASCAR ad mattered. Not because it was about us in the celiac community, but because it wasn’t.