In the film Supersize Me, film school dropout Morgan Spurlock seems to be arguing the obvious: fast food, such as McDonald’s fare, is bad for you. He attempts to do this in the most straightforward, albeit extreme, manner possible which is to engorge himself on nothing but McDonald’s food for an entire month-long period. The majority of Super Size Me’s running time is devoted to documenting this process, interspersed with colorful anecdotes, running interviews and various expeditions, all devoted to examining the cultural and social implications of fast food culture.
The result is a successful argument against fast food culture, one which holds companies accountable for the resulting culinary malaise plaguing America but without absolving consumers of their own personal responsibility. To a great extent, Super Size Me is like an upside down version of Fast Food Nation, a muckraking tome on the fast food industry by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser.
Schlosser examined fast food from a top to bottom perspective – examining how fast food culture emerged from the automobile culture of Southern California, and how its successes have trickled down to have damaging political and economic effects on (among other things) the lives of workers, the health of families, the resilience of the food supply. Spurlock, on the other hand, looks at fast food culture from the bottom up by implicitly suggesting that it is our (lack of) personal responsibility that contributes to the success of fast food companies behaving irresponsibly.
Between the well-known perils of fast food, the obvious self-interest of the companies who peddle them, and the unthinking lack of consumer responsibility, it would have been fairly easy for Spurlock to become excessively self-infatuated for his sense of moral outrage. However, Stephanie Zacharek notes that Spurlock avoids this self-infatuation and the risk of being self-righteous or didactic by approaching the topic with honest inquiry:
“At one point Spurlock just comes out and asks the question, “Where does personal responsibility stop and corporate responsibility begin? ” The key is that he asks it without smugness — in other words, it’s a question to which he doesn’t already know the answer. ” (Zacharek 2004) Ultimately, the answer he arrives at is far more ambiguous than what his vegan-sympathetic, affable left-wing disposition would lead viewers to assume.
Although his month long McDonald’s diet inflicts detrimental effects on his stamina, sex life, liver functions, et al, he repeatedly stresses that no one has forced him to endure this binge. Likewise, average Americans cannot evade responsibility for their own consumption of fast food. However, personal accountability is not grounds for a lack of corporate responsibility in the fast food companies. Spurlock shows in his examination of the marketing presence of these companies and the menu options they provide that they give these average Americans little choice.
Therefore, Spurlock questions not whether fast food companies should exist, but rather whether they should be allowed to market to children and leverage their own self-serving concepts of nutrition. Spurlock takes issue not with the personal choices made by fast food clientele, but the fact that fast food companies are in the business of serving nothing but unhealthy fare on their menus. In fact, many of the food products that have evolved from fast food culture hardly resemble food at all.
Schlosser (122-129) reports that much of the fare offered at the fast food counter is highly processed and utilizes techniques that could hardly be called ‘cooking’ and this dependence on engineering and efficiency rather than on cultural values and nutrition erode the very notion of what food is supposed to be. In effect, fast food has reduced the concept of food to that which is cheap and filling. As Richard Manning (82) opines, in a discussion of the sugary and starchy dietary habits of the British poor:
“In this mind-set, food is no longer a pleasure, an aesthetic experience, a bearer of culture and tradition. It is not cuisine but calories. ” By extension, the devaluation of food into commodities also has a trickle-down effect on American consumer culture. Spurlock observes briefly that fast food has come to define the American way, with franchising supplanting individual businesses and draining the local economies of various towns, rather than allowing money spent on food to be reinvested into the local community.
Schlosser (5-6) supports this observation b noting that most of American life has been franchised. Franchising extends so far that between a Columbia/HCA maternity ward franchise and the Service Corporation International funeral home and cemetery franchise, it is possible now for one person to “go from the cradle to the grave without spending a nickel at an independently owned business. ” In effect, both Spurlock and Schlosser argue that fast food culture is the logical result of a series of political and economic choices.
In any case, even if we recognize the deficits implicit with fast food does culture, fast food companies cannot be expected to develop social responsibility with any level of trustworthiness if it compromises their bottom line. Ultimately, Spurlock’s case against fast food is not left-wing vegan propagandizing but rather a call to wield personal responsibility and personal choice as a tool to hold fast food companies accountable for their business practices.
Fast food culture is ultimately about convenience, but convenience does not mean absolving companies of their responsibilities. Overall, Spurlock uses the gray area between two kinds of responsibilities – corporate and personal – as a means to bring the issue of fast food into sharp relief. Works Cited Super Size Me. Dir. Morgan Spurlock. 2004. DVD. Sony Pictures, 2004. Schlosser, Eric.
Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: Houghton-Miffin, 2001. Zacharek, Stephanie. “Super Size Me. ” Salon, 7 May 200. Retrieved online on January 26, 2009 from: http://dir. salon. com/story/ent/movies/review/2004/05/07/super_size_me/index. html Manning, Richard. Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization. New York: North Point Press, 2004.