[Paleopsych] spiked: Bashing the McMasses

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Mon Sep 27 15:10:20 UTC 2004

Bashing the McMasses

    by Brendan O'Neill

    In the docu-blockbuster-cum-human-experiment Super Size Me, released
    in British cinemas over the weekend, New York filmmaker Morgan
    Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald's meals three times a day for a
    month. He's won widespread praise for pushing his body to the limit -
    he goes from fit to fat, gets bad skin, has mood swings, and in one
    scene, having spent 22 minutes eating a Super Size Double
    Quarterpounder Meal, pukes it up out of his car window - all for the
    apparently worthy cause of showing Americans 'the real price they are
    paying for their "addiction" to fast food' (1).
    Sounds radical, right, taking on the Golden Arches of America and
    charging them with making poor folk sick and miserable by forcefeeding
    them junk? In fact, Super Size Me, like so many other anti-McDonald's
    campaigns, comes with a generous side order of snobbery. Its real
    target is the people who eat in McDonald's - the apparently stupid,
    fat, unthinking masses who scoff Big Macs without even asking to see a
    nutritional and calorie breakdown first. Spurlock and his ilk might
    hate McDonald's, but they seem to loathe the McMasses even more.
    Spurlock's venture looks to me like a sparkier, more irreverent and
    updated version of 'Mass Observation', that notorious study of the
    masses carried out by anthropologist Tom Harrisson in the 1930s, where
    a team of middle-class observers 'mingled with the natives' and
    collected data on everything from football pools to dirty jokes to
    armpit hygiene - all recounted in inglorious detail in John Carey's
    The Intellectuals and the Masses (2). But Spurlock goes a step
    further; he doesn't only mingle with the natives but becomes one of
    them, transforming his body into what he imagines the average
    American's body to be like.
    The film starts by showing us that Spurlock is something of a model
    citizen. Before he begins his 30-day binge on nothing-but-MaccyD's he
    goes to a GP, a gastroenterologist and a physical fitness instructor
    for a series of tests. They decree that he's fit, able, has a low
    cholesterol, a very good Body Mass Index and is in 'great shape'. As a
    Manhattanite he also walks everywhere, rather than relying on a car
    like the rest of fat America, and even has a vegan chef for a
    girlfriend (referred to as 'Healthy Chef Alex'). In short, he's a Good
    American in one of the few ways that you can measure being a Good
    American in our post-political, post-moral times: he's healthy.
    Then he crosses over to the other side.... The rules are that he can
    only eat what is available over the counter at McDonald's; he has to
    reduce the amount he walks to a maximum of 5,000 steps a day, to
    reflect how little the average American apparently waddles around;
    and, most importantly, if he's offered the option of Super-Sizing his
    meal (which comes with seven ounces of fries and a 42-ounce coke) he
    has to say yes - the assumption being that the kind of people who
    frequent McDonald's are so feckless that when the spotty teen behind
    the counter mentions the SS-phrase they are powerless to resist
    (especially if they're from Texas, one of the Fattest States of
    America according to Spurlock, where he was most often asked 'You
    wanna Super Size that?').
    So Spurlock grosses out in order to see what it's like to be one of
    those gross Americans. Fellow American Cosmo Landesman of The Sunday
    Times praises him for taking a 'kamikaze dive into the gargantuan
    blubber-gut and buttock-mountain serial heart-killer and cholesterol
    free fall that is obese America's fast-food blowout' (3). But Spurlock
    only becomes a cartoon Yank, a fat lazy blob living down to his own
    and others' prejudices. No one in their right mind would eat just
    McDonald's every day; most of those interviewed in the film say they
    eat fast food once or twice a week. As some experts have pointed out,
    Spurlock probably became ill because his 30-day diet was so unvaried.
    The same would have happened if he'd only eaten foie gras or fruit or
    some other 'good' food for a month.
    [pixel.gif] [pixel.gif] The lower orders are often lambasted for their
    lack of food-consciousness today
    It is striking how morally loaded some of the discussions about food
    are. In one of the funnier scenes, Healthy Chef Alex - a holistic
    health counsellor who believes in 'integrating appropriate food
    choices and lifestyle options' - tries to coax Spurlock away from the
    'corrupt' world of meat-eating and towards a Good Life of nuts and
    lentils (4). Spurlock visits a school where the pupils are calm and
    attentive and claims that it's a result of their eating healthy school
    dinners from the Natural Ovens Bakery rather than the sugary fare
    stuffed down kids' throats in other districts. Food, it seems, is not
    only about taste, enjoyment or nutrition; what we eat apparently
    reveals something of our moral character.
    In this, Super Size Me chimes with the times. On both sides of the
    Atlantic there's a large portion of moralising in the panics over
    obesity, school dinners, junk-food-guzzling and the rest. What is
    presented as straightforward medical concern for our health and
    wellbeing is often really a judgement on lifestyle and behaviour - and
    especially the lifestyle and behaviour of a certain class of people.
    In debates about 'bad' foods (McDonald's), fast foods (microwave
    meals), and fat mums in clingy leggings who make their kids fat too by
    feeding them 'junk', there's a barely concealed contempt for the
    working classes, who are presumed to be lazy, feckless and not
    sufficiently concerned with healthy cooking and fitness. It's there in
    the terminology: they are seen as 'junk' people.
    It isn't fashionable to pass strictly moral judgements in our
    'anything goes' age - and certainly no one would do what Tom Harrisson
    did in the 1930s, discussing the masses as 'scientific specimens'.
    Instead, at a time when few are willing to say what kind of lifestyle
    is right and wrong, the lower orders are lambasted for their eating
    habits and lack of food-consciousness - all in the name of helping to
    transform them into better healthy happy citizens, of course. The
    moral divide today isn't between the educated few and the uneducated
    mob as it was for Harrisson and co, but between those who eat
    healthily and those who (allegedly) don't, between good foodies and
    bad burger-eaters.
    Such cheap McMoralism is best summed up in a leaflet produced by
    McSpotlight, an anti-McDonald's campaign group that encourages local
    communities in the UK to resist the building of new McDonald's
    restaurants. Under the heading 'Litter, noise and smells', the leaflet
    says McDonald's will 'result in noise and disturbances at all
    hours....the smell from the kitchens, from waste storage and from
    litter disgarded [sic] by customers may become offensive and attract
    vermin' (5). What these campaigns really hate about MaccyD's is the
    kind of people it attracts; in McSpotlight's leaflet, offensive
    'customers' and 'vermin' all merge into a mishmash cautionary tale
    about the apparent horrors of the modern McDonald's. Meanwhile, inside
    my local McDonald's, normal-looking families can be seen enjoying
    their Happy Meals....
    Of course McDonald's, like every other big corporation, mistreats its
    workers and puts the maximisation of profits first. But in the faux
    class war between anti-McDonald's campaigners and the McMasses, I'm on
    the side of the 'happy eaters' every time.

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