Flies High at the Box Office, But Crashes on Message

So it’s 2002, and urbane New York filmmaker Morgan Spurlock has an outrageous idea. He will go thirty days, count them (that’s 30, fifteen times two, four weeks and change, or treinta días, as the nanny would say) eating nothing but food from that purveyor of slow death in a waxed paper bag, McDonalds.

Never mind the fact that this feat is matched without fanfare every day of the year by the likes of long-haul truckers or day laborers or home care workers or that Salvadoran woman who watches the baby in the lovely three-story brownstone next door, Morgan Spurlock is out to investigate something long suspected by Whole Foods customers everywhere but never tested. Now it’s on film and backed by science. So, take note, if you have a college degree from a fancy college, work out five times a week, and donate regularly to NPR, fast food will kill you in no time at all.

Supersize Me, the feelbad hit of the Sundance Film Festival that earned Spurlock and award for Best Director has emerged as the sleeper success of the summer. Made on a shoestring budget of $75,000 and returning over $8 million to date, the film is billed as a satirical jab at America’s weight problem.

The film sets its mark high, but comes off as Jackass: The Movie reworked for the Utne Reader crowd. Complete with scenes of vomiting, farting, belching, and multiple references to the filmmaker/star’s increasingly uncooperative penis, the film centers on Spurlock subjecting himself to thirty days of bingeing in the shadow of the Golden Arches on fries, double cheeseburgers, shakes, and apple pies. Spurlock’s three rules: 1) he could only eat what was available over the counter (water included!); 2) he had to order and consume in full Supersize portions when offered; 3) he had to eat every item on the menu at least once.

Downing on average about 5,000 calories a day, the filmmaker comes to the startling conclusion that eating an enormous amount of food can make you put a lot of weight, like maybe twenty-five pounds in a month. You’ll also trash your liver and make your tummy hurt something awful. Your annoyed vegan-chef wife may also begin publicly mocking your slack performance in the bedroom. “We still do it,” she explains, “but I have to get on top now.”

Lest people worry that Spurlock might get hurt, the filmmaker wisely employs a team of top-notch New York health specialists, including three physicians, a nutritionist, and a physical trainer to do complete workups on him before, during, and after the thirty-day McStunt. Now, of course you may be thinking that those long-haul truck drivers and nannies and home care workers are walking the same tightrope without a net, but Spurlock is an artiste after all. And the appalling numbers that Spurlock racks up in a month on his liver and blood content are part of the thrill.

What’s superannoying about Supersize Me is not the topic but instead the easy BMW-class conclusions about what’s expanding America’ waistline. Unquestionably, the rise in rates of obesity nationally and globally indicates a genuine epidemic. The World Health Organization, for example, has served notice that the number of overweight people worldwide now matches the number of undernourished individuals, at about 1 billion each. In the United States, about 60 percent of the population is overweight, and the number of children classed as obese has more than doubled since the early 1970s. The implications of this are truly disturbing. The rates of nutrition-related disorders such as heart disease and Type II diabetes have as much as tripled in children as young as six to fifteen years of age, indicating a generation of young people who as relatively young adults will face side effects of serious medication, surgery, amputations, organ failure, and in many cases premature death because of poor diet.

The problem, according to Spurlock, is that too many people are eating out at chain restaurants. Young people in particular are vulnerable because the food and the indoor spaces at fast food joints are kid-friendly. What’s more, when kids are at school, they might as well be at McDonalds or Burger King because school cafeterias have become the new placement meccas for snack food manufacturers, as well as the dumping ground for USDA surpluses of highly-processed, empty-calorie foods. When it comes to corporate predation on kids, Spurlock unquestionably hits the money. Probably the best scene in the whole movie is an interview with a group of bright-eyed first graders who at one point are asked to name a series of famous faces on cards. A couple of them tentatively identify George Washington. None recognizes Jesus Christ. All of them enthusiastically say the correct answer when Ronald McDonald comes up in the stack. Eat your heart out, John Lennon.

That stuff about kids is really good. Current opinion leaders on the nation’s obesity epidemic also get screen time, including Marion Nestle (author of the illuminating recent title, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health), Kelly Brownell, head of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders and author of Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It), and Dr. David Satcher, former Surgeon General of the United States. They all say what you would expect in thirty-second sound bites: that the problem of obesity and poor nutrition have been ignored for too long, that children are getting bad information about food, that parental guidance and health education can’t hope to keep up with the barrage of corporate messages about why they should eat Cocoa Pebbles and L’il Debbie Snack Cakes seven times a day.

But what’s wrong with the film is that Spurlock wants to suggest that the problem is more containable than it is. For all his upfront corporation-bashing, the filmmaker doesn’t look beyond the issues of heavy-duty Washington lobbying and noxious advertising to kids to entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, the epidemic of obesity might have to do with a global crisis of wage labor. Nutrition-related disorders don’t plague the population evenly. There are real reasons why a lot of people, particularly working-class folks, are living in bloated, poisoned bodies. Foods full of transfats, cholesterol, sugars, and empty starches don’t keep bodies strong in the long run, but they are frequently the only foods available for people who live in neighborhoods without grocery stores, or who work two or three minimum-wage jobs. Crappy food also goes down quick in a 15 minute lunch break, and it gets you through a long shift. It’s crazy but true that McDonald’s can retail a sandwich for less that it takes to purchase the ingredients and cook them. It’s crazy but true that the unequal economies in the world (most of them in Latin America) are among the world’s highest per capita consumers of sugared soft drinks. These economic realities, and not just corporate advertising, are really worth considering.

What Spurlock never investigates is how many people who eat fast food actually know it’s bad for them. The reasons people eat poorly are often rather complicated. The filmmaker actually has a chance to get at these subtleties in the film’s McRoadtrip around the country. However, he squanders this opportunity and instead spends his time filming himself eating Big Macs and chocolate sundaes in Manhattan, now Anaheim, now Houston, now Illinois, now Minnesota. He might have made a better documentary by worrying less about the state of his liver and more about what people had to say about their lives, their bodies, their jobs, and their health. In general, however, only the pious food experts are taken seriously. Others, especially the workers in the fast food joints, get camera time as doltish poison-pushers.

This is probably the film’s worst transgression. The fatter the camera subjects, the worse their status in the film. The film is indifferent or even hostile to anyone in a uniform (after all, they are the ones who might ask Spurlock if he wants to supersize his meal, which, according to his own rules, he must do if asked). Most overweight people don’t get to speak for themselves, but instead end up with their faces obscured and their bulky rear ends displayed. In one particularly pathetic scene, the camera zooms in on a mother and daughter at some sort of meet-and-greet for Jared Fogle, the Subway spokesman who lost some incredible amount of weight eating two sandwiches a day from that establishment. The mother thanks Jared for being such an inspiration to her overweight daughter. In fact, she says, the whole family fights a weight problem. “They had to bury her uncle in a piano box,” she confides to Jared. After a few encouraging words, Jared the Subway Man moves on, and the camera focuses on the forlorn teen who privately doubts that she can be like Jared. “It’s like, you have to eat all your meals at Subway, and I can’t afford to do that.” The camera angle and lack of follow-up, though, make it clear what the filmmaker is thinking, which is something like, Hey, girl genius, make your own sandwich! Gee whiz

Okay, but is that fair game? Take the least articulate, least sightly fat person you can find and make her the poster-child for America’s weight problem? In one of the film’s prominent interviews with a (trim) food expert, a really nasty, class-tinged message leaks out. The expert makes an analogy between excessive weight and smoking, and blames the public for ignoring one crisis while taking action on the other. “I was at dinner the other night with friends,” the expert says, “and this guy took out a cigarette. The other people at the table gave him a really hard time about it, and the smoker got really self-consciousWell, what I want to know,” the expert continued, “is why it’s still not acceptable at that same table to turn to some fat person and say ‘why are you eating that? And don’t you dare eat dessert!'”

Sorry, but this reviewer isn’t anxious to see the day when that kind of public upbraiding is acceptable. People with less than perfect bodies are not in need of scolding from thinner counterparts. In fact, the answer to the nation’s nutrition crisis may not even be primarily about delivering messages to consumers about body consciousness. It may be instead about delivering real health care and decent jobs.

What Spurlock misses on film, in fact, is what Eric Schlosser captures in print in Fast Food Nation. (Notably, Schlosser is nowhere in this film, despite his huge impact on public debate on the topic). If Spurlock had taken more time to talk with the people around him, he might not have concluded that fast food has the market share it does because of advertising and credulous audiences. A more serious exploration of the obesity epidemic would come to the conclusion that junk food anchors the agribusiness system through a logic of vertical integration, labor exploitation, and insane agricultural policy. In the simplest form, processed food sells at high marginal profits than unprepared whole food. A Domino’s pizza made with a dollar’s worth of labor and fifty cents worth of ingredients sells for ten bucks. A pound of dry rice and lentils retails for one dollar. It doesn’t take a PhD to see what products companies are going to push.

Corporations don’t buy politicians just for the right to advertise and dump their stuff in school cafeterias. In fact, vertically integrated agribusiness corporations that control food from seed to table spend a whole lot more money ensuring their access to $180 billion in subsidies for the building blocks of the food system: namely the corn that becomes sweetener and animal protein, the wheat that makes the bread and cakes, the soy that makes the bulk and artificial colors, the canola that makes those fries so darn cheap to fry. Corporations also spend a lot of money at state and county levels savaging unions and driving independent farms into bankruptcy.

Advertising is only part of the problem. Fixing America’s waistline probably means guaranteeing a living wage for people, especially the seventeen percent of the workforce employed somewhere in the food system, like meatpacking or vegetable picking or food warehousing. It means unionizing Walmart, now the largest grocer to the nation. It means defending anti-corporate farm legislation in the heartland. In the final count, if people are sick from the food they eat, they might do better if they had access to a cleaned up global economy.

HEATHER WILLIAMS is assistant professor of politics at Pomona College. She can be reached at hwillliams@pomona.edu

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