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?’).