A Critical Analysis of the Documentary ‘Supersize Me’
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Published: Wed, 20 Dec 2017
In 2004, the American film-maker Morgan Spurlock made a documentary film “Supersize Me”. Produced in response to the unsuccessful legal suits against McDonald’s fast food, the film brings to light Spurlock’s own experiment with eating fast food and, above all, addresses those Americans who are obsessed with unhealthy fast food. The film-maker conducted the experiment for a month, during which he ate food only from McDonald’s and observed the impact of fast food on his physical and emotional well-being. The more he ate in MacDonald’s, the more side-effects he experienced, including depression, fatigue, sexual problems, headache, and chest pain. The camera captures all emotional and physical changes which occur in Spurlock. The film-maker cooperates with three doctors (a gastroenterologist, a cardiologist, and a general practitioner) who indicate the changes in his physical and psychological state (Sheehan, 2005, p.69). However, the principal idea to which Spurlock constantly returns throughout his documentary is that McDonald’s fast food increases obesity in the United States (Sheehan, 2005, p.68). As is shown in the documentary, the weight of Spurlock before the experiment was 84 kg. In a period of one month, his weight increased up to 95 kg (Lusted, 2008, p.33). In addition to the weight increase, his cholesterol level changed from 168 to 230 (Sheehan, 2005, p.69). Observing such a damaging impact of fast food on patient’s health, the doctors recommended Spurlock to stop eating fast food in McDonald’s.
Although a low-budget documentary (with a budget only $65,000), “Supersize Me” has acquired great popularity among the national and international public due to its crucial social commentary on the issue of increasing obesity (Baym and Gottert, 2013, p.159). Spurlock’s film consists not only of his own reflections and investigations, but also of a series of interviews which he took in the process of experiment (Day, 2011, p.116). Through his interviews with nutritionists, gym teachers, doctors, lawyers, cooks, and other experts, the film-maker attempts to gather diverse views on fast food eating and the fast food culture of modern America. In addition to the interviews, Spurlock also spreads a survey among children and finds out that they know perfectly well who Ronald McDonald is and know nothing about Jesus or George Bush. As is shown by Spurlock, McDonald’s encourages children to eat fast food by organising birthdays and giving children free toys with its Happy Meals. To make his film more vivid, interactive, and factual, Spurlock uses cartoon animation (e.g. when showing how McNuggets are produced), statistics, and graphics (Day, 2011, p.116). Some statistical data are rather disturbing; for instance, the evidence gathered by the film-maker suggests that over 60 percent of Americans suffer from obesity and diabetes because of eating unhealthy fast food (Fazekas, 2005, p.144). Besides, 10,000 fast food advertisements are shown on television annually, attracting attention of not only adults, but also children (Fazekas, 2005, p.144).
Throughout the documentary, the film-maker employs the shock techniques to evoke powerful emotions and reactions in his viewers. For instance, he depicts liposuction surgery, his own vomiting during the second eating of McDonald’s meals, the numerous images of obese Americans, and school children’s addictive ingestion of harmful food. Spurlock also constantly returns to his own fast food addiction, demonstrating that he feels good only when he eats McDonald’s food. While at the beginning of his experiment Spurlock looks and feels healthy, his physical and emotional state becomes worse with the progression of the experiment. Spurlock’s girlfriend acknowledges that he smiles less than before, has sexual dysfunction, and depressive moods. Spurlock also demonstrates his own fears over the health problems which occur during the experiment. For instance, he depicts that one night he wakes up because of his inability to breathe. He is so afraid of this side-effect that he doubts whether to continue the experiment that threatens his life. However, Spurlock decides to finish the experiment even at the expense of his physical and emotional health. At the end of the film, Spurlock shocks his viewers by stating that he restored his physical and emotional health for about 14 months. He also shows a tombstone for the clown Ronald McDonald and asks his viewers: “Who do you want to see go first, you or them?”
In addition to the use of shock techniques, the film-maker also uses comparative techniques. For instance, he contrasts American schools with fast food meals and soda machines to a school for troubled teenagers in Wisconsin where fast food was substituted for natural food (Fazekas, 2005, p.145). As Spurlock demonstrates, this food change has positively influenced children’s emotional well-being and behaviour. The film-maker gathers people’s opinions and visits McDonald’s restaurants not only in Manhattan, but also in other American cities, such as Texas and California. By using both shock techniques and comparative techniques, Spurlock makes an attempt to engage the public into a dialogue on the issue of fast food eating. He also encourages parents to reconsider their children’s eating in McDonald’s and their own responsibility for children’s healthy development. As Spurlock clearly shows in his documentary, parents are responsible for developing healthy eating habits in their children; otherwise, the consequences of their neglect will be detrimental for their children.
In addition to parents’ irresponsibility, Spurlock also speaks against constantly increasing advertising of fast food. Although McDonald’s claims that the company does not bear responsibility for people’s decision to eat fast food, it spends billions of dollars on advertising its products (Fazekas, 2005, p.144). To make things worse, Spurlock compares the amount of money which fast food companies spend on advertisements to the amount of money which healthy food organisations spend on advertisements. The figures he brings to the fore clearly demonstrate that the budget of healthy food organisations is significantly lower than the budget of fast food companies. In addition to his appeals to parents, advertisers, and the general public, Spurlock also appeals to the American government which fully neglects the reasons for people’s visits of McDonald’s and consumption of unhealthy fast food. For instance, he shows the community which has no playground for children; hence, parents go to McDonald’s because it has a playground. In other scenes, the film-maker focuses on school meals, demonstrating that schools often purchase fast foods for children because it is cheaper to buy fast foods than to prepare fresh meals. In view of such limited choices, children have to consume fast food instead of consuming healthy food. All these examples mentioned in Spurlock’s documentary signify that both the government and educational establishments maintain the fast food culture to gain their own profits.
Spurlock’s documentary consists of several sections, each of which brings to light a new factor for his criticism of fast food eating. The film-maker often employs humour and satire in his discussion of a serious issue. On the one hand, this makes his documentary significantly entertaining. On the other hand, Spurlock succeeds in producing a black comedy which heavily relies on the elements of comedy to spread some crucial messages. This is especially evident in the scene when the American family tries to perform the Pledge of Allegiance near the White House, but forgets the words and starts singing McDonald’s song. Although such scenes evoke laugh, they also make people think. Spurlock intentionally introduces funny elements to destroy people’s barriers and encourage them to perceive crucial information. As “Supersize Me” has clearly shown, such a technique is really successful as people tend to create barriers to somebody else’s views and opinions; they tend to perceive these views with caution and distrust. However, when views and opinions are presented in a light, funny, and entertaining manner, people are more willing to accept them and, more importantly, believe the speaker. The film-maker also integrates music (e.g. Fat-Bottomed Girls by Queen) and new phrases (such as McStomach Ache or McTwitches) into his documentary to create appropriate mood and atmosphere. Besides, Spurlock pays great attention to details (e.g. a hair in his food), uses entertaining pictures when changing the scenes, and effectively combines video and graphics. The use of all these techniques signifies that Spurlock attempts to produce not only a reflexive film, but also a highly experimental and dynamic film. Due to a masterful juxtaposition of techniques, Spurlock gradually engages viewers into the discussion.
However, instead of providing a balanced standpoint, the film-maker expresses a significantly biased view on popularity of fast food eating in the United States. As such, the results of Spurlock’s non-scientific experiment can be exposed to some criticism. For instance, Guy Russo, the chief executive of Australian McDonald’s, opposed the view expressed by Spurlock by claiming that people do not eat fast food every day for three times (Gumbel, 2004, n.p.). Russo also criticised Spurlock’s decisions not to do physical exercises and double his usual food intake during the experiment. In his viewpoint, such irresponsible and extreme actions, but not fast food eating had detrimental effects on Spurlock’s physical and emotional well-being (Gumbel, 2004, n.p.). Klosterman (2006, p.65) points at the fact that Spurlock exaggerates the negative impact of fast food on his health because it is impossible to “sell a movie about eating fast food and feeling fine”. Klosterman (2006, p.65) also asserts that instead of putting the blame for eating fast food on an individual person, Spurlock puts the major blame on McDonald’s and the American government. However, in the viewpoint of Klosterman (2006, p.66), McDonald’s only gives “people the product they want”.
Despite the mentioned critical comments, Spurlock has succeeded in producing a very important documentary which questions increasing popularity of fast food eating and makes the public and the American government reflect on the issues of unhealthy food and obesity. The film-maker has taken active steps in recognising a serious problem and in stirring up people’s emotional responses to the problem of unhealthy fast food and obesity. Throughout the documentary, Spurlock tries to convince viewers that fast food is a really bad choice; by bringing to light his recollections of childhood eating habits (e.g. when his family gathered together and ate home-made food), the film-maker demonstrates that such eating habits are significantly healthier and benefit children more than visits to McDonald’s restaurants. As for Spurlock’s biased views on fast food eating, it is necessary to take into account that the film-maker attempts to produce a point of view documentary which draws on the subjective approach and “is strongly skewed toward a certain viewpoint” (Lees, 2010, p.99). According to this distinct viewpoint, it is not only unhealthy menus of McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants that pose a threat to the physical and mental well-being of children and adults, but the impact of fast food culture on people’s values and lifestyles. Spreading fast food culture throughout America, corporations serve their own interests, while fully neglecting the needs and interests of common people.
Although McDonald’s fast food is inexpensive and tasty, the excessive consumption of this food (as Spurlock has clearly shown in his documentary) may be poisonous to the body of an adult, let alone to the body of a growing child. Spurlock’s decision to focus on McDonald’s restaurants does not mean that the film-maker has a personal dislike for McDonald’s. His choice is explained by the fact that McDonald’s is the largest company in the American fast food industry. Hence, by attacking McDonald’s, Spurlock expresses his criticism of the whole fast food industry which manipulates people and makes them develop unhealthy eating habits. Although at times Spurlock turns to exaggerations, his documentary is perceived as a realistic account of the situation with American fast food eating. The film-maker intentionally exaggerates some facts to accentuate the seriousness of unhealthy eating and obesity. In response to Spurlock’s documentary, McDonald’s has diversified its menu with some healthy food and has taken away the supersizing option (Sood, 2004, n.p.; Lusted, 2008, p.34; Baym and Gottert, 2013, p.159). Moreover, McDonald’s has also started to provide information on fat content and calories so that McDonald’s visitors can decide for themselves what to eat. As such, Spurlock’s film has inspired slight changes in the American industry of fast food.
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