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The Body, the Super Size Elke Weissman The body is everywhere. Watch television and you will learn how your body can be changed by eating with You Are What You Eat or find out how Plastic Surgery Ruined [the] Life of many a person in and outside of Britain. Medical dramas have pushed the gore boundary beyond any limits (does anyone remember how ER’s Dr. Romano lost his arm?1) and crime dramas like Silent Witness and CSI travel into the body to find the evidence that Miss Marple deducted by listening to gossip alone. The logocentrism of modernity and postmodernity are on their way out; in comes the body. The emphasis on the body in contemporary discourse goes beyond its widespread presence. It has become a main site to scrutinise the state of health of the individual and society as a whole and nowhere is this more apparent than in Super Size Me, the American documentary by Morgan Spurlock that was first screened at Sundance in 2004 where it also won its first of three awards.2 As a woman and feminist, I watched this documentary with a great deal of amusement, but also a great deal of discomfort. Something wasn’t quite right, and a closer look at it revealed the somewhat conservative gender politics that underlie its depiction of obese people. This film is primarily about America, its state of mental and physical health, but also its economic, political and moral status quo. In this respect, Super Size Me offers many interesting and informative points that are the result of politically liberal reasoning. Its subtext, however, which is to a great extent inscribed in the framing of the obese bodies, tells another story. The documentary takes as its incentive the lawsuit of two American teenagers against McDonald’s and follows Spurlock around America as he embarks on a 30-day McDonald’s binge that involves him eating nothing but McDonald’s food. He clearly attempts to test the justification of the dismissal of the lawsuit on grounds that the teenagers were unable to prove that McDonald’s food had caused their physical injuries. The visual testimony of his binge, including his lost struggle to finish his first super size meal and his subsequent vomiting, is enough to put one off McDonald’s for at least a year. But, if that isn’t enough, the results of the examinations by the three doctors and one nutritionist which Spurlock has enlisted for his project give you even more to think about: he gained more than 10% of his body weight and increased his body fat index from 11 to 18%. Worst affected was his liver, which showed signs of failure. At the same time as offering his body as a

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guinea pig for his unusual experiment, Spurlock investigates the food industry, and it is here that he levels some of his most comprehensive criticism at the industry and the American government. These scenes demonstrate Spurlock’s liberal political bias as convincingly as the scene with his vegan chef girlfriend in which they discuss the corruption of a system of meat production. Obviously, he did not vote for George W. Bush in the last general election. Super Size Me begins with a short informative pre-title sequence that sets out the motivation and the idea of the documentary before the actual experiment begins. It opens up with images of a group of children singing a ‘McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut’ nursery rhyme. Most of them are normal size, but one boy in the front row must be considered as obese. With his relative bigger size he stands out of the crowd, a fact that is emphasised by the framing which often puts him at the centre or at least in the corner of the image while other children only appear once. The following images are those of the US American flag and some American landmarks. The documentary style itself is that of a relatively traditional American documentary with charts and demonstrative images, a strong, guiding idea and a voice-over commentary that provides most of the information and opinion. Thus, from the beginning the film sets out on a tone of patriotism which looks into the future – and at the children who will be this future – with a worried and at the same time satirical eye. The obesity hinted at during the opening images is soon established as the reason for worry, with images of obese people who are either filmed from behind or with their faces obscured. They literally become faceless bodies, deindividualised in order to be able to represent all obese bodies. As a chart of the rapid increase in obesity suggests, these fat, obese bodies are slowly taking over America and must therefore be considered a threat to its society. By shooting these bodies from behind or obscuring their faces, the emphasis of the image lies on the roundness of their bodies, in particular their bums, bellies and chests. It is interesting to note that most of the bodies (seven out of 11) are male. The roundness of their bodies, however, clearly connotes femininity. Indeed, they evoke the ancient Germanic statue of fertility which is culturally coded as the essence of femininity. As this hyper-feminine body, which is not necessarily linked to a female sex, is shown to gradually take over America, it is presented as alien to American society. The alternative – and here

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presented as the more ‘normal’ or indigenous American body in Super Size Me – is that of Spurlock, a skinny, yet muscular white man. Spurlock’s body is put in line with that of one of the hard men of American film – Sylvester Stallone. By choosing to wear American theme pants for the scene which demonstrates his before and after constitution, Spurlock evokes Stallone in Rocky III where the latter wore American theme boxer shorts. Stallone’s, and to that effect Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, body is, however, essentially different. Theirs is the hard body of fighters in a time when neon-conservatism dominated politics and an antifeminist backlash demanded that women return to their homes and men to their role as tough breadwinners. The hyper-masculinity of Stallone and Schwarzenegger can be perceived as a masquerade which is pleasurable because it offers a form of masculinity that was taboo during the liberal post-1968 years. Spurlock, on the other hand, seems to merge the hardness of the masculine body with the softness of liberalism: his body, though muscular, is not overtly so, thus not playing on the hard masculinity that Stallone and Schwarzenegger encompass, though hinting at a strong masculine identity. At the same time, his liberal convictions are made apparent in his relationship with his girlfriend with whom he has an open, non-institutionalised relationship. Rather than being the hard, hyper-masculine body of Reaganism, Spurlock represents the fit, healthy, masculine body of a post-Clinton age. He owes this body mainly to his mother’s and girlfriend’s home cooking. Indeed he represents the family dinner he used to have with his mother as one of the main reasons why he is healthy, while the regular McDonald’s meals are shown to be unhealthy and disruptive to family life. As soon as he embarks on his McDonald’s diet, he starts eating most of his meals alone, either in the car, on the bed or on the sofa. For his last homecooked meal with his

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girlfriend on the other hand, he sits down at the dinner table. McDonald’s is thus perceived as eroding the very basis of American society: the family. The family in Super Size Me is, however, represented by the two nurturing women alone – a father or an influential friend is never mentioned. The role that the doctors play is really that of professional carers who monitor and advise Spurlock in his experiment, but have no real impact in keeping or making his body healthy again. In contrast, both his mother and girlfriend keep him in shape by their cooking, offer to do anything to get him healthy again, including giving him half a liver, and in the case of his girlfriend help him in his recovering process. Healthy, nurturing women as mothers and girlfriends/wives are thus represented to be the backbone of Spurlock’s and consequently all America’s healthy existence. This role, despite its flattering overtones, reduces the women to a domestic life, mostly spent in the kitchen, and in fact this is exactly the main memory Spurlock has of his mother. During his McDonald’s binge, Spurlock’s body increasingly shows signs of illness. The film itself uses a primarily medical discourse which includes high cholesterol levels, liver failures, chest pains, breathing difficulties, blood tests, depression and other visual and non-visual imagery to monitor the experiment. This discourse about the body as ill has become increasingly common since 1994, Jason Jacobs (2003) argues. He states that we have become obsessed with monitoring our body as ill as a consequence of the limited changes that society can undergo. The illness of our body is part of our attempts to prove that the conventions of society are restricting and damaging, in other words: unhealthy for the individual. Super Size Me uses this discourse with quite obvious references to society. It’s not only the body that is unhealthy, something must be wrong with society in general that this obesity epidemic can be happening. This allows Spurlock to examine the economic, political and moral health of the nation, too. Similarly to Michael Moore, Spurlock sets out to investigate the facts under the surface by taking a close look at the food industry as a whole. His findings are outrageous but little surprising: McDonald’s and other fast food companies have more money than any healthconscious campaign to advertise their products and are thus more visible and better known than George Washington or Jesus Christ. What is more, McDonald’s corporate identity image of the clown, which is the best known of them all, and its playgrounds, which are often the only ones in the area, target mostly children, thus luring them early on into a cycle of cravings for the happiness that McDonald’s can provide. The recurring image of the broadly smiling McDonald’s clown suggests, however, that this happiness is a fake and masquerade itself. Economically speaking this seems sound for McDonald’s –

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influence of the food industry on governmental decisions – the money, partly taken from Coke machines in schools, pays for some of the most expensive lobbyists in Washington. The increase in unhealthy foods is coupled with cuts in physical exercise, which are necessary in order to prepare pupils for their now mandatory class tests. Thanks to George W. Bush’s ‘no child left behind’ policy, states are now held accountable for any failed exam which means that schools now spend most of their time teaching their students exam relevant material only. Children thus turn into ‘fat readers’, as Dr. Gerald N. Tirozzo, Executive Director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, calls them – hardly an image of a healthy education.

its strategy of offering a very child-friendly environment ensures that families come back to McDonald’s and the children of these families for a lifetime. Morally this is more than questionable. By targeting children, McDonald’s creates early addicts to their food. McDonald’s itself speaks of people who eat in their restaurants once a week (72% of their customers) as heavy users, and people who eat there more often (22%) as super heavy users. This alignment of McDonald’s eaters with substance abusers is something the film plays on again and again. Not only does it emphasise that the obesity epidemic is on the way of overtaking smoking as the number one cause for preventable deaths, but it also continually draws on comparisons with alcohol and other substance abuse. The GP examining Spurlock, for example, reflects that his liver is showing the same signs of malfunction as that of an alcoholic. Spurlock himself shows signs of addiction when his cravings for McDonald’s food become so bad that he feels depressed when he is not eating it. Through its targeting of children and its addictive ingredients such as sugar, McDonald’s is therefore perceived as causing directly the physical injuries that the judge in the lawsuit against McDonald’s dismissed. There is, however, more at stake. Not only is fast food depicted as shortening life, it is also presented as devaluing it, in particular as far as education and knowledge is concerned. Not only has the clown become the most recognisable face for children, suggesting that children are now conditioned into using and knowing foremost a commercial rather than educational or cultural discourse, but schools are shown to have little power to prevent this. In accordance with the opening images of children singing the ‘McDonald’s’ nursery rhyme, Super Size Me returns to children and their schools to level some of the most biting criticism at the fast food companies and the government. Talking to teachers, parents and canteen managers, he learns that the regular food that is available in school canteens is either reheated, processed food or fast food. While healthy food seems to stimulate better discipline and motivation in children, the government does nothing to encourage it being offered by schools. This is mainly due to the

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Super Size Me thus plays with the image of children in order to bring its message home: by letting the food industry become so powerful, we are letting ourselves down. Most of the interviewed children and teenagers show a saddening level of frustration and sarcasm that should not be expected in children so young. Rather than looking down and belittling them, the film frames them from approximately hip level, thus looking up to them and emphasising their importance within the image and the film, which thereby allows them a greater impact than the adults, who are shot from an eye-to-eye level. As a consequence, their frustration and sarcasm becomes even more painful to watch. The depiction of their resignation of having to eat this food demands that we ask serious questions about what we are letting ourselves in for. If the future turns out to be one where obese people are the majority, it will mean a future of illness and a future of hyper-feminised bodies; bodies that look feminine, and that are feminised by their dependency on and addiction to fast food, their domestication through their inability to do any physical exercise and consequent passivity. ‘Welcome’, this film seems to be saying, ‘to a nation of second class citizens’. Spurlock thus levels a clear moral and political criticism at a system that supports rather than undermines the power of the fast food industry. Implied in his criticism is also an economic one: once the children have grown up, the generation of ‘fat readers’ will be unfit for many tasks that are needed in a functioning, healthy economy. Any manual work will be too tough for these obese men and women who will further be prone to health problems which will cost American society – and economy – millions. The alternative is Spurlock’s healthy, skinny body that becomes increasingly inanimate itself as he stays on the McDonald’s diet. He is shown lounging on a sofa, his chin sitting on his chest, his eyes staring into the distance. The camera stays in medium shot, does not pan up or down his body, thus emphasising Spurlock’s own lack of movement. The image finally dissolves into an image of Spurlock eating his next burger. Depression, inanimateness and eating seems all that is left of life for Spurlock, the once fit, healthy, masculine body. His body becomes increasingly hyper-feminised itself: he himself grows round and

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gets a flabby chest, and what is more he finds it increasingly difficult to be active sexually, a fact that seems to de-sexualise him, but really emphasises his move towards the culturally coded feminine: conventional femininity is thought of as inviting but not initiating or being the leading force in the sexual act. The mutation towards the hyper-feminine is the threat to his body and to America as a whole for which fast food companies are shown to be solely responsible. Spurlock’s body thus becomes the site on which the decline of America can be visually shown and explained. While his words can be discredited by the words of lobbyists, the sight of his body becoming increasingly hyper-feminine is a visual testimony that seems impossible to be disproved. It is the ultimate ocular proof. Super Size Me thus, like other films and media productions, relies on the body to scrutinise a reality that in a post-modern age has become increasingly suspect. With the discovery of the body as evidence, the reality of the world we live in, including the much-spun political world, can be rediscovered for scrutiny and political criticism. Lit.: Jacobs, Jason (2003): Body Trauma TV: The New Hospital Dramas (London: bfi Publishing) I would like to thank Robbie Edmonstone, Mark Gower and Karen Boyle for their input. Picture taken from USA Today: http://usatoday.com/money/industries/food/2004-05-19stallone_x.htm

Endnotes 1. The blades of a helicopter chopped it off, and the camera lingered on the blood shooting out of it, while Romano was still oblivious to what had just happened to him. ER, ‘Chaos Theory‘ (9.1., US: Michael Crichton). 2. Spurlock won the Director’s Award at Sundance, the MTV>News:Docs:Prize at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and the New Director’s Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

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The Body, the Super Size  

By Elke Weissmann for The Drouth issue 15 "Consensus and Revision" 2005.

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