Obesity and Politics

by Christian Zanetti

Everyone in today’s society hopes to live a healthy and happy life, nevertheless, people are constantly looking for ways to fulfill this goal.  Although living a healthy lifestyle appears to be straightforward, there are several external influences that mislead people and cause them to make harmful choices.  The film Super Size Me, by Morgan Spurlock, demonstrates the negative health influences society faces and the role of politics throughout this dilemma.  In this film, Spurlock divides his documentary into sections and uses comedy to address different components of his argument. Throughout the film, he portrays the theme that obesity has to do with not only a personal responsibility but corporate responsibility as well.  Ultimately, Spurlock demonstrates the importance of living a healthy lifestyle and allows the audience to determine the role politics play in finding a solution to one of the leading causes of death in North America.  The film Super Size Me successfully depicts the themes of personal, corporate and political responsibility, while including features of a comedic documentary of Morgan Spurlock’s 30-day McDonald’s diet.             

Obesity in the United States of America (USA) from the early 2000s to today prompted the development of several films about the epidemic.  The majority of these films such as Fed up and Overfed & Undernourished, were strictly documentaries trying to inform people about the dangers of obesity.  The film Super Size Me was also a documentary however it takes a slightly different approach and uses the form of comedy to grab the attention of the audience.  Furthermore, director and producer Morgan Spurlock separates his documentary into different chapters and uses non-diegetic sounds such as voice-overs and songs related to the themes of the movie.  Spurlock also uses diegetic sounds such as the unwrapping of the food and drinking out of the cup, which helps make it relatable and more realistic to the audience.  At the end of the film, the epilogue does a fantastic job by including all the information necessary to help answer any of the audiences’ remaining questions.   

Before analyzing the film Super Size Me it is important to understand the situation surrounding certain fast-food restaurants in the early 2000s.  “In 2002 McDonald’s corporation was the subject of two high profile lawsuits alleging liability for weight-related health claims”(Carpenter & Tello-Trillo, 2015).  Although most people understand that fast food restaurants are not the place to go to have a healthy well-balanced meal, others tried to put the blame on the corporations.  At the beginning of the film, Spurlock discusses one of these lawsuits regarding two teenage girls attempting to sue McDonald’s blaming the organization for their obesity and illnesses.  Lawyers for McDonald’s stated, “The danger of its food is universally known and that they could not prove their weight and health problems were caused solely by their McDiet”.  In response to these claims, the judge states that “if lawyers for the teens can show that McDonald’s intends for people to eat its food for every meal of every day and that by doing so would be unreasonably dangerous, they may be able to state a claim” (Spurlock, 2004).  Throughout this scene, Spurlock does a tremendous job of narrating over the complex law reports being shown to the audience and helps viewers clearly understand. After hearing about this case, Morgan Spurlock decided to go 30 days eating solely McDonald’s products for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while exercising the same amount as an average American.  Spurlock consults with several doctors before he starts his new diet, during his diet and again at the end to help evaluate the overall health impact it will have.  Ultimately, Spurlock had several negative health implications such as weight gain and rising cholesterol that was noticeable as early as day 5 and escalated from there. Throughout this process, Spurlock uses many different types of interviews. He has conversational interviews when he is speaking to his doctors about his overall health and the changes in his health over the 30 days.  Additionally, Spurlock gets a public opinion by having informal interviews with people on the street and formal interviews with experts in nutrition. Throughout these interviews, Spurlock uses many different camera shots and angles to help the audience understand the point being made.

These different camera angles also help capture the mise en scène by showing the arrangement of scenery and stage properties in play.  In between interviews, Spurlock does a tremendous job presenting the harmful reality in a comedic way by using unpleasant cartoons to represent the harmful effects of fast food.  Overall, these different camera shots and animations get his message across and keep the audience engaged and interested.  Many of the mistakes being made in society today are commonly due to personal choices people make.  In the film Super Size Me, Spurlock introduces the theme that the problems with obesity are not only our own fault but also the responsibilities of the fast-food corporations.  At the beginning of his documentary, Spurlock poses two questions and asks the audience, “are the food companies solely to blame for this epidemic?” and “where do personal responsibility stop and corporate responsibility begin?” To answer his second question, Spurlock argues that the advertisements that these corporations use to target children, which is extremely influential and at the same time unethical.  Spurlock divides this section of his documentary and labels it “The Impact” together with an animation of a young Ronald McDonald in a wheelchair, symbolizing the consequences of these advertisements.  Although Spurlock accuses corporations of targeting children and should, therefore, take some responsibility, he also explains to the audience that these organizations are running a business. Spurlock explains that in the end, it comes down to personal responsibility and it is ultimately up to us to make responsible choices.             

There are many different ways to get a message across without saying anything.  Certain movies present ideas and themes but leave it up to the audience to interpret what they think the film is trying to communicate.  In the article ‘Saying things without appearing to have said them’: politics and protest in Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, author Trent Griffiths explains how an Iranian film director, Jafar Panahi, was arrested on charges of collusion and intent to produce propaganda against the Islamic Republic.  During his 6 years of house arrest, Panahi creates a video diary, This Is Not a Film, in protest of his 20-year directing ban (Griffith, 2015).  “This Is Not a Film depicts the Iranian artistic tradition ‘saying things without appearing to have said them’ and as a result, Panahi has no choice to speak directly so he speaks symbolically instead” (Griffith, 2015).  Although American culture is far different than Iranian culture, films still present ideas without directly stating them to the audience.  In the film Super Size Me, the concept that politics has a role to play in the obesity epidemic is mentioned briefly near the end of the film; however, Spurlock does not get into much detail about this issue.  Spurlock poses a new question and asks “How much influence on government legislators does the food industry have?”  The response to his question is that the food industry is an enormous business in the United States and therefore they employ very well paid lobbyists.  “These lobbyists are in Washington for two purposes; number one, to make sure no government agency ever says “eat less” and number two, that the government never passes legislation that is unfavorable” (Spurlock, 2004).  Instead of pursuing this idea that the government has a bigger involvement than one would anticipate, Spurlock lets the audience make their own decision as he focuses on the corporate problems by visiting the Grocery Manufacturer of America (GMA) and finally trying to contact McDonald’s directly.  Nevertheless, one point of view is that the government is able to make a difference by introducing guidelines for healthy eating and by not allowing food industry lobbyists to have an influence on the legislature.  Ultimately, Spurlock introduces the notion that politics has a role to play in the obesity epidemic, but leaves it up to the viewers to make their own judgment on the significance of their role.              

The film Super Size Me successfully discuses the importance of a healthy lifestyle, while depicting the themes of personal, corporate and political responsibility, with features of a comedic documentary of Morgan Spurlock’s 30-day McDonald’s diet.  In this film, Spurlock divides his documentary into chapters in addition to using a comedic approach to discuss different components of his argument.  One theme that Spurlock presents is that although some blame can be placed on corporations, people have to take personal responsibility if they hope to live a healthy life.  In the end, Spurlock suggests that politics plays a part in preventing the growth of obesity but leaves the significance of the interpretation of the viewers.  People in society have to understand that although politics and corporations are involved in the obesity epidemic, it is ultimately up to them to be the difference they wish to see.

Work Cited
Carpenter, C., & Tello-Trillo, S. (2015, March). Do ‘Cheeseburger Bills’ Work? Effects of Tort Reform for Fast Food. Retrieved September 29, 2016, from https://www.economics.mcmaster.ca/documents/seminars/2015_carpenter 

Griffiths, T. (2015). ‘Saying things without appearing to have said them’: Politics and protest in Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film (2011). Studies in Documentary Film, 9(1), 28-41. doi:10.1080/17503280.2014.1002249  

Spurlock, M. (Producer & Director). (2004). Super Size Me [Motion picture].  United States: Samuel Goldwyn Films.

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