TCS Daily

Tipping the Scale

By Jacob Sullum - May 7, 2004 12:00 AM

When I saw Morgan Spurlock at the Washington, D.C., International Film Festival last Sunday, the first thing I noticed was that he's thin again, having shed the 25 pounds he deliberately gained during the month-long McDonald's eating binge featured in his film Super Size Me. Spurlock's disappearing gut tends to undermine his argument that we cannot really control how much we weigh because sneaky corporations manipulate us into overeating.

Super Size Me, which opens nationwide today, is filled with such contradictions. They may be the best thing about the movie. Whether because he's genuinely torn or because can't resist a joke even when it works against his thesis, Spurlock repeatedly hints that we shouldn't take the politically correct anti-corporate message of his movie too seriously.

Spurlock presents his exercise in excess as validation of the reasoning behind the unsuccessful lawsuit that two obese New York City teenagers filed against McDonald's in 2002. He says his binge was aimed at determining whether fast food is "unreasonably dangerous," which would make it "defective" under product liability law, and whether it causes "injury," which plaintiffs must demonstrate to recover damages.

Yet in designing his "experiment," which he admits "may have been a little extreme," Spurlock paid no heed to the central reason the McDonald's lawsuit was dismissed. U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet ruled that "any liability based on over-consumption is doomed if the consequences of such over-consumption are common knowledge....If a person knows or should know that eating copious orders of supersized McDonald's products is unhealthy and may result in weight is not the place of the law to protect them from their own excesses. Nobody is forced to eat at McDonald's....Even more pertinent, nobody is forced to supersize their meal or choose less healthy options on the menu."

Spurlock easily could have eaten three meals a day at McDonald's while staying below the 2,500 calories his doctor said he needed to maintain his starting weight of 185 pounds. For instance, an Egg McMuffin, orange juice, and coffee for breakfast; a grilled chicken bacon ranch salad and iced tea for lunch; and a double cheeseburger, medium fries, and diet Coke for dinner total fewer than 1,800 calories. By contrast, Spurlock says he consumed some 5,000 calories a day, while deliberately avoiding physical activity. In short, his experiment proves nothing but basic physics.

Similarly, it's hard to know what to make of a test in which Spurlock asks little kids (they look about 6) to identify the people in a series of pictures. They quickly recognize Ronald McDonald and George Washington but are stumped by a third picture. "George W. Bush?" one boy ventures. "No, but that's a good guess," says Spurlock, turning the picture toward the camera. It's a drawing of Jesus Christ. As with Spurlock's fast food feat, the humor conceals a logical weakness: The fact that kids know who Ronald McDonald is does not mean they will end up gorging themselves, Spurlock-style, and become dangerously overweight.

To his credit, some of Spurlock's jokes work against his main story line. In one scene, litigation enthusiast John Banzhaf somberly explains how fast food chains teach children to associate their brands with positive images and happy experiences. Spurlock deadpans, "That's why, when I have kids, every time I drive by a fast food restaurant, I'm going to punch my kids in the face."

Still, it would be quite a stretch to call Super Size Me balanced, which is how it was repeatedly described during the question-and-answer session at the D.C. film festival. The movie pays virtually no attention to the individualist critique of the war on fat, instead depicting it as a struggle between public-spirited activists and greedy corporations. When Spurlock interviewed me for the movie, I tried to interest him in the paternalism angle. At one point I suggested that it may soon be socially acceptable to publicly hector fat people for their unhealthy habits, just as it is acceptable to hector smokers. The appropriate response in either case, I suggested, is: "Fuck you. Mind your own business." He ended up using that bit of the interview, mainly to establish the background of rising concern about rising weight.

I was startled to see how Spurlock, in an interview with L.A. Weekly, explained my comment: "He's just raising the question of where we draw the line between corporate responsibility and personal responsibility. What can I control, and what is so heavily pounded into me through marketing and advertising and the lack of better food in my neighborhood or in my school? Where is that fine line?" Actually, I was saying that how much people weigh is their own business, and that meddling do-gooders -- the heroes of Super Size Me -- ought to be put in their place.

I suspect that idea would be alien to most of the audience at the D.C. film festival, which seemed to consist almost entirely of people who buy organic food, take a dim view of SUVs, and think recycling is self-evidently virtuous. Aside from a lone skeptic who was booed back to his seat, Spurlock's sharpest critics were people who loved the movie but wished he had paid more attention to the trash generated by fast food packaging or the connection between socioeconomic status and obesity. Watching Spurlock bask in the praise of all these like-minded people, who were congratulating themselves by congratulating him, left me feeling rather like he did after forcing down his first supersize cheeseburger meal.

Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason, is the author of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use (Tarcher/Penguin), which will be released this month in paperback, and For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health (Free Press).


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