'Super Size Me' and the Conundrum of Race/Ethnicity, Gender, and Class for the Contemporary Law-Genre Documentary Filmmaker

33 Pages Posted: 8 Feb 2020

See all articles by Regina Austin

Regina Austin

University of Pennsylvania Law School


According to director Morgan Spurlock, the idea for "Super Size Me", the hugely popular documentary that explored the health impact of fast food, originated from a news report about "Pelman v. McDonald's", one of the fast food obesity cases. Over the course of his month-long McDonald's binge, Spurlock became the literal embodiment of fast-food's ill-effects on the seemingly generic American adult physique. Spurlock's take on the subject, however, ignores the circumstances that contributed to the overweight conditions of the "Pelman" plaintiffs who were two black adolescent females who ate their fast food in the Bronx. One of them was homeless during the relevant time period.

The paper discusses what the circumstances of the "Pelman" plaintiffs might have been, including the incidence of obesity and overweight and related diseases in minority populations, the correlation between obesity and food insecurity, the significance of fast food restaurants in poor urban minority communities, the relationship between fast food and soul food, race-specific cultural attitudes regarding women's weight, and race/ethnicity-related restraints on leisure. To be sure, based on past experience, a white male filmmaker like Spurlock might have found it difficult to tackle these subjects (especially in a film that is otherwise lighthearted and humorous) without encountering substantial criticism. Furthermore, most of the factors are irrelevant to the law of products liability, which pays little attention to inequities in the demographic distribution of risk. However, allowing generally disempowered subjects like the "Pelman" plaintiffs an opportunity to reveal their reflexivity about their situations is one way of combating disapproval and prompting deeper analysis of a social problem; Spurlock's television series "30 Days" is a fine example of that. Alternatively, filmmakers like Spurlock might display more reflexivity or critical self-assessment about their techniques for bringing only part of a complex issue to the screen . . . on the screen itself.

Keywords: Law and Society, Products Liability, documentary film, law and popular culture, Morgan Spurlock, Pelman v. McDonald's, fast food restaurants, minority communities, race-specific attitudes, cultural attitudes

Suggested Citation

Austin, Regina, 'Super Size Me' and the Conundrum of Race/Ethnicity, Gender, and Class for the Contemporary Law-Genre Documentary Filmmaker. U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 07-24, Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, Vol. 40, pp. 683-714, 2007, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=992217

Regina Austin (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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