I Want A Cheeseburger, I Am A Cheeseburger

by Brian Martin

Courtesy of PBS

Courtesy of PBS

When a friend and I are feeling bourgeois enough to select a place to eat out, they’ll usually ask me how hungry I am, and I’ll tell them, “Enough to eat 4 McChickens,” or whatever quantity I’m hungry for at the time. When friends tell me about the 10 dollars they spent upgrading their Tinder or OkCupid accounts, I tell them, “That’s about 8 McChickens right there, depending on the county.”

My standard unit of measurement for most practical things is a McChicken.

And, I know. I know that McDonald's has an awful track records in human rights, chicken rights, all that other shit vegan punks like to talk about when they see you buying animal products. The reality of it is that most fast-food places are evil. On the economic end, they’ve strategically halted the formation of unions and ignored national employee demand to have their meager wages-per-hour raised. As Eric Schlosser writes in Fast Food Nation, “fast food chains’ vast purchasing power and their demand for a uniform product have encouraged fundamental changes in how cattle are raised, slaughtered, and processed into ground beef.” Their hegemony over a food industrial complex, according to Schlosser, has effectively disempowered and impoverished rural communities, eliminating their middle class and creating a vast working poor below a small, wealthy elite. And this power extends as far as the deforesting space economies of Brazil and Guatemala.

They’ve infamously been taken to court— and even lost in trial —for using marketing tactics which specifically target children, saturating the media with ads that associate their highly addictive foods with fun, love, and family. The McLibel Trial, for instance, was an infamous case where a gardener and a postman from London managed to convince a judge to rule that McDonald's “[exploits children] with their advertising, produce 'misleading' advertising, are 'culpably responsible' for cruelty to animals, are 'antipathetic' to unionization and pay their workers low wages.” These same efforts, perhaps unsurprisingly, have failed in the USA.

The law in mind, one could call me a childhood victim of “McDonaldization."

At age 3, I remember sitting on my grandpa Betos' lap, having him tell me a story about Elephants and Spiderwebs as we awaited a happy meal. He took off his glasses, turned them upside down, and put them back on his face so that the frames looked like an M. And for whatever reason, I’d never been so pleased: there was a secret McDonald's logo in all glasses.

At age 4, there was a giant advertisement for a Shamrock Shake on the road which lead from Tijuana to the Border. Upon seeing its strange, alien-skin like coloration, the whipped cream, the cherry, I started crying.

After much haggling, me and my mother waited for five hours, moving at the pace of 2 steps per 5 minutes, until we crossed to the US. We walked over to the same McDonald's Beto would take me and tell me stories at. Approaching the counter, I pulled out a secret pocket of change I’d been accumulating from panhandling, street searching, and purse-picking. I poured out the change on the counter like pieces of eight.

The tragic part is when it came in all the glimmering, neon-mint-green glory, my first sip was cloyingly sweet— like, the syrup was rotten, runny, and bleh.

At age 6, after my family had gone bankrupt and we fled to the southernmost city in the Baja peninsula, my favorite mornings were spent at the PlayPlace’s GameCubes while my mother drank McCafe. Yes, you read right: GameCubes in a Mexican McDonald's. Even though the ball-pit caked over with brown stuff and smelled like chancla, the McDonald's was fancy as hell: two stories, 20 televisions, cushioned booths, and game stations in the playroom. Shit was a prize. And I ate it like one. Whenever my mother wanted us to feel good about life and disregard the hurricanes, the dad on a two week journey trucking cinder blocks from one end of Mexico to the next— she’d bring me and my sister here.

This might seem opposite to the common American conception of McDonald's, which tends to view its food as inferior products. Friends who I’ve spoken with about it call it “drunk food”— the kind of stuff you stumble upon after a long night of Fireball shots in Wrigleyville. Others say it is something they gorge on when they’re feeling bad about themselves; "when you’re broke and in a hurry." Then there’s the folks who say the food is incorrigibly disgusting: the “I’d rather eat [cage-free, vegan, cage-free, vegan, gluten-free, green, Rainforest Alliance Certified] garbage than McDonald's” people.

Ironically, when Carl N. Karcher (Carl’s Jr.), Thomas S. Monaghan (Domino’s), Harland Sanders (KFC), Ray Kroc (McDonald's) and more began developing their fast-food empires, they were successful because their products were accessible to working class people. For the first time, working families could afford to eat out. Fast food venues were also spaces where young people could gain work experience. A young Latina friend of mine told me she saw McDonald's as an opportunity to save up money before moving to Chicago from rural Illinois. The scarcity of work and a strict meritocracy has also made the fast-food service industry many people’s livelihood.

Internationally, McDonald's and other American products continue to be aspirational commodities which one can buy to both materially and symbolically communicate one's social mobility. My urban Mexican experience is one example of this. Yunxiang Yan, a UCLA Anthropologist, wrote a piece titled Of Hamburgers and Social Space: Consuming McDonald’s in Beijing, which analyzed the role of fast food in 1990’s China. Yan found that women were the predominant consumers, because “they enjoyed ordering their own food and participating in the conversation while dining,” whereas in traditional Chinese restaurants men would order the food and control conversation. He goes on to write that “imported fast-food restaurants provide a venue where women feel comfortable alone or with female friends,” lest they be marked by suspicions about their “morality or occupation." McDonald's and company provided a space where women, albeit of a particular class, could practice a new kind of social mobility.

I don’t mean to propose that the social space constructed by McDonald's is necessarily revolutionary, especially when we consider their ultimate goal is still, indeed, to produce profit at the expense of their workers, children, and the environment. Though, certainly, as Yan proposes, “there is a close link between the development of fast-food consumption and changes in social structure, especially the emergence of new social groups.” What I’m saying is that fast food means more than its unhealthy chemical composition.

Mind you, as I’ve already noted, criticisms of McDonald's are warranted and well-founded. My purpose here is not to denounce a movement which aims to dismantle unhealthy food systems, fight against soil degradation, vile mistreatment of animals, and promote holistic health (especially in lower-income communities). What I am trying to do is push for a more nuanced analysis of what McDonald's and other American ‘foods’ mean to working class or poor people. Why are we attached? Why, for reasons social, cultural, and economic, can we or can we not escape it? What is the implicit classism, xenophobia, and racism present in middle-to-upper-class hatred of McDonald's? What populations do we associate with this kind of food?

And, on a more personal note, I’m tired of crude, individualistic critiques of consumption. I don’t want to be called out in the middle of eating lunch between work-shifts. I don’t want to hear about the superiority of “organic" lifestyles, which are typically supported by products peddled by the same corporations selling me ground beef. The social and economic success of McDonald's as noted by Yan in Beijing, and Schlosser in the USA, and by me in Mexico, is attributable to the broader social and economic contexts: women had to turn to McDonald's because of the harsh patriarchal culture around them; working class people wanted to feel good about their ability to provide for the family, and could not afford anything but McDonald's.

Myself?

I’m young and messy. I’m hungry. I’m wasteful. I use wi-fi in lieu of expensive-ass phone service. I’m constantly anxious about my prospects for the future. I’m far away from home. When it’s 2 AM and I’m wandering without real purpose, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and sometimes on Christmas, McDonald's is there. Or Dunkin Donuts. Or Burger King. Whatever. I’ll come in with a dollar, buy myself a burger and a few hours of down time. I’ll sit down next to the drunks, homeless folk, and graveyard shifters like it’s purgatory. Because it is. We are all waiting for a better alternative.