I was 14 when my dad drove me to McDonald’s and told me to get a job. I was 17 when I quit, a day that was surprisingly bittersweet. I hated the job, but I’d made memories there—friends, enemies, jokes. I’d met my first love in the break room. She broke up with me from behind a register. McDonald’s was the last place I saw my grandpa. He called me “Dandy Randy” and I was too busy to hug him. He died a few weeks later.
There’s a halcyon quality to all this, of course—a “simpler times” narrative. It’s similar to the one Americana has conjured for the early days of fast food, when the concept was novel and the industry unsaturated. Rustic shacks sat in gravel lots, where smiling friends and family ate burgers wrapped in wax paper. It’s an image I responded to when I first saw Billy Morrissette’s 2001 comic tragedy Scotland, Pa., which reimagines the story of MacBeth at a ’70s fast food restaurant in the Pennsylvania suburbs. The advent of the drive-thru is a major plot point, and the film works to chronicle its role in transforming fast food from local curiosity to capitalist bastion. Especially early on, Morrissette paints an endearingly wistful portrait of this intangible era in food culture.
“Working a grill, frying the fries, helping hungry people,” Christopher Walken’s McDuff rhapsodizes to staffers at one point. “Don’t underestimate what you do, sir. I envy you.” It’s funny, sure—a sweet and naive sentiment that clashes with our modern age’s view of fast food culture as unkempt, slovenly, and altogether unsavory. By implying that there exists the possibility for passion or purpose within the industry, however, McDuff’s vision remains one of pop culture’s few assertions that there’s depth and nobility to be found behind the counter.
And there are few. Only a handful of movies center on the fast food industry, and unsurprisingly they seem to have evolved in step with America’s growing sense of awareness about what it eats. Thus, what was once a hip hangout became a special treat, before finally evolving into a guilty pleasure and, eventually, a symbol of American overindulgence.
Take 1986’s Hamburger: The Motion Picture, a lighthearted teen sex romp about a lazy lothario who, after being kicked out of every college he’s attended, enrolls at Buster Burger University, a loose facsimile of McDonald’s employees-only Hamburger University. Despite being run like a military camp, there’s something vibrant and progressive about Buster Burger University, both in its technology and diverse array of students. Fast food restaurants weren’t stigmatized yet; for teens, there was still something cool about learning how to sling the burgers they spent their youth consuming. Fast Food (1989) has a similar aura, with its collection of cash-strapped hunks creating a “special sauce” that boosts libidos and, uncoincidentally, sales. Factor in Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America, where fast food juggernaut McDowell’s is depicted as a crucible of possibility, and you’ve got a portrait of fast food as a silly yet still viable career option.
The same can’t be said of Reality Bites, where Winona Ryder’s Lelaina, flailing despite graduating as her college’s valedictorian, finds herself trying to score a job in fast food (only to be thwarted by David Spade). With the dawn of the decade came the realization that fast food was slowly transforming from teenage playground to bottom-rung option for those in dire financial straits. In 1993’s Falling Down, a fast food restaurant became symbolic of diminishing standards in food service and quality. When the slaphappy Good Burger was released four years later, that otherwise-loving ode to the industry didn’t even try to sugarcoat the sloppiness. One of its most memorable characters is Spatch, a monosyllabic lug who kills flies with his namesake burger flipper. That its cast of goofs loves working there doesn’t make it any less gross.
Despite taking place in the past, Scotland, Pa. pointed toward a growing desperation and lack of professional pride among fast food workers. In Kevin Smith’s Clerks 2, the very idea of fast food brand loyalty is roundly mocked. These ideas were exacerbated that much more in Richard Linklater’s 2006 adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which uses fast food as a backdrop in its exploration of how the proliferation of corporate chains in low-income areas perpetuates economic inequality and loss of identity. In the film, Paul Dano’s teenage line cook spits in burgers and serves food that fell on the floor. His co-worker, played by Ashley Johnson, quits after getting a crash course in corporate greed, saying she can’t work for such a company anymore. Fast Food Nation paints a portrait of an industry so debilitated, its employees can no longer be bothered to care. Couple that with the countless viral videos of workers being viciously attacked by customers, and you’ve got a ketchup-stained portrait of a working class that gets no respect from those it serves.
Society’s perception of fast food is well-served by these depictions. The actual people who work there, however, are not. For one, as was hinted at in Reality Bites, fast food jobs are no longer pit stops for the young. Sure, you’ll find a pool of teenagers in every McDonald’s you enter, but many of the workers are much older. Labor data from 2016 shows that 70 percent of the fast food workforce is at least 20 years old, with The New York Times reporting a median age of 29. It wasn’t a bunch of bored 15-year-olds asking for a higher minimum wage last year; it was desperate mothers and fathers—even desperate grandmothers and grandfathers—with medical bills and mortgages. Today the stakes are higher than ever for fast food workers.
When I worked at McDonald’s, I was struck by how it served as a weird cross-section of humanity, a place where baby-faced teens worked alongside rough-and-tumble ex-cons, the elderly, and even the homeless. On more than one morning, I stumbled upon a co-worker sleeping behind the dumpsters as I took out the trash. I watched another co-worker carve tattoos into his arm in between assembling Big Macs. I watched middle-aged women and men come and go beside me, their stories of drug addiction and incarceration fueling rumors of why they never came in for a second, third, or fourth shift.
Working in fast food isn’t easy; I always appreciated Mr. Pink saying as much in Reservoir Dogs. It’s fast, loud, greasy, and chaotic, but it’s undoubtedly one of the few jobs that almost anyone can get. As such, I watched dozens of people walk through the doors in an attempt to make an “honest living.” These were people who were fresh out of prison, gang life, and abusive relationships. Many of them didn’t last. Some did, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen people so proud to come into work every day. Unlike my friends and me, they took pride in their work.
That kind of pride is evident in 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. In it, the film’s teensy Iowa town is getting its first fast food restaurant, a Burger Barn that arrives prefabricated on the back of a truck. This kind of whitewashing, cost-cutting measure is later derided in Fast Food Nation, but here it’s cause for awe and celebration—a feeling of interconnectedness with the wider world, perhaps. John C. Reilly’s Tucker Van Dyke, a talented carpenter, is the most excited. “I might be wearing one of them uniforms,” he dreams. “Flipping burgers, salting fries. It might be the best thing to ever happen to me.” It’s an optimistic vision that, in popular culture, died out in the ’80s. Sure, that kind of corporate intrusion is a precursor to the small-town takeovers of Fast Food Nation, but it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm when Reilly excitedly tells everyone that there’s “real milk” in the milkshakes.
The best and most resonant depiction of fast food culture, oddly enough, may be in Craig Zobel’s controversial 2012 indie Compliance, the based-on-true-events story of a “Chickwich” manager and employee who are manipulated over the phone by a sociopathic prankster. While the film is far from a feel-good story, Zobel approaches the industry with a normalcy and sense of the mundane that’s refreshing. Before it takes a hard right turn into depravity, Compliance’s early scenes perfectly capture the pace and idle chitchat that tends to define a typical day as well as the diversity in age, size, and race that you’re bound to see behind the counter. And while the film isn’t about fast food, necessarily, it deeply humanizes it as a place where real people work, while simultaneously depicting the sense of powerlessness that can pollute the lower subsections of its labor force.
That humanization is the key to portraying fast food honestly and accurately. No one I knew at McDonald’s was defined by their job; they were defined by their families, their hobbies, their desire to transcend tumultuous pasts. Granted, that’s true of just about everyone in any industry. But there’s been a special neglect in Hollywood when it comes to the fast food worker, with a relentless focus on stereotypes and outdated recollections when the actual makeup of the typical fry cook has changed drastically over the years. Reflecting that with a more diverse, empathetic portrayal of this portion of the American lower class could have a broader impact on how we treat the human being on the other end of that drive-thru intercom. Maybe we’ll even start tipping them.