Why is McDonald’s synonymous with American culture and wholesome family meals?

One evening during the summer of 2016, an acquaintance of mine embarked on a lengthy rant about the dangers of American food, specifically fast food. It was the type of impassioned speech that allows you to see all of the whites of the speaker’s eyes, and the majority of their teeth, as you feel their words launching themselves at you like large missiles. The diatribe was so well articulated that could tell it was brewing in his mind long before we ever met. He probably gagged as he saw people laughing and holding apple pies at bus stops and held crosses up at the golden arcs, praying that they would crumble. His oration made me think hard about American consumption, and it honestly freaked me out because I can’t count how many times I bought a Hot-N-Spicy out of what felt like necessity. In essence, the one-sided conversation was a ton of hotep-DVD-ready, interwoven conspiracy theories about the McDonald’s logo representing a satanic bullhead and Freemasonry. While a bit of the information required enough inversion of images and anagrams to seem like a reach, there was an amount of facts (and personal experience) behind it all that made it make some sort of sense.

Pretty much everyone knows that McDonald’s, the fast-food establishment that opened in nearly 80 years ago, is hell on wheels with its mysterious meats and horror stories of rat infestation. But that doesn’t stop people from supporting the business so often that they sell at least 75 burgers per second.  Why is that? Well, its brand screams “America”, because it was founded in 1940 on the “winning by any means necessary” attitude that white men are famous for, and also because it’s success orbits around capitalism. In a time where breaks from work are reduced to nothing, exhaustion from work is encouraged (meaning that time that would normally be spent cooking is all but eliminated for poor folks), and over 14,000 McDonald’s exist in this country alone, Micky D’s is one of the biggest companies, in the food industry and overall, in the world.

McDonald’s is painted by advertisers as a family brand. One that is all about togetherness and encouraging delighted shrieks from young children as they play with Happy Meal trinkets. The idea that the eatery for everyone, from grandparents born during The Great Depression, who grew up during the era of burgers and shakes at diners, to teenagers looking for a place with wi-fi to study and grab a quick bite with friends, has become the norm. A shocking example at the ever-expanding scope is the McDonald’s commercial that served a purpose of superimposing the brand in a fictional world, highlighting that the meal is “incredibly delicious”, and stating how perfect it is for busy families with children who would be interested in toys promoting Incredibles 2.

My mom recently transitioned into veganism from vegetarianism. She raised me and my four younger siblings by herself in the early 2000s, and she did her absolute best to not let any of us indulge in too much fast food. Her dietary experiments, like no-meat Mondays, and pasta Fridays, were her best attempts at keeping her young children from being totally reliant on instant meals. But, working to support all of us made it harder to always have a watchful eye on what we were taking in, and thus, quick trips to McDonald’s with other family members began. It was an easy way to shut us up, burgers, frozen fries, a sweet, and the week’s latest toy were sure to satisfy us in multiple senses. Thinking back, the package was a pacifier for kids who may have spent their time asking too many questions, coloring on the walls, and rolling around in dirt. Instead, we (and the walls) were kept clean and the caretaker was able to have a moment to themselves.

We were the second generation to be sucked in to McDonald’s. My mother’s mom raised two daughters by herself in the 1970’s and ’80’s. She too had to work a full-time job, and she was a teenager when she gave birth for the first time. She was young and wanted to keep a grip on her dissolving social life. I often hear stories about how my mom and aunt had to figure out how to live alone in their mid-teens, as their sole guardian would be out at night. More than one lunch or dinner consisted of McDonald’s.

These stories are reflective of the greater shift in American culture. During the ’60’s and ’70’s, more mothers went to work (as a result of college education or to support a lifestyle) and single parenthood became more prevalent, therefore it’s conceivable that less women had time to come home and spend hours cooking up a hot meal. The Happy Meal was launched in 1979, and subsequently took over – it became a hit in the ’90’s, with Ty’s Teenie Beanie Babies. McDonald’s became the smiling, open-armed mother figure, filling her children’s bellies with cheap, warm, accessible food. It is the staple that we have created, accepted, and sustained for decades. It is family.

Today, McDonald’s further sinks its teeth into people by collaborating with influencers to boost sales. Who wouldn’t want a meal pumped up by white people so famous that I don’t recognize them? In the words of Childish Gambino, “This [i]s America”, y’all. The land of altered apple pies and family-friendly Sprite so strong that it could’ve been mistaken for alcohol in a former life. We made space for McDonald’s to dominate us by eating faster, eating more calories in one sitting, and shifting priorities. Maybe that hotep guy was onto something. Maybe McDonald’s is the devil.