Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Semiotic Analysis of the Happy Meal

Semiotic analysis allows for the examination of the social aspect of an object, or in this case something non textual, and how it can have many levels of meaning that may go unnoticed in everyday situations. In Bell and Freeman’s article, Decoding of the Meaning of the Perfect Christmas Meal, they stated that in semiotic analysis, Social semioticians are interested in the way socially accepted meanings change as society evolves.” From that a detailed meaning of what Christmas dinner has evolved to mean was discovered. For my semiotic analysis, I have chosen to look at something that is near and dear to the inner child in all of us. The epitome of the perfect meal: The McDonald’s Happy Meal.

Obviously, we already know that McDonald's is a bit taboo. Its unhealthy, its quality is non existent and it gives America the rep of being obese. But let’s look at this from the perspective of a child. This little red box containing three days’ worth of sodium definitely lives up to its name, for a six year old Ronald McDonald was a superhero. McDonald’s is a defining symbol in the United States, it is a cultural icon that has spread throughout the world. Kids driving down the highway beg their parents to stop at the promising golden arches to taste the kindergarten delicacy of McNugget’s and fries. I remember begging my mom to pull up to the drive through because I was “starving” and couldn’t possibly wait until I got home to eat a decent meal. On the rare occasion she would stop, I remember the cashier asking the most important question: “Will that be a boy or a girl toy?” Now, clearly to a child this is an important question in a different way than we might find it to be an important question. Six year old me would cry if I got a Hot Wheelz instead of Malibu Barbie. However, I am not six anymore and I can see an issue with this. 

Even by the food children eat, they are being put into gender roles. “Girl’s toys” and “boy’s toys” are almost always stereotyped. I don’t remember ever seeing a toy hidden under French fries that inspired me to amount to anything beyond typical domestic women’s roles. Every mini doll, game or stuffed toy promoted femininity. While I’m sure every little boy found that his Transformer or toy car promoted typical masculine roles.Why is it that, even for a meal, boys and girls are being separated into stereotyped categories? This adds a lot of weight to mom’s quick fix for dinner while she was in a rush to do errands. This is just another one of the small yet powerful impacts that seemingly meaningless objects can have on our society. Through semiotic analysis we can look deeper into what things really mean under the surface.  


  1. This is a GREAT use of text. My one quibble just in terms of really nailing semiotics, is to remember that semiotics has its roots in structuralism, so it really is about close reading, looking at patterns, and plugging things into systems. Lots of this is sort of anecdotal and more personal. With semiotics, you want to focus on visual imagery (why these colors? what can you do with the golden arches?) and text (what about the phrase "happy meal"-- what is it selling? what about other McD's slogans?). You can look at specific ads, characters, jingles, etc. You can look at the development of the brand over time. This is a great post, but leaning a bit more towards that kind of close analysis and specific context would make this even stronger.

  2. I had never really analyzed the gender roles assigned to, of all things, Happy Meals, but I really like how you pointed that out! It is quite disturbing, but six year-old me also would've been pretty upset if I hadn't gotten a Barbie. The problem here is that we were already trained by society to want those gendered toys, McDonald's was just giving us what we wanted, while enforcing gender roles at the same time. This reminds me of a friend's mom who would ask us if we wanted a girl or a boy toy, and then respond to the McDonald's drive-thru question with whatever it was that we wanted. Rebellion! (I still chose the Barbie, so maybe not so much)

  3. It seems that some people at McDonalds have been doing their own semiotic analysis of the toys they offer. Although I had never thought about it critically before, your post has forced me to look back and I have to admit I always had to have a boys toy. It didn't matter which one or what it did all I knew was that I had better not get one that looked anything like my sisters. Lately though I have noticed that most toy packages no longer offer a boy or girl side to choose from. Its all just one big honey pot of toys. But then of course the boys want the male characters and girls the female characters etc. It seems that even when the toy pile is filled with pokemon, a seemingly genderless "species" we can still find gender stereotypes in the pitch of each pokemon's voice. Will we ever be able to escape?