The Establishment
Owes Me a Snickers

Soraya Roberts
The Critic
Issue 5, Winter 2022

There’s no end to capitalism’s ability to erode culture and the self, and no end to Soraya’s ability to hone right in on all the ways it happens. She’ll be here in every issue, showing us how. In this one, her starting point was one simple word – “popcorn.”

My best friend from high school drank so much Diet Coke that the floor of her car was littered with empty bottles, like an underage wino. She never drank cans, only bottles; sometimes glass, mostly plastic. I never had any. My drink was Coke (regular). But I didn’t drink as much as she did. And that was saying a lot because I drank a ton.

I do remember that I was shocked when a Swedish guy I met online — on mIRC in 1998 — told me he drank no fewer than eight cans a day of Coke, so I know I didn’t drink that much. No one has ever drunk that much. Not even my best friend. Not even in the nineties. 

I remember my best friend carrying those Diet Coke bottles around school, but that wasn’t the reason we drank so much pop. It wasn’t the reason we consumed so much junk food in general. That was because of the movies. We lived in Calgary in Alberta, Canada, a city with a dearth of culture — at least, the kind of culture we wanted. It was a city that prided itself on winter sports, but if you were a couple of “alternative” kids, you weren’t doing those. You were going to the mall. You were going to the food court. You were going to the cinema. You were going to the concessions. You were renting movies. From places like Blockbuster, and from those independent rental stores that were dustier and grosser but that you preferred because they carried little-circulating titles like Nice Girls Don’t Explode. Their junk food was better too. They had actual popping popcorn, always stale. But we browsed the shelves and ate it anyway.

“As COVID continues to pummel the exhibition
industry and audiences turn to streaming,
the appeal of another digital screen — but
bigger! — has started to lose its sheen.
But for me it’s personal, like mourning
for the cinema I knew.”

Read former projectionist Corey Atad’s
love letter to the cinemas of his youth.

We were at the edge of Gen-X – birth year, 1980 – but our eating habits were fully entrenched in it. When I think back to being a teenager in the nineties, I think of indie rock and movies. And junk food. The Gen-X poster-child movie Reality Bites — the 1994 classic about recently graduated anti-establishment twentysomethings trying to find their feet as adults, which we mocked at the time because that’s what Gen-X does — is full of junk food. Winona Ryder doesn’t buy groceries, she buys gas station snacks: rippled Pringles, mini donuts, an armful of Minute Maid (cans — sorry, babe). Pizza gets multiple mentions. Big Gulps too. Even Ethan Hawke, the movie’s resident malcontent, deigns to admit that, “a quarter-pounder with cheese, those are good.”

“As is typical under capitalism, the lowest
earners pay for the grandest things.”

Read Rebecca May Johnson:
A Palace for the People.”

If our eating habits seem hypocritical, that’s because they were. We were supposed to be anti-establishment, yet we were eating food manufactured by the very companies we were claiming to hate. Instead, the amount of junk food we ate acted as a weird kind of ill-conceived protest: there was no way not to be owned by the establishment — which appeared to be fully aware and willing to capitalize on our penchant for self-hatred and eating our feelings — so we’d bleed it dry. We would eat all the junk food our stomachs could take, all the empty calories we could handle, we would gorge ourselves on edible cancer, because that’s the best the culture had to offer. We would cut our noses to spite our faces, but it would be with a knife made and handed to us by Them. They would ultimately be to blame for our delicious, malnourished deaths. Our rotted teeth and stuffed arteries would be on their hands. Like everything else.

At one point in Reality Bites, Winona Ryder goes on a date with Ben Stiller and has to explain why Ethan Hawke has moved into her apartment. She says he got fired from his job because they caught him stealing a candy bar: “Somehow he can rationalize it, like the establishment owes him a Snickers.” They both laugh, but that shit isn’t funny, it’s true! If the establishment is going to give us no choice but to exist under their tyranny, if they are going to exploit us within an inch of our lives to fatten themselves up on oysters and Cabernet and chocolate pure enough not to be called a “candy bar,” they owe it to us to give the absolute borderline-plastic foods they produce for free. Call it a pauper’s payback.

“In our present age of terrorist threats and
mass shootings, we are routinely compelled
to open our bags, go through body scanners,
or undergo physical inspection to gain access
to spaces and experiences, ostensibly for our
safety. But we’ve been primed to accept this
by movie theaters, which hoped to disincentivize
people from opting out of the concession stand.”

Read issue five’s feature story,
Making Concessions.”

All of this is why the increasingly astronomical prices of movie concessions over the past couple of decades has been particularly offensive to Gen-Xers. That’s not a non sequitur: if your anti-establishment snacks are corporatized to the point where both they and the movie with which they are associated are the same price — and equally unaffordable — it becomes a triple insult. The junk food at the concession stand is already going to kill you, it’s expensive beyond all reason, and the whole process of watching a movie at the cinema, which was a cultural touchstone for Gen-Xers like me, becomes suddenly unattainable. It’s like having your childhood photo album shut away from you because others can make more money off your past by cutting you out of it. And it applies retroactively; it colors your memories, alienating you from your own nostalgia.

“Markups on popcorn now regularly average 1,275%.”

Without popcorn counters, can theaters
survive? Read “Making Concessions.”

I still go to the cinema. But concessions are no longer part of the plan. If I’m particularly flush, or with someone willing to buy or at least to go halves, I might consider paying $20 for something worth a third of that. Otherwise, I go without. At worst, I sneak stuff in — Cokes, Reese’s peanut butter cups — that I have bought from the outside, where prices are less inflated. But the fact that I have to think at all about what used to be a relatively small unspoken pleasure feels like a burden.

This is a complaint sourced from a youth full of privilege, but it is no less pertinent for being one more attempt of so many to hold the corporations that are actively destroying our planet to account. And if you don’t think junk food is a political issue, remember Winona Ryder’s warning in Reality Bites, “The owner of Dominoes supports Operation Rescue.”

Soraya Roberts is the author of In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life. Along with being an columnist and editor-at-large here at Pipe Wrench, she is a columnist for Defector and is currently working on a book about criticism.

Portrait by Libby Greenfield