Berger (1969) argued that, "Human existence is an ongoing 'balancing act' between man and his body, man and his world" (p. 5). One of the most prominent balancing acts that humans must negotiate is that of health. What qualifies as "healthy" is continuously redefined through the expertise of the technical sphere, the tide of public opinion, decrees from government, and personal experience. Recently, there has been increased attention towards assigning blame and seeking solutions to America's "expanding waistline" (Spurlock, 2004). From First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign to the success of shows such as The Biggest Loser, food and exercise choices are being highlighted in national discourse.
Health issues are also being addressed in the realm of entertainment. Documentary films in particular (i.e., Food, Inc., Killer at Large, and Food Fight) are an accessible source of health information for the public (Nisbet & Aufderheide, 2009). Not only do these films avoid complicating factors such as distrust of governmental or scientific authority (Gauchat, 2012), but they also directly incorporate the visceral power of visuals (Peterson, 2001). Films can show the negative consequences of obesity as real, embodied experiences with devastating consequences on individuals and society. Films have the power to transform statistics about obesity into graphic presentations of the epidemic.
Lake and Pickering (1998) argued that an "analysis of film--particularly documentary, non-fiction film-affords a more realistic study of the refutational possibilities typical in the ambient mixed media environment, in which discourse and image interplay" (p. 83). Films unite verbal and visual modes of communication in a heterogeneous, multimodal presentation of information (Barcelo-Aspeitia, 2012; van den Hoven & Yang, 2013). The visual and verbal elements complement one another to "create meanings that go beyond information provided by each individual channel" (Abraham & Appiah, 2006, p. 187). In multimodal artifacts, it can be difficult to distinguish the visual elements from the verbal arguments that they support. Blair (2004) argued that, "although there can exist purely visual arguments, most communications that are candidates for visual arguments are combinations of the verbal and the visual" (p. 49). The combination of the visual and verbal is "the standard in public discourse" and a powerful and prevalent mode of argument (van den Hoven & Yang, 2013, p. 405). Although they often appear paired with verbal statements, visuals themselves can function as arguments separate from the verbal.
Responding to the call that studies of visual argumentation have been "sparse" and mostly occur in static forms (Kjeldsen, 2013, p. 426), we explore documentary films as animated images. The succinct argumentative structure of documentary films provides a rich ground for the exploration of the argumentative capabilities of the visual. Some scholars argue that visuals "contribute directly and substantially to the argumentative process" (Barcelo-Aspeitia, 2012, p. 366; Birdsell & Groarke, 2007; Blair, 1996), while others argue that visuals require verbalization (Alcolea-Banegas, 2009; Fleming, 1996). Though there is little argument on the riveting nature of visuals, little consensus exists on the status of visual images as discrete arguments. Birdsell and Groarke (1996) argued that, specifically in times of "increasingly visual media," it is imperative that scholars focus on "the development of a more adequate theory of argument which makes room for the visual" (p. 10; p. 1). We argue that a crucial step for scholars is exploring animated images, their persuasive characteristics, and how they function as argument.
We propose that (1) documentaries are a rich source of inquiry for visual argumentation in that they often provide a clear claim; (2) that visual images are "voiced" in film (Blair, 2004, p. 49); and (3) that visuals can argue independently of the verbal and thus provide discrete, but often complementary, arguments in a prominently multimodal media environment. We will primarily focus on how the visual functions as an enthymeme that incorporates the audience in argument construction and as synecdoche that argues for the generalizability of images. We explored the visual arguments present in two documentary films that encouraged change in viewers' perceptions of the obesity epidemic. We selected two documentary films, Super Size Me (SSM) and Fat Head (FH), which used the director's body (Morgan Spurlock and Tom Naughton, respectively) to model the effects of diet on health by eating nothing but fast food for a month. These films are interesting counterparts in that they address the same topic from different perspectives. Both directors claim that their resulting form is caused by their diet (argument of causality) and that these changes are applicable to the general public (argument by analogy). Spurlock argues that the visual change in his body is caused by the consumption of fast food. This claim is made by juxtaposing his before-and-after image and showing his body's transitional forms throughout the film. Though Naughton does not show a similar, juxtaposed image, both he and Spurlock argue that their individual bodies can be stand-ins for the health of others. The director's bodies served as synecdochal and animated images that were analogous to the bodies of the larger public.
SSM was released in 2004 and won multiple awards including the Documentary Directing Prize at the Sundance Film Festival ("Super Size Me," 2014). SSM refuted discursive claims made in a lawsuit (Pelman v. McDonald's Corp.) that there is no evidence for the effects of fast food on health. The lawsuit by New York minors and their parents alleged that a McDonald's-heavy diet, which was not adequately presented as unhealthy, contributed to the minors' poor health (Spurlock, 2004). The case was dismissed in 2003 by the District Court of New York, in part because of the lack of clear causal evidence linking the fast food to their health (Pelman v. McDonald's Corp., 237 F. Supp. 2d 512). By solely eating McDonald's for 30 days and closely monitoring his health vitals, Spurlock attempted to provide quasi-experimental evidence for this missing causal connection. Capturing this journey through documentary film allowed viewers the ability to see the vivid and graphic evidence of the physical changes to Spurlock's body.
FH was released in 2009 in response to SSM and aimed to show how SSM "was entertaining, but also dishonest and illogical" (Ammi, 2011, para. 5). FH is a parody of SSM that mimicked the original film's form and style to provide a comic counter-example of the effects of fast food on the body. FHs parody form accepted SSM's premise of argument by example, but then rejected Spurlock's conclusions by showing an unchanged body. Naughton rejected the ability of images to accurately portray one's health and thus did not offer a competing, visual juxtaposition. There is an unspoken and unseen juxtaposition in FH, where Naughton's body remains unchanged throughout the film, and is never formally presented to the audience. His weight loss and change in health was only revealed verbally through description and numbers. Naughton claimed that the consumption of fast food does not produce meaningful weight gain or adverse health effects. Each body provided a visual argument for the consequences (or lack thereof) of diets on health: Spurlock did so by showing the difference between beginnings and endings and Naughton provided a counterexample that did not show difference.
Kenneth Burke's concepts provide a framework for critiquing these films as examples of visual synecdoche that present specific pentadic ratios. The pentad, as a tool for the critic, helps us interrogate the visual arguments for the culpability of environmental influences, or scene [SSM), and personal responsibility, or agent [FH). Certainly, these are not the only two opinions on national health nor are they the most exhaustive. Instead, these films represent two prominent and extreme public opinions that provide insight into the present political gridlock over national health. Burke's (1941) concept of synecdoche is useful for interrogating how each filmmaker used his own body to make their individual experiences relevant to public deliberation. Synecdoche is a natural pairing and complement to argument by analogy. Both reveal the relationship between the individual and the whole, one through a dramatistic lens and the other through an argumentative one.
This inquiry makes three distinct contributions to the fields of argumentation and rhetoric. First, this inquiry marries a Burkean framework with argumentation studies as a tool for guiding critiques of visual argument. The complementary concepts of argument by analogy and synecdoche are explored as well as how a pentadic lens can inform a critique of argumentative claims. Second, this inquiry provides evidence of the discrete, coherent argumentative capabilities of the visual and offers juxtaposition as a form it may take. The comparison of images over time can itself assert a complete argument for change. Finally, this inquiry addresses an important point of stasis in a national health debate and how films can make use of visual arguments to contribute to public deliberation.
Assigning Culpability in Health Documentaries
In the United States, approximately 33% of adults and 17% of children are considered obese, rates almost three times those in 1980 (CDC, 2012). Obesity can lead to other personal health risks such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer (CDC, 2014). Medical costs related to treating obesity-related health problems approached $150 billion nationally in 2008 (CDC, 2014). Identifying causes and strategies to address national obesity rates is a burgeoning public health concern that has drawn much attention from...