Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Woman Who Spilled McDonalds Coffee and the Power of the Media

I'm not sure if I have mentioned it before, but I am a Simpsons fan.  Well, a Simpsons fan of their first eight seasons.  I haven't watched the show in years, and I'm not even sure if they are still on the air, but the first eight seasons were pure gold.   

There was an episode in season six called Homer badman where Homer is wrongfully accused of sexual harassment of a baby sitter.  The episode is hilarious, and I highly recommend watching it.  It is as relevant today as it was when it was aired about 20 years ago.  The episode parodied how media could demonize a person by the way it spins a story.  Media tells stories, and sometimes real people are cast as the antagonist when real life is never that simple.

I remember when the news broke about a woman who spilled McDonalds coffee on her lap and sued McDonalds and won millions of dollars.  The whole thing was so ridiculous because everyone knows coffee is hot.  If you spill coffee, of course you are going to get burned.  How is that McDonalds' fault?  The way the facts were presented made this story a poster child for frivolous lawsuits with immoral lawyers and their greedy clients winning the jackpot.

Jokes about this woman were everywhere on television, especially on the late night circuit.  Seinfeld (another show I love) even made a parody out of it with Kramer spilling coffee on himself while smuggling it into a movie.   This woman and her pain was turned into a joke.

But that was the story the media presented, and I never questioned it until I saw this link on facebook.

I'm assuming you watched the clip (and if you haven't, seriously watch it), but in case you still refuse, here is a recap.
1.  McDonalds coffee wasn't just hot it was dangerously hot (180 to 190 degrees F), well above the coffee pot temperature of 150 degrees F.  At this temperature third degree burns occur in a matter of seconds.  Third degree burns are really serious.  I think most people have only experience first and second degree burns.  A second degree burn from coffee wouldn't be that big of a deal, but a third degree burn is a different story.
2.  McDonalds knew their coffee was too hot.  Hundreds of other people had gotten serious burns from McDonalds coffee before, and it had been previously been suggested that McDonalds should turn down the temperature to prevent something like this from happening.
 I'm not saying that Stella Liebeck should've won a million dollar settlement (although she didn't exactly get millions of dollars), but only that she had a reasonable case against McDonalds, and it was not the frivolous lawsuit that was portrayed in the media.  She certainly was not a villain.
It is amazing to me the power of the media has to write people's stories, and what they include or more important don't include can paint anyone as a protagonist or a villain depending on which way they want to slant the story. I think this has only gotten worse with the internet where information or misinformation can travel faster than ever and very, very few people do any sort of fact checking before they spread the gossip. 
I read this article recently that Stephenie Meyer said she is over Twilight.  She explained her reasons here (Aug 14, 2013 entry) more clearly in her official blog.  Here is a quote from that post.
"Even those of you who love Twilight the most (in fact, especially those who love it the most) have probably noticed that there's been just a teensy little bit of backlash following the success of the books and films. I try my hardest to be thick-skinned, but I'm not much better at that than I am at brevity. So when I speak of Twilight becoming a negative place for me, it is entirely that near-omnipresent Twilight antipathy that I am speaking of. And I'm not complaining or saying it's unfair—I totally understand and even empathize with its existence. I'm just saying that Twilight isn't the wholly positive place for me that it once was."

I think she is under-playing that backlash.  At least on the internet, Twilight bashing is pretty big.  Twilight has become synonymous with bad writing and controlling stalker love-interests when there are a lot of books with much worse writing and way more controlling stalker-ish heroes. 

In some ways Twilight has been vilified by the internet in the way that Liebeck was vilified by the media.  Criticisms of Twilight that suggest the story is misogynistic and/or dangerous for impressionable teens usually pick and choose parts that support their position and largely ignore the parts of the books that don't.  I'm not saying that some of these critics don't make some very good points, only that the criticisms are uneven and in many cases over-exaggerated.  I don't think it really is so much worse than hundreds or even thousands of other books.  But Twilight has become the poster child for bad YA books like Stella Liebeck has become the poster child for frivolous lawsuits.

I know that writers need to be thick skinned, but I understand why Stephenie is over Twilight.  No matter how thick skinned you are being the butt of a million jokes is always going to get tiresome.



  1. I heard about the McDonald's coffee lady thing a while back. It's sort of a sad commentary on the news of how often stories are misrepresented, and how even serious stories can become a joke.

    I, personally, am a Twilight detractor. I think in my case, the frustration with the book and the fandom comes from something of the opposite end of what you describe - I keep seeing the hyperbolic positive reactions, and that confuses me, since I disliked it so thoroughly. However, I think the reactions I see online (not from friends, but on other sites) is because media has found the most insane Twilight fans and pushed them out as the norm. It's kind of like how Greenpeace has become the standard for all environmentalists, even though most of us think a lot of what greenpeace does is insane and overly dramatic.

    Anyway! I had a point. Indeed, there are many worse books than Twilight, but since it's so popular, that's where the attention goes. It really can't be easy to be Stephanie Myers, that's for sure. All the money in the world can't make up for something you loved being pummeled so thoroughly.

    I'm all for fun, snarky reviews, but sometimes they do go too far, because it's easy to write anonymous reviews. Have you ever seen Jimmy Kimmel's Mean Tweets series? It's famous actors reading out horrible tweets that people have sent to them. Sad and hilarious at the same time. I'm not going to link, because the videos contain Adult Language and Adult Imagery, but look them up if you don't mind some of that.

    1. I like snark too, but so many people on the internet try to be snarky but actually come off as overly-ranty and mean spirited. It takes a deft hand to pull of snark.

      I feel like I'm coming off as a huge Twilight fan, but I'm not. I enjoyed reading the books, but I didn't love them. They were fun but flawed stories, like so many other books I've read. I was quite surprised by the vitriol the series inspired on the internet, but I agree, Twilight wouldn't be so ridiculed if it was so wildly successful. Still, I think it doesn't deserve all the hate, and I feel bad for Stephenie Meyer despite her millions of book sales.

      I feel bad for Stella Liebeck too. She deserved our sympathy not our ridicule.

  2. Awesome post. I wish I knew what to do about these issues. It is even scarier that the media can control our opinions about political issues. It is way too hard to get unbiased facts.

    1. Yes, it is scary that the media can spin political issues too. It is so hard to wade through all the bias crap to see the truth. This is why politics frustrate me so much.

      I think the scariest thing about the Stella Liebeck case is that the reporters told the truth and still misrepresented the case.

  3. My favorite thing about Simpsons, was when they used to be amazing at the s plot. where they start the episode going in one direction, flip it, and it's about something completely different, and then resolve their middle plot by solving the first plot. It was always so random the way they'd start an episode about one thing, and then switched some other random thing, and then solved both at the same time, while never advancing any character. I think it takes as much skill to not have a plot advance as it does to make a character evolve.

    I think that's the main thing. No matter what show or story, or novel, or character, there's always two sides to it, and there will always be something of value inside. When you ignore something, or make it a butt of a joke, then you can't learn from it. And there's so much humor intrinsic to life, that why only look for it at another person's expense.

    1. Those Simpson starts were hilarious, and it was awesome how they'd came back to it in surprising ways. The writing on Simpson was just amazing (for those eight golden years).

      Sheena, I absolutely love what you said about everything having value. I think recognizing that value is what separates amazing snark from being mean spirited. You need to have some respect for the thing you are making fun of, otherwise it is at the other person's expense, and that is just being mean.

  4. Once again interesting post. I too thought the Mcdonald coffee lawsuit was ridiculous. Mcdonald's ended up on top with all its free advertising and being seen as the victim, but still I learned a lesson to never put a hot beverage between my legs.

    The post made me think of the movie Social Network. After I watched this movie I wondered about how it portrayed Mark and Sean. I researched it a little bit on the internet (Wikipedia) and found that both disagreed with their portrayals in the movie. Mark's character in the movie was a brilliant nerd who was socially inept and because of jealousy and feeling of superiority cut out three founders of facebook out of billions of dollars. Sean was a partier who slept with underage females and also uses people. I think people prefer people who are insanely intelligent to have no social skills. I just hope no one ever trier to turn me into a villain.

    1. I've never seen Social Network. I think it is ironic for one of the founders of such a huge social network to have no social skills. I'll have to check it out.

      I hope the media never tries to turn me into a villain either. I guess that is why I don't like all the negativity towards Twilight. As a writer, I'd love to have her commercial success, but not all that hate that come with it.


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