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Young people standing outside McDonalds, 3rd April 1980Photo by Henbury/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

How McDonald’s became a landmark of British youth culture

From the carnivalesque atmosphere of a post-night out Maccies, to the class-coded bogeyman we channel our national anxieties through, we explore the ways in which the fast-food chain has become embedded in British culture

Introducing Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here. 

Wherever you go in the world, whichever border you may cross or city you may explore, the conspicuous glare of the Golden Arches will most likely follow. Not many things are certain in this world, but the likelihood of finding oneself in the vicinity of a McDonald’s may just be one of them. The ubiquity of the restaurants have even spawned their own colloquial nicknames. Go down under, you’re in a Maccas; hop across the pond and it’s Mickey D’s; head north from there, and Canada have their McDick’s, while Japan have their Makku’s, and Malaysia their Mekdi. Despite these differing names, the idea is one of “glocality” – a portmanteau of “global” and “local” – meaning wherever you are in the world, those identikit restaurants carry with them a familiar feel, born from the aesthetics of a 50s, American diner.

One of the places that has proved particularly susceptible to the gravitational pull of the big ‘M’ is none other than Great Britain. A south-east London borough was the backdrop for the brand’s British invasion in the mid-70s, and since then they’ve rapidly multiplied, with over 1,200 restaurants adorning these shores today. Although an American invention, the fast-food chain has become deeply embedded in British culture, whether we like it or not. Young people gather there, drunk nights out end there, fashion people flock to it in droves. It’s even become a political and social lightning rod, invoked by a baying media class looking to channel class anxieties through a single, deep-fried bogeyman. In its own way, McDonald’s has become a prism through which we can view our country, this in itself a product of the chain’s relationship with the young people of this island.

If McDonald’s has done anything successfully since coming to these shores, it’s selling the white-picket dream to the average British teen. When the restaurant exploded on the scene in the 1970s, it wasn’t just about the food but the entire dining experience, one that recalled drive-thru movie theatres and glossy Americana. The food historian Dr Eleanor Barnett wrote that “the rise of fast food chains in the UK was clearly tied to their role in teenage lives as places of socialisation and economic activity”, a fact that still holds true. The vilification of teenagers who socialised at McDonald’s reached a fever pitch in the 2000s and 2010s at a time when both Labour and Conservative governments were slashing budgets for activities aimed at young people. A report by the youth charity YMCA suggests that in the past decade alone cuts to youth services totalled almost a billion pounds. It seems that young people may be drawn to the restaurant because of its cheap, calorie-dense burgers, but often stay because there is nowhere else to go.

While you’ll undoubtedly find young people socialising at McDonald’s in the day, the chain’s status as a social hub famously extends into the after-hours as well. If, like me, you’ve ever ended up in a McDonald’s, at the messy end of a night out, chances are you’ve witnessed what the restaurant has to offer during those hallowed hours. A sea of people, in varying degrees of inebriation, jostling for a place in front of those touch-screen menus, incessant alarm sounds emanating from an industrious kitchen beyond. It’s a carnival-like atmosphere, one that can be intimidating and raucous, but often quite entertaining. “The sheer volume of customers that come in once a nightclub closes,” says Maxine Hunt, a south-east area manager until March of this year, “it’s always going to be a bit of a tinderbox.” Hunt explains how McDonald’s maintains their unique position in the landscape of nightlife because – once again – there’s nowhere else to go. “There are not many restaurants that stay open after ten. KFC doesn’t stay open, Burger King doesn’t stay open… it’s just McDonald’s”. Because of this, the restaurant has become an extension of the Great British night out, so much so that they began employing security guards to cover night shifts, about 15 years ago according to Hunt. “It’s just the norm now, isn’t it,” she tells me, “in most pubs you have to have bouncers.”

It’s interesting that Hunt lumps McDonald’s in with “most pubs”. The public house is an enduring symbol of Britishness, but subject to many anxieties surrounding class in this country, just as the fast-food chain is. Search the word ‘McDonald’s’ on the websites of any tabloid newspaper and streams of stories will appear, gleefully referencing yobs, thugs, and teenage terrors. These stories all take on a strikingly similar tone, and although their subjects are not always blameless, the purpose of them is never about condemning individual actions, but demonising an entire social group. These newspapers know that cheaper, processed food is associated with people of lower income backgrounds because of factors like food insecurity, and they take advantage of this to quell any inkling of class solidarity. If we’re fed hundreds of stories of teens terrorising fast-food chains, it’s only natural that readers will focus on the terror, and not question the social conditions that got those teenagers there in the first place. In the press, the mere use of the word ‘McDonald’s’ in a headline functions as a nifty dog whistle, employed to demonise the working class even further.

What’s notable about this tactic, however, is that the McDonald’s clientele are not exclusively from one economic background. A 2004 report, carried out in honour of the chain’s 30th anniversary in Britain said that “it is clear that [McDonald’s] locations are wealth neutral, spanning affluent areas and those that are disadvantaged”. Despite this “wealth neutrality”, the media are still using the restaurant as a classist dog whistle. When socialites from Made In Chelsea pop in for some fries, they’re “rich girls” who “rough it at McDonalds”, but when the cast of Geordie Shore do the same they “pig out” on a “huge” order. Despite both groups of women occupying exactly the same position in the labour market (the reality TV labour market that is), McDonald’s functions to shame only one set of women, and it’s not the ones who were born with money.

This duality is thrown into even sharper relief when we remember the artist Hetty Douglas, who posted pictures mocking tradesmen ordering at McDonald’s, writing on her Instagram story that they looked “like they [sic] got 1 GCSE”. According to Douglas’ apology, their behaviour towards staff was “quite jarring”, but – once again – the purpose of the intervention was nothing to do with condemning individual actions. Even when both parties are literally inside the same building, buying the same food at exactly the same time, their experience of McDonald’s is still divided along class lines, and Douglas insisted on ensuring everyone knew that. I eat McDonald’s in a posh, slay way, but you eat it in a poor, disgusting way. It seems that, in this country, who we allow to enjoy a McDonald’s in peace can tell us an awful lot about how we view class, and the anxieties that those perspectives can produce.

More recently, however, McDonald’s has taken on a new, subversive reputation – one as the official meal of the British hun. These semi-ironic figures are venerated by young people across the land, and while glam women have always nipped to McDonald’s, the reputation feels new because it’s being documented online to a substantial degree. Instagram accounts like @loveofhuns and @hunsnet often post memes about their obsessions with a cheeky Maccies, often attached to videos of Alison Hammond or Sharon from Eastenders. The hun-ification of McDonald’s has made it more socially acceptable to eat at the chain for those who might’ve shied away before (how can it be gross or unhealthy? It’s camp!) But for every meme of Katie Price gagging for a double cheeseburger, there are multiple TikToks of others making fun of customers, or referring to them as “chavs”. Despite the efforts of the huns, the 00s-era dog whistles are still being heard and disseminated.

While it’s true that McDonald’s position in British culture is heavily class-coded, it’s not just the press and teenagers online who are to blame – often the call is coming from inside the kitchen. In 2016, McDonald’s Brixton branch was clumsily redecorated, splashed with indiscriminate scribbles posing as graffiti tags, a move that many saw as hackneyed and out of touch. The marketing mishap suggested that McDonald’s continued relationship with the youth of this country is the result of processes external to the chain, like hun-ification, or its status as a quasi-youth club on a dwindling social scene. But the true irony of the chain’s ubiquity is that it primarily exists in the absence of something – of a youth club, a thriving nightlife scene, a specific kind of class solidarity. It may be difficult to image Britain without its Golden Arches, but if they were to suddenly vanish from sight, chances are something not too dissimilar would appear in their place, another deep-fried bogeyman to channel our national anxieties through.

Header image: Young people standing outside McDonalds, 3rd April 1980. Photo by Henbury/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

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