The movie Good Burger was released in 1997 as a spin-off of the popular sketch on Nickelodeon’s All That series. In the movie teenager Dexter (Kenan Thompson) is forced to take on a summer job after getting into a car accident. He eventually finds employment at a local restaurant, Good Burger, and befriends Ed (Kel Mitchell), a kind but somewhat dull teenager. The plot revolves around Dexter’s internal conflict between self-interest and his drive for friendship and community at his job. This eventually culminates in Dexter and Ed infiltrating Mondo Burger, Good Burger’s competition, and revealing their illegal practice of pumping meat full of chemicals to make it appear larger. At the end of the movie, through their combined efforts, Dexter and Ed take down the evil corporation and ensure the continued success of Good Burger.
Ultimately, it seems as though the intended message of Good Burger is that one should put aside judgmental or self-interested motives to form bonds and friendships with those who may otherwise be excluded. Dexter represents the ultimate self-interested individual who in the beginning of the movie is only out to exploit Ed who he sees as responsible for his accident (the accident was caused by Dexter swerving to avoid hitting Ed who rollerbladed out into traffic). However, events soon teach Dexter to prioritize friendship and community. After Dexter and Ed discover Mondo Burger’s use of illegal additives, the leader of the chain has the two committed to a mental hospital where they are forced to befriend each other and the other patients to escape. In the end, by working together the duo saves the day by literally blowing up Mondo Burger and having its employees arrested. Additionally, the sort of inclusion Good Burger fosters is one based on seeing all people as valuable regardless of their intelligence. Despite his seeming lack of intelligence, it is ultimately Ed who is responsible for the plan that brings down Mondo Burger. In this way, the movie is about accepting people unconditionally and valuing friendship.
Despite overall negative reviews of Good Burger, my friends and I were in love with the movie. We were not so much as concerned about the larger themes of friendship in it so much as we were attracted to the humor and the “older” and therefore more “mature” characters (we were 8 or 9 when Good Burger became popular). In particular, my friend Meagan and I would spend hours constructing and rehearsing skits around the idea of Good Burger. While I don’t remember the exact plots of these skits, I do remember that each revolved around a calm and reasonable male employee (played by me) trying to take the order of a confused and hysterical sometimes male, sometimes female customer (played by Meagan). The most memorable of these skits ended with the employee being dragged away by a crazed male customer pledging to take the employee “home to mama.”
There are several ways in which this use of Good Burger differs from its intended ideological construction. Most noticeably, Meagan and I were in no way the target demographic of the movie. At 8 and 9 we were far below the intended age of 13 – 17 that the movie hoped to attract. Additionally, for some reason I (as an 8 year old biracial girl) chose to identify with a 16-year-old Black man and Meagan chose to identify with an array of characters she created across ages, genders, and races. While it may have been more appropriate for us to identify with Monique, the female character who Dexter eventually wins over, we decided against this. Like Griffins’ reluctant “Polly Crocketts,” we refused to take passive and secondary roles merely to conform to societal standards. Our new, older roles can also be seen as our use of “objects created by the dominant hegemonic system in… resistance…to the construction of childhood innocence” (Griffin 104). Instead of accepting our role as young children, we wanted to appear “grown-up” like the characters in Good Burger and therefore took up their personas as a means of gaining age and shedding innocence.
Additionally, the fact that one of our skits included a not very subtle illusion to a queer relationship is also telling. Despite the fact that we were both young, we had some idea of what being “gay” meant. This plot then can be read as an extension of the message of inclusion that we saw within Good Burger. However, this was not an extension that could be supported in the largely homophobic community that we lived in during the early 2000s. Although it may not have been completely conscious, we played with the subtle gender-bending texts of Good Burger in order to challenge latent homophobia that we somehow knew was wrong. As Griffin explains quoting Henry Jenkins, “Children’s play is not ideologically innocent; it is the primary means by which children absorb the values of society” (Griffin 116). In combining a message of inclusion and subtle gender-play (i.e. a few scenes of cross-dressing), Good Burger instilled in us a message of gender and sexuality inclusion that may have existed in the world at large, but not in our small community.