Sympathy for the Szechuan Devils
As I imagine most of you know, the popular hamburger chain McDonald’s recently ran a promotion where, in conjunction with Rick & Morty, they brought back Szechuan back Chicken Nuggets dipping sauce, but only in certain locations and only for one day. Needless to say, it did not go as planned.
The demand for the Szechuan dipping sauce—first introduced in the late 1990s as cross-promotion with Disney’s Mulan—was out of control, and, when McDonald’s quickly ran out of the sauce, an unfortunate assemblage of Rick & Morty fans went out of control as well, and were taped dealing with the shortage of Szechuan sauce in a less than dignified fashion.
It sure seemed like the entire internet, which runs on snark as much as it does on sex, let out a Nelson Muntz-like cry of “Hah hah!” when the nerds who like the silly cartoon threw public temper tantrums when they were unable to get their hands on something that only had value because of the value Rick & Morty fans projected upon it.
The fiasco, which I theoretically could cover for My World of Flops, but probably won’t, was a perfect storm for clickbait-friendly Schadenfreude. You start out with a cult cartoon whose fanbase are very easy to stereotype and reduce to entitled, annoying man-babies even before a limited edition Chicken Nuggets dipping sauce tantalizingly enters the equation. Then you add a widely loved and widely reviled fast food chain so synonymous with mass-market capitalism on the biggest possible scale that its first two letters have become shorthand for homogenization. We all know what it means when a monstrous new structure is described as a “McMansion” and it sure isn’t positive.
Add an online culture that thrives on mockery and you have a recipe for a full-on PR disaster for just about everyone involved. Now I have not seen the videos of Rick & Morty fans losing their shit. I’ve chosen not to watch these incriminating clips because I want to fight my innate tendency towards misanthropy, not feed it.
As someone who has spent pretty much this entire decade trying to articulate the fundamental dignity of the noble Juggalo, I have a vested interest in defending maligned fan subcultures and while I’ve never actually watched Rick & Morty, I’ve got to say that the anger and snark directed towards Szechuan sauce obsessives seems excessive.
This sour judgement is an expression of a widespread contempt for collector culture, and the way it seemingly puts an enormous value on things for seemingly arbitrary reasons. It also seems to be part of a larger cultural backlash against what’s seen as the entitlement and immaturity and neediness of geek culture at its most unhinged and unapologetic and male.
I’m inclined to see the promotion in a more sympathetic light. For a brief moment, the sheer oddness and cultural specificity of a group of people desperately longing for a dipping sauce discontinued nearly two decades earlier as an expression of their intense Rick & Morty fandom temporarily made the boring-ass world of shitty fast food marketing interesting and weird and obsessive.
Sure, McDonald’s should have run the promotion better, and Rick & Morty fans should have handled the situation in a more adult fashion, but to me there’s winningly, ingratiatingly human about so many people getting so excited over something so seemingly inconsequential. It’s a little like Juggalos and Faygo.
Objectively, there’s no real difference between Faygo and generic, store-brand soda. Yet because Insane Clown Posse has made Faygo such a huge part of its subculture for so long, Juggalos have a special reverence for the soda that really has nothing to do with the soda’s actual taste or quality.
Yet at the Gathering, it’s somehow far more satisfying to drink a Faygo than a Coca-Cola, and if I were to go to an Insane Clown Posse show and they were to spray the crowd with Crystal Pepsi I would legitimately feel weirdly short-changed. Faygo means something special because Juggalos project an importance and significance upon it based on the role it has played in the evolution of Juggalo culture. Similarly, Szechuan sauce has no inherent value on its own, but because it’s important to Rick & Morty, and consequently its fans, it has a monetary value that astonishes and horrifies non-fans.
I would personally not pay two hundred and thirty dollars for a single packet of Szechuan sauce, as some folks apparently have, but if doing so makes a super-fan happy and does not bankrupt him in the process, then I don’t really see the harm in doing something to make nerds happy and separate them from their disposable income, which seems to be the fundamental goal of all pop culture these days, not just weirdly specific fast-food/cult-cartoon crossovers
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