South Park and Popular Culture
South Park is an animated television show that has aired on Comedy Central for nearly 19 seasons, beginning in 1997. It began as an irreverent cartoon show about 3rd graders who used “adult language” and was meant to be for adults with an MA for Mature TV rating. Over time, however, the show began to actually deal with “adult” themes in a more satirical manner than just applying mere irreverence for laughs. The creators of South Park felt that modern society clearly had to be made fun of because it was getting out of hand and their approach made some people think that they were “anti-religion,” a charge that they denied, affirming on the contrary that they are not “anti-religion” at all but actually genuinely moved by the faith of others and their ability to find solace and happiness in religion (Parker, Stone) — an assertion borne out by the ending of a top ten fan favorite episode about Mormons who come to South Park (“Matt Stone, Trey Parker Interview, South Park”). That did not mean they could not satirize particular ideas or the way that people interacted with those ideas. In this spirit, nothing was off limits: politics, Hollywood, religion — everything fell under South Park’s scope. This paper will examine the 19th and latest season of South Park in order to show how its message satirizes several different trends in modern life, from gentrification to the LGBT lobby to Trump to sponsored content (ads) to gun laws.
Written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the show does not give off easy or simplistic messages but rather challenges viewers to ask whether the accepted behaviors in society are good or bad and does so in an irreverent. Typically the show will conclude with a common sense approach towards life’s issues that is a blend of conservative and liberal beliefs. In short, labels do not apply and there is no safe way to “label” the show: in the mold of the Athens School, South Park probes deep into the American psyche to find what is most true about ourselves and our nature. They expose with glee the hypocrisy in popular culture and yet at the same time never come across as judgmental or ruthless. There is an affectionate honesty in the way Parker and Stone annihilate the sacred cows of modernity.
In its latest 10 episode season, the dominant issue that South Park tackled was that of PC culture. With the arrival of PC Principal at South Park elementary, everyone was forced to express themselves in a politically correct manner or risk receiving a violent “beat down” from PC Principal and his frat house gang of PC pals. The final episode of the season saw the season’s conclusion reaching a crisis point with the town’s suspicions at full blast and everyone buying guns. The threat of imminent death actually forced everyone to be more open and honest with each (as they pointed guns at each other threatening to shoot each other at the same time). “Wow, these things actually work!” says Randy, the father of Stan, as he hugs the gun to his chest. It is a typically poignant moment in South Park, when the ludicrous meets the brutally honest truth about ourselves: in this case, most of us are too afraid to tell the truth and only do so when forced or compelled to do so. At the same time, a town of half-cocked people (young and old) running around with guns is a catastrophe waiting to happen (as the show implies). Thus, there is no simple way to take the message of the season finale: the characters have been driven to extremes by the arrival of political correctness and only in arming themselves can they at last divest themselves of the artificiality of political correctness and finally be free to be frank, honest and (yes) even wrong (it’s called being human). Paradoxically, they are all a hair trigger away from blowing each other’s heads off. “We all need to be better people,” Randy realizes (as he is waving his gun around). The complexity of the message is that it has so many layers to it.
Yes, we do need to be better people. Yes, there is often a failure to communicate that can seemingly only be overcome by the threat of violence (the either-or choice of the dramatist — speak truthfully or explode). However, there is also that element of irrationality and emotionalism that is interconnected with our decisions: on the one hand, it is easy to see and do what is right; on the other, it is difficult because we are so wound up, paranoid, suspicious, and burning with outrage that our decisions can just as easily be based on passion and emotions as they can be on reason and common sense. Randy epitomizes this complexity in the final episode — speaking common sense even as he (and the rest of the town) walks around armed to the teeth thinking their guns will save them. What saves them is their ability to confess, be humbled, and love each other. That is when PC Principal, who has been cast as a villain for most of the season, enters in to save the day be destroying the even greater evil that is the living, breathing, walking talking advertisement in human form named Leslie (the one responsible for driving the consumerist, arrogant, self-absorbed, PC culture that had come to town in the first place and transformed the inhabitants into self-obsessed PC evangelists and wine and Whole Foods snobs).
Not everyone interprets the message the same way, however. Matt Miller writing for Esquire states that the show is a strong condemnation of our obsession with guns: “We’re still an anxious, lonely, and isolated nation, and we’re still destroying ourselves and those around us with guns,” Miller notes, citing the town’s gun-happy solution to its various problems. Matt Wilstein of The Daily Beast, on the other hand, asserts in an eye-grabbing headline that the “South Park Finale Embraces the Healing Power of Guns” with a humorous nod to the show’s subversive attack on the false dichotomy that is the gun debate (guns are bad and should be banned vs. guns are good and should be owned). As the show suggests, and Wilstein argues, Parker and Stone are not about taking sides or promoting left over right or right over left. They live in a world where so many shades of gray exist and the show reflects this: as Randy discovers, “guns are amazing,” but he also realizes that if people don’t first learn to control themselves, they will use guns to express themselves when communication fails. In the episode, communication is made possible because the people of South Park are still able to control themselves and express themselves: they are, deep down, still good people. They’ve just been driven to the brink of madness by the new culture that has established itself in their town and vied for their hearts and minds. It is, after all, a comedy show. Were it a drama — something far worse may have happened. But it is not. Parker and Stone take a comedic view of life and like to see happy endings.
Yet happy endings aren’t always read or true — and to some degree Parker and Stone reflected this throughout the season as well. For example, in “Stunning and Brave” to start off the season, the show ended with main characters Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny being reduced to the level of the oppressed as they lose their gambit to take control of their school and lives back from PC Principal. This, of course, sets up the overall arc of the season — a town attempting to come to terms with another round of PC culture, only this time it is stronger and more deeply entrenched than ever before. Or there is the heart-rending episode entitled “Tweek x Craig” in which the two straight kids are thought to be homosexual and even though they aren’t they feel forced to adopt the label that has been applied to them in order to make everyone happy.
Even viewers, however, and not just critics, differ on the meaning of the messages within South Park’s 19th season. Aaron David posts on the Esquire article that “I think the episode was broader and deeper than what the author stated. I saw it as a ‘we need to come together’ as a people … That was what this episode was about — we need to find a way to have productive conversations that don’t devolve into troll fueled shouting matches.” Meanwhile Josh DiGiallonardo of Denver took his own position on the Esquire article by Miller: “Here’s the point of the episode in a nutshell: we shouldn’t praise guns but we shouldn’t fear ownership of guns either.” Entertainment Weekly Darren Franich writer saw the season as being the most energized season of television in a decade…