South Park’s Ambiguously Clear Purpose To Change the World
“There's shit that you shouldn't say running for president that Cartman should totally be allowed to say within a satirical cartoon,” South Park creator Matt Stone was quoted as saying after being compared to President Elect Donald Trump (Benes). In today’s globalized, increasingly politically correct world, there is a difference between what “shit that you shouldn’t say” and what should be “totally allowed” in an adult themed cartoon. The public at large needs to understand that there is a clear distinction between using satire for political commentary and when it is outright discrimination. Satire can help break down barriers by making the unknown, known. It can serve as a source of relief, in what Karimova calls the “Carnival,” to make fun of everyday life. By allowing us to step outside our usual polite sensibilities, South Park serves as a vehicle for its creators’ inappropriate gags concerning racial and ethnic minorities and the media’s responses to, and perceptions of, these disenfranchised groups. In Hughey and Muradi’s “Laughing Matters,” hyper-irony, and manic satire are described as extreme versions of stereotypes that are used to satirize a dominant white male racial ideology (211). Using these definitions, along with Karimova’s Carnival, I argue that South Park serves as a way to foster dialogue about the prevailing stereotypes within our society by shining a light on its unspoken prejudices and inequalities.
Allowing us to see our own racism through stereotypes and satire, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s brand of political commentary reflect the views of white Middle America towards an ethnic “other” (Frim 150). There is a difference, the show’s creators insist, between using caricatures for commentary and comedy, and using them to further harm already disadvantaged groups. Several critics however, argue that what Stone, Parker, and South Park say, perpetuate harmful stereotypes of minority groups by exaggerating them through the process of “hyper-irony,” and “manic satire.” At the same time, Hughey and Muradi argue that hyper-irony and manic-satire can be a social and political commentary that offers counter-hegemony (208). In offering a separate voice, two white males ironically present an opposing voice, in contrast to white, male dominance in America. This voice is given to those marginalized communities, as it comments on the social system of stratification that both excludes and judges minority groups. South Park challenges the way the media represents ethnic and racial minorities through its use of extreme situations and characters.
One extreme character worth mentioning is Chef. The portrayal of Chef, Chaney asserts, could be used to argue the fact that South Park’s use of “manic satire” can be harmful. Chef, voiced by actor and singer Isaac Hayes, is relegated to the friendly Uncle Tom role. Helping the boys with somewhat unnecessary advice but a useful ear, his songs harken back to the days of the old minstrel shows (Chaney 174). When Chef sings of “making sweet love by the fire” in response to their questions on how to talk to girls, we get the picture of a hyper-sexualized, stereotypical gentle giant of a black man. Perhaps, though, that is the point. Many black men are inadvertently portrayed in television and film as overtly sexual, aggressive, or over friendly. Parker and Stone’s representations are not based upon real life, but rather a white, male perspective of the world, which is exactly what South Park is trying to poke fun at. In the extreme usage of a hypersexual black male, Chef purposely points out the media’s racism through ironic representation of this stereotype. Expectations of a subtler stereotype are subverted, and thus, a commentary is born.
Karimova’s analysis of the Carnivalesque in pop culture serves as an explanation as to why caricatures serve as a relief, and not racialism. Carnival is a world of ambivalent festive laughter that mocks the present official political system, religious dogmas, and authoritative figures through grotesque realism and degradation of high images (Karimova 38). In accordance with Carnival, Chaney comments that South Park’s two-dimensionality and hyper-radicalized speech patterns both define and violate the spatial boundaries signifying white male hegemony (167). South Park therefore degrades the fears of white America by displaying their own absurd ideas about ethnic encroachment upon “their territory.” In an episode concerning actor Will Smith moving into the neighborhood, successful African Americans are stereotyped as a polo-playing, khaki wearing threat to the white working class. African-Americans here are associated with a hyper-ironic tone of marginalized success (Frim 160). Poking fun at white Middle American xenophobic attitudes, these depictions comment upon the absurdity of the fears associated with increasing immigration of minority groups into suburbia.
Frim argues a multi-layered reading of another disenfranchised minority group posed as a threat to white America; recent immigrants of Hispanic backgrounds, within the suburban immigration theme (159). The show offers its commentary on the issue of immigration in the form of the Jakovasaurs. They are a race of bald, thin, grotesquely stupid and maladaptive immigrants. This nearly extinct not quite human species vaguely represent a catchall group of immigrants because of their ambiguous racial and human status. When the children of these immigrants cause disruption in the boys’ class, shouting “School! School! We love school!” as opposed to knowing any other English, the arguments of classroom disturbances by Spanish speaking immigrants is alluded to in this scene. They may not represent any one group in particular, but their presence symbolizes social and political conflicts between minority groups and the dominant groups within the classroom (Frim 159). South Park then, offers an alternative way of looking at the accepted order of life, dispelling fears of the exotic other in a diversifying American culture through hyper irony. But if taken at face value, these images can be harmful and only serve to reinforce dominant socio-political ideology.
Those who take images meant for commentary and festive laughter seriously do perpetuate prejudiced, outdated ideals. It is through these individuals that South Park becomes harmful to marginalized groups. Sometimes it is unclear where Parker and Stone stand on such issues and how the audiences should interpret their message (Hughey and Muradi 226). South Park is in a class of its’ own, however, using social commentary when necessary to subvert ideological norms through satire, and “hyper irony.” The show can be evaluated as a pedestal for white male hegemony to profit from, but my interpretation is that this very same dominant political system is being critiqued through these caricatures.
Dissenters dispute that the creators of the show have profited from their mocking treatment of certain races and celebrity and consumer culture. They earn millions of dollars in revenue from DVD sales, merchandising, and royalties from reruns of the show on Comedy Central (Karimova 46). Thus, two white males are profiting from stereotypical images of disenfranchised minorities. Yet when Cartman wears Jennifer Lopez as a hand puppet, he is not mocking her or Hispanic culture in general when she demands endlessly for tacos and performs fellatio on Ben Affleck. Cartman is mocking the absurdity of her celebrity power and the way the media portrays her as a Puerto Rican woman. The argument here then, is the caricature is not a prejudice towards the groups being portrayed, but rather, the absurdity in the way that this is a portrayal of the group by the mainstream media.
The mainstream media as well as the current political system within the U.S. takes part in a mass campaign of fear mongering by presenting racial minorities as dangerous, lazy, and a threat to white, suburban America. Various media scare tactics and political ads, as well as the affirmation of white America as “normal” due to their dominance within television and film subjugates all other races and ethnicities as “abnormal.” South Park shines a spotlight on this harsh reality through their inflated characters of all races, reflecting these perpetuated stereotypes on a grand scale. According to Karimova, everyday life is represented through South Park. The fears and problems of the foul-mouthed fourth graders are the same fears and anxieties presented to the show’s viewers; drug addiction, AIDS, terrorism, corporate capitalism, etc. The act of decrowning these fears through satire creates a relaxed, carnivalesque atmosphere (Karimova 48). For example, when Osama Bin Laden is seen as having angry, furrowed brows, wearing a turban and shouting incomprehensibly, they are mocking the stereotypes that people imagine when they think of a person of Arab descent. We laugh at this representation, realizing the ridiculousness of it, and allowing us to dispel this belief.
It is true that ridiculous representations of these repeated stereotypes can lead to cultural appropriation and continued misperceptions of races otherwise known as the “exotic other,” (Chaney 172). South Park’s creators are not aiming for this, and anyone who does not see that caricatures of Chef, Osama Bin Laden, and Sadam Hussein serve as a commentary, not the gospel truth, are just not getting the idea. Yes, it can be unclear of South Park’s political stance at times because they are “committed to being uncommitted,” as scholar Stephen Groening asserts. However, what is obvious is that Parker and Stone use irony to mimic and reflect the dominant white, male, capitalistic hegemony that would otherwise go unchallenged (Frim 151). Understanding South Park offers a challenge to this, comes only in the contextual viewing of it within a larger culture, though. “When placed in the constellation of the larger media universe, these representations can be understood as important critiques of the ways in which controversial issues are debated.” (Sienkiewicz and Marx 17).
Watching each episode, we must take into consideration the context in which it was presented, the “larger media universe,” as Sienkiewicz and Marx put it. It should also be remembered that when viewing episodes of South Park, that they are not made within a vacuum. The creators of the show are largely influenced by the political and cultural events occurring at the time. Because the show is digitally created through computer animation, they can create episodes within as little as two weeks (Sienkiewicz and Marx 10). The speed of which episodes are made allow for Parker and Stone to comment on current events almost as soon as they happen. With this in mind, it is not hard to draw the conclusion that they are attempting to make a statement about politics, culture, and the media through whatever caricature happens to be on display for a particular episode. What matters not is the caricature being portrayed, but rather, the process of parody (Hughey and Muradi 226).
The process of parody can at times support white male hegemony as Gardnier argues, through South Park’s early days. In particular, Gardnier references the portrayal of Sadam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, as an effeminate, stereotypically foreign other in the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (53). Other than the fact that his sexuality is represented as homosexual, he is largely shown to be the typical heavy accented, aggressive militant, untrustworthy Middle Easterner. The apex of this representation comes in the form of his mistreatment of Satan within their relationship, when he tells him to stop being such a “pussy,” and “take it like a man.” On one hand, dispelling the fear of terrorism in the form of poking fun at an evil dictator makes the atrocities Sadam Hussein committed more bearable. It also allows the audience to mock the societal fears of both homosexuals and Arab people (Karimova 45). On the other hand, representing Sadam Hussein as the domineering, repressive, anti-individualistic “man” of his and Satan’s relationship, underhandedly gives us an unfair impression of the Arab people as a whole. This impression being that all people of the Middle East are hateful and dogmatic (Gardiner 54-55). Inscribed depictions of Saddam Hussein and Satan as lovers are sold as commodities for a capitalistic vendor with t-shirts, DVDs and other memorabilia. The irony of Sadam’s caricature, serves as a remedy to a cynical culture of post-911 Arab fears. Although Arab Americans are ridiculed during the process, the irony and satire used here can be a moral good within which dominant representations of those of Arab and Middle Eastern descent are questioned (Hughey and Muradi). Mocking them to such an extreme proves the point that no one should believe these stereotypes.
Questioning how the media has been influenced by the government following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to foster extreme fear of the Arab people and immigrants as a whole, South Park asks us to reexamine our beliefs. After a traumatic event, it is only reasonable that the American people would come to fear a group of people they know nothing about. Harnessing this fear, however, is key. Mike Celestino’s documentary That’s Not Funny uses the cartoon directly to prove that, as he puts it, “if we couldn’t laugh at our pain, we would cry,” (16:00-19:35). We need to learn to take these unfounded fears and laugh at them in order to recover from them. Other traumatic events, such as the holocaust have been therapeutically evaluated through South Park as well. South Park makes the horrors of the holocaust a little more bearable, making fun of Hitler by positioning his likeness in an overweight, foul-mouthed little boy. When Cartman dresses up like a Nazi and leads an unsuspecting group of dedicated Christians on an ethnic cleansing, Karimova’s Carnival comes to life. The episode in particular, “Passion of the Jew,” questions the reactions to media’s portrayal of Jews and the reactions of special interest groups.
Jews are heavily stereotyped in this episode, yet this is just another facet of Parker and Stone’s satire. By depicting Jews as nosy and clannish, with nasal speaking voices wearing large glasses, a stereotype is reaffirmed. However, the affirmation of this stereotype serves to bring out the inner suspicions that non-Jews have of the Jewish people (Sienkiewicz and Marx 14). We see just how ridiculous our ideas of them are, and come to realize, when Kyle tries to talk some sense into his Jewish peers, that these stereotypes are largely untrue. In exposing the stereotypes of the Jewish people through caricature, South Park relegates the media’s depiction of the Jews and their response to the Passion of the Christ, to irrationality.
Unfounded prejudices based on massive exposure to a small group of people who meet a certain set of characteristics can lead to stereotyping. Stereotypes are harmful to racial and ethnic minority groups that may not have a chance to tell their side of the story, and to disprove these prejudices. South Park though, can give voice to the silence; it brings out the disgusting stereotypes that are speculative and incorrect by using exaggerated characters and situations. The intolerance and unconscious prejudices many Americans hold are exposed, reflecting the hatred and racism of even the most enlightened. There are those who benefit from the stratification system who claim to be enlightened and politically correct, yet still harbor prejudices. In this process, they only further disenfranchise those they hold these views against because they do not speak of their animosity.
When we are silent about the gross inequalities racial and ethnic minorities suffer, we are only doing them harm. South Park unscrews the hinges off the door of political correctness, suspending hierarchal structures and bringing oppositions together in festive laughter (Karimova 48). Matt Stone and Trey Parker claim that their show highlights the absurd millenials censoring comedy in the name of political correctness. However, there is a difference between their brand of comedy, and what shouldn’t be said. They do agree that there is a line, in the words of Matt Stone, “not everything is political correctness gone mad,” (Benes). In the end, this leaves us with an ambiguous viewing of the show. According to Hughey and Muradi, there is no clear meaning in South Park. No outright delineation can be made as to whether they are racist, or anti-racist, they are both. Satire and irony can serve as a form of critical propaganda as evidenced throughout history, from ancient Roman and Greek satires at symposia to television of the 50’s and 60’s that exposed misinformation and rhetoric within politics (Hughey and Muradi 227).
This counter propaganda of the dominant white hegemony that pervades our government, our media, and our daily lives are the reason these manic satires and hyper ironic images are so offensive. We laugh at Chef, Osama Bin Laden, and the Jakovasaurs because we are confronted with our fears through ironic representations of them, and are thus cured of the political rhetoric we are fed on a daily basis. South Park offers an alternative way of looking at the accepted order of life, dispelling our fears of the exotic other through hyper irony and Carnival. But like any other form of critique, if taken at face value, these images can be harmful and only serve to reinforce dominant socio-political ideology. Incongruous to accepted social norms, South Park makes an ambiguous statement about the prevailing stereotypes concerning certain groups of people and allows us to talk about them. Whether you find it offensive or groundbreaking, the majority of people are talking about the latest South Park episode the next day. They are talking about race and ethnicity when they otherwise wouldn’t. In a post-911 world where the boundaries between politically correct and racist, fairness and discrimination, are becoming less clear, talking about our differences is all the more important. There is an absurdity to South Park that comes from a subversion of the norm of everyday respect for various ethnic and racial cultures. This subversion challenges us to look at who we really are as a society and the ideas we hold. We laugh because we are faced with the truth, and finally, we laugh because have overcome our biggest fears.