“…the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about ‘land of the free.’”
-President Andrew Shepherd (The American President)
I sat on my aunt’s couch, sitting comfortably on the corner seat with my legs up and a nice warm coffee in my hand. The TV played idly as my eyes flickered back and forth from the TV screen to the ceiling, my mind wandering in and out of reality. Eventually, my eyes were drawn back onto the blaring screen as an episode of South Park began to play. I instantly became curious. I had always heard about South Park in school. Students always commented on its hilariousness and recklessness. I became eager to watch the show; to see what everyone had loved about this cartoon that I never bothered to pay any mind to. I remember the way my mouth dropped open during episode 5 of season 8 entitled You Got F’d in the A. The character, that I now know as Butters, was traumatized after his tap dance performance accidentally killed some of the members in the audience. I remember the scene that showed the imagery and I’ll admit, I was stunned. Why would anyone watch this crap?
As a result of my South Park experience, I never bothered with this show again. So to have a whole lesson dedicated to this cartoon was more than an interesting experience for me. I decided to read the lecture first and get an insight into the world of South Park. What was its meaning? Its purpose? Why were so many individuals attracted to it? I wanted to get an outside perspective of the show, one that would explain to me the aspects of the show I didn’t seem to quite understand. Needless to say, I got what I was looking for.
Episode 9 from season 16 entitled Raising the Bar, revolves around the character Cartman, who comes to the realization that he is indeed fat. As a result, he decides to get a mobility scooter, supplied to him by his insurance company, in order to “help” him get around. This particular episode portrays Cartman using his obesity status as an excuse to get things like special assistance and disability, inconveniencing everyone else around him. The episode comes to an end as Cartman finds out he was being used for a television program and fights Honey Boo Boo over TV ratings.
At first glance, I could understand how this episode might appear ridiculous. The viewer is left to watch as an obese child on a mobility scooter fights Honey Boo Boo in a pile of spaghetti. However, the implications and messages behind the episode are actually quite clever. America is famous for its obesity problem. According to the American Heart Association, approximately 78 million adults, 35% of the population, are obese. The creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, played around with this idea and decided to tackle on the concept of how we tend to treat these individuals. During the episode, Cartman is viewed as a victim by the citizens of South Park and even first lady Michelle Obama. He is treated as a person with a disease, incapable of functioning like normal human being. As a result of this perspective, Cartman and the others like him are released of all responsibility of their condition. They are lumped together with the handicaps, treated like royalty with their special privileges. This is evident throughout the show as bathrooms are renovated in order to be wide enough to accommodate those on a mobility scooter, as Cartman is able to jump to the front of the lines at Disneyland and as the health department calls for millions of dollars to equip every scooter with a “tip assist”.
This is not the only concept being satirized, however. The creators of South Park also poke fun at the cold-heartedness of the media and their contribution to society’s acceptance of obesity. This is portrayed through a scene between Kyle and another character in the show, Token. He suggests that Kyle videotape Cartman and “get all his bullsh*t on television”. He even tells him that if he can get the recordings, he’ll create the documentary himself. Kyle, eager to spread awareness, agrees and runs off to videotape Cartman.
When Kyle is ready to release the documentary to the public, he realizes too late that the “documentary” Token made was actually a new TV show modeled after Honey Boo Boo called Fatty Doo Doo. Kyle, furious, confronts Token and asks him how can he sit there and make a TV show off of a child who was killing himself. Token responds by saying that Honey Boo Boo, already lowered the bar and became acceptable in society. So if they can do that show and get away with it, why shouldn’t he? Matt Stone and Trey Parker, in this scene, comment on how the media cashes in on these television shows that portray obesity and in a sense “white trash” culture. These television shows become popular, and the lifestyle becomes an accepted part of society. When other media outlets see the popularity and money being made off of these shows, more and more of those kinds of programs are created. In a way it reminds me of Vicarious, a song released in 2006 by the famous rock band Tool. Part of the lyrics are as followed:
Eye on the TV
‘cause tragedy thrills me
It happens to be like;
Killed by the husband
Drowned by the ocean
Shot by his own son…
That’s my kind of story
It’s no fun ‘til someone dies
These concepts and themes are constantly finding its way into American television.
Towards the end of the episode, James Cameron dives into the ocean and literally “raises the bar” of American society. Everyone begins to come to their senses and question how they became this way in the first place. Michelle Obama makes a speech saying, “We need to realize obesity is an epidemic, but not a disease. From now on I’m going to dedicate this administration to fighting childhood obesity.” These two lines reveal the main message depicted in this episode. The creators of South Park believe that obesity is a problem people have to take personal responsibility for. It shouldn’t be victimized. People should be encouraged to gain control over their health.
The other episode, episode 5 from season 15 entitled Crack Baby, also depicts much social commentary. In this episode, Cartman decides go to the Colorado Medical Center in order to videotape crack babies fighting over a ball of crack. He then uploads these videos to the internet and called it “crack baby basketball”. Kyle, finds out about Cartman’s misdeeds and confronts him on the issue. Cartman, however, reels Kyle in with the promise of making a better future for these babies and the flash of the “wealthy life”. He takes him out to Denny’s, shows him around the office he would posses and even takes him out to a karaoke bar. Kyle, hesitant at first, agrees to be part of the company and complete the book-keeping. Here, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, gesture to how individuals are seduced by a company’s wealth and potential power, even if the company itself is morally questionable.
As the episode continues, crack baby basketball becomes more and more popular to the point where Kyle begins to cash in on his business. Stan, wondering where he is getting all this money, questions Kyle. He explains the concept of crack baby basketball to Stan, however, as he begins to explain more and more thoroughly it appears as if Kyle is trying to justify the videotapes rather than explain its concept. He starts to say that what he is doing is a good thing because at least the babies are getting the attention that they need and finding a place in society. Stan begins to remark how Kyle is becoming just like Cartman. Shocked and stunned by this comment, Kyle denies this idea with great fervor. As the show goes on, however, Kyle becomes more and more aware of what he’s apart of. He even discovers that Cartman isn’t giving any of the funds from the new game to the actual crack babies. The whole “non-for-profit” was a guise to make money.
This episode, I feel brings to light the idea of charity being a façade for one’s own personal benefit. It is quite commonly known that one can give and donate to charity in order to create a good and moral public image as well as save money on their taxes. It also shows how people are easily part of this trend. There are the people who create these kinds of companies, the other companies who cash in and make deals with the original company and those who watch all of this go on without saying anything. In the episode, one of the crack baby videos had two-million views. That’s two million people who actually tuned in to watch this kind of entertainment. What does that say about the public and society where this is acceptable and nothing is said or done?
“Matt and Trey…they have their finger on the pulse of the nation” (Dunphy, Satire’s Brew, Pg. 149). The character in Brian Dunphy’s Satire’s Brew, thoroughly described South Park in his lecture in Stockholm, Sweden. He discussed how Matt and Trey appear to thoroughly understand the American culture and psyche. I can thoroughly agree with his statement. While watching these episodes, I saw patterns of behavior that occur in everyday life. The creation and popularity of shows like Honey Boo Boo, Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, are real. We endorse these shows by constantly talking about it and tuning in to see what happens next.
Obesity is a real problem in America and there is a fight to consider obesity a disease. There are also constant debates on the subject. There’s the battle between the idea that people should exalt beauty of all body types versus being sensitive, but socially conscious that being overweight is not good thing. There’s the battle between following your own happiness or conforming to society. There’s even a battle between feeling self conscious about one’s weight and being proud of your body. All these things affect American society and Matt and Trey have tuned into that, representing it accurately in their episodes.
Heart and character. These two aspects are what the character in Satire’s Brew claim make South Park a real beauty in American television. He talks about how Matt and Trey put their own personality in their characters, specifically through Kyle and Stan. This makes them more realistic and believable. I can say that I agree with this statement as well. Kyle and Stan appear to be just like regular people; struggling between right and wrong all the time, to find themselves and their beliefs. Even Cartman, usually the shows antagonist, is realistic in his behavior. He represents the darker side of human nature.
South Park is a unique television show, with all the humor of a teenage boy and the heart of a giant. Like Jon Stewart, South Park points out flaws from all sides, accurately representing the ideal concept objectivity. It invokes real emotions and confronts real issues, real controversies. Through their own brand of humor, South Park ridicules the hypocritical, immature side of America. This humor is essential to the show, not only because it is entertaining, but also because this brand of crude humor emphasizes, to a certain extent, the ridiculousness of certain attitudes or policies. Stripped down to its bare bones, what once made sense is now nothing more than a laughing stock. In a way, I think that’s the show’s true gem. Hopefully all this effort and creativity continues to cause change in the future.