TelevIsm: Not Just A Joke

Rachel McCarthy-James
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On Thursday, I wrote about what makes a joke that depicts oppression in action effectively critical. Today, I’m going to look at how to define what makes a joke that depicts and enforces the kyriarchy, and give you just a few of the INNUMERABLE examples of this.

I’m using South Park and Family Guy for examples because these shows have humor that’s often rooted in the belief that some bodies (hint: cis, straight, able, and male ones) are worth more than others. I actually am a pretty big fan of South Park and think it’s often funny, smart, innovative and occasionally though not usually insightful. I used to find Family Guy pretty funny, but now I only watch it out of habit. I don’t really know why.

So, here is my first condition for a problematic joke: this identifies those that are hurtful because they are not rebutted.

IF a character on a television reflects or reinforces the kyriarchy through problematic/loaded language or actions.
AND the joke is ignored, applauded or otherwise validated by another character
THEN the joke constitutes a reinforcement of kyriarchy in society.

In the South Park clip above, Cartman, posing as a robot, runs from a situation where he is about to be sexually assaulted yelling “LAME, NOT COOL, TOTALLY LAME.” There’s a lot more to unpack in this situation than just the use of an ableist perjorative word, but that specific choice of language is in and of itself an offensive joke.

Lame is used often in this show, and no one comments on the word’s offensive nature.This is commonplace hurtful language that is used humorously often on South Park. It’s not the worst joke ever, but it’s one small way in which hurtful language is made normal and commonplace, for kids to use on the schoolyard and against each other. It helps make a word used a describe people with disabilities as a catch-all insult; the origin of the word is not insignificant to its status as an insult.

In the Family Guy clip above, Meg is in a coma. Peter is upset because he “didn’t treat her as well as he should have.” Then, Peter is showing harassing, tripping, and shooting Meg. Lois reacts with, “Don’t feel too bad, we all have regrets,” validating Peter’s violence towards his daughter as not a big deal (note: violence in general and against women in particular is a big deal).

I realize that this is supposed to be humorous, but it’s humor based in the idea that violence against women is not a big problem worth taking seriously; this joke and the show are predicated on the belief that women are worth less and it’s not a big deal to devalue us.

My second condition for a problematic joke defines a different kind of context and interaction. The kind of joke I describe above is pretty passive; it’s letting oppression slide rather than actively striving to defend or perpetuate it. The kind of joke I seek to define below is about defending systems of inequality against critique.

IF a character on a television reflects or reinforces the kyriarchy through problematic/loaded language or actions
AND the joke is critiqued or rebutted by another character
BUT the rebuttal is framed as silly, unreasonable, or otherwise invalid
THEN the joke constitutes a reinforcement of kyriarchy in society.

In this South Park scene, Gerald Brofloski reacts to Kyle’s reporting that his teacher has come out as a trans woman with disgust and anger. Sheila Brofloski explains to her son Kyle (in a rather inarticulate and not particularly helpful way) that trans people are okay and should be respected.

Outside of the context of this episode, this exchange would be okay, though far from perfect. But this is in an episode called “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina,” in which the boy’s teacher decides to transition to being a woman on a whim (because that is exactly how the transition process works). Subsequently, Kyle decides to have surgery to become black and his father Gerald decides to transition to being a dolphin. The moral of the episode is basically that trans women are just “[men] with mutilated penis[es]” and that what they do with their body is wrong and against nature. In light of these dehumanizing and racist comparisons, Sheila’s attitudes and ideals are meant to be seen as silly and ridiculous – just like trans people! Though hateful attitudes are countered, the response is erased by the rhetoric of this horrific episode and its clear distaste for her willingness to treat people with respect.

Now, here’s what I guess a few of you are thinking: “It’s just a joke, it’s not a big deal, there are more important things.”. These are jokes! And there are a lot of other, probably more serious issues! But, you know what? Violence against women, ableism, transphobia – these things are big deals, and they do hurt people. And these shows perpetuate that. Kyle’s, Stan’s, and Cartman’s constant and uncritical use of ableist language makes people think that that is funny and okay to use. Rape jokes make people think that rape is okay. Racist jokes make people think that racism isn’t a real problem. Presenting an episode devoted to showing how silly and fake trans people are helps people justify hatred, discrimination, and even violence against a lot of marginalized people.

Discrimination should not be erased in cultural representations of our world. It is a constant presence in our world, and that should be reflected in the things that make us laugh. Laughing and relaxing through watching comedy can make the fight against the kyriarchy easier to take. But sometimes jokes that depict social injustice also reinforce it, make it normal and okay, trivialize it.

This seems like a lot of rules for how to and not to make jokes out of something very common: oppression. And it is a lot of rules. But oppression is serious, and jokes about it need to be very carefully considered, or they become fuel for kyriarchy’s fire.

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27 Comments Have Been Posted


Your comment is so canned and ridic, I wont even dignify it with a proper feminist response. I will, however, tell you that you used the wrong form of your in the last sentence. The first "your" should be you're.

Calling people out for not

Calling people out for not using correct grammar is just as classist and elitist as anything else they might have said.

This post will be lame...

I'm going to go ahead and bite the bullet and talk about the word lame. It keeps coming up on this site and for that reason I think it deserves a second look. In my experience, lame in it's new context of "not cool/fail/disappointment" was bandied about equally by persons of all ability with no confusion or resentment (yes I know my personal group of acquaintances don't speak for everyone; neither do you and yours and that is not my point). This site is the first time I've ever seen that word called out for ableist connotations. Which puts me in two minds because, honestly, it took me a second to remember that lame used to refer solely to physical infirmity and even then I'd assume you were talking about a horse. But is ignorance or progress ever an excuse for offense or hate?

We all known that languages change but we also know that languages can be changed. The reclamation of former pejoratives is a staple of many a modern progressive movement. I'm proud to be a queer, four-eyed, redneck reading a feminist blog called Bitch! Those are my words now and I wont be ashamed! *raspberry* But lame isn't part of that; gimp is. A lot of kids on campus have "gimp and proud" t-shirts. The word has almost become more of an embrace of imperfection than condemnation. Lame is left to become something else entirely.

Which brings me to my question: If language and words can be actively and aggressively reclaimed can they be passively rehabilitated? Not just lame but a lot of other words that have historically been less than complimentary. Can we ever drop that last antiquated definition in the dictionary? Should we? Does remembering once upon a time such and such was fightin' words benefit the ultimate goal of equal respect for all? Personally I'm going to rethink how I use the word lame. While I've never had an issue in real life, people here do have a problem with it and I prefer to air on the side of caution and respect. But I don't think I'm going to correct others about it either because I don't know if passing on that baggage is helping or hurting.

I was/am a little concerned about your title but...

I'm glad that you are taking the time to reconsider your language! Trying to get lame out of my language was very difficult, I know.

Ableism (and of course other forms of oppression) in language really are everywhere - words like "lame", "idiot", and "dumb" are really embedded in our language.

If you'd like to read a little more about why the word "lame" isn't appropriate for feminist discourse, there are a lot of links in the paragraph on the word. And for your convenience, here they are again!

this post will be fen-sucked

Well I was trying to find a clever way to introduce the topic. Looking back I wished I'd stuck a "d" on the end of lame and made it a participle; lamed could imply the post was full of "lame" which would have made more sense... anyway I'm not that attached to any of it and powers that be are welcome to remove or alter as they please.

Thank you for the links especially the last one by S.E. Smith which gives an excellent and sensible break down of meaning what you say. But you didn't really address my central quandary: Can a word ever really shake it's old meaning, and if so, is it something we should fight or encourage?

P.S. in an attempt to humorously address the title issue I decided to pull something form the Shakespearean Insult Generator. It took me six tries to get something that didn't seem ableist.


I appreciate you dealing with this topic, RMJ. We're roughly the same age, and I don't think I realized the origin of "lame" until reading James Joyce, but once the connection has been made it seems pretty clearly ableist. It's similar to the less common racist expressions like "gyp" or "go dutch" -- it's easy to be ignorant to their meanings for awhile, but once you're not, why keep using them? Being inoffensive is worth an extra second of thinking; it's not terribly hard to substitute in other words (and with "lame," there are probably a thousand synonyms for "stupid.")
"The word has changed," "different meaning," blah blah blah, but people make the same arguments over derogatory use of "gay" and "retarded," and those are pretty clearly not okay, at least in liberal and/or feminist circles.

to me, it always seems that

to me, it always seems that south park's jokes aren't reinforcing the crap ideas of/about people we have in society, they're making it seem so absurd in the show's contexts. we laugh at it because it is absurd. but i suppose i'm usually one to question involuntary ideas about people to begin with so i see the jokes as absurd and funny because it's making fun of how people are to each other (i'm tired and multitasking, so please excuse the non-making sense) in reality. someone who does subscribe to these ideas may find it funny and reinforcing. and, growing up, lame has always meant 'not cool' for me. we never used the word 'lame' to describe disabled/handicapped/whatever the pc term is now. it might just be a generational thing, as far as the show's creators and the audience it caters to.

I'm 24. I used lame for a

I'm 24. I used lame for a long time and most of my friends still do. It's not a generational thing where I just don't understand. It's an ableist word.

re: "lame"

The other possibility is that you're not familiar with the way "lame" - and other words that are allegedly okay to use because they mean 'not cool' - are still used to describe people with disabilities all the time.

I live in a university town (there are five universities in this city). My husband is a full-time wheelchair user. We don't go out on Friday or Saturday nights during the school year anymore because having drunk college-aged men making comments about the "lame r#tard" got really really irritating. And if my husband had ran them over with his chair, he probably would have gotten hurt.

These words are still used to refer to people with disabilities to their face.

Thank you!

THANK YOU, Rachel, for creating/writing TelevIsm. I have been disgusted and appalled by South Park and Family Guy and all the other deliberately offensive crap on the air for so long, and i am so glad to see it being exposed by someone other than me. ;)
And you're absolutely right, people may shrug off humor as 'just a joke', (which makes rational people seem angry, further validating the point that it's okay) but it allows people to think that it's okay to dehumanize and make fun of people (a dolphin, for chrissakes?!) because they saw it on tv.


That was just a bunch of twisted arguments. I could use a lot of other examples to say the exact opposite. I will just use an example: you mentioned the girl being assaulted was not taken as a big deal. What about Bart Simpson always being strangled? He is not a girl, and it is not a big deal either. Putting the violence part aside, what I mean is, your speech is fallacious, you just chose the examples that fit you.


@Anonymous, the example you chose of Bart Simpson being strangled by his father doesn't really work as a comparison argument here because the rebuttal in that case is not being framed as silly, unreasonable, or otherwise invalid–the criteria RMJ laid out in her argument (besides, I'd guess that RMJ doesn't exactly love that recurring gag on The Simpson's either).

Also, rebuttals aside, to assert that comparing a transsexual human being's experiences to that of a person deciding to become a dolphin is somehow completely fine and unproblematic is, well, problematic.

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

Not sure what your point is.

A) I love the Simpsons (just like I love South Park) but yeah, that recurring gag is not cool with me at all. It's actually an excellent example of the first condition above elsewhere in pop culture though, so thanks for expanding on my point! I didn't mention it because I'm not addressing the Simpsons in this post and this is not intended to say that the three examples above are the only examples of this.

B) <i>you just chose the examples that fit you</i>

I'm sorry, was I supposed to choose examples that didn't exemplify my argument?

I was thinking just this

I was thinking just this morning that somehow or another, the idea of "foul language" has just completely caught fire. Someone realized if you said "f*ck" enough times, people would want to hear more for some reason. Perhaps, initially, it was the shock value of using such loaded words in the media, I don't really know. I do know, however, that I'm only 24 and I feel old when I hear children using curse words and I have to think, "WHAT are kids becoming these days?" It's a bizarre feeling, since I consider myself still part-kid. But it's everywhere now, utterly pervasive, and I just don't understand the logic as to why.

Be that as it may, I will laugh when I feel something is funny. Now, I mean no disrespect, but honestly, I think saying "Rape jokes make people think rape is okay" is kind of irresponsible writing. I think that's a stretch. I mean, aside from rapists, most people don't think rape is okay. It just sounds like more of an opinion being stated as fact, which irks me as an editor, but again, respectfully so. (Though, come to think of it, if you have the stats on it and want to prove me totally wrong, I'd love it.)

Rape jokes

It's not possible to *prove* that people change their opinions about rape because of jokes on TV, but I don't think that's the point. Personally, I think that the worst part of these jokes is the effect it can have on people who have been victims of sexual assault. From personal experience, not only are they triggering; they make the victim feel like society at large does not take assault -- and by extension, their own violation -- seriously, especially if people around them are laughing. When jokes like this are deemed acceptable, they create an environment in which that sense is smothering. Also, often in the course of the joke on these shows, sexual assault is portrayed as something just or deserved, which makes the whole cycle that much more vicious.

Also, while I'd love to believe it, I'm not sure that "most people don't think rape is okay." I have seen and heard far too many people defend date rapists, and in some situations, lots of people *do* believe that rape is okay. (Sometimes they even think non-date, very-black-and-white-from-all-sides rape is okay, if, for example, the perpetrator is famous.)

Rape jokes were not really my point here but...

Foul language has been around forever. I am also 24, and remember a ton of controversy when South Park premiered over the language.

You're entitled to laugh at whatever you want, and senses of humor don't always coincide with ideology, and we shouldn't expect it to. (For instance, I actually find Cartman's exclamation to be kind of funny, even though it's obviously offensive enough to me that I write about it in a public forum. Cartman is a funny character, and the intonation there is funny to me. I don't feel great about this, but such is life. We are all hypocrites, and there are contradictions in everything.)

Rape jokes not being okay is not a new topic in feminism. I do not have any stats - not everything is quantifiable, and expecting everything to be quantified is something of an unreasonable demand. This is particularly true since rape is vastly underreported and many forms of rape are not seen as rape.

It's pretty simple though: rape jokes, like racist jokes, create a culture in which rape is seen as a source of humor: something that is not a big deal, something that folks can laugh about.

There are a couple of linked posts above in the section you should probably read if you don't understand this fairly basic concept. You might start with Shakesville's "rape is hilarious" series:


She lost me at "a woman who's just been raped." If we're all supposed to be so socially conscience as to not mention rape in any remotely public setting where some poor victum might be able to hear and thus be triggered maybe it would be nice to remember that women aren't the only ones who get raped.

Well then surely you didn't

Well then surely you didn't bother to read on (and really, you act as if a comedy routine is as casual as accidentally hearing the couple at the table next to you telling some random joke) because McEwan does say that both men and women could be rape victims, both of whom could be triggered by such jerkish behavior. But reading the whole post would be too much work before jumping all over RMJ, wouldn't it?

We should all be conscious enough to realize that we share the planet with other human beings to whom we might do actual harm to with our ass holish behavior because we can't be arsed to act like decent people and not make jokes about rape (or use "lame" as a pejorative but I digress), because it only takes a few extra moments to think about how it might affect people other than ourselves. Because removing a simple word that has countless other synonyms or finding another thing to joke about is just too much work.

That first clip doesn't even

That first clip doesn't even need the word lame to be successful. I'm in Germany, so for some reason the South Park clips showed up in German, and when the translations don't have the same etymology, the words clearly don't have the same ableist connotations. Cartman says "Dreck! Totaler Dreck!", which means filth or crap. Just as funny, less offensive. It doesn't hurt anyone to reevaluate language and adjust word usage.

What a helpful comment!

What a helpful comment! Thank you for that perspective - that's my basic argument against ableist language, it's lazy and unnecessary a lot of the time.

Self-awareness is not an excuse

There is a disturbing trend over the past decade where people defend cartoon shows like South Park by saying that since its creators seem to be self-aware about being offensive, sexist, homophobic, racist etc etc it somehow makes it totally OK to go ahead and be offensive and oppressive. As if being an asshole is automatically excused as long as you know you are an asshole - and not OK only when you don't admit to it. Which is of course a ridiculous argument. Almost as ridiculous as the argument that its OK to make sexist jokes as long as you make fun of both men and women - this logic totally ignores systems of power of course. Yet I have seen this defense used for South Park's more oppressive episodes over and over again.


Yes. I think this is pretty much Seth MacFarlane's only excuse, actually - he claims that rape jokes are "only pointing out how ridiculous these ideas are." A relevant quote from a solid interview with him:

Q: Personally, I find the show’s rape jokes especially unfunny. In one episode, Peter learns that three co-eds were raped and murdered. He says to himself, “Everyone’s getting laid but me.” Why is that funny?
A: Because he’s so oblivious. You’re not laughing at rape; you’re laughing at him being an idiot.

Q: In another episode, Peter asks, “Would you rather be black or crippled?” Why is that funny?
A: Once again, it all comes back to Peter’s obliviousness. If Peter meant that maliciously, then it wouldn’t be as funny. We try to keep it so that there’s an innocence to the way that he conducts himself.

The interviewer goes on to insult FG's aesthetic. It's pretty great.

Unlike FG, there are instances in which South Park makes valid social points, and it's sometimes very funny without being very socially relevant (but that's a matter of taste). And Cartman is kind of a particular context because he is explicitly evil and he is almost always countered under the condition I went over in the first part of this series:

But SP fails just as often, and sometimes very harmfully.

This post is Awesomesauce!

This post is Awesomesauce! Main Ingredient: RMJ! Well done, and kudos to the massive linkage! I have a lot of new resources to check out.

I remember when South Park first came out, and how it was a huge deal with parents in the town where I went to high school. Back then it was still pretty tame and swearing was almost the worst of it.

I can tell you that shows like this are a part of why things like "lame" and a lot of ableism in general are so routine in the speech of our kids "nowadays" (spoken like a real parent now I am). I see words like "lame" and "retarded" and "spaz" used all the time in television shows and movies aimed at kids (just recently, Alvin and the Chipmunks, G-Force, and Alvin and the Chipmunks the Squeakqel, the first one I didn't take my Kid to, the second two I did on group play dates with other parents). I only notice because I am in the habit of watching what my Kid consumes with her. It isn't just the media aimed at adults that do this, it is the shows that are manufactured for kids, and the writers normalize these things into what our children consume, and if we aren't paying attention these jokes, in milder forms, pass right into the next generation as well.

I really hope that wasn't too much of a derail.

I see your point, but...

There is never going to be a completely "enlightened" society in which no one's feelings ever get hurt. We are not going to turn into a race of super-Jesuses. Besides, the jokes in the Fancy Vagina episode were mostly centered around the particular character of Mr. Garrison and his effed-up personality traits, not transgendered people as a social group. The message of the episode, as I interpreted it, was that people are currently going somewhat insane about wanting to become someone/something else, now that medical science has advanced to the point that such a thing possible.

I personally couldn't care less if people change sexes, but I can see the SP creators' point, that the whole concept is somewhat disturbing. I also don't like the fact that such procedures are performed based on the completely unscientific notion of a "soul being trapped in the wrong body." I would think therapy would be more helpful in the long run, to help people harboring that idea simply become more comfortable with who they are. And that's my two cents.

Transphobic case in point

This is a series critically analyzing how specifically these shows are problematic. It's not about a perfect "enlightened" world or a perfect show. It's articulating the issues with shows that perpetuate kyriarchy.

Your second paragraph? Actually, your first paragraph, too? Kind of really transphobic. Other people's bodies and what they do with them are none of your business, full stop. When people like you and Matt and Trey decide to wring your hands about "completely unscientific notions" and decide to dictate what trans people should do with their bodies, you are contributing to the ongoing oppression and violence against trans people. You are contributing to the idea that their bodies and feelings are not up to them to negotiate, that they are "insane" (ableist, btw), that they are not capable of making decisions for themselves.

It's not about whether you think that the "whole concept" of lives and bodies that are not yours is disturbing, unscientific, or whatever cissexist rationalization you come up with. It's not about you. It's about the right for people to present themselves as they please, as they feel is necessary.

Not to mention

<i>I would think therapy would be more helpful in the long run, to help people harboring that idea simply become more comfortable with <b>who they are.</b></i> (emphasis mine)

This assumes that the perceived sex at birth, and not the self-perceived gender, of transmen and transwomen is "who they are," and this sentiment is the basis of transphobia in the first place.

Yup, thanks for articulating

Yup, thanks for articulating that :)

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