TelevIsm: The Offensive Olympics: South Park

Rachel McCarthy-James
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Today, in my effort to compare and measure just how guilty I should feel for laughing at Family Guy and South Park, I'm looking at five different South Park episodes individually and quantitatively.

On my research methods: I've watched these episodes carefully and repeatedly, counting every time I saw an instance of sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, ageism, sizism, classism, and racism using my conditions for kyriarchical vs. critical jokes. My perception of what constituted an instance of oppression was quite broad: I did not give South Park the benefit of the doubt. Language, stereotypes, depiction of violence, conflation or misinformation, and direct defense of privilege constituted most instances. When there were flurries of problematic jokes, I trusted my instinct and just counted things as I saw them. At the end of the episode, I subtracted the critical jokes from the kyriarchy-reinforcing jokes for net oppressive jokes in each category and in total.

I tried to space out my choice of episodes pretty evenly over the many seasons, but my main criterion was whether I was interested in watching it. (I tried to make myself watch the Britney episode again, but I just couldn't; I hate it too viscerally).

Let me make this clear: My research methods are extremely subjective. My research is careful but not at all objective nor particularly scientific. I'm not writing a journal article here. I'm taking a quantitative approach as a way to explore a new avenue of analysis. My data are thoughtful but not authoritative or necessarily reliable–if another person did this same study, s/he would probably have different results.

I have word count limits, so I'm not going into a lot of detail. You are welcome to question my methods or ask for examples from the episodes in the comments.

Image: A notebook with messy handwriting. Sorry for the lack of transcript; I'll try to add one later.

The season two episode "Chickenpox" is an example of how South Park uses social commentary effectively for its b-story and less examined oppression throughout. In the episode, the boys' mothers try to get them to contract chickenpox from their friend Kenny, who lives in poverty. The visit to Kenny's house includes a LOT of classism but leads to a more critical b-storyline in which Kyle and Kenny's dads critically confront their class differences. But then there's a whorephobic, sexist act III storyline in which the boys get a prostitute to use their parent's personal items so they will get herpes. Yeah. Ableism and sexism also stood out in this episode, with 14 net instances of sexism and 21 net instances of ableism. There were 13 net instances of classism (23 classist statements and 10 critical statements). In total, I counted 62 net instances.

Image: A notebook with messy handwriting.

"Cartman's Silly Hate Crime 2000" had me convinced for years that hate crimes were actually totally racist. There are some valid arguments against hate crime laws, but they're not articulated here. Instead, this episode is used to say that since everyone should be treated equally, the law should be totally equal and not protect groups of people that are routinely targeted for violence. There's also a ton of thoughtless mockery of fat people (a common theme in South Park). There's a little collateral sexism as well. I counted 27 instances of racism, 21 instances of sizism, and 12 instances of heterosexism, with a grand total of 69 net instances. Reflecting the sanctimonious, privilege-defending tone of the episode, there were no critical jokes at all.

Image: A notebook with messy handwriting.

"Child Abduction is Not Funny" is the epitome of South Park at its most effectively critical and kyriarchal. The a-story was, to me, a pretty brilliant critique of how the news capitalizes on fear. Child abduction is serious and it happens, as the episode demonstrated, but the coverage is also overblown, predatory, and ageist. Of these jokes, there were a net 24 critical jokes.

But the b-story, about the owner of City Wok building a wall to keep out abductors/Mongolians is just blatantly, tauntingly racist. I'm not going to go into how it's offensive because it's obvious wank-bait, but I counted 53 instances of racist language and depictions.

The episode, with 36 net instances of racist oppression, was almost entirely free of other forms of oppression. It's a demonstration both of how effective and how harmful South Park can be.

Image description: I stopped taking notes, so instead, here is a picture of Cartman with messy hair in orange holding a CD reading "Slayer."

I chose season nine's "Die Hippie Die" because, unlike many of these other episodes, this isn't just wank bait that I'm playing into by getting offended. This brings to fruition Cartman's long-developed hatred of hippies when he must combat a music festival by driving a giant turbine through the crowd. I love this episode, as a festival-going certified hippie.

I could not find anything wrong with this episode (though abbyjean convincingly argued it supported capitalism, when I asked on tumblr). It's critical of the privilege that hippies hold–all of them are white, all of them are educated, and all of them are utterly uninterested in doing anything. There is one instance of ableism when the mayor says that Cartman needs treatment, but otherwise there's not even a "lame", "retarded", or "weak."

"Die Hippie Die" is an example of how South Park can be funny and critical without reinforcing the kyriarchy almost at all–by focusing their critique on the privileged. There were zero net instance of oppressive jokes in this episode!

Image description: Cartman, wearing glasses, a button-down, and a jacket, holding up a picture of Bill Belichick.

"Eek, A Penis!" is the episode in which Mr. Garrison re-transitions by growing a penis (because only men have penises, and men must have penises to be men) on a mouse (I don't even know what this is about). As with all episodes in the Garrison-transition-arc, this one is just stunningly cissexist, transphobic, transmisogynistic, essentialist… it's seriously terrible. All of these episodes imply that trans women are actually men, that gender identity is irrelevant, and that biology is destiny. This three-season exercise in applied cis privilege and constant misgendering was a low point for South Park–you might hear more about it from me in the future. In this episode, there were 28 instances of cissexism.

The b-story, in which Cartman becomes an inner-city school teacher, is initially troubling on a race/class axis. It took a good turn when Cartman was strongly critical of white people, who he characterizes as cheaters. I was pretty into it until he tells a pregnant student that abortion is "the ultimate cheat." Yeah, no. So, while there were only two net instances of racism, there ended up being 18 net instances of sexism, and 56 instances total.

South Park is an offensive show. This is not new information. It exercises its privilege and spews hate and misinformation constantly: sometimes to bait, sometimes to make a point, and sometimes out of willful, hateful ignorance. It can also be funny, and insightful, without exercising that privilege, and that's the sad part; that's what makes the hateful episodes burn, the knowledge that it could be better, that Trey Parker and Matt Stone can and do write better.

In total, there were 223 instances of oppression throughout my (extremely limited!) sample of 105 minutes of the show. The strongest current in these was racism, with 161 instances. My subjective analysis confirms my belief that South Park, while funny, is pretty frequently oppressive. The question I want to answer now is how it compares to Family Guy. But first, I'll have to give Family Guy its own analysis. Check back on Thursday for that (unless I get really sick of Family Guy, in which case it will run on Saturday).

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20 Comments Have Been Posted

I am not trying to be an

I am not trying to be an apologist for South Park, but does the location of the show - Colorado - inform the way it frames race? I ask because I live in a rural state with about a 0.2% minority population and a show set here would RING FALSE if it sought to portray itself as anything other than lip servicey-but-still-think-anywhere-POCs-live-is-the-ghetto was just bunch of assclownery.

It's actually one of my quibbles with Grey's Anatomy. Now Seattle is far less white than Burlington Vermont, but c'mon now, Chief of Surgeon, Chief Resident and Former Head of Cardio-Thoro's black? Yeah. right. That said, I LOVE IT. But it's not really an accurate reflection of the demographics of a top NW hospital that I've ever been to. Maybe things have changed a lot!

Anyhoo, I liked this analysis, because it is brave and honest. Most people would rather just not acknowledge the concept of "imperfect content" if happens to be something they enjoy. It's always someone else's heroes who are fucked up and, oddly enough never theirs!

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Good point, as always!

That's definitely an important part of the context, particularly with the "Eek!" episode. It's also one reason I don't have a huge problem with the only black character on the show being called "Token Black" - the lack of characters of color is somewhat realistic, and it makes a pointed parody about networks insisting on inclusion of characters of color to cover their ass. (Also a reason I'm not too bothered by the mostly-white cast of The Office - Scranton PA is actually 93% white.)

Agreed re: The Office. In

Agreed re: The Office. In fact, I tend to find it more problematic when minorities are shoehorned into stories where there is NO conceivable reason - other than lip service - for them to be there. I'm looking at you, Kenneth Branaugh's "Much Ado about Denzel".

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

"Much Ado About Denzel?"

When I saw the movie I didn't see it as a minority being in it just for lip service. The movie was full of actors I recognized and Denzel just happened to be one of them. I understand what your saying but it also kind of implies that as long as the setting might mean there aren't any minorities or a lot of minorities in the area it's okay or expected that the show not feature them. That seems wrong to me. If that were the case then there wouldn't be any minorities in any Shakespearean production except for Othello. It reminds me of the outcry that occured when a black girl was going to play the lead in Annie. I know being true to the setting is improtant but I don't think it's worth excluding people for especially on something that's aired nationally or even internationally.

Maybe it's just me

Maybe it's just me personally, but I'd have to say that you can't really compare shows like Family Guy and South Park to each other. I mean, I'm not an avid Family Guy viewer, but it's been around for a while, and as the show goes on, every season becomes more and more "offensive" for no reason. And then they've basically cloned Family Guy into American Dad and the Cleveland Show just so they can be three kinds of offensive at the same time (I mean seriously, one of the first "jokes" I heard on the Cleveland show was about Female Genital Mutilation. It wasn't a funny joke, it was barely a contextual joke, and it was obviously thrown in to get a rise out of people and get them talking about the show).

Now. On the other hand, I haven't always been into South Park, but I've been getting more and more into watching it. I like how they don't pull any punches and they basically make fun of everyone. And that's how they get away with it. Because everyone knows it's South Park, and if a celebrity can't laugh at themselves on South Park, then they probably are the a-hole with no sense of humor that the show portrayed them as. And a lot of the times when someone is being racist, sexist, ageist, etc etc, they use it to make a point (or they don't make an obvious point, and it basically shows us how stupid people look when they are being ignorant).

I say go for it. Watch a whole mess of Family Guy (and hell, you should watch American Dad and the Cleveland Show too) and you'll see noticeable differences. I really feel like Family Guy is just offensive for the hell of it while South Park is more satirical and intellectual.

Good input....

Have you read <a href=" first post in this series</a>? It lays out some of the reasons that I'm comparing these series. I definitely agree with your assessment of Family Guy, but both shows try to be offensive, and it's worth looking at how each do it.

<i>And a lot of the times when someone is being racist, sexist, ageist, etc etc, they use it to make a point (or they don't make an obvious point, and it basically shows us how stupid people look when they are being ignorant).</i>

Eh, I have <a href="">a different standard for critical jokes</a> - since SP is written from a privileged perspective, I think that they need to be a lot more careful than they are about many of the jokes they make. They have some good points to make, but considering their audience and their often hateful attitude, they sometimes do not communicate their critique effectively.

Pigging backing on what

Pigging backing on what you've written, RMJ, I also think it's important to recognize how the jokes are received. For example, on King of the Hill, I find the humor enjoyable because the racial bigotry is very faithful presented and tempered with clear explanations of setting. Moreover, other than by the characters themselves, there is little class/race conflation, which makes KOTH transgressive like whoa. They get it. These characters are flawed, but essentially "good people" and it's a far more effective way of exploring -isms than just making a so-called "critical" joke at the expense of an -ism. I'm not suggesting this was the intention of the show's creators (I know nothing about them). This is just my reading of the show and what I have seen SP struggle to do.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I cannot resist a feminist

I cannot resist a feminist interpretation of KOTH. You're right on the money, snarky. KOTH's portrayal of the Laotian community works because the community is well-developed and shown to have independent trends and concerns. Also importantly, they are not conflated with other Asian cultures except by other characters, as an indictment of their racism.

And that's part of the problem with SP's warped, cynical worldview - the isms are not presented in any kind of understanding or contextual light. There's no recognition there - it's just straight up hatred being spewed a lot of the time. The context is sometimes consistent (and it's more successful when they work on something that's been previously established, like hippies), but more often warped to voice whatever point of view or rant the creators are interested in voicing this week. Sometimes they try to save it with "I learned something", but that so often rings hollow for me.

I'm not sure I'm 100% wrapping my head this, though, if you're interested in clarifying:

<i>Moreover, other than by the characters themselves, there is little class/race conflation, which makes KOTH transgressive like whoa.</i>

Most TV POC = Poor. Thus

Most TV POC = Poor. Thus characteristics of CLASS values are instantly attributed to POCS. The Hills are working class and Khan's family is decidedly upper middle class (and possess those values), yet are relegated to living in a working class neighborhood, which wouldn't be the case if they were white. This is a reality, most white people don't know or understand. My parents are <em>extremely</em> affluent professionals and when I was little our options were either racially segregated neighborhoods or neighborhoods such as the one on KOTH. This wouldn't be the case if my family were white, but still is that way in Texas - even today. Essentially, families of color irrespective of class steered towards certain neighborhoods versus others, specifically due to race.

There is no place where a white MD/JD Ret. Air Force Col and his dual Masters holding professional wife would find themselves steered toward "rougher" neighborhoods. And that's all about race/class conflation.

Hopefully, that clarifies things.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I actually hadn't read the

I actually hadn't read the Khans as upper middle class - just intensely materialistic - but you're completely right. "Clarifying" was poor word choice - your original wording was totally clear and my confusion was only due to my own conflation. Apparently I need to ramp up my attention to checking my class/race privilege in television viewing. Apologies for the privilege and thanks so much for taking the time to educate me.

Not a problem :) Khan and

Not a problem :) Khan and company remind me of many families of various POC identities I've known throughout my life and I immediately read them as "upper middle class" based on the values they displayed and the way things other than their race made them "odd" in the KOTH community. Specifically, the way Khan Jr and her mother are positioned. Khan's wife reminds me of countless aunts and family friends - again of all POC ethnicities - and I have a soft spot for her. what's interesting about her is she is an architype I've found more often in military communities than anywhere else.

I think that's also why I'm less overwhelmed by SP. It strikes me of embodying the kind of closed societies I experienced as a non military family living in military communities overseas. I wonder if their popularity is higher or lower within that community.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.


Ming is a General's daughter. I wonder if that was a factor when they designed the character?

What you've written in the

What you've written in the comments here already would make an epic awesome post for Fry Butt. Just saying ;)

"King of the Hill" & Co.

<i>I'm not suggesting this was the intention of the show's creators (I know nothing about them).</i>

It might be interesting to note that the man behind <i>King of the Hill</i> was Greg Daniels, who is also the man behind the American version of <i>The Office</i>, already cited here for taking a realistic approach to racial issues. He also wrote several of the best "-isms episodes" of <i>The Simpsons</i> and is known for employing some of the most all-around diverse writing staffs in the business.

I don't think we can speak to his <i>intent</i>, but there does seem to be something innate in his work that points to an exceptional understanding and handling of racial and socioeconomic issues. I've yet to watch one of his shows and not find myself regularly thinking, "Oh, they get it!" We don't have many bright spots in television, obviously, so credit where credit is due.


In the opening line of this posting, you said something to the effect of feeling guilty about laughing at these shows. I was wondering if, in this study, you take into account your own sense of humor? (Since it's a subjective, informal study, I assume this would be okay.) Perhaps, if only for personal development's sake, you should make note of which jokes or one-liners you found particularly amusing and why (context, delivery, relevance to you personally, etc.), then see if you notice a trend and what this trend might say about your sense of humor and you yourself. You could even break it down further into categories of just finding it funny, or finding it funny while simultaneously feeling guilt for doing so. I have absolutely no information about you personally, but I think it might be interesting to see what not-necessarily-PC humor you find funny and why that might be, given your personal circumstance.

I guess this all sort of leads to my question--is shock factor necessary for humor? Can something negative be found in every typically funny instance? Does the darker nature of humor exhibited in shows like South Park and Family Guy speak to the larger nature of humor itself, and humor's place in an often unpleasant and unfair world?

The "guilt" line was a bit

The "guilt" line was a bit of a joke itself :) I don't often feel guilty about laughing at the wrong thing, actually. I'm constantly deconstructing stuff, so if I am able to recognize things as wrong, I'm usually not laughing, or I can rationalize reasons to laugh. That's an interesting proposal for an exercise though!

As for your second question: I think that comedy is essentially about subverting expectations and making interesting juxtapositions. But shock, no. And the thing is, South Park is good enough, funny enough, observant enough, clever enough, not to rely on shock value.

For instance, in Die Hippie Die, the opening scene, to me, is really hilarious. In it, Cartman goes around acting as a professional hippie exterminator. It's funny under the conditions above for a couple reasons: a) Cartman being polite and professional to those whose homes he is searching for hippies, b) the business of exterminating pests subverted so that the pests are human.

So no, it's not necessarily about shock. It's about surprising the audience in some way, sure, bringing them something they didn't expect. But it's not necessarily shocking, and it def. doesn't need to be political.

I definitely agree. That's

I definitely agree. That's why I'll always choose South Park over Family Guy (I love King of the Hill, too). Though in the SP/FG debate, I think for me it has something to do with the way each show relates to their audiences. Matt Stone and Trey Parker seem to have a modicum of respect for their viewers, assuming them to have a certain level of intelligance and the capacity for critical thought (while still being able to appeal to their less mature side at the same time, of course), but I feel like Seth MacFarlane thinks very little of his audience, so little that he really thinks they'll want to watch the same show three times over (Family Guy, American Dad, and the Cleveland Show).

And I guess the sad thing is that some people do.

Where do you draw the line

Where do you draw the line with this stuff? I agree South Park can be offensive. But if we are going to do this, should we feminists like just go live in caves. i mean, almost everything can be interpreted as offensive by someone, and as not offensive by someone else? it just goes on and on and on. So where do you draw the line in a society for the most part that doesn't really care about feminist thoughts and ideas?

I mean, I like South Park

I mean, I like South Park and will continue to watch it. I'm critical of it because I like it and know it well.

This is a line that everyone has to draw for themselves. Nothing is perfect, and everything is offensive. Contrary to the first line of this, I don't really ...look down on myself for likeing things that are problematic because there's a LOT of good stuff out there, funny stuff out there. Even in the episodes above - "Child Abduction" is half incredibly offensive and half insightful. So I use the things that I find offensive to try and sharpen my critique and rhetoric and make myself better and enjoy the rest. Or, I just let it pass by and don't worry so much about it. There are a lot of tradeoffs in being a media-consuming feminist, and there's no objectively perfect balance.

I agree. While I like the

I agree. While I like the approach taken in this post, I personally don't find it useful for my media consumption. Bad is <em>bad</em> enough for me. I don't trade in degrees of badness nor do I seek outside absolution of my media consumption sins. (not at all suggesting it was done so here)

That said, I am critically conscious of my media consumption because I do care about the way it depicts -isms and I do want radical changes in -ism depictions. I don't need to stand before some feminist credentialing body, in hopes of having my media choices approved. And I don't think others should either.

There <em>is</em> a line, but where its drawn really ought to be a personal choice. I'm not afraid of being "unlikable" or not perceived as an "ally" if I opt to consume problematic content. However, I also am well aware of the costs associated with doing so. Each person probably has to figure this out for themselves. Anyone who thinks there is a list of -ism supportive content out there or anyone claiming to have created such a list hasn't fully embraced the concept of folks with a shared -ism identity not being a monolith.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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