When I Visited South Park As A Trans Woman, The Joke Was On Me
'South Park: The Fractured But Whole' claims a progressive streak, but really offers the same tired misgendering and transphobia.
All images courtesy Ubisoft
After spending several hours jumping through quasi-superhero misadventures in South Park: The Fractured But Whole, my elementary school counselor called me into his office. He understood that I wanted to talk about my gender, and started with a simple prompt: Was I a boy, a girl, or "other"?
I sat there for a few moments, taking in the moment. For the first time in my life, a big-budget game was asking me if I was trans! Its predecessor, The Stick of Truth, only let you play as a cisgender boy, but brought the same "New Kid" into the sequel: If I chose Girl here, it would be an unmistakable change from what came before. Reading previews had spoiled what would happen immediately after, but I still had to see it for myself.
"Can you just hang on a minute? I need to call your parents, mkay?"
As Mr. Mackay rushed to the phone and incredulously repeated what I had revealed in the privacy of his room, I stared on in disbelief. This is a nightmare scenario for many queer children: parents aren't always sympathetic to their own kid's identity, and have been known to throw them out of the house permanently, regardless of age. Yet here Mr. Mackay was, reconstructing a worst-case scenario for a weak "wait, is this for real?" joke we've seen a million times before. Of all the franchises that could have handled this emotionally significant moment with care, why did we have to settle for South Park?
Despite its reputation as a satirical stalwart that treats everything and everyone as "fair game," South Park has a particular taste for transphobic humor. The homeroom teacher went through a several-year transition arc, treating her surgeries and sex life as dehumanizing, gross-out gags.
When I came out to someone I trusted, they used the episode where Kyle (a small, white kid) becomes a tall, black basketball player to paint me as deluded. Trey Parker and Matt Stone even went as far as recreating the wild fantasy Republicans peddle to strip our rights away: When Cartman is tired of using the men's room, he declares himself "transginger" for the sole purpose of accessing the girls' room instead. Rather than use its position as a cultural touchstone to advocate for our rights, the comedic duo has always preferred to use us as cheap, hateful gags.
I did my best to ignore the loud contempt South Park had toward people like me, but Ubisoft went and announced that The Fractured But Whole would let players create trans characters. South Park aside, this would be a historic release: For once, a monolithic publisher was willing to give us the spotlight. We wouldn't be a throwaway camp villain, a recurring gag or an ally with implied queerness. We would be stars, and that alone grabbed my attention.
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There weren't many customization options available from the jump, but I immediately found what I was looking for. With wavy, chestnut hair, thick rectangular glasses and blue eyes, I built a New Kid that mirrored my own appearance. If I was testing their attempt at trans inclusion, I intended on visiting the town myself and seeing how its residents reacted to my presence.
Would it replicate a moment from my own life, when a waiter loudly misgendered me in every other sentence while I squirmed in my seat? This being a superhero story, would I have an opportunity to protect another trans middle schooler from bullies, only to run up against an administration that sided with the aggressors?
The developers also had the opportunity to send a positive message: that trans kids can be heroes. Allowing players to don a cape and cowl in the midst of strangers, and wear clothes that match your identity in public spaces. This is an emotionally fulfilling experience, and something we've seen precious little representation of in bigger games.
Writing the first blockbuster game with a trans protagonist gave Ubisoft San Francisco and South Park Digital Studios an opportunity to make something subversive and empathetic, mocking some of the more outlandish insults thrown at us while touching on the struggles we face regularly. There are moments that feel like they're winding up, eager to say something on the subject, but they always fall back on the show's ugly history instead. It's been over a decade since Comedy Central aired "Mr. Garrison's Fancy New Vagina," yet despite their feeble gestures toward inclusivity, it felt like I was playing through reruns featuring the same hurtful ignorance.
My fellow superheroes exclusively used he/him pronouns in and out of cutscenes. They'd occasionally remark that I was a feminine boy, but never made so much as a nod toward my trans identity.
After Mr. Mackay called my parents twice(!), he messed up my pronouns, said a few empty words of encouragement and shuffled me out of his room. As soon as I left the school, a gang of rednecks drove up in a truck, stating they didn't take kindly to "this thing" before tossing me into a fight. It's tempting to credit the writers for one rare moment of awareness: transphobic violence is rarely discussed in media, and in games, it's mostly dished out for the player's amusement. How would a cis player react if they saw their trans character face discrimination?
I cross-referenced my playthrough with other reports and discovered something far more upsetting: No matter what gender you choose in the counselor's office, the rednecks will always find an excuse to start trouble: "Hey, it's that boy," they'll shout. "They're cisgendered too!" "We don't take kindly to your types around here." Rather than commenting on the danger we face when we choose to live publicly, the writers turned our fear into a cheap gag, rendering the confrontation toothless. Despite what their framing might suggest, we're bullied, harassed and physically attacked at a disproportionate rate, often by folks who look nothing like a cartoon bigot. When over 20 of us have been murdered in this year (in the US alone), tongue-in-cheek attempts at downplaying the violence against our community are more than a little frustrating.
The locals weren't too thrilled with my recent revelation, either. Aside from the occasional "little miss," talking to anyone who wasn't offering a quest resulted in lines like this:
"Aren't you a cute little abomination?"
"That's an interesting look you got going on, boy and/or girl. I don't see gender."
"Aren't you a brave little… whatever you are!"
"Who are you supposed to be, tiny Liberace?"
The kicker came from my New Kid's father, who apparently knew I was trans before his call with Mr. Mackay.
"That's some new outfit, sport! Have you been going through your mom's closet again?"
Very supportive, Dad.
We certainly face an overbearing amount of hostility from strangers and relatives alike, but South Park can't help making its own snide comments on trans existence. Several of your teammates fill their character sheets with terms like "Asexual Gender-Neutral Kite Alien," mimicking the same "I identify as___" jokes transphobes make to delegitimize our existence. "PC Principal" also trains you to point out microaggressions for free hits: By offering a strategic incentive for an otherwise sensible action, the writers frame it as a cheap shot we're always waiting to make, rather than a genuine reaction to hurtful language ("...people use microaggressions every day. I'm counting on you to make them pay for doing so!"). When one of the heroes turned to me and said "You kinda have big raisins for a boy, New Kid"— raisins is their code word for breasts—it became clear I was only there to be laughed at.
The South Park creative team is far from the "equal opportunity offender" its ardent defenders make it out to be. The writers remain blind to the abuse and violence marginalized groups receive. They dish out judgment from a scale that was already tipped. From their perspective, our insistence on fair treatment is just as contemptible as the folks mistreating us: We're a nuisance preventing them from getting on with their lives. In the world of South Park, nothing is worse than the disruption of their status quo. There may not be hard limits to comedy, but why waste your admiration on tired, hateful statements that masquerade as jokes?
I still remember the moment I visited Bill in The Last of Us. He was the cranky, overprotective sort, living by himself in a ghost town lined with traps. In their desperate search for a vehicle, Joel and Ellie convinced Bill to tag along with them. It wasn't long before they stumbled upon his partner, Frank, hanging from a noose in a suburban home. I could hear the pain welling up in Bill's voice: The two partners had gone their separate ways, but Bill's lingering feelings reverberated through his terse sentences. While mainstream games lag behind the progress made by film and novels, and despite the fact that he was cis, Bill felt like a turning point. In 2013, it finally felt like we would have a place in AAA.
Four years have passed, and the likes of Ubisoft, Square-Enix and EA are still spinning their wheels right next to Bill. We'll get the occasional arms dealer or sidekick who happens to have a same-sex partner, but that segment of their life is hidden in the background, easily ignored by a closed-minded player. When BioWare bucked this trend and included an open trans woman in Mass Effect: Andromeda, her introduction felt forced and unnatural, as if she was reading from a notecard during a grade school presentation. There's a sense that publishers want to include us in their games, but their train of thought begins and ends at our insertion. They understand we exist, though they don't understand what our existence looks like.
In spite of The Fractured But Whole's constant mockery, there was one moment where they tried something different. After heading home for the day, I walked in on my parents having a heated argument over my conversation with the school counselor. They saw my trans identity as an open secret within the family: As soon as it left the confines of our house, they were at each other's throats. Once they noticed me, they awkwardly retreated into their bedroom, leaving my New Kid to pick at my dinner and sigh dejectedly.
The trans option was window dressing to them, but it meant a great deal more to me.
I was speechless. After mocking me for hours, Ubisoft San Francisco portrayed something I've never seen from a game this large. Before I came out, scenes like this constantly ran through my head: What if they saw my transition as an inconvenience, a burden, an embarrassment they hid from the rest of the world? Watching two people you love argue over your sexuality or gender identity is a mortifying, all too common occurrence for queer kids, and someone cared enough to include it here. For a brief second, I thought they would turn things around and treat us with empathy.
Unfortunately, I soon realized I had given them too much credit. Aside from a few enthusiastic nods from Wendy, the story all but discarded my choices. My fellow superheroes exclusively used he/him pronouns in and out of cutscenes. They'd occasionally remark that I was a feminine boy, but never made so much as a nod toward my trans identity. It felt like the writers grew tired of their punching bag and moved to the next target, leaving me out to dry. The trans option was window dressing to them, but it meant a great deal more to me.
Then again, maybe I should be glad South Park: The Fractured But Whole forgot I was there. When their concept of inclusion involves mocking the trans, nonbinary and queer communities, being the first game isn't worth any kudos. The fault doesn't rest entirely on Ubisoft's shoulders, either: When being seen is the status quo for queer representation, being heard falls by the wayside. The industry should bring us into the fold, let us write our own stories. Otherwise, we'll see more South Parks treating us like goofy, alternate costumes worthy of their derision.