Entertainment

'South Park' Made It Cool Not to Care. Then The World Changed

20 years after the groundbreaking 'South Park' movie, is it time for the show's proudly childish point of view to grow up?

by Ross McIndoe
Sep 3 2019, 11:00am

Illustration by Hunter French

In the summer of 1999, with only two and a half seasons of the show under their belt, Matt Stone and Trey Parker went to the big screen with South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. In doing so, their lewd, low-budget cartoon about a group of foul-mouthed elementary school boys took a step that their rivals The Simpsons would wait nineteen seasons before attempting. It was a ballsy move. Looking back, it was typical South Park. "We're in the business of making people go, 'What the fuck is this?'" Stone and Parker told Rolling Stone in 1998.

On its release, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut took home almost four times its budget, received overwhelmingly favorable reviews, and snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Something about its refusal to bow to convention—with its intentionally shoddy animation style and irreverent sense of humor—made it a perfect fit for the MTV generation. Playing to a post-boomer audience defined by cynicism and a sort of directionless anti-authoritarian spirit, South Park rolled up with a demonic glint in its eye and a raised middle finger for everyone and everything. The crowd went wild.

As the show chugs on into its twenty-second season, its cultural legacy remains a source of contention for critics. Some, such as Brandon Katz at the Observer, have argued that "you're an idiot" if you don't appreciate South Park's unflinching satire of contemporary culture—and that the movie's satire of moral panic and media scapegoating is more relevant today than ever. Others, observing the polarized political climate of Trump's America, have accused the show of raising a generation of trolls, and even of laying the foundation for the rise of the alt-right.

20 years after Bigger, Longer, Uncut hit theaters, South Park remains a battleground in America's culture wars, but not exactly for the same reason that it became one in the past: Back in 1999, South Park's insistence on making fun of everyone and everything felt like an exhilarating assertion of personal freedom in an entertainment landscape that was being censored along increasingly hardcore and conservative lines. But in a world where conservatives have increasingly positioned themselves as the harbingers of free speech, leveraging the right to speak one's mind as a justification for violating the personal freedoms of others, the true legacy of South Park's no-fucks-given attitude becomes a little more difficult to parse. In fact, it can start looking a little dangerous.

To go back to the episode where it all began, "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe" announced the show's mission to have fun and raise hell. Season one continued on in pretty much that vein: Elephants made love to pigs, starving African kids got accidentally shipped to Colorado, and Satan's son got picked on at South Park Elementary. There seemed to be no particular agenda to any of these decisions; they were just wacky, kind-of-unacceptable things that were sure to get a laugh.

At first, those fart jokes and curse words felt like an act of political rebellion. The South Park creators grew up in the seventies, a decade when the Supreme Court deliberated on the serious moral ramifications of George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." By the turn of the millennium, rappers were being arrested on obscenity charges, and the Parents Television Council was pressuring the government into censoring violence, profanity and sexual content far more strictly. From the start, the PTC berated South Park for everything from overuse of the word "shit" to encouraging sex education. In this environment, Parker and Stone were genuine underdogs, two young guys fresh out of film school making an offbeat cartoon for a fledgling comedy network. Without money or fame to protect them, every risk they took put their careers on the line.

For the most part, their risks paid off. "It's crazily more permissive than when we started," Parker told the Guardian in 2014. "The standards were much, much higher when we started out." Bigger, Longer & Uncut occasioned a protracted battle between its creators and both the Motion Picture Association of America and Paramount Studios. Stone and Parker were ready to fight tooth and nail for every curse word, sex act, and decapitation in their movie, producing this legendary memo in which they gleefully denoted the particular sex acts that they felt most passionate about including. Their refusal to take the MPAA's guidelines seriously ultimately served to confound the censors so much that the film actually became dirtier than it had begun: asked to remove the word "hell" from the film's title (South Park: All Hell Breaks Loose), Stone and Parker offered the far filthier one that it goes by today.

The show skewered parental panic about sex in season five ("Proper Condom Use") and drugs in season six ("My Future Self 'n' Me"), urging parents to eschew scare tactics in favor of calm, realistic conversation. In its episodes about immigration ("Goobacks"), religion ("Trapped in the Closet"), and pornography ("The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers"), it was essentially asking the same thing of the world at large: to approach difficult subjects head-on, even if that meant making childish jokes about them. Its enemies were anyone who impeded that.

And yet, it wasn't long before the limitations of that "just let people have fun" ethos began to show. South Park's third season kicked off with Rainforest Shmainforest, a send-up of environmentalists and their prettified vision of the natural world. Its depiction of activists was highly recognizable and undeniably funny, but, by throwing out the very idea of environmentalism along with its more annoying proponents, it hinted at an outlook that would come to define the show from then on.

"I mean, it really is that we take an issue, and we sort of always have two sides about to kill each other over it and the boys in the middle doing fart jokes and saying, you know, who cares?" Parker told NPR back in 2010. "This is, you know, you're both crazy." In a way, that both-sidesism—the idea that at the heart of every issue lie two equally wrong, equally annoying parties—was symptomatic of the show's proudly childish point of view.

Being a kid keeps you on the fringes, which can give you an insightful, unclouded view of the injustices in the world. But it also means you have no real responsibility for what you say or do—a stance that seems especially unsurprising given that the show was created by two straight, cisgender, (now incredibly wealthy) white men."I spend shockingly little time thinking about real-world stuff," Parker told Rolling Stone in 2007, "As far as I'm concerned, I've got a computer, the Internet, an Xbox and PlayStation 3, so fuck off." When you see the world from that childish vantage point, it's easy to de-prioritize anything beyond your own enjoyment of life. Political disputes are just grating background noise that have no real impact upon their lives beyond distracting them from their video games.

Over time, the show gradually leaned more into its role as the clown prince of no-sides-taken satire. Sexual harassment laws in season three and smoking bans in season seven received the same treatment as environmentalists, and then season nine saw a reluctant Stan being forced to take part in a mascot election between a giant douche and a turd sandwich. That's South Park's view of politics in a nutshell: Every debate is between a douche and a turd, so calling bullshit on both of them is the most enlightened stance you can take.

This equal-opportunity offender ethos, one claiming to make fun of everyone equally and thereby discriminate against no one, is hardly exclusive to South Park. Plenty of edgy late-nineties/early two thousands artists, like Ricky Gervais and Seth McFarlane, prided themselves on railing against the censors in their early day but now find themselves under fire for their reliance on lazy stereotypes and their insistence on making dehumanizing trans jokes. After all, a worldview like that that could only really come from a life enshrined in privilege. Racism, sexism, and homophobia simply aren't part of these men's lived reality, so the battles surrounding it have never been fully real to them. The show has even acknowledged this in episodes like "With Apologies to Jesse Jackson," where Stan slowly comes to realize that he will never fully appreciate what it feels like to experience racial discrimination.

In spite of this, Parker and Stone have remained unable or unwilling to differentiate between the restrictions that powerful institutions like the MPAA and television networks impose on free speech and that of the contemporary discourse that seeks to shield marginalized communities from further marginalization. They simply hear someone, once again, telling them "You can't say that."

This outrage with respect to "PC culture" has been the centerpiece of South Park's last few series. Season nineteen brought us the PC Principal: a muscled frat bro on a mission to violently impose "politically correct" behavior on the residents of South Park. Several of them quickly join forces with him, delighting in the opportunity to peacock their newfound "wokeness" and punish those who fail to keep pace. Later episodes introduce literal "PC cry-babies," upset by everything without understanding why. The takeaway is simple: Political correctness has little to do with empathy and everything to do with "virtue signaling,"and a sort of tribalistic zeal for punishing those who don't conform.

In an interview with Vulture shortly after season nineteen aired, a reporter asked Stone and Parker whether they were at all concerned that their anti-PC stance aligns them with Donald Trump. While Stone was quick to point out that he and Parker "don't think (they) probably agree" with the President's views, he was equally eager frame political correctness as a phenomenon that makes people "afraid to laugh."

This is not to say that the show suddenly became right-wing—those seasons still devoted ample airtime to ridiculing Trump, white supremacists, and gun culture. But its overriding opposition to the idea of ever conceding any amount of personal freedom to accommodate others aligns it with some of the more venomous ways that politicians and pundits have weaponized the free speech argument in contemporary discourse.

Fox News has, of course, long thrived on getting people mad over the fact that you "can't say anything anymore." 4chan began as a place for people to post disturbing things that made them laugh and evolved into a breeding ground for GamerGate, the alt-right, and white nationalism. More recently, YouTuber Steven Crowder has positioned himself as a brave defendant of free speech thanks to his refusal to stop employing racist and homophobic rhetoric, while psychology professor-cum-motivational speaker Jordan Peterson has continually used the same reasoning to justify his refusal to use respectful gender pronouns. Meanwhile, Donald Trump seems to persist in the belief that bloviating about the "shadow banning" of conservatives and how people should be able to say "Merry Christmas" is an effective way to convince his base that he is the champion of their personal freedom.

At the end of the day, these so-called "free speech" initiatives are all deeply, furiously concerned with the way other people are living their lives: the gender they identify as, their sexuality, the language they speak, their skin color. It is the polar opposite of the "just leave people be" ethos that early South Park espoused, but it can be spun as part of the same fight because the feeling behind it is similar.

Cartoonist Charlie "Spike" Trotman once quipped that "The worst thing about nerds who become bullies is that you'll never convince them that they're anything but victims." She was talking about GamerGate specifically, but it's an observation that applies just as easily to the war on so-called "PC culture" at large. And it's hard to think of a better embodiment of this than South Park's recent "#CancelSouthPark" ad campaign, a seeming attempt to energize its fans by literally pretending that someone is trying to censor the show.

The truth is that no one seems to have really made much effort to censor South Park in quite some time. They are no longer the outsiders fighting back against the establishment: They are the establishment, two of the world's richest comedians whose signature show cost Comedy Central $192 million to renew back in 2015. But so long as they position themselves as underdogs, they risk empowering those who seek to use their invented victimhood as a smokescreen for bigotry. This is Fox News' gambit when they talk about the war on Christmas, Trump's angle when he attacks the "fake news" for criticizing him—bullies acting like victims to spark that particular, put-upon sort of outrage that ignites their base. When South Park acts like it's still the rebel throwing rocks at the establishment, rather than a platform for the grievances of two insanely rich straight white men, it's playing the same game.

South Park can never be what it was back in its Bigger, Longer & Uncut days, because too much has changed. Today's most urgent cultural battles are less about top-down censorship and more about the ways the nuances of policy, language, and representation can hurt historically marginalized people, in part because social media has ensured that these people are finally having their concerns heard. If we dismiss these discussions as authoritarian censorship, we'll be betraying everything that made South Park great in the glory days of Bigger, Longer & Uncut. That movie is a story about a bunch of people who start off caring about something they think is a threat and then get so caught up fighting that they end up hurting everyone around them. A lot of people could still benefit, twenty years later, from taking note of the movie's message—including Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

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