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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

In Defense of South Park

Reflecting on a hilarious, problematic, iconic show.

In 2017, the two-headed monster of Donald Trump’s inauguration and South Park’s 20th anniversary prompted much hand-wringing over the show’s legacy. In the post-2016 rush to point fingers, a cartoon about the adventures of some potty-mouthed 8-year-old boys was made to bear at least some of the blame. Dana Schwartz tweeted that it was impossible to overstate the cultural damage of South Park’s portrayal of “earnestness as the only sin” and mockery as “the ultimate inoculation against all criticism”—and then, her point seemingly proven, she was descended on by trolls. South Park didn’t invent the alt-right, Sean O’Neal wrote for The AV Club, “but at their roots are the same bored, irritated distaste for politically correct wokeness, the same impish thrill at saying the things you’re not supposed to say, the same button-pushing racism and sexism, now scrubbed of all irony.” For Lara Zarum in The Village Voice, the show’s misogyny—the creators “never seem content just to make fun of women; they relish sexually humiliating them, too, all while shunting the show’s female characters, young and old, to the maddeningly familiar role of disapproving nag”—is deeply tied to Hillary Clinton’s election loss. 

The consensus that seemed to calcify was that South Park’s corrosive influence on popular culture raised a generation of nihilistic trolls that revived American fascism for the lulz. At best, it inculcated a wilful apathy, political and otherwise. According to Lindsay Ellis, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone spent the whole 2000s “explaining that things were fine actually, both sides bad”: both symptomatic of, and feeding into, a wider apathetic cultural attitude towards social injustice in the 2000s. As Schwartz outlines, South Park has always skewered “both the left and the right—and anyone who believed in anything—as equally ridiculous. The smart people were those detached enough to know that everyone was full of it.”

There is some ring of truth to all this. The best of these critiques—like Zarum’s or O’Neal’s—are rooted in an acknowledgement that South Park is and has always been extremely funny, and that its cultural effect is not necessarily reflective of Stone and Parker’s intentions. But even still, a fundamental rift inevitably opens up between these arguments and my experience of the show itself.

I’ve watched South Park on and off for most of my life. Its classic years—the first ten seasons or so—are a foundational touchstone for me, shortly behind maybe The Simpsons. So much of my brain development, it seems—from my comedic tastes to my politics—is inextricably linked to having watched South Park. My abiding love of shock humor and my maximalist approach to free speech can both be traced back to sneaking episodes of South Park way past my bedtime. But it wasn’t like South Park imprinted its values on me without my say-so: all the times I sneered at the show were just as clarifying.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone met in a film class at the University of Colorado, where they bonded over their shared love of Monty Python. Terry Gilliam’s paper cutout animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus influenced Stone and Parker to make two Christmas-themed cartoon shorts—Jesus vs. Frosty and Jesus vs. Santa—using paper cutout, stop-motion animation. These shorts acted as prototypes for South Park’s style, tone, and character design, prompting Fox broadcasting company to meet with them about producing their planned TV series. But Fox wanted them to get rid of Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, the festive talking excrement, so they walked. They shopped South Park around and landed on Comedy Central, which ordered a run of six episodes. 

Like so many great shows, South Park took a little while to figure itself out, not least because Parker and Stone hadn’t made a TV show before: the pilot episode, “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe,” ran 28 minutes because they didn’t realize that they needed to leave time for ad breaks, and they had to hastily cut it to 22 minutes before airing. Similar to The Simpsons, it takes a couple of years to color in the supporting cast that populates the town—but like The Simpsons, it’s a remarkably rich ensemble once this happens. It also takes a couple of years until pretty much every episode is credited solely as written and directed by Trey Parker. (From season four on, Stone has mostly done the coordination and business part of being an executive producer—essentially the conduit between Parker’s creative genius and the suits at Comedy Central.) But from the start, the core elements are in place: the shocking sensibility, its underlying political bent, and, of course, the four little boys at its center, made up of crude 2D geometric shapes and primary colors, bundled up in hats and coats as they wait for the school bus—Stan Marsh, Kyle Broflovski, Kenny McCormick, Eric Cartman.

Zarum calls it “largely a show about—and that reflected the sensibility of—white American boyhood.” The characters are simultaneously foul-mouthed, profane, and incredibly ignorant. They swear like sailors and aren’t entirely sure where babies come from. Cartman is a raging antisemite and also earnestly convinced that the girls in class have acquired a powerful fortune-telling device when he sees them playing with a paper fortune teller on the playground. They’re not a realistic depiction of boyhood—Cartman once killed Scott Tenorman’s parents and fed them to him as chili, after all—but they capture some ineffable and rarely acknowledged quality of childhood. “Kids are not nice, innocent, flower-loving little rainbow children,” Matt Stone told The Independent in 1998. “Kids are all little bastards: they don’t have any kind of social tact or etiquette, they’re just complete little raging bastards.” The innocence we venerate in children is inseparable from their ignorance and potential cruelty. 

Stan, a natural skeptic in a blue bobble hat, is loosely based on Parker, while his best friend, Kyle, a Jewish kid with a strong moral sense and a tendency towards impatience and irritability, is loosely based on Stone. Kenny, whose voice is unintelligibly muffled by his orange parka, is poor and spends the first couple of seasons dying every week. (“Oh my God, they killed Kenny!” “You bastards!”) Cartman, meanwhile, is more similar to Archie Bunker, the bigoted patriarch of 1970s sitcom All in the Family, than anyone behind the scenes. Archie Bunker was racist, antisemitic, homophobic, and nostalgic for, of all things, the Hoover administration. When Norman Lear created All in the Family, it was “designed to explode the medium’s taboos,” Emily Nussbaum writes. He “wanted his shows to be funny, … but he also wanted to purge prejudice by exposing it.” It was a slackwire act that had CBS airing the show with this “nervous disclaimer”:

The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are.

Lear’s thumbprints on South Park are clear—he even served as a writing consultant on some episodes, and voiced Benjamin Franklin in an episode about the Iraq War (long story). He even officiated Trey Parker’s wedding. But Lear is an avowed progressive, and Parker and Stone have actively cultivated South Park to be an equal opportunity offender. While promoting their War on Terror satire movie Team America: World Police, Parker described himself and Stone as “pretty middle-ground guys” who “find just as many things to rip on on the left as … on the right.” The show is overtly political, but Parker and Stone have always insisted that it’s not ideological. That they’re not on your side, no matter who you are.

“I look at it like this,” Parker explained in 2010. “I have a cat, I love my cat and it’s like someone coming in and saying, ‘Hey, is that cat a Republican or a Democrat?’ He’s my fucking cat, leave him alone.”

Some of that might be disingenuous—a way to deflect explanation, roughly equivalent to David Lynch saying “the movie is the talking”—but I think most of it speaks to American politics having long since operated on a binary of liberal-conservative which makes it difficult to articulate other worldviews. “What does your cat/TV show believe and advocate for?” is reduced to “Is your cat/TV show a Republican or a Democrat?”

But Parker’s politics, as articulated through South Park, are pretty clear—it’s just not within the liberal-conservative, Democrat-Republican binary. (That’s why the show compared choosing between George W. Bush and John Kerry to choosing between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich.) It’s libertarianism. 

When Stan finds out his dog is gay in the show’s first season, he learns to accept and advocate on behalf of gay dogs (and people!) with the help of Big Gay Al, in an episode that was nominated for a GLAAD award. In another episode, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) becomes convinced that a totally normal party is a suicide cult, and the show eviscerates the ATF’s handling of the Waco siege: “We know what we’re doing. We did this all before in Waco,” an ATF officer says. “Uh yes, but you totally screwed up Waco,” a reporter counters. “You killed a bunch of innocent people and then tried to say they killed themselves.” When a Starbucks analogue comes to South Park, the boys conclude that big corporations are no less moral than small businesses, and only get that big because they offer a product people like. The seventh season episode “Butt Out” compares smoking bans to fascism, and essentially argues for taking personal responsibility instead of blaming those nice tobacco companies. The first episode of South Park to air after 9/11—“Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants”—ends with some low-key patriotic chest-thumping, but along the way it makes time for an Afghan boy to explain that not just the Taliban hates America, a third of the world hates America, no matter what Kyle says he was told in school and on TV. Like all principled libertarians, Parker and Stone are dead right about half the time. The other half, they’re about as wrong (as are all principled libertarians) as you can be.

Libertarianism has become a pretty murky label in the last decade. This is in no small part due to regular conservatives-cum-fascists like Ted Cruz and Tea Party guys claiming the term, so you get a coagulation of opposition to public spending with out-and-out racism and homophobia. Worst of all worlds. But true libertarianism, while ultimately wrongheaded, is underpinned by recognizable ethical values. Prizing human freedom above all else has a kind of moral poetry to it. 

I’m a socialist, but I’m certainly also, if not a libertarian, then libertarian-adjacent. There’s something there that resonates with me, something irreducible to “socially liberal, fiscally conservative.” It’s a basic rule of the universe that if everyone in the U.S. Senate—except for Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul, respectively a democratic socialist and a right-wing libertarian, traditionally considered opposites—votes for something, the bill must be evil, whether it’s military interventionism, mass surveillance, mass incarceration, or just preventing people from buying medication from Canada. The prizing of human freedom necessitates, for the most part, the upholding of civil liberties. The essential difference is that, as a socialist, I think poverty and corporate power are threats to human freedom, not manifestations of it, and that poverty and corporate power need to be curtailed—or eliminated entirely—to enable the fullness of our liberty. That’s a huge difference policywise, but it’s not that big a leap philosophically.

Wesley Morris wrote in 2018 in The New York Times that there has been a shift—almost an inversion—in the culture wars in the last few years. In the 1980s and 1990s, moralizers “tended to be white people from politics and the church” concerned about young people being exposed to single motherhood on Murphy Brown, Cyndi Lauper songs about masturbating, or a sexually active Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. “The culture wars back then always seemed to be about keeping culture from kids. Now the moral panic appears to flow in the opposite direction. The moralizers are young people, not their parents.” He’s empathetic to this generational shift, feels it partly himself, but laments how the moral and political urgency pushed onto television and pop music strips it of its potential to be art for art’s sake—strips it, all too often, of the messy complications that make art interesting, and replaces aesthetic consideration with moral judgment. South Park is emphatically a child of these earlier culture wars, when artists of all stripes were interested in pushing boundaries, testing the limits of free speech, and rubbing conservatives’ noses in it. 

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a huge boom in shock humor across mediums, the stomach turn of the century. Eminem rapped about killing his wife and raping his mother and went eleven times platinum. Tom Green feigned sex with a dead moose on the side of the road and put dog excrement on his microphone for vox pop interviews. Dave England ate the ingredients of an omelette, vomited it up, cooked it as an omelette, and ate it on Jackass. Howard Stern was the biggest thing in radio. “Paedogeddon,” a special episode about pedophilia from the British satirical current affairs program Brass Eye, received thousands of complaints and prompted an investigation from the Broadcasting Standards Commission. 

illustrations by Mort Todd

South Park was at the forefront of this, poking and prodding at the inherent arbitrariness of taboos and gleefully smashing them. It is shock humor at its best: understanding exactly how shock, disgust, mischief, and delight interact in ways that can leave you queasy or leave you lightheaded with laughter. Some of the shock has been diluted over time—when you’ve lived through a time when Family GuyAmerican Dad! and The Cleveland Show were all on the air, it’s hard to get het up about cartoons having swearing—but a remarkable amount of it hasn’t. I can’t imagine that the boys learning how to “milk” dogs by jerking them off will ever not make me gasp and giggle. 

“When we started, [it was] Beavis and Butthead, and us, and in some ways The Simpsons, and Married … with Children—shit like that,” Matt Stone told Vanity Fair in 2016. They were part of a reaction against the blandness and aesthetic conservatism of so much of television. Their silly jokes were free speech activism by default, and their movie—South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut—is a musical mockery of censorship. (I will never forgive the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for not giving “Blame Canada” the Best Original Song Oscar, especially when they gave it to freaking Phil Collins instead.) This cultural context is so different from the one we have now—where, as Morris outlines, the prevailing instinct is “to protect and condemn work, not for its quality, per se, but for its values”—that it makes the position of South Park today, on the brink of its 26th season, different, too. The aesthetics of shock humor have become synonymous with facts-don’t-care-about-your-feelings meme fascism. Many of the edgelords of yesteryear, from Sarah Silverman to James Gunn, have embarked on apology tours, in ways that disclaim and deflect and deny and in ways more creatively interesting: Eminem apologizing to (and forgiving) his mother is disarmingly beautiful. But the darkness still calls to me like a siren. 

“[S]ometimes this atmosphere of everything and everyone is valid all the time, no uncomfortable questions may be asked, any self-deprecation is a sign of traumatic internalized bigotry, I just need to get out of there for a while and find a place where I can relax and be my edgy self,” Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints says in her video essay on dark humor. “I need a safe space for my edginess, where I can just blurt out whatever stupid question or joke that comes to mind without being afraid that I’m going to inflict horrible trauma on everyone around me.”

Wynn seeks, like I do, to find a path that denigrates neither her comedic sensibilities nor her political commitments, to reckon with her status as a double agent in the culture war, someone in the space between “easily triggered humorless PC cucks” and “badass edgy nothing-off-limits free-speech truth tellers.” Instinctively, I find such a dichotomy false, not just because I’m a double agent, but because so many of my favorite edgelords are double agents of one stripe or another, too. 

Take the episode about changing South Park’s flag, two decades before the post-George Floyd protests rush to amend racist symbols. Jimbo, Stan’s gun-toting uncle, wants to keep it since it’s part of South Park’s history. Chef, one of the town’s few Black residents, wants to change it because it’s racist. The way the argument is set up, you expect the flag to include the Confederate flag in some way—so the reveal of the flag, which depicts four white figures hanging a Black person, triggers a shocked laugh. The episode exposes the absurdity of arguments against removing Confederate symbols by applying the same arguments to something as expressly, obviously, unavoidably racist as a literal depiction of racist violence. The final punchline pulls the same trick on superficial liberal multiculturalism: the townspeople eventually agree to change the flag to depict four different color figures hanging a Black person, to make it not racist anymore. 

But the question of how politically or morally conscionable South Park is, remains. It’s a question most people nominally on the left have settled with a strong vote against: that, like Schwartz argues, it is impossible to overstate the cultural damage South Park has inflicted. The most cited—and most accurate—examples are the show’s histories of transphobia and climate change denial. They’re certainly the things that make me the most uneasy. 

When the boys’ teacher, Garrison, transitions, South Park presents it as absurd: “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina” does contain a pretty nice speech from Kyle’s mother about how sometimes people’s outsides don’t match who they are inside, but goes on to equate transition with Kyle getting surgery to become Black (the coach who rejected him for the state team told him Jews can’t play basketball) and Kyle’s dad getting surgery to become a dolphin. It’s gross, but it’s also 2005: it’s not a justification, by any means, but it is typical for that time period. Even a show as lefty as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was making cheap jokes about being disgusted by trans women. So did Jon Stewart, then the standard bearer for liberal comedy. Trey Parker wrote a whole two-parter about how much he hates being compared to the hacks at Family Guy, but nevertheless, Family Guy was doing vomit-when-you-find-out-you-slept-with-a-trans-woman gags in 2010. It’s all bad. It’s the kind of thing where it seems futile to criticize South Park in particular for something that saturated the air and contaminated the water. 

The climate change denial is crazier. In the 2006 episode “ManBearPig,” Al Gore warns everyone about a half-man, half-bear, half-pig creature who is putting South Park in mortal danger. It’s a parody, in part, of An Inconvenient Truth, Gore’s documentary about the climate crisis. ManBearPig functions as an allegory for climate change, and the show argues that ManBearPig/climate change is made up and something Al Gore is using to get attention. Gore is represented as a fantasist and an idiot who repeatedly says he’s “super cereal” instead of serious. Stan says that his dad is a geologist, and he says ManBearPig isn’t real. It’s not even the first time a variation on the line “my dad is a geologist, and he says global warming isn’t real” appeared on the show—and considering that in real life Parker’s dad is a geologist, it’s easy to pinpoint the likely origin of his climate skepticism, likely reinforced by double-down contrarianism. Then again, my dad learned about climate change in college in the early 1970s, so it seems absurd for South Park to pretend the jury was still out in the 2000s. “ManBearPig” wasn’t the first or last time they banged the climate denial drum, either: it underpins their parody of The Day After Tomorrow and their episode about Earth Day, too. 

“ManBearPig” is the kind of episode that’s easy to reach for when describing South Park’s corrosive influence. Nearly 20 years have gone by, and the world hasn’t, as of yet, taken meaningful action to combat the climate crisis. It seems like every couple of years, governments meet up to agree to ten-year targets they should have reached by now. And it’s easier to blame a cartoon about potty-mouthed 8-year-olds than deal with the massive structural problems in our global political and economic systems. Activists “can’t affect social policy—not directly,” Morris writes. “They can, however, amend the culture.” We can’t stop corporate overlords from extracting oil from the ground—but we can take on a cartoon. 

The instinct to blame TV and movies for political problems is thoroughly nonpartisan. Liberals blame Trump on South Park. Leftists blame the failures of the Obama administration on The West Wing, the most potent of Aaron Sorkin’s dark arts. And conservatives are old hands at it: they basically invented it. Mary Whitehouse attributed the “moral collapse” of Britain to the BBC’s “propaganda of disbelief, doubt and dirt … promiscuity, infidelity and drinking.” George H.W. Bush laid the decline of “family values” at the feet of The Simpsons. Everything they could think of was to blame for Columbine: Marilyn Manson, video games, The Matrix—anything but gun policy, obviously. 

“A lot of people are extremely invested in the idea that the world was ruined by TV and movies because that allows them to, on some level, convince themselves it can be saved by TV and movies,” my friend Dean Buckley said to me recently. But if “ManBearPig” got us here—if television has that power—then the 2018 two-parter “Time to Get Cereal”/“Nobody Got Cereal?” should have been able to save us. It turns out that Al Gore was right, ManBearPig is real, and he’s killing people in South Park. But even as bodies pile up, adults in the town continue to deny ManBearPig’s existence. “I thought it was a hell of a statement by South Park,” real-life Al Gore said when asked about the episodes in an interview. “And I appreciated it a lot.”

But those episodes didn’t suddenly spur significant climate action. Which undercuts the assumption that “ManBearPig” made a difference in the other direction. For what it’s worth, I was a child—with a brain ripe for molding—when I first saw “ManBearPig,” and though I thought it was pretty funny, I mostly thought it was dumb and wrong. I knew climate change was real and was not convinced otherwise by a cartoon. Even if I had wavered, I have no doubt that it would have been, at most, a brief blip in my otherwise thoroughly climate-change-believing life. I found South Park convincing on issues like free speech because their arguments resonated with my understanding of the world and my place in it, and “ManBearPig” did not. By a similar calculus, reading two-thirds of The Fountainhead when I was 15 influenced in a big way my opinions about architecture and none of my opinions about individualism and selfishness. Humans are filters, not sponges. That’s only anecdotal, but, of course, so is every argument about the damage “ManBearPig” is responsible for.  

But whether South Park is morally or politically conscionable is, ultimately, what the Zen Buddhists might call a question wrongly put. Is moral or political righteousness something art can or should embody? Must art be edifying? Must it be moral? (What does it mean for it to be moral?)

illustration by mort todd

If you love art—if you think of art as more than a political tool—I think the answer has to be, No. In a “culture whose artistic value has been replaced by moral judgment,” Morris writes, we are robbed “of what is messy and tense and chaotic and extrajudicial about art … Avoiding that unpleasantness feels natural, but it denies a truth in art, which is our humanity—all of it.” The answer is No, in part, because the impulse to seek art—and mass media arts in particular—that is edifying has traditionally been the refuge of the scoundrel, whether because they are censorious anti-art conservatives or simply want to deny us our due rest and recreation in front of the idiot box. But it is also that, if you love art, you know its moral fortitude is rarely what you love it for. 

My favorite episode of South Park is “You Got F’d in the A”, a parody of You Got Served, a movie I have never seen or even heard of outside of South Park referencing it. The boys are playing with remote-controlled toy cars when a group of kids from Orange County comes up and dances in front of them—declaring that they “just got served!” While the boys are baffled, every adult in town seems intensely aware of what “serving” is, apparently regarding it as the most humiliating and harrowing experience a boy can have. Stan’s dad Randy, against his mother’s wishes, teaches him to line dance to “Achy Breaky Heart”—which is exactly what Stan does when those kids “serve” them again. But that, of course, means it’s on. Stan has to put together the ultimate dance crew: one of the goth kids, a guy who’s really good at Dance Dance Revolution, a waitress from Raisins—a kid version of Hooters—and, ultimately, Butters, the sweetest kid in class, who has to overcome the trauma of accidentally killing like a dozen people in his last tap-dancing competition before he can dance again. 

It’s one of the best episodes of TV I’ve ever seen. Stan swapping out the Orange County kids’ CD to line dance to “Achy Breaky Heart” makes me laugh just thinking about it. I love all the weird lingo that everyone but the four main kids understands as obvious: Stan’s mom telling Randy that it’s on, her voice clipped and frustrated, is perfect. I’m in love with the way blood splatters over Butters’ little horrified face. It features “I’ve Got Something in My Front Pocket for You,” possibly the funniest song Trey Parker has written in his Tony- and Grammy-winning career, as a throwaway background gag. There is nothing edifying, nothing improving, about it. It’s just funny. And that’s all I really want, when it comes right down to it. It’s what I watch TV for. 

Treating art as politics isn’t just a disservice to art, it’s a disservice to politics. To believe, even implicitly, that everything could be set right if only people watched the right TV shows, is a way to let yourself off the hook—“There was nothing any of us could do, Obama kept appointing West Wing fans”—and to convince yourself that watching television is meaningful political action. Cultural works might collectively tip things in one direction or another—with all the force of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high—but that’s ultimately not what they’re for. Norman Lear created All in the Family to expose and satirize prejudice, but, as Nussbaum writes, it also appealed to the kind of people who bought “Archie Bunker for President” bumper stickers: “to those who shared Archie’s frustrations with the culture around him, a ‘silent majority’ who got off on hearing taboo thoughts said aloud.” That isn’t Lear’s fault, and it isn’t a failure. It’s simply that a TV show very rarely changes someone’s entire life, since any TV show is such a small part of it. TV is for fun, beauty, enjoyment. For a laugh and a cry and an arch guffaw. The soundtrack to a dull repetitive task or the relaxation you sink into at the end of a long day. There’s no shame in that. It’s a vital part of any decent life. 

And so my approach to South Park is my approach to all the culture I take in: to be a filter, not a sponge; to take the good and leave the bad. That’s what all cultural works demand, unless they’re pristine and angelic (and probably boring). South Park is TV: hilarious, iconoclastic, imperfect, unstable, repulsive, brilliant TV. 

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