Magazine March 9, 2020, Issue

South Park as Healing Mechanism

A scene from the “Band in China” episode of South Park (Screengrab via SouthPark.cc.com)
Everyone’s taste doesn’t have to conform to your sensibilities

It didn’t take too long into 2020 for people on Twitter to start earnestly debating whether South Park, an extremely popular show that has been on air for decades, has been wreaking havoc on our society with its offensiveness. As far as I can tell, the conversation started with a series of tweets from She-Hulk writer Dana Schwartz, who claimed that it “seems impossible to overstate the cultural damage done” by the show, adding that it has “portrayed earnestness as the only sin and taught that mockery is the ultimate inoculation against criticism.”

She continued: “Smugness is not the same as intelligence; provocation isn’t the same as bravery.”

The debate raged on for days, to the point where it became impossible to log on to the Twitter app without seeing something about it. Although the vast majority of the people in the replies disagreed with Schwartz, it was still disheartening to see people agreeing, saying that she was “absolutely right,” that the show was nothing more than “a ‘safe space’ for white guys,” or that the people criticizing Schwartz’s thread were merely “proving its point.” One user even claimed that he knows “for a fact” that the show “f***ed with [his] childhood,” because he and his friends had “ultimately ruined [their] friendship” by too frequently speaking to each other with the same kind of crassness that they’d seen on the show. 

I try to avoid getting involved in controversies that originate on Twitter (that website is nothing but trouble; I should know—I am on it constantly), but the way I saw Schwartz and those who agreed with her talk about South Park made it impossible for me not to say something. This is especially true because this thread was not the first time I had seen South Park criticized in this way. For example: In November, the show was accused of “transphobia” for its episode about transgender athletes. In December, feminist writer and activist Lindy West attacked the show for overusing irreverence, claiming that “irreverence needs to be deployed strategically, tactically,” while South Park “has always fetishized irreverence in this way where it’s like irreverence for irreverence’s sake—anything that anyone holds sacred deserves to be lampooned and satirized.” 

These critics are correct about one thing: South Park is consistently offensive, and it absolutely has gone after every sacred subject under the sun. Where the critics are wrong, though, is in their contention that this is a bad thing, that this approach has led only to nihilism and cruelty. In fact, I can confidently say that South Park’s penchant for unbridled derision has been directly responsible for my own joy in some times of terrible sadness. 

Make no mistake . . . South Park is brutal. It takes subjects that aren’t supposed to be touched at all and handles them roughly. It’s true that it’s crude and rude and disgusting, even in its treatment of subjects that are supposed to be solemn—spoken of only in polite whispers and polished platitudes if they’re ever spoken of at all. 

The thing is, though, that’s precisely why I think it’s so great—because it’s taught me that I can laugh, even at life’s most horrific atrocities, disarming its toughest challenges by demonstrating that even they are not untouchable by the powerful healing forces of humor.

One time in particular comes to mind: I was in college and had just found out that my mom had breast cancer. I was young; I was away from home; I was scared, and I was lost. It was, perhaps, the first time I felt that terrifying feeling that nothing truly is unshakable; that the things we consider to be the “foundations” in our lives are truly too unreliable to be thought of in that way at all.

That week, as I was relaxing and watching episodes of South Park with my friends, an episode came up that was centered on jokes about breast cancer. I will never forget what happened to everyone’s eyes in that room, darting around between nervous looks at one another and nervous looks at me, trying to make sure I was “okay” without having to take the risk of saying the wrong thing.

Of course, I wasn’t okay. How could I be? But here’s the thing: I hadn’t been okay before the episode came on. It’s not like, because of that episode, I had just remembered that my mom had cancer, or that it had somehow gotten worse because Cartman was making fun of it. I had already been thinking about it, because I was thinking about it nonstop. When I saw the episode, though, I did something that I hadn’t done in a while:

I laughed . . . and laughing felt amazing. 

See, during this time, I had already had plenty of support. I had plenty of shoulders to cry on, plenty of hugs, and more than enough OMG-I’m-so-sorry-do-you-need-anything’s. But this episode—which I would later learn was titled “Breast Cancer Show Ever”—gave me something that I hadn’t had before I saw it: the ability to actually laugh at the object of my grief. My friends had, of course, expected the show material to weaken me, but it did the opposite. Seeing that little cartoon sociopath, Eric Cartman, unable to restrain his laughter when a classmate is trying to give an impassioned speech about breast cancer because it has the word “breast” in it (Cartman calls it “potty talk” and repeats the expression “killer titties”) made me feel a sort of power over my distress. It gave me a break from having to think of my mom’s illness only in terms of the pain, destruction, and death that it can cause. It comforted me by showing me that, though the issue my family was facing was serious, that didn’t mean it was untouchable by humor and laughter. 

This wasn’t the only time that South Park did me this kind of favor, either. For example, I have struggled with ADD, anxiety, and depression since childhood, and seeing these topics effectively satirized with the show’s character Tweek Tweak gave me permission to laugh at myself when it came to something that everyone around me had only ever treated painfully seriously. Seeing someone else finding humor in it gave me permission to find things about it that were funny, too, and nothing seems quite as insurmountable after you’ve found a way to make it a joke. 

Now I am not, of course, saying that everyone in these situations would have felt the same way. In fact, I am certain that a lot of people wouldn’t have. But guess what? It doesn’t matter. Not all comedy has to work for all people, and it is wrong to expect it to do so.

Make no mistake: The people accusing South Park of ruining our culture, of being terrible because of its rough treatment of delicate subjects, think that they’re being compassionate. They think that they speak for the people who feel mocked by the show and that they are standing up for them. They fancy themselves selfless, loving heroes.

They’re not. In fact, they are the opposite: They are so self-centered that they expect the entire world’s tastes and values to conform to their own sensibilities. 

Far too many people, it seems, are incapable of responding to a joke that they don’t care for by saying, simply, “Hey, maybe this joke isn’t for me, but I understand that maybe someone else is getting some joy out of it, and that is okay—because there are other jokes that are for me, so all of them don’t have to be.” Now, instead, it’s common practice to disparage the creators of the joke as evil and wholly bad at their craft. 

Perhaps the most common argument against the advocates of cancel culture is that they’re lame and uncreative—and I think they generally are. After all, if you could never hope to be even a fraction as creative and fearless and funny as a show like South Park (I remember writing a college paper detailing the ways in which its approach is similar to Chaucer’s, and I think most people would place him firmly in the category of not a hack), then I guess the only option you have is to say that the show is ruining society or whatever. 

The thing is, though, being lame and uncreative is also probably the least objectionable thing that these sorts of people do. What’s worse is that, by telling people to avoid joking about sensitive topics, or to use irreverence sparingly, they are advocating that coping mechanisms should be taken away from people who may need them.

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