Race and Intersectionality in South Park
By Hannah Bruder and Jake Leflein
South Park is an animated American television show that first aired in 1997. Trey Parker and Matt Stone created the show, and over the years, produced 20 seasons and 277 episodes in total. Taking place in South Park, Colorado, the show follows the adventures of four main boys (Eric Cartman, Kyle Broflovski, Stan Marsh, and Kenny McCormick) in their pursuits to explore a wide range of topics. Though the show focuses on these four boys, audiences become familiar with other recurrent characters such as the boys’ families, teachers, classmates, and other townspeople.
Many know the show for its edginess and willingness to push the boundaries of what is acceptable to say and do on television, and to a broader extent in the political atmosphere of the country at any given period of time. The show’s humor derives, often, from clever situational humor and slapstick or crude humor, however the show’s creators also use it as a platform for poking fun at current political and social issues in order to create humor while also providing their take on what is wrong with the country. In his book, Taking South Park Seriously, Jeffrey Weinstock describes this type of comedy as “Rabelaisan carnival”, which is defined as the interweaving of satire and parody to liberate audiences from conservative and strict thinking (Weinstock 23). For this reason, “carnival” has risen as a popular technique for media to use in reaching audiences of many different varieties. Through comedy, Parker and Stone examine controversial issues in today’s society such as race, gender, class, etc. by critiquing illogical or unfair social and political issues and institutions through how the character’s think, act, and interact with one another. They do all of this with a sort of self-reflexivity that fosters a sense of constant reminder and acknowledgement of their place in the greater system, with regards to the fact that they are a 30 minute cartoon on Comedy Central. It is as if characters in the show have an unconscious self-awareness of the fact that they are characters on a show behaving absurdly in order to make important broader statements about society. The show gains a unique freedom of expression through its genre. As a comedic television show and a cartoon, which historically are not to be taken too seriously, South Park gets a free pass. But at the same time, South Park has reinvented the genre by coupling the preconception that cartoons are innocent with messages in the content that cannot be taken lightly. Indicative of this concept and how the show functions on a deeper internal level is the opening of every episode that prefaces the show with a disclaimer stating:
ALL CHARACTERS AND EVENTS IN THIS SHOW–EVEN THOSE BASED ON REAL PEOPLE–ARE ENTIRELY FICTIONAL. ALL CELEBRITY VOICES ARE IMPERSONATED…..POORLY. THE FOLLOWING PROGRAM CONTAINS COARSE LANGUAGE AND DUE TO ITS CONTENT IT SHOULD NOT BE VIEWED BY ANYONE.
The disclaimer is very clearly tongue-in-cheek and immediately starts each episode by liberating audiences from any existing constraint they may have, which Weinstock describes as a key facet of South Park’s effective utilization of carnival. In the same vein, asserting that the show is “entirely fictional” frees the writers from any restrictions that would impede their ability to fully explore their creative inspirations or include whatever subject matter they desire for fear of repercussions from any backlash incited by ensuing controversy.
Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, which provides a theoretical basis for overlapping social identities and explanations for how the intersection of identities fit into systems of oppression. As a black woman herself, Crenshaw extensively describes how black women are particularly marginalized due to the fact that they are both black, a disadvantaged race, and women, a disadvantaged gender. She explains that efforts to reduce oppression are based in unilateral thinking on identity, for example looking at women as a whole or the black community as a whole. Rather, she suggests addressing their intersectional facets to conduct a more effective analysis of power dynamics and hierarchies. Her theory is applicable to South Park because Parker and Stone constantly challenge what it means to have an intersectional identity and how one’s identities fit into and function in society. In our analysis, we focus on how South Park has included an intersectional array of black representations in their episodes across all twenty seasons, and furthermore, made their inclusions productive for forcing their audience to realize outcomes and ultimately be more accepting.
Because of the nature of South Park and its extensive collection of episodes, it would be impossible to produce a complete analysis of the productive and progressive aspects of the show’s social satire and commentary through each of the 277 episodes. Instead, we will discuss examples from an assortment of episodes at different points throughout the show’s long span on the air in order to demonstrate where the show serves certain issues of race well, and other times when it fails to embrace its seemingly liberal/liberating agenda. More specifically, we will focus on black representations and delve further into why our selection of episodes in particular are strong examples of productive representation. This idea is emblematic of Cathy Cohen’s concept of “strategic essentialism” described in her piece “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens”, asserting that those in favor of social progress must give up their fight to ban the use of certain derogatory terms, so that they can accomplish a greater good when used in order to have the larger overarching discussions necessary to foster change and social progress.
Preface/Disclaimer: Where is South Park problematic?
South Park sheds light on very wide array of issues that are not limited to racial representations. Each episode has a different focus that is reflective of both new and old events and ideas. Though the episodes primarily challenge audiences to think about and discuss the topics they depict effectively, the language the characters use could be considered a major downfall. By using plot to bring light to various ideas, Parker and Stone implicate offensive language associated with the ideas as well. Sometimes, the language itself when standing alone is offensive, such as the “n”-word and derogatory LGBTQ+ slurs which are used excessively. However, their inclusion in South Park is excusable because the words are used to reiterate a mitigation of opposition in the events it portrays. Without a productive intention or agenda, the words themselves hold the power to completely undo what Parker and Stone accomplish in each episode. By normalizing the inclusion of a problematic type of rhetoric, writers have the potential to influence audiences to adopt that language for use in other contexts. The downfall of this framework is that when South Park uses offensive language in productive contexts, viewers may assume that the language is acceptable to use, when in reality, it is not.
Additionally, although South Park has a TV-MA rating, which means that it is intended for mature audiences and viewer discretion is advised, its animated-nature and depiction of young characters are inviting for children and young people to watch. Even if younger audiences may not understand the humor entirely, they will understand the language and are at risk for bringing it into their everyday speech. Certain episodes are aimed at depicting the power of words, but when every episode includes offensive terms, the collective power of the episodes aiming to challenge language is negated and undermined. However, in the vast majority of cases, South Park justifies the use of its offensive language by coupling it with plots and messages that could not exist without certain terminology and the existence of these episodes does far more good for social progress than bad due to the language it uses. Upon reading our analyses of various episodes, it becomes clear that South Park is justified in using problematic language as part of their overwhelmingly progressive agenda and overall productivity as insightful social commentary.
“With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”
In one South Park episode entitled “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” the n-word is used a total of 42 times which would lead one to assume the episode must be problematic, however in reality it is one of the show’s most affecting episodes for the way it permeates deep into issues of race in America and fosters deeper understanding and compassion for minorities by members of dominant society. In the episode one of the main characters’ father, Randy, goes on the gameshow Wheel of Fortune and mistakenly attempts to solve one of the puzzles by using a racial slur (link to clip here: http://southpark.cc.com/clips/155459/you-cant-say-that- on-television). Following the incident, Randy becomes a recognizable public figure and is tormented wherever he goes. The show is very clever in the way that it takes Randy, a white man, and places him into a role where he must endure the type of discrimination faced by African Americans, some of which comes from hateful usage of the exact shameful term he negligently uses. As a sort of taste of his own medicine, people use the term “n*****-guy” as a derogatory term towards Randy, much like how the word n***** is used offensively towards African Americans. In a scene depicting the way African Americans have been and are discriminated against by businesses, Randy is thrown out of a pharmacy when the shopkeeper recognizes him and says, “you’re not welcome in this store, ‘n*****-guy’”. Another scene makes a point about how use of the n-word, even in seemingly innocent or joking situations, is unacceptable because it is a powerful, hurtful word fueled by a large host of very negative historical connotations, and can therefore penetrate deep. In the scene Randy is visibly shaken up after he is forced to cooperatively sit by as he is ridiculed by a stand-up comic in a comedy club that uses the word “n*****-guy” non-confrontationally in a casual way to generate laughs. A final poignant situation presented in the episode is when a stereotypical posse of racist, gun-toting, redneck-types, like those who might be apt to pick on an African American for no reason in the real world, approach Randy on the street and threaten him.
The episode packs a serious punch and really ups the stakes because not only does it force white audience members to follow Randy as he encounters the different acts of discrimination, but because it puts them in his shoes rather than alongside him, forcing them to face the repercussions of a thoughtless racist act themselves. It does this by crafting the gameshow situation where Randy initially uses the racial slur in a way that the viewer at home is set up so their natural first thought is likely the same as Randy’s, perhaps even thinking his answer will be the correct one. By employing cunning techniques like this one, South Park is unique and extremely effective as a means for immediately changing the way people think and act by making them more aware of their internal, unconscious thought processes that have been shaped by life in society where dominant ideologies mold our minds to think a certain way. By catching viewers off guard when bringing to light their often otherwise unquestioned problematic ways of thinking or speaking, it incites guilt and aids people in better understanding how to improve the way they understand and treat other human beings.
Another critical element about the episode, written by two straight white men, is that at the conclusion they acknowledge that as a white person one cannot truly understand the power of the n-word or how it feels to be racially discriminated against. The creators try their best to emulate what it would feel like to endure the racial discrimination African Americans face every day in order for people to better understand what it is like to go through life as a minority individual, but understand that as a white person it is impossible to actually feel it themself. They pay acknowledgment to this fact with a brief side-story that depicts the interaction of Randy’s son Stan and his African American classmate Token. Throughout the episode Stan repeatedly tries to convince Token that the incident with his father is “not a big deal” because his father is not actually a racist and was prompted to use the slur accidentally, but Tolkien continuously rebuffs his attempts to diminish the significance of what happened, responding, “Actually it is kind of a big deal, Stan. It may be a mistake but you don’t understand how it feels when that word comes up, so don’t say it isn’t a big deal.” Finally, at the end of the episode Stan has a moment of clarity where he realizes why the incident may not seem like a big deal to him but isn’t so ignorable for Token. In the final scene he finds Token and confronts him to explain that he has figured out why his way of thinking was short sighted and says, “I’ve been trying to say that I understand how you feel, but I’ll never understand. I’ll never really get how it feels for a black person to have somebody use the “n”-word. I don’t get it.” Token then responds, “now you get it Stan,” and the episode concludes on a positive note of mutual understanding between the boys who have begun to break through the racial divide by finding resolution through dialogue that leads to better, more considerate coexistence of people that have been illogically separated out by centuries of arbitrarily constructed social labels and dynamics. Then, as the credits role, the viewer at home has been left with a final anecdote to consider and reflect on, taking the experience they have had while watching the episode and solidifying it in their mind cohesively in order to hopefully become more mindful and considerate of how they view and treat their neighbors.
The episode also brings to light the problematic aspect of our patriarchal society where institutions that are controlled by members of the dominant white male group function to protect the skewed power dynamic by shielding members of the group, resisting change, and facilitating the continuation of social division. Instead of being forced to endure a lifetime of unfair treatment, the way an African American must, Randy uses his status as a white male to recapture his favorable place in society. He does this by going before the senate in order to plead a case to have the word “n*****-guy” banned, saying he believes the slur has caused so much damage that it should be made illegal. He goes on to say, “Oh sure, some people just use the word in jest, tell a “n*****-guy” joke or two thinking it’s not a big deal, but they don’t realize it can lead to people using the term as an excuse for violence,” also he states that the term could become a slur that refers to all white people. The senate (shown as being all white men, with the exception of one African American man) is moved by his words and quickly realize that they must utilize the power associated with their privilege to ban the word and therefore prevent any levelling of the societal playing field that would threaten their favorable position. They then vote on banning the word with every white member of the panel voting “yay” and the sole African American member voting “nay”. Outside the Whitehouse a crowd of all white people celebrate as a crowd of all African Americans look on in disbelief. With this short scene the show highlights the problematic system in place, in which the white majority reasserts their own dominance due to the lack of fair representation or influence for minority individuals. After many years on the air, South Park has gained enough credibility as legitimate and important social commentary that academics have written entire journal publications dedicated to deconstructing individual episodes in order to outline their social importance. In a piece entitled “The Portrayal of White Anxiety in South Park’s ‘With Apologies to Jesse Jackson’”, by Nicole Binder published in the Aspeers Journal, the author asserts the social importance of this episode, stating that her, “article demonstrates that the scenes containing elements of white anxiety are portrayed in such a way as to critique the current dysfunctional state of race relations in the United States, urging viewers to critically consider issues of race rather than to inhibit such discourse.”
“Here Comes the Neighborhood”
In this episode, Token’s family is realized as the richest family in South Park. Token feels out of place because he has the resources to do great projects for school, his family has a bigger house, and he does not shop at J-Mart (assumably the South Park equivalent to K-Mart). Token searches for a group of people that he can best fit in with, and starts by submitting an ad for South Park, Colorado to Forbes magazine. Shortly after, rich families and celebrities start moving to South Park, and the original townspeople are angered that their lower-middle class town has been infiltrated by the “richers”. In the end, Token understands the value of his friends Cartman, Kyle, Stan, and Kenny for who they are, and the “richers” are driven out of town. It is not until the final line of the episode that any of the characters make note of the fact that all of the “richers” are black, or that they are in any way out of place because they are the only black people in town (Token and his family included).
The episode challenges audiences ideas about their unconscious racialized biases. Audiences clearly see that the “richers” are all black and the rest of the townspeople are white, but it is never mentioned in the episode. Small anecdotes are included to reinforce this lack of acknowledgement such as riders forcing the richers to sit at the front of the bus (a nod towards black people having to sit in the back of the bus before civil rights movements) and having the townspeople dress up in Ku Klux Klan (an extremist and racist cult) outfits to drive the richers out of South Park. Part of the reason why the townsfolk are made so uncomfortable by the presence of the richers can be attributed to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s idea of intersectionality, where black people are marginalized due to their collection, or intersection, of identities. Including black characters who are not marginalized at the intersection of their race and SES challenges South Park’s resident’s ideas about what sorts of identities are acceptable. Additionally, the conclusion of the episode forces audience members to realize they themselves were unaccepting of the inclusion of high SES black characters because they most likely were cognizant of the characters’ race all along.
“World War Zimmerman”
This episode begins with Cartman being particularly nice to Token. He explains to Mr. Mackey that the reason why he is being so nice is because he thinks Token is a “ticking time bomb” to become a rioting zombie in lieu of the Zimmerman trial. Mr. Mackey encourages Cartman to write about his feelings, which leads to Cartman performing a poem and song directed towards Token about how he had no involvement in the George Zimmerman cases. Token is offended that he should feel badly on behalf of the black community, and Cartman senses his negative feelings, deciding to take action on the impending “outbreak” of black zombies he thinks may begin. Cartman later boards a plane and informs the passengers of their apocalyptic doom. When Cartman finds a black passenger in the bathroom on the plane, the rest of the passengers panic and the plane crashes, with only Cartman and one woman surviving the crash. The two proceed to a rifle store in hopes of purchasing a gun to kill Token with, but the owner informs them that they cannot shoot unless they are threatened in their own homes. Instead, Cartman and the woman go to Florida to shoot George Zimmerman in hopes of halting the apocalypse. Cartman appears in Zimmerman’s house in blackface and is shot by Zimmerman, which officials initially supported because they were afraid of Cartman (when he was black). Later, when it is found out that Cartman was actually white, Zimmerman was tried, found guilty, and executed. After Cartman survived the shooting, he apologizes to Token but tricks him into standing close enough so that he can be shot legally under the Stand-Your-Ground law. The episode closes with Cartman and a shot Token in Mr. Mackey’s (the principal’s) office, where Token denounces Stand-Your-Ground, and Cartman panics, flees, and causes another plane to crash.
“World War Zimmerman” ultimately jabs at the Trayvon Martin case as well as Zimmerman’s acquittal in the end. Yet again, the episode depicts the embodied fear white people hold against black people in various ways, such as when Cartman convinces himself Token is going to turn into a rioting zombie and when the plane captain thanks Cartman for declaring his promise to “not let the black people riots destroy the world”. It is a nod to the fact that Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName movements are overshadowed by the power that white people hold. Though Token is correct in not feeling a responsibility to feel badly for Cartman, the episode also effectively conveys the idea that white people do not educate themselves and rather hold marginalized races responsible to educate everyone else on what is important to them. Today, the Zimmerman case functioned as a symbolic battle between dominant white ideology and the institutions it controls struggling to maintain their power dynamic while being threatened by the progressive black rights movements that have been gaining influence in recent years. In the real world, established systems of white preferential treatment were enough to get Zimmerman acquitted, and therefore overcome opposition from the countercultural movement seeking to level the playing field for all people. Contrasting this, the South Park creators decided to utilize this trial and its outcome to make their own point about circumstances that unfold the Zimmerman case in the criminal justice system today. At the end of the episode, unlike the real-life outcome, George Zimmerman is found guilty and executed, which is done to demonstrate an overly dramatic point about how justice was not served in that case, or in many other of that kind.
In a season 8 South Park episode, Michael Jackson moves to South Park using the alias of Mr. Jefferson along with his son, Blanket, in an attempt to escape the city life where everyone knows who he is. The overarching plot of the episode is centered around poking fun at Michael Jackson, his personality, and the accusations against him from later in his life. However, a side story that branches off from the main narrative follows the local police officers as they target Mr. Jefferson solely because they feel it is their duty to bring down a rich black man. In an overly dramatic attempt to implicate him, the episode depicts the officers as senselessly motivated to prosecute Mr. Jefferson for no other reason than the fact that they are deeply racist. The creators of the show are no doubt using this episode to highlight the problems of discrimination towards the black community, simply because of their skin color, from the police and criminal justice system. The fact that the creators of South Park were putting this issue into consumption by mass audiences in the early 2000’s goes to show how important their show is because of the way that it often addresses social issues and brings them into the public eye before other platforms of mass media.
Early in the episode, we see a detective briefing the police sergeant about a recent pressing issue that has arisen in the town. He begins the briefing by explaining that someone has just moved into town and seemingly has a lot of money as evidenced by purchasing a house with cash. The sergeant is confused what the problem is, and the detective explains, “It says here he’s black” in reference to the report. Now aware of the situation at hand, the sergeant exclaims, “By G-d, he is. Black and rich. Time to take this Mr. Jefferson down- just like we did Kobe. I want him humiliated and dragged through the dirt, and I want it done by the books.” The sergeant’s comments here are meant to represent the problematic reality that police officers have a tendency to target African Americans disproportionately. They are more often made examples of to the public with publicized trials and punishments, and the sergeant telling the officers to do it “by the books” alludes to the unfair racialization and biases that exist deep within our country’s law enforcement and legal system.
Soon after, we see the sergeant on a stake out, instructing another officer who has broken into Mr. Jefferson’s house to plant evidence around the house of drugs, violent crime, and rape. To reflect on the points they have made, a final scene shows the sergeant and another police officer waiting for Mr. Jefferson to arrive home so they can arrest him, but frantically calling off the arrest because they realize he and his son are white (because they saw that Michael Jackson on records was African American, but in reality, he had undergone skin pigmentation lightening, which made him appear white) . The absurdity of the officer’s behavior, and by extension, the criminal justice system, are amplified further in this scene when we see the sergeant, in a complete panic, exclaim that they could have “made an innocent man go to jail… who wasn’t black”. He is so emotionally distraught and sick with himself for almost wrongly convicting a white person that he begins to throw up outside of the car, once again reinforcing the absurdity of the situation. Reflecting on the situation, he tells his partner, “Jesus Harris, what are becoming? We’re supposed to protect the people”- a statement that is meant to bring attention to the fact that police officers exist to ensure the safety and fair treatment of all people, but their racial biases impede their ability to do so. The scene concludes with him passionately proclaiming, “I’m never gonna frame an innocent man again… unless I know he’s black for sure!”
“Cartman’s Silly Hate Crime 2000”
This episode begins with the fourth graders competing to see who can sled down a hill the fastest. Token pokes fun at Cartman for being a “fat ass”, and Cartman threatens to throw him with a rock if he ever calls him fat again. Kyle then joins in on teasing Cartman, and Cartman follows through with his threat, accidentally hitting Token instead of Kyle. All of the surrounding media in South Park, as well as the FBI, get involved in the case because Token is black, in an assumption that Cartman threw the rock because he is racist. The prosecution of the case against Cartman wins because the judge wants to make an example of Cartman, and he is sentenced to juvenile prison. Throughout the episode, the rest of his clique realize they underestimated that value Cartman added to their group of friends, and learn that the only way they can win the sledding competition is if Token is willing to forgive Cartman, which he is. Token’s father, who is also against hate crime laws, tells the boys that the only way they can get Cartman out of jail is to present their case to the Governor of Colorado. The boys compile a presentation and name themselves the “Free Eric Cartman Committee”, calling hate crime laws a “savage hypocrisy”. Token explains that “if someone kills someone, it’s a crime, but if someone kills someone of another color, it’s a hate crime.” Kyle notes that all crimes are inherently hate crimes because they derive from hate, and that the motivation for the crime should not affect the sentencing. Stan argues that all hate crimes do is “support the ideas that blacks are different from whites”. In the end, Cartman is released from prison and helps the boys win the sledding race.
The episode as a whole sheds light on why hate crimes are problematic. Though the intention of their creation and enforcement was to prevent people from committing crimes based in racism, homophobia, and gender differences, the outcome was just the opposite. Hate crimes furthered a division of differences between people by acknowledging the reason why someone committed a crime versus simply convicting criminals for committing a crime at all. As Kyle explained, all crimes are hate crimes, and it is silly to create legislation that differentiate between the two. In this episode in particular, we saw how Cartman’s “hate crime” and subsequent punishment pushed he and Token even further apart solely based on the color of their skin, instead of punishing Cartman for throwing a rock at someone regardless of who the target was.
“Chef Goes Nanners”
In an episode from season 4 entitled “Chef Goes Nanners” the controversy of whether we should eliminate symbols of racism that are represented in places that are historically significant is explored. Examples of this include the debate surrounding use of things like the Confederate flag or blackface because of tradition even though they reference shameful, racist elements of history. The episode opens with Chef, a proud African American character, and Jimbo, a closed minded conservative character, sitting beside one another in the mayor’s office each pleading their case for why the South Park flag should be changed or why it should remain the same (it is later revealed that the flag depicts a group of white people hanging a black person). Jimbo explains, “Chef, I respect you very much. But you have to understand that this has been the South Park flag since some of our ancestors, like my great-grandfather who founded this land.” Chef then retorts, “That flag represents a time when blacks were persecuted by whites. How can a black man not be bothered by it?” They are unable to resolve the issue there and it quickly becomes a larger controversy for the entire town, prompting the 4th grade teacher to set up a debate between the students in front of the town
As the episode unfolds, we see Chef become alienated from the town as he tries to enlist help but cannot get anyone to join his cause because the white people are not motivated enough to work toward changing something that doesn’t directly affect them, even if they know it’s wrong. In addition, we see Jimbo and others passionately defending the flag with the same irrational “tradition” argument over and over, emphasizing how unsubstantiated this perspective is. Another important element of the episode is that Chef, upon realizing that Stan and Kyle are debating in favor of keeping the flag, becomes furious and calls the confused boys “little cracker-racists”.
At the conclusion of the episode during the children’s debate, Chef realizes that Stan and Kyle only wanted the flag to remain the same because they had entirely misunderstood that the controversy surrounding the flag was related to race, instead understanding the controversy to be coming from the fact that it depicts killing. When Chef explains that he finds the flag racist, the boys respond that they didn’t see it that way and don’t understand how it could be racist, so he tells them, “of course it’s racist, that’s a black man up there,” to which the boys naively reply, “yeah, but the color of someone’s skin doesn’t matter.” Chef then has the realization that the innocence of the children, still untainted by the way society teaches racist thought, were so far from being racist that, “they didn’t even make a separation of black and white to begin with, all they saw when they looked at the flag was five people.” He then explains that he got so worked up arguing his point that he almost became racist toward the boys himself, contradicting his own message. At this point, Chef and Jimbo come together as two people that became so wrapped up in their bickering that they lost sight of their ten-year friendship and the importance of communicating and compromising. They then decide to work together to change the flag into something they are both comfortable with. With this conclusion, the South Park creators emphasize that the problems in society cannot be solved by both sides being unwilling to budge, refusing to believe their opinion is not fully correct, but instead they can only be worked out through communication with one another as human beings, all of whom must respect one another and set aside differences in order to peacefully coexist in a better world.
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