There are two choices, and both of them are awful.
That’s the resounding thesis statement of “South Park,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s boundary-pushing, expletive-laden cartoon about four 10-year-olds living in the fictional South Park, Colo. This philosophy is probably best summed up by an episode from its eighth season that dropped just before the 2004 presidential election. Titled “Douche and Turd,” its plot revolves around the elementary school choosing a new mascot, either a “giant douche” or a “turd sandwich.”
The creators hold this viewpoint beyond the show. Take Stone’s famous 2005 sound bite: “I hate conservatives. But I really … hate liberals.”
“South Park” has consistently lampooned seemingly everyone, in particular the loudest voices on all sides of the political spectrum. And though the show has backed away from commenting on President Trump, its new season has already tackled school shootings, pedophilic Catholic priests and the Brett M. Kavanaugh hearings.
Nowadays, the political stakes feel higher than at any point in the show’s 21-year run. The left and the right don’t just disagree but see each other as morally reprehensible, like when the president defends white supremacists or when anti-capitalist, anti-fascist protesters set fire to a limousine on Inauguration Day. In such an environment, it could be seen as problematic to simply shrug and claim that everyone and everything is stupid. And what might appear to some like a satire of our polarizing political culture can also look a lot like trolling — or being provocative just to upset people.
Parker and Stone, who declined an interview request with The Washington Post, self-identify as libertarian, a school of thought that advocates less interference from government — a concept that can cut across party lines. And those on both sides of the aisle have embraced the cartoon as a champion of their respective politics. Somehow it has become a Rorschach test for one’s worldviews. To wit: The duo has received an award from the loudly leftist organization People for the American Way, but their show is also a favorite of the right-wing Reddit forum The_Donald and it’s been blamed for the rise of the alt-right and its accompanying white supremacists.
“I think it’s pretty clear in ‘South Park’ and some of the other things from Parker and Stone that they really dislike people who are trying to tell other people how to live their lives,” Jonathan Gray, a media and cultural studies professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told The Washington Post. “It’s why they attack political parties.”
Take the show’s 20th season, which focused on the 2016 election. Bumbling, racist Mr. Garrison — normally the children’s fourth-grade teacher — is running for president and serves as the show’s stand-in for Donald Trump.
In a debate with Hillary Clinton, Garrison admits, “I had no idea I’d get this far, but the fact of the matter is I should not be president … I am a sick, angry little man. Please, if you care at all about the future of the country, vote for her. … She’s not as bad as you think.”
So, the joke’s on Trump, right?
Only partially, because the show’s robotic Clinton keeps responding, “My opponent is a liar and cannot be trusted.”
In the end, Garrison is elected.
As Robert Arp, who has edited two books about the philosophy of “South Park,” told The Post, “The point of the show is to lampoon extremist ideas on one side or the other, the left and the right, the conservative or the liberal, the Republican and the Democrat, the highly religious and the highly atheist, whatever the two opposing views on any and every topic you can think of."
It’s a far cry from the half-hour shows that came before it. Sitcoms, such as Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” and “One Day at a Time,” traditionally took ethical or political stands. “Murphy Brown” addressed abortion in a fairly pro-choice manner, and television’s first gay wedding took place in the Fox sitcom “Roc.” The ones that deviated from this norm, like “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons,” made their characters' narcissism and moral flaws the joke. “South Park,” though, aims that form of skepticism at specific political figures and movements — and its only true moral is that overt moralizing, be it liberal scolding or Catholic guilt, is overly sincere and, for lack of a better word, dumb. It’s pointless to care, the show seems to say.
Some argue that by not picking a side, the show creates false equivalencies that become trolling, as opposed to making a well-intentioned point. Take the episode “Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants,” from the show’s fifth season, in which Kyle meets his Afghan counterpart — named, in true “South Park” fashion, Afghan Kyle. The two find themselves debating whose country is better.
“You really think your civilization is better than ours? You people play games by killing animals and oppress women,” Kyle says.
“It’s better than a civilization that spends its time watching millionaires walk down the red carpet,” Afghan Kyle responds, to which Stan declares to (American) Kyle, “He’s got us there, dude.”
Except, of course, most Americans would probably argue that the badness of oppressing civil rights and of celebrity worship are not actually equal. Scenes like this lead people such as cultural critic Sean O’Neal to argue that the potential trolling nature of the show has the same origins as the alt-right.
Writes O’Neal in the A.V. Club:
South Park may not have “invented” the “alt-right,” 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. . . . But well beyond the “alt-right,” South Park’s influence echoes through every modern manifestation of the kind of hostile apathy—nurtured along by Xbox Live [trash] talk and comment-board flame wars and Twitter—that’s mutated in our cultural petri dish to create a rhetorical world where whoever cares, loses.
Many reject this idea. Among them is political commentator Andrew Sullivan, who in 2001 coined the term “South Park Republican,” which refers to someone who is center-right but holds liberal social views (arguably the show’s political viewpoint, if it has one).
“It’s the only thing on TV that keeps me sane, especially with PC insanity,” Sullivan told The Post via email. “It’s the best social and political commentary on TV right now. I wish more adults would watch it. They’d be amazed at its sophistication and subversive ridicule of the contemporary left and Trump right.”
One thing that’s clear: The show inevitably eventually angers the very people who claim it as their own.
For example, frequenters of Reddit’s The_Donald haven’t been thrilled lately. A spoof post from last year written by a user named denizen42 titled “Hi, we are HUGE CUCKS Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Our show ‘South Park’ used to be great and exposed a lot of hidden truths. But nowadays our ‘humor’ promotes and stems directly from fake news talking points, just like late-night ‘comedy’” was upvoted about 1,900 times.
“If you’re someone like me who watched the first ten seasons religiously (and repeatedly) during university and into my twenties, I’d argue the series is not for you anymore. It’s sad. Really sad,” wrote a user named BasedMcculloch, who routinely posts on the subreddit.
They have, similarly, angered leftist atheists several times. As they told the HuffPost, “We got calls from atheists friends a couple times saying … ‘We thought you were on our side?’ and we say, ‘We’re not on anybody’s … side and we’re not atheists.’”
Even in an age of “cancel culture,” when online outrage frequently battles problematic TV shows with hashtags, “South Park,” for the most part, has steered clear of controversy of late. In fact, the only big push to “cancel” it came from the show itself, which promoted its new season with the tongue-in-cheek hashtag #cancelsouthpark — perhaps beating everything else to the punch.
Maybe the show is satire; maybe it’s trolling. Maybe it’s just a perfect example of Poe’s Law, the theory that parody is essentially impossible to achieve in the Internet age because no viewpoint or statement can be so extreme that everyone will know it’s a joke.
So liberals often see the show as progressive and conservatives often see it as old-fashioned. Is that the point? Stone and Parker might think both sides are awful, but their viewers don’t. So perhaps our reactions to the show actually help us reveal — and figure out — our own worldviews.
That is, after all, the point of a Rorschach test.