Everything Old is New Again on South Park
20 years on, South Park remains one of the sharpest shows on TV for one very important reason; they look for the new, every chance they have. The new trends, the new fads, the new news. And while that might make the show often feel dated when rewatching, when it airs, South Park often manages to rival The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live by staying so timely with their satire.
This season (number 20) continues the previous two seasons’ attempt to latch onto the trend in the narrative storytelling of serializing EVERYTHING. Summer movies can’t just be a movie…they have to tie into something else. Nothing can stand alone. So on a show once okay with killing off the main character every single week, they’ve decided to go into the opposite direction and have one long, soap opera-like narrative. Fortunately, they’ve created enough characters to do just that. PC Principal’s still here (what exactly happened in that last episode?). And the once over-the-top offenses of the small town of South Park have come alive with hipsters. Everything’s a four letter world, and being offended is a spectator sport.
So it only made sense that South Park would start out Season 20 with commentary on the debate raging about the decision to protest for Black Lives Matter by not standing for the National Anthem. Rather than debate about the Black Lives Matter movement, the conversation has become about taking offense if someone doesn’t stand “the right way” during the anthem. It also points to the bad public reaction we saw from people who thought Gabby Douglas “disrespected” the US by not standing “the right way” during the medal ceremony. On South Park, Nichole (the one black girl in the school) is the question everyone’s thinking about (the parents like Randy are taking bets) the day of a volleyball game, only because of her race.
Turns out, the protest about why the girls won’t stand during the National Anthem isn’t about race this time, but about gender. Specifically, a mean commenter on the school’s website is posting terrible things about girls in the school. Wendy (the most consistent peer of the boys on the show) believes it is, of course, Cartman (the boy she beat up because of his jokes about breast cancer).
But since the introduction of PC Principal last season, Eric has jumped on the PC bandwagon and is SUPER PC. So PC, he’s kind of offensive about it. He wears a “Token’s Life Matters” shirt (because he’s the only black boy he’s “friends” with) and leads school rallies to stress the importance of people knowing “women are funny”; after seeing the new Ghostbusters of course. I was hoping the Ghostbusters reaction would come up this season, it seemed so ripe for a send-up by South Park. Cartman’s new insistence that all women are funny is as dismissive as saying no women are funny. Wendy isn’t funny, nor is she failing her sex by not being (or wanting to be) funny. And there is also a big difference between Wendy (once the most PC character on the show) and the new girl on the show, Nellie, who tells the boys “the problem is when a little troll is allowed to say whatever he wants anonymously, he speaks for all you boys.” Even as a fellow feminist, that’s going too far.
Which gets down to what could be a pretty interesting larger theme of the show this season; the importance placed on communal responsibility and mass outrage and shaming. Communal as in a town like South Park not wanting to be “seen as” racist or homophobic, so they silence anyone who could be perceived as the wrong kind of person or someone that made a mistake (which we saw a lot of last seasons). And communal as in a member of a specific race or gender feeling the pressure to represent their entire community by behaving “properly.” Plenty of people have felt that way in the struggle for equality, but true equality comes from each person being judged as their own person…not feeling the obligation to represent as one collective. We see a hint of that too when Stan’s mom mentions not planning to vote for Hillary despite her husband’s assumptions. Nellie’s wrong to tell the boys they need to help so the entire group of boys aren’t seen as guilty; because girls shouldn’t have to represent their sex in everything they do either. The boys should want to help the girls because they’re being wronged.
But what Nellie says does make an impact and Kyle speaks of the German collective guilt existing for him as a male now, because of what he thinks Cartman did. It’s something similar to what he’s experienced as a Jewish kid after watching The Passion of the Christ (a really funny episode).
But the question we’re really left with is this; is this mass, collective shaming we do (especially online) really a good thing in the long run; especially for susceptible kids learning how to be people in society? Do we want a boy like Kyle to feel responsible for someone else’s behavior because he’s a man? And what about boys like the so-easily-manipulated Butters, the only boy we see laughing at the online taunting of the girls.
Of course, as we’ve come to expect from South Park, they look at other sides too. And The big thing they seem to question is how all this panic to be PC and seen as progressive is resulting in the desire to look back, rather than truly moving forward. Randy’s outrage over a giant douche beating the turd sandwich in the polls (more on that later) leads to a suggestion that he mellow out with some member berries; a Prozac-like super fruit that chills people out with doses of nostalgia. There’s something very creepy about people saying how cute the talking berries are while eating them; kinda reminds me of the new movie Sausage Party. Then the member berries go from chilling people by remembering pop culture from the 80s to giving subliminal messages about returning to racist, nationalistic ways as a way of being an old-fashioned American. Randy (Randy of all people) realizes this, but is it too late? Is all this anger and panic actually being caused by member berries, like the literal lowering of the bar from a few seasons back?
And on that note, South Park brought back one of the lamest things they could this season, the as before mentioned giant douche-turd sandwich idea that Stan has to vote for someone because voting is a civic responsibility. In the first episode about this, they are voting between a giant douche and turd sandwich mascot and they used that to comment on voting. Now, however, people are asking this about an actual election and calling Garrison and Hillary by name AND their designated insult. We get the analogy and it’s funny that Randy’s anger about things being rebooted again comes with the return of this lame joke. But they should just drop the naming and focus on the humor of this election. After all, Garrison’s representation as an ill-prepared Donald Trump type is funny enough. Especially when the shows election element will only be a part of the show.
Garrison wants to lose the race once realizing he has no plans or desire to be the leader of the free world. But he’d be too humiliated to quit, so he needs to lose. He plans to have his own National Anthem protest when the king of the reboots JJ Abrams reboots it after all those protests. But instead of making actual changes, he does what most reboots do; make a bland, inoffensive crowd-pleaser targeting as big a group as possible. Not many will love it, but a lot will like it just fine. When really, great art should be narrow and passionate about it either way. Who could possibly protest a song when telling audiences the song is essentially meaningless of such things? Just sit (or stand or lie down) and enjoy it for what it is; just a song.
When South Park started 20 years ago, we were at the height of what was then considered PC culture. And these demands from society to be PC, resulted in Matt and Trey pressuring themselves to be out there and offensive to point out where political correctness is limited when it amounts to shutting people down and telling them to just shut up and do as they’re told. Then came the Bush years, 9/11 and the war on terrorism and there were whole new nightly stories that they could comment on. How interesting than that as we set the stage for another new president, we’re once again seeing Political Correctness dominating society by trying to shut down dissenters with shame or guilt. Let’s hope Matt and Trey aren’t too tired after 20 years to keep throwing punches, especially during this election cycle.