South Park is an award winning television animated comedy, aimed at adults, that uses the premise of 4 friends, now aged 9 and in Grade 4, and the town they live in, South Park, Colorado, with all its inhabitants and their imaginations, to teach moral lessons through social satire. Most episodes contain large doses of vulgarity, satire, parody, fantasy, dark humour, and the carnivalesque to comment on recent events or hot topics in American culture. The originators and writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are friends and serve as the models for 2 of the main characters, Stan Marsh and Kyle Broflovski, respectively.Stan Marsh is the Everyman of the series, while Kyle Broflovski is the lone ethnic Jew. 2 other friends, Eric Cartman, the antagonist, and Kenny McCormick, the poor boy, complete the group.
Along with its many awards and accolades, the series, now in its 14th season on Comedy Central, has also drawn criticism and controversy. Notably, the politically incorrect, bigoted, anti-semitic, overweight bully (with a soft core) Cartman has offended many. Also, among the offended are the celebrities, ethnic, interest and activist groups who have been ridiculed, as part of an "equal opportunity offensive" policy. However, I am not so sure how equal it all is, as I shall elaborate below.
South Park, of which I have seen 1 episode in the interest of writing this post, came to my attention first because of the success of the song "Blame Canada", from the highly successful film, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, AKA, South Park: The Movie (1999).
"Blame Canada", from the film South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
Robin Williams at the Academy Awards singing the "cut" version of the Oscar nominated
"Blame Canada" (the "go forth and multiply" word was not sung)
The song, with its mockery of all things Canadian, was taken in good fun by all Canadians named in it, and by the then Canadian Ambassador to the US, and former Prime Minister, Kim Campbell. Partly it was because the satire focussed on well known and relatively harmless stereotypes, and partly it was because the final couplet makes it clear that the ones really being spoofed are the Americans who will not take responsibility for themselves:
We must blame them and cause a fuss
Before somebody thinks of blaming us!
As most readers here will know, South Park has recently been in the news to celebrate its 200th episode, which first aired April 14, and more so because of the content of that episode, and the response to it. That is the episode I watched online, in preparation for this post. It can be seen uncensored by Canadians on Comedy Central's Canadian site, here, and hopefully by Americans on South Park Studios' own site, here.
Although Trey Parker and Matt Stone usually write and produce the episodes on a weekly basis to stay topical and fresh, this anniversary episode was planned well ahead to incorporate old themes, running gags, characters, and topics in a new plot line. They achieved this goal admirably by the device of having all the celebrities they had satirized in the past reappear as a group launching a class action suit against the town of South Park. Along with the celebrities, religious figures were included. In particular, Tom Cruise as the leader of the celebrity suit offers to spare South Park if they are willing to hand over the Prophet Mohamed, so that Tom can get some of his "goo"--the protection that the Prophet and Islam have from criticism and lampooning.
From Episode 200, the 200 celebrities suing South Park
As part of the episode, the characters Stan and Kyle convince the other religious leaders, all of whom along with the Prophet Mohamed are part of the "Super Best Friends", to let them take the Prophet Mohamed to their town as long as they keep him unseen in a windowless U-Haul; but to hand him over to Tom Cruise in his limosine, the Prophet, who mustn't be seen, is disguised with a mascot costume in the form of a teddy bear. However their plans to hand him over to the celebrities is thwarted when the Ginger Separatist Movement (made up of digruntled red-heads) threatens to bomb the town unless the Prophet is handed to them, so that they too may benefit from the "goo" that protects him from ridicule. The episode ends on a cliffhanger about the paternal identity of Cartman, the bully.
After the 200th episode aired, Abu Talhah al Amrikee, writing on the site of Revolution Muslim, a small Islamist group in New York, based in the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, issued a warning to Trey Parker and Matt Stone about the offensiveness of the episode, which some have taken as a threat. Al-Amrikee suggested they risked the same fate as Theo van Gogh, the slain Dutch filmmaker who with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, created Submission, a film about the abuse of women in the name of Islam, and with verses of the Quran written on a woman's body. Al-Amrikee provided addresses for the New York offices of Comedy Central, the studio address in Los Angeles, and a home address in Colorado. He also prayed via Twitter that Allah kill the creators of the episode.
From Episode 201, Cartman, and his hand puppet ruse to find his real father
Indeed the perception of a threat was great enough that the follow-up episode, which included the creators' response, the 201st episode, was censored by Comedy Central, and is not available online. This was beyond the self-censorship which the writers had included, by beeping out the name of the Prophet Mohamed, and representing him only as a sign saying "Censored". Comedy Central itself beeped out the final speeches of the regular characters, the moral of the story, which was a defense of freedom of speech and an argument against intimidation and fear. Comedy Central also retrospective removed an episode done in 2001, The Super Best Friends, which was a send up of all major religious leaders, including the Prophet Mohamed. In 2006 Comedy Central had already forbidden showing the Prophet in the 2 part episode of South Park which addressed "The Cartoon Wars", the Danish cartoons and the responses to them.
Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and South Park Studios have noted, with an announcement on the website, that Comedy Central censored their episode after they thought it was finalized; and, that they will not show a censored version of their work:
This episode opens with the resumption of the story of the character Cartman's paternity, but soon resumes the plot about Tom Cruise's demand for the Prophet Mohamed and the Ginger Separtist Movement's plan to steal the Prophet's "goo". These 2 main subplots eventually join when there is a fight among the Super Best Friends, the Ginger Separatists, and the celebrities fighting for the Prophet Mohamed's "goo". The episode ends with a moral summation by Kyle that there is no "goo", no one is immune from satire, ridicule, and lampooning. Due to the censorship by Comedy Central this is basically heard as one long beep, as are the supportive comments by Jesus and Santa (Santa was used to further camouflage the Prophet Mohamed, earlier in the episode) that all should be ridiculed in the name of freedom of speech.
Of course, I have emphasized here the subplot over the 2 episodes which focuses on the Prophet Mohamed. There are many others and there are a number of other targets of mockery: Tom Cruise primarily, other celebrities, homosexuality, reverse racism (using black face to induce white guilt and get one's way), stigma against red-heads, and the Oedipal myth, to mention some.
Why did I say above that I am not so sure that South Park is "equal opportunity offensive"? I say that for a number of reasons. First, usually equality is not perfect, or as George Orwell famously wrote in his allegorical novel Animal Farm, "Some are more equal than others". Second, after reading in a number of sources about the various controversies of South Park episodes, summarized here, it strikes me that the one group who is best defended, within the series itself, are the Jews, as they themselves agree, even while deploring some of the anti-semitic speeches in episodes. Although the bully character Cartman is anti-semitic, his anti-semitism is a way of showing the plight of the lone Jew, Kyle, growing up or living in American society.
Third, Kyle is Matt Stone's reincarnation in cartoon form, one of the characters he voices, and allows the creator to redress the wrongs of his own childhood. Moreover, in a number of otherwise offensive, or anti-semitic episodes, Kyle often delivers the moral of the episode, and is ultimately, despite the vulgarity he shares with the other characters, the voice of compassion, reason, and the socially conservative messaging of the program. He has his own featured episode, The Passion of the Jew, one heralded by the Jewish community, and the Anti-Defamation League as being a definitive rebuttal to the perceived anti-semitism of Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ.
Kyle terrified by watching The Passion of the Christ
For those 3 reasons then, I think that within the otherwise equal opportunity offensiveness of South Park some are more equal than others, or some, like Jews, and social conservatives, are more protected by the creators themselves, than are others.
Matt Stone, South Park creator, and inspiration for Kyle
What is your impression of the South Park controversy over its depiction of the Prophet Mohamed?
To the best of your knowledge is any one group particularly reviled or spared by South Park's creators?
What is the best response to this type of coarse satire, especially given that any response is given a response in a more flagrant episode?
Was Comedy Central right to censor the program as they did?
Should they have censored the other episodes featuring the Prophet Mohamed long ago?
Should all groups be better protected within the episodes themselves?
How true is it to say, as the creators do, that the characters are normal children, their language typical, and their views standard for American children?
Does satire often get misinterpreted as "reality"?
What are the dangers of satire?
How free should freedom of speech be?
Is ridicule the best way to bring a group into the cultural fold?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?