Commentary by Wayne Studer
How Parker and
Stone May Have Spoiled South Park for Me
Way back in 1966 Brian Wilson sang, "It's so sad to watch a sweet thing die." Although the "thing" in question isn't exactly "sweet" and it hasn't exactly "died," that's nevertheless pretty much how I feel after having watched the November 7, 2007 episode of what was until then my favorite TV show, South Park.
The episode is titled "Guitar Queer-O." In general, it's a hilarious and highly pointed sendup of both the Guitar Hero videogame and the attitudes many videogame devotees have toward the objects of their devotion. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the episodemuch as I've thoroughly enjoyed nearly all the episodes of South Park I've ever watched, which is most of themuntil about the last 20 or 30 seconds. Then it happened.
Stan and Kyle, who've become so proficient at playing Guitar Hero that they're on the verge of breaking the coveted one million-point mark, are eager to see how the game will recognize and reward them for their achievement. (When they had previously hit the 100,000 mark, it proclaimed, "YOU ARE STARS!") But then, when they indeed hit one million, the game stops and gives them the news:
"YOU ARE FAGS!"
Stan and Kyle are at first dismayed and then so disappointed at this assertion that they drop their guitar-shaped game devices and walk away, rejecting the game, presumably never to play it again.
They weren't the only ones who were dismayed and disappointed. Where the hell did that come from?
Now, I've grown accustomed to the often-strident libertarianism that seems to be the chief philosophy of the two creators and writers of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In fact, having somewhat libertarian inclinations myself, I find myself agreeing with most of the show's underlying social and political messages. And while characters in the show frequently use homophobic slurs"That's gay!" being a common put-downthose characters are seldom if ever portrayed as paragons of wisdom and/or virtue. After all, most of those lines come from the mouths of cartoon fourth-graders, usually with typically fourth-grade attitudes about everything around them. To take one example from earlier in that same episode, when Stan's father begins playing his real guitar in front of the boys, hoping to impress them with his actual skill at performing music as opposed to "virtual skill" at merely pretending to perform music, the kids stare at him blankly, totally unimpressed. Then Cartman says dismissively, "That's gay."
Personally, I don't think that's meant to be taken as a statement of fact. If anything, it underscores the basic absurdity of the boys' obsession with "virtual talent" and disinterest in actual musical talent. And, to be sure, you can take almost anything said by Cartman (the show's icon of bigotry and utter self-absorption) as being stupid and narrow-minded. When Cartman says, "That's gay," I believe we're meant to laugh at Cartman himself far more than at Stan's father, the object of his homophobically expressed disdain.
But that "YOU ARE FAGS!" business at the end was different. Very different.
It came so unexpectedlyit was so gratuitousthat I can't help but wonder, "Why?"
Let's step back for a moment to the subject of libertarianism. There's no denying that South Park often ridicules and lampoons gay characters. But, then again, it ridicules and lampoons virtually everything and everybody. Few things in popular, social, and political culture escape the jaundiced eyes of Parker and Stone. And there's also no denying that South Park also sometimes conveys messages of tolerance and acceptance of gay people. (The episode where my favorite character, Butters, is sent by his parents to a religious camp where "bi-curious" children are supposedly "straightened out"—but which actually has a skyrocketing suicide rate that the camp administrators desperately try to brush under the rug—was a particularly fine example.) The attitude of its creators seems to be very much one of "live and let live"with the vital corollary, "as long as we're free to make fun of anything we like." In short, gay people should have the same rights and liberties as everyone else. And they also have the same availability as everyone else to be the objects of the ridicule, if not outright scorn, of fourth-graders. And of Parker and Stone themselves.
Needless to saybut I'll say it anyway in case anyone believes that I might be advocating censorship hereI believe Parker and Stone have every right to say and do whatever they wish in their cartoon.
I just don't have to be a willing participant in being attacked as a gay man.
Before you call me humorless or thin-skinned, let me remind you that I've been a constant fan of South Park for close to a decade. I've enjoyed the full-circle transformation of Mr. Garrison from bitter, sarcastic, self-hating closet case first to bitter, sarcastic militant gay man, then to bitter, sarcastic male-to-female transsexual heterosexual, then to bitter, sarcastic transexual lesbian, and now back to bitter, sarcastic man (sexual orientation unclear at this point). I felt the occasional appearances of the outrageously stereotypical "Big Gay Al" were no less delightful. I even thought the recurring depiction of dim-bulb leather queen Mr. Slave was hilariousyes, even when he forced Paris Hilton up his nether regions, where she encountered a hamster who had made his home there. And, of course, I put up with that all-too-frequent put-down, "That's so gay!"
But, again, "YOU ARE FAGS!" was different. And again I ask, just where did that come from? Why did they do that? What message was that meant to convey?
I mean, what on earth does being a "fag" have to do with playing Guitar Hero? Why didn't they say something like "YOU ARE GEEKS!"? How about "YOU ARE NERDS!"? Or "YOU HAVE NO LIFE!"? Those would all have been far more pertinent to a couple of fourth-grade boys who have become obsessed with a videogame.
I knowI can hear it nowa lot of people would reply, "But that wouldn't have been nearly as funny!"
Well, maybe not to them. And maybe not to Parker and Stone. Look at it another way. Under the same circumstances, would the creators of South Park have dared to use any of the following?
YOU ARE CHINKS!
YOU ARE KIKES!
YOU ARE NIGGERS!
YOU ARE SPICS!
I don't think so. Any of those lines would have been just too despicable.
But now I can hear them say, "But those wouldn't have made any sense!"
No, they wouldn't have made sense. And neither does "YOU ARE FAGS!"that is, not unless you regard "fags" as the objects of your amused contempt. It makes total sense if you define "fags" as creatures to sneer at, beings so detestable that they're worthy of derisive laughter. So "fags" simply becomes a handy, all-purpose insult to hurl at people regardless of their sexual orientation. You don't have to be gay to be a "fag." You just have to be contemptiblebecause, in the minds of many, to be a fag is to be contemptible.
In short, South Park's "YOU ARE FAGS!" is nothing but a cheap, gratuitous, downright lazy example of ignorant, bigoted humor, employed in the most cynical manner imaginable. With no other apparent motive behind it, it all seems to boil down to sheer, unadulterated contempt.
Where's my sense of humor? Oh, I still have it. But there are a lot of things in life that aren't funny. Not one damn bit. Such as children who commit suicide because they are mercilessly teased and tormented by other children who perceive them, rightly or wrongly, as gay. No, that's not funny at all.
Let me share a great truth with you:
Those who ridicule everything value nothing.
I'll say it again, this time with a little more emphasis:
Those who ridicule everything value nothing.
I do have values. Among many other things, I value myself enough not to sit passively and accept contemptuous treatment. I will not be complicit in my own denigration.
To be honest, I haven't completely given up on South Park. As tempted as I was to reject the object of my disappointment, as Stan and Kyle did with Guitar Hero, I resumed watching itthough not as fervently as before—after staying away for several months. But I don't think I'll wholeheartedly, unreservedly enjoy it ever again. If and when I watch it, I'll do so with my own very jaundiced eye, much more warily and suspiciously than ever before. Sort of as I would the family dog who, for no apparent reason, once gave me a nasty bite.
Then again, the early 2009 episode that brilliantly and brazenly parodied the Disney Corporation and the Jonas Brothers was so viciously funny—and so pointedly on-target—that I'm seriously contemplating total forgiveness. I mean, Parker and Stone were essentially daring Disney to sue them. That counts for something.
In the November 4, 2009 episode of South Park, Parker and Stone seem to address accusations of homophobia such the ones I've leveled at them regarding their use of the word "fag." To try to summarize—
South Park has been invaded by bikers whose loud, obnoxious behavior earns them the disdain of the townspeople. Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny lead their fellow citizens in repeatedly calling these bikers "fags" and "faggots," even going so far as to paint "Fags Go Home!" graffiti in huge red letters all over town. When the local gay people see this, however, they are shocked, saddened, and angry. They complain bitterly to local officials, who set about trying to find out who's responsible. The boys readily admit to the deed, seeing nothing wrong in what they've done. When accused of blatant bigotry and homophobia, they're genuinely surprised. They don't consider the words "fag" and "faggot" to be anti-gay slurs at all, but rather generic terms of disrespect for anyone guilty of extremely annoying, inconsiderate behavior. As they put it (and I'll have to paraphrase from memory here), "Gay people aren't fags—or at least not most of them!"
At first confused, the townsfolk soon come around to the fourth-graders' way of thinking regarding the words "fag" and "faggot." Even the local gay citizens agree, especially since they regard the inconsiderate biker gangs with as much disdain as everyone else. Besides, they welcome the opportunity to foist the hated words off onto others. Meanwhile, the perplexed bikers—who, after all, don't consider themselves "fags" at all—try to determine why everyone's calling them that. They go to the local library, where they look up the words in the Oxford English Dictionary. They discover that the meanings have changed through the years, meaning entirely different things from one century to the next. In fact, it's only in the twentieth century that the words "fag" and "faggot" came to refer to homosexuals.
There's a lot more to it than that, but that's enough to illustrate what Parker and Stone are doing. They're suggesting that, just like Stan, Kyle, and their friends, they don't use the words "fag" and "faggot" to refer to homosexuals, but rather to obnoxious people in general, regardless of their sexual orientation. What's more, they're saying that they're far from alone in this—that the meanings of the words have again evolved, as they have repeatedly in the past, and that most young people today aren't thinking of gay men at all when they use those terms. In short, to think that "fag" and "faggot" refer to gay people is so last century.
This is extremely thought-provoking, but not without serious problems. When you get right down to it, there essentially to be two possibilities:
- Parker and Stone are ingeniously—and disingenuously—trying to deflect criticism of their very real homophobia. They're attempting, in effect, to blame their victims, attributing their sense of victimhood to their lack of understanding.
- Parker and Stone genuinely believe what they're saying in this episode. They truly don't consider "fag" and "faggot" to be anti-gay slurs. To them, non-gay people are as capable of being "fags" as gay people, and gay people are as likely not to be "fags" as heterosexuals. The criterion is obnoxiousness, not sexual orientation.
If #1 is true, then Parker and Stone are contemptible. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt and go with #2. Yet, as I said, there are major problems with this possibility.
First of all, it makes outcomes hinge on intentionality. As I've noted elsewhere, this smacks of the intentional fallacy. While intentionality can be a legitimate consideration in such matters, it shouldn't be the consideration, especially since we can never know for sure what someone else's intentions truly are. Results matter more than intentions. Even the law recognizes this fact. While intentions are often taken into account in criminal cases (consider the differences between first- and second-degree murder), intentions are far from the only consideration. If a driver carelessly runs over a child in the street, the fact that the driver didn't intend to kill the child doesn't excuse him or her of all wrongdoing. It may free the driver of a charge of first-degree murder, but conviction on some lesser offense is likely. So while intention matters, it can't be the only thing that matters. Even when Parker and Stone don't intend to offend, they can still be offensive—and that's not the "fault" of the person who's offended.
Another factor to consider is that Parker and Stone are not the imaginary fourth-graders who serve as their primary "mouthpieces." Even if you buy the fact that your typical ten-year-old American boy in 2009 might not consider the word "fag" to refer to a gay person (which, by the way, I consider to be a stretch, but let's go with it for the sake of argument, even in light of the fact that the history of South Park has repeatedly demonstrated that these are not your typical ten-year-old American boys in that they often display greater wisdom and worldliness than their elders), Parker and Stone are not ten-year-old boys. They can't feign the surprise and innocence that Stan and Kyle display when confronted by their acts of apparent bigotry. Even if Parker and Stone don't personally consider "fag" and "faggot" to be anti-gay slurs, they've always known damn well the baggage that those words carry.
Let's look at it from another perspective. If a person says a blatantly racist thing, even if they truly harbor no personal ill will against people of other races and genuinely don't believe that what they said is racist, does that then mean that what they said is not racist? No. Acts and words of racism do not depend on racist intentions. (This is conceding that just because someone may consider something to be racist doesn't necessarily mean that it is racist. It's not "racist" to criticize a person of another race for something that one would also criticize a member of one's own race for as well, yet such irresponsible accusations are hurled around all the time.)
To make a long story short, Parker and Stone may genuinely feel that they haven't been homophobic in the way they've used the words "fag" and "faggot" on South Park. And they may genuinely not be homophobes. Yet, at the same time, they can't simply shrug it all off as hypersensitivity and lack of understanding on the part of their critics. They're no innocents, and they're no fools. They know what they're doing. If they truly believe that in using the words "fag" and "faggot" the way they do they're striking some kind of blow for tolerance, then I must applaud them for their wishes. I can't say that I like their methods, but perhaps their intentions are admirable. But, again, I don't know that for sure. I can never know what their intentions truly are.
Besides, if they're going to attempt something revolutionary, they have to expect some heat. If those criticisms really did catch them by surprise, then they're more than just innocent. They're naive.
Commentary by Wayne Studer
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