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South Park is a satirical animated series that debuted on Comedy Central on 13 August 1997. Its creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, first met when they were teamed together for a film studies class project at the University of Colorado. The series about four foul-mouthed eight-year-olds[note 1] and their strange hometown grew out of their belief that only child characters could be politically incorrect enough to satirize American society.
During the ninth season, which began in March 2005, there were rumors that the creators of South Park were working on an episode that would skewer Scientology. These rumors likely originated with cast member Isaac Hayes, a Scientologist who voiced the character of Chef. That Stone and Parker would want to produce such an episode should have come as little surprise to the hierarchy of Scientology, as they had lampooned elements of other religions — especially dogma, fundamentalism and the slave-like devotion many religious leaders demand of their followers. (Stone — who is from a Jewish background (now a self-proclaimed agnostic/atheist) and who supplies the voice of Kyle Broflovski, who is Jewish — has written many episodes satirizing Judaism.)
The episode, titled "Trapped in the Closet", aired on 16 November 2005. In it, Stan Marsh is screened by a Scientologist who finds that he has a high thetan level, and so is believed to be the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard. Tom Cruise and other Scientologists visit Stan and try to recruit him as a church leader. When Stan ridicules Cruise's acting and career choices, Cruise throws a tantrum and locks himself in Stan's closet. This leads to a running gag where several people ask him to come out of the closet. Eventually, fellow Scientologists John Travolta and R&B singer R. Kelly join Cruise in the closet.
The episode also includes a long segment describing the dogma of Scientology. It ends with Stan saying to the Scientologists "so sue me", to which they reply "fine, we will!" In the end credits, everybody is credited as "John Smith" or "Jane Smith".
At first, Isaac Hayes was willing to participate in the episode. But as the time to produce the episode drew closer, Hayes withdrew his support and eventually quit the series, saying "There is a place in this world for satire but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry toward
my religious beliefs begins." In the first episode of the tenth season — "The Return of Chef" (aired 22 March 2006) — Chef is killed off after he joins a club that is really a brainwashing cult.
In October 2011, Mark "Marty" Rathbun, a defector from Scientology who was once the head of a secret unit within Scientology charged with inspecting critics of the organization, claimed to have documentation that his former unit had done in-depth investigations of the South Park production team — particularly of Stone and Parker — in retaliation for the episodes Trapped in the Closet and The Return of Chef.
Muhammad censorship controversy
In 2010, South Park — being a show that likes to intentionally piss people off by making very good points — decided to broadcast an episode featuring the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Despite the depiction being of just a guy in a bear suit and the same show depicting Muhammad back in 2001 (and in the flesh, sans bear suit) Comedy Central decided to outright censor the image. Stone and Parker were adamant that it wasn't some random in-joke, particularly as the entire event was foreshadowed by the 2006 episode "Cartoon Wars"; the storyline was almost identical to how the 2010 controversy played out, but with the cartoon in question being Family Guy. However, the degree to which Comedy Central took the censorship — especially Kyle's speech at the end, of which only connecting words such as "and" are audible — was extreme enough to make it look like satire.
The event eventually sparked "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" in protest, with the aim being to make depictions of Muhammad common enough to render them hardly offensive at all, or at least make most Muslims grow up and get over themselves.
"Go God Go"
In true South Park manner of poking fun at everyone and everything, the creators of South Park also made an episode about atheism. The episode features Richard Dawkins (whose voice actor should be executed for his poor accent imitation) having an affair with the local transgender school teacher (the creators have said that Dawkins comes off as a smart guy, but still ignorant enough to have sex with a transgender woman without realizing it). The two later lead the abolition of all religion.
Society in the distant future is then depicted as being completely atheistic, worshiping science and ridiculing as well as violently fighting everything religious, but involved in a three-party civil war over an atheist community naming dispute (which is called the great question).
Is it a dumb plot or does it have a point, especially concerning the Great Atheist-Feminist War? You decide.
Scientific denialism, and other libertarian quackery
While South Park is the most cutting edge satirical show of its caliber, with its "equal opportunity offender" policy of poking fun at all targets, there have been instances where the show has promoted libertarian values and political apathy. Since South Park is watched by millions and is a cultural phenomenon, the show is no doubt a prime enabler of some aspects of internet libertarianism.
Global warming denial
Since they're fiscally-conservative Libertarians, it does not take too much of a guess to know that the South Park creators are anti-environmentalists, and they have expressed such views from mild and more honest instances in "Rainforest Shmainforest", to outright dishonest denialism expressed in "Terrance and Phillip: Behind the Blow" and "ManBearPig".
- "Rainforest Shmainforest" parodied environmental activism. It was inspired by a trip that Trey and Matt took in Puerto Rico, where they hated every minute of being in the rainforest. Their opinion on environmentalism is best summed up by the
terrorist leaderfreedom fighter's rant about how rich Americans use up all the resources then dictate what the people in the third world do with their own backyard and how they live their lives without said rich Americans actually suffering the consequences of living there, all because Americans like the "pretty flowers". The episode began with the kids getting unwillingly sucked into a kids' musical group, "Getting Gay With Kids!", and going on a field trip to the rainforest for activist purposes. After almost getting killed by the harsh elements of nature, and before being ritualistically sacrificed by the native population, Cartman (who hated the trip and the rainforest from the get-go) saves the day along with an industrial logging company. They proceed to pave down the trees, kill the wildlife and natives, and free the captive group. "Getting Gay with Kids!" immediately changes their tune:
"There's a place called the "Rainforest", it truly SUCKS ASS!/Let's knock it all down, and get rid of it FAST! Getting Gay with Kids is here!"
- In "Terrance and Phillip: Behind the Blow", Earth Day people come to South Park. The Earth Day people utilize a Jedi mind trick to make the townspeople not only believe that all they say is correct, while that which conservatives say is slander, but to also build for them a massive Earth Day celebration. When Clyde says "My dad is a geologist and he says there actually isn't any concrete evidence of global warming", they answer "That's not true, global warming is going to kill us all. The Republicans are responsible". (Of course, his father was speaking outside his field of expertise, and as such he would be no authority on global warming.)
- "ManBearPig" is a parody of the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" and of Al Gore. It is also a prime example of Global Warming denial. In the episode, Al Gore comes to South Park to warn everyone about the dangers of ManBearPig. Throughout the episode, Al Gore is depicted as an immature manchild who thinks everyone's not taking him "serial". Towards the end of the episode, after the kids survive getting trapped in a cave, Stan yells at Al Gore, calling him a sore loser who had no friends because of his loss in the 2000 election, and states that "ManBearPig" isn't even real, and it's just Al Gore's method of gaining friends because he is a friendless loser. We hope those of you who aren't South Park Republicans can catch the "subtlety". The titular ManBearPig has become a meme amongst conservatives and libertarian global warming denialists. Expect them to pop the meme and shout "MANBEARPIG!" whenever you try to debate them with facts.
- Possibly the most explicit form of global warming denial may have been in the episode "Goobacks", which was a commentary on illegal immigration policy. In this episode, time travellers from the future, who happen to be a mix of all human races, go back in time to work minimum wage jobs because their future is desolate and offers no opportunity. This causes a ruckus with the local rednecks who chant out "DEY TOOK UR JERBS!" in response. In one scene where they all gather at a rally, the rednecks conduct some brainstorming out of what little brains they have to get rid of the time travelling "goobacks". One of them proposes to pollute the Earth to cause the ice caps to melt for massive floods, and the head redneck "corrects" him on the subject matter. It could be possible, however, that the writers are just skewering the rednecks, seeing as the characters are depicted as dumb much like rednecks in real life. The episode ends with the rednecks deciding to become gay so that they don't produce offspring so that the goobacks won't be born. Stan counteracts that solution with the goal of cleaning up the Earth and being environmentally friendly in order to not produce such a dismal future for the goobacks, which is what the South Park residents start to do until Stan gets bored and says "all right, this is gay, let's go back to the redneck homosexual idea."
- South Park has since then apologized for their ManBearPig episodes and making fun of Al Gore through an episode which makes fun of common anti-climate change tropes and reveals that the ManBearPig indeed exists. Al Gore responded, saying that he was impressed by their apology.
Acceptance of global warming
During Season 22, however, South Park dramatically shifted its tone. In "Time To Get Cereal" and "Nobody Got Cereal?", Manbearpig is confirmed to be real and starts eating and dismembering residents of the town. The boys, who act as the mouthpiece of Parker and Stone, apologize to Al Gore for making fun of him and admit that he was right all along and beg for his help. The high moment of "Time to Get Cereal" is a diner scene where a manbearpig denialist is shown stating typical denialist talking points like "there's no scientific evidence" and "lots of smart people don't believe." Once Manbearpig bursts into the restaurant and starts murdering its patrons, the denier states that despite being real, there is nothing that can be done and it's too late. Besides, he argues, the Chinese aren't going to do anything about Manbearpig. After this line, the man is eaten and torn apart by the monster. In "Nobody Got Cereal?", it is shown that Stan's grandfather's generation made a deal with the beast. In order to have nice things like cars, they promised manbearbig that he could return and wreak havoc on Stan's generation. When Stan finally gets a chance to negotiate a new deal with manbearpig, the townspeople are unwilling to give up Red Dead Redemption 2. Instead, he renegotiates a deal where he does not have to give up anything, but Manbearpig will return in five years and the carnage will be much worse.
Depiction of abortion rights and transgender people
Abortion is heavily lampooned in South Park. Matt Stone and Trey Parker seem to usually take the side of the Pro-Life Movement. As typical of pseudo-libertarians, they want the government to stay out of your life, except if you're a woman when it comes down to your body. Though they may also be just using abortion humor to its most horrific extent to troll conservatives.
- "Eek, a Penis!" Cartman spends most of the episode teaching inner-city kids that it is okay to cheat. In counseling a pregnant teenager, he says that "Abortion isn't wrong… abortion is the ultimate form of cheating. You're cheating nature itself. Why do rich white girls get ahead in life? Because they get abortions when they're young. They get pregnant, but they still want to go to college, so, whatever, they just cheat. They cheat that little critter in their belly out of a chance at life." Given the context, it is extremely obvious that this was intended as sarcasm.
- "Krazy Kripples". The episode satirizes Christopher Reeve's post-paralysis charitable services as "self serving" considering that Christopher Reeve never partook in any charity for paralysis until he became crippled. However, the treatment made possible by stem cell research is depicted as Reeve sucking the stem cell liquid out of the cracked spinal cords of aborted infants, and gaining super powers after he continues to do so after being cured of paralysis. The day is saved when Gene Hackman gets the government to declare stem cell research as "unethical". This episode was more of a parody of the Superman films than a stance on stem cell research, and could be construed as a parody of the fears of opponents.
However the issue of abortion rights has been treated comparatively more favorably in episodes such as in the "Woodland Christmas Critters" and in the "Stick of Truth" video game. In both cases it helps save other people, the former being to stop the reign of the Antichrist and the latter to keep the town from being blown up by a nuclear bomb. These satirical instances at least indicate Matt and Trey don't completely consider abortion to be bad.
Transgender rights have had a mixed depiction from Matt and Trey:
- "Mr. Garrison's Fancy New Vagina" largely dismisses the concept of being "someone else on the inside" and takes the stance that you should accept who you are without surgical correction. It goes to the point of other characters changing their race and species in the episode, and that a transwoman becomes a "dickless freak" while omitting the months of psychological evaluation, hormone therapy, and counseling before a procedure is even approved by any doctor. A person as insane as Garrison would not get approved for surgery. Then again, the same people howling about the offense it causes them make no such complaints about the similarly distorted portrayals of religious people and such, so for people who make a career out of parody there is no obvious reason this particular topic should be excepted.
- "The Cissy" makes up for it somewhat by lampooning people uncomfortable with anything outside the binary gender system. The episode largely revolves around bathroom politics, particularly the controversy over gender-neutral bathrooms. The ending concludes that "Anyone who has a problem sharing a bathroom with people who might be transgender will have to use the special designated bathroom designed to keep them away from the normal people who don't care." Cisgender people who are uncomfortable get to use the "cissy" bathroom. It even acknowledges non-cisgender identities as not always having to do with sex. When Stan goes to his father for guidance, the question he asks is: "Dad, is it possible for someone to be one way on the outside, but totally different on the inside? I mean, can somebody identify as one sex, but be something else, but still have it be nothing about sex?" It seems their views have become more enlightened with age, or perhaps it simply showed that their viewers didn't know how to take biting satire when it offended their sensibilities.
- …Or, maybe not. "Board Girls" depicts the controversy around transwoman athletes in possibly the worst way imaginable. The A-plot features PC Principal's wife, Strong Woman, in a weightlifting competition with transwoman Heather Swanson — depicted as Macho Man Randy Savage, who is later revealed to have been an abusive ex of Strong Woman's pre-transition. It transpires that Heather has falsified a transition in order to continue hurting Strong Woman in women-only spaces. The episode's main conflict is PC Principal wanting to stand up for his wife, while being unable to break the belief that Heather is a woman. The PC Babies, literal babies that cry insufferably at any injustice,[note 2] even side against Heather. All of this is straight out of TERF playbooks, and there's no sympathetic take on trans people within the episode to balance it out.
South Park has been accused of spawning a generation of alt-right trolls. This is based upon South Park's frequent use of "both sides are equally bad cynicism, attacks on earnestness, and overt bigotry and bullying ("Why are you taking it so seriously? They’re just jokes!").
- Islamic Awakening — Islamic group who were not very happy with the Muhammad thing.
- Revolution Muslim — Another jihadi group who were pissed off about Muhammed being depicted in a bear suit
- Parents Television Council — Christian group who are never happy with anything
- The Simpsons — already did it
- From Episode 306, Sexual Harassment Panda:
Judge: Mr. Marsh, what do you have to say?
Stan: What do you mean?
Judge: I need to hear your defense.
Stan: Uh… I'm eight?
- PC babies are obvious representations of those snowflake, millennial, SJWs who "[s]ometimes [...] don't even know what they're crying about". Of course, let's not focus on conservative correctness.
- "Hayes leaves 'bigoted' South Park", BBC News, 14 March 2006, accessed 7 August 2016
- Rathbun, Mark "Marty". "Corporate Scientology Targets South Park", Moving On Up a Little Higher (Rathbun's blog), posted 23 October 2011, accessed 26 October 2011.
- South Park — Global warming moron on YouTube, accessed 7 August 2016
- South Park — Maybe We Should Have Done about Manbearpig on YouTube, accessed 17 November 2018
- I criticized ‘South Park’ for spawning a generation of trolls. And so the trolls came for me. by Dana Schwartz (Feb. 21, 2020 at 5:00 a.m. PST) The Washington Post.
- Lindy West Explains How South Park Paved the Way For the Alt-Right: Talking with the author of The Witches Are Coming about memes, media, and how not to become an American sucker. by Adrienne Westenfeld (Nov 5, 2019) Esquire.
- The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West (2019) Hachette Books. ISBN 0316449881.
- How Jokes Won the Election: How do you fight an enemy who’s just kidding? by Emily Nussbaum (January 16, 2017) Esquire.