You can write a cultural critique about nearly anything that comes to your mind. Many people have done so and commented on recent events or popular culture. While I knew that I want to have a close look at something that belongs to popular culture, it was surely not easy to decide what media to take. There are so many books, newspapers, movies and TV series out there that the free decision I had, was not an easy one. As far I did book reports and reviews before in school, I decided to accept the challenge of a TV series as my topic.
However, there are quite a lot of series available to choose from. If you go to web pages, you can find several series listed: “Prison Break”, “Desperate Housewives”, “Lost”, “24”, “Heroes”, “Greys Anatomy”, “Family Guy”, “South Park” and “The Simpsons” to name just a few. Some of them are cartoons, others not. Obviously, I have not been following up all different TV series and, therefore, I was able to minimize my choice. I started to think about what TV series are capable of and how they can have different messages and morals to tell.
The following question came up in my mind: “Why not choose something that manages to criticize various topics of popular culture by its own? ” Finally, I decided for the American TV series South Park that is directed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Personally, I started watching the series 2006. I remember that I was not sure if I liked it or not at first, but after watching several episodes and understanding the single and unique characters better, it became one of my favorite TV shows. Whenever I watched it, it was sure to make me laugh.
More than that, it can even make you rethink about common topics or do research on topics you weren’t too familiar with yet. South Park isn’t Sesame Street, it is not poison either1 -“I think we all learned something today … “- I have never come across a TV series that has such a wide range of subjects they criticize as South Park does. Hate Crimes, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, Voting, Global Warning, Parenting, Nambla, Al Quaeda, Homosexuality, Gay marriage, Illegal Immigration, Pedophilic priests. Different religious beliefs and groups like The Mormons, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Scientology.
There is nothing that the creators of South Park would not criticize; nothing that they don’t feel comfortable enough to make fun off. Every relevant topic in nowadays world is being addressed and it is very important to acknowledge that they broach the issue of popular culture as well. I am only mentioning Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez, Mel Gibson, The Nanny, World of War craft (famous computer game), Christian rock and Star Trek. They even make fun of my favourite movie “Lord of the Rings”. I cannot imagine any other series to make fun of it and succeed making me cry tears because I have to laugh so hard.
That is the challenging thing about being a South Park consumer: You have to be able to laugh about your own favourite popular culture. It’s easy to laugh about others or topics that might not concern you, but with South Park you can always be sure that there will be a time for YOU as well. Your choice is either to accept that if you want and continue watching it and dealing with ALL social, religious, cultural and political approaches or to quit watching, because you are offended by an episode and cannot cope with any other views that exist on this world about this one topic.
Actually, all twelve seasons of South Park give us a lot of information. “Information? “, you might ask, “what is she trying to convince us with? ” You are right. After there have been many negative critiques and protests about South Park, my opinion might seem awkward to you, maybe even offensive. If you only started reading this article, because you were hoping to read that South Park is a “twisted, extremely mean-spirited, and deplorable” (Fagin 2000: 1) series, which is “dangerous to the democracy” (Fagin 2000: 1) as well, I can tell you at this point that I will disappoint you.
If you have not figured it out yet by yourself, I don’t think of the series as a big moral catastrophe. No, I actually think, that even teenagers can learn something from it. – “The following program should not be viewed by anyone”- This slogan is what the viewer gets to see before the actual episode starts. “Due to coarse language and its content”, that is the reason they tell us. So, imagine yourself getting ready for a relaxing night at home: You are in your pyjamas; got the drinks and snacks ready and you are looking forward to a nice show to watch. Will this slogan keep you away from the TV?
Are you going to decide to change the channel and settle for a romantic movie instead? No. If you know South Park already, nothing will keep you away from exploring the new episode. If you are a “starter”, you will tend to be even more curious about this obviously mysterious series that you are hanging on! This reminds me of a sentence I have read in the book “Beloved” by Toni Morrison: “This is not a story to pass on”. The only difference here is that the demand not to pass the story on comes at the end of the book and not before you are starting the first chapter.
While this book does not give you the choice of your own decision, because you have read it already, the creators of South Park give you the chance to resist. Still, I don’t see that slogan as a serious warning. I can’t help to interpret it as an invitation to watch. However, the Christian Family Network totally agrees with “South Park’s own tongue-in-cheek disclaimer” (Fagin 2000: 1) and tries to convince people to not watch the show. They feel attacked by the socio-political way of South Park and offended by the use of ‘bad language’.
They are afraid that viewers loose Christian values, even though many episodes of South Park end with an important and well-formulated moral. In the following, I will tell you why I think South Park is not that bad after all. -“Oh no, they killed Kenny, you bastards! “- Would you let your kids watch South Park? I am sure everyone feels to have an opinion about that, no matter if you are a proud fan, an occasional viewer or somebody who has not watched it yet, but believes in certain critiques. I want you to think about your reasons why you would or would not let them join you and it would be good to keep your thoughts in mind.
I am not sure if you noticed, but it is always easier to judge something on the surface. Therefore, let us have a look at the typical features of the show: It is an animated series about “the adventures of four young boys in a Colorado mountain town” (Fagin 2000: 3). There is Eric Cartman, the fat kid who dreams about ruling the world and who is constantly planning rescues or attacks (the important thing is just that he has the control). Moreover, Eric enjoys mocking Kyle Broflovski because he is Jewish. Other than that, Kyle is the smart kid. The character Stan Marsh stands for a normal, average American kid.
His father tends to get addicted to things and there are several occasions where Stan is embarrassed by his father’s behavior. Kenny is the poor one who happens to die in different ways in almost every episode, so we could call him ‘the unlucky one’. Every time it is up to those little school children “to provide the level-headedness and logical thinking to fix the situation” (Brazil 2008:1). What all the episodes have in common is one simple message: all people nowadays are ridiculous (cp. Brazil 2008:1). The show makes fun of people such as conservatives, liberals, blacks, whites and gays.
So, when you think that is discrimination, that’s too bad. I will try to help you to see another perspective. When you start deeply thinking about the South Park concept, you realize that the way they satirize anything and the way they mock everybody just “reminds us that no one is perfect” (Brazil 2008: 1). I believe a show might be regarded as racialist when it makes fun of ONE certain group of people, but why should it be seen as a mean and dirty cartoon when it shows you the different beliefs and manners of every group of people you can imagine?
I do not think you can call that ‘racialist’. The Christian Family Network “has prepared a South Park Education/Action Guide to help make people aware of South Park and its potential affect upon our youth” (Fagin 2000:1). I will not deny that small children should not view South Park and that this show uses certain pictures and curse language that is unsuitable for children of a certain age group. That is true. The reason why I am not telling you ages is because I can’t make the entire decision for you.
It depends what the children are ready for and if you, as the parent, is prepared to explain topics such as homosexuality, fart jokes, evolution versus creation, politics or environmental topics like Global Warming. Let’s face it; most of the parents in the Unites States of America are not ready for that. They try to protect their children by partitioning them from the real world. Some think that avoiding talking about it is the appropriate way to deal with topics like that. Others might feel like it is a too difficult and complicated task for them.
Nevertheless, most of the parents believe in the thought of ‘protection’ from bad language and so called ‘adult themes’ as long as possible. That is what they think. That is what they are constantly trying to do. Some of us feel different. Some of us don’t see the reason to act like that. Some of us even think that the above-mentioned way of parenting is wrong. “We can help protect our youth from vile trash like South Park” (Fagin 2000:1): This is an unforgettable slogan from the ‘campaign against South Park’ by the Christian Family Network.
In fact, many parents forbid young teenagers to watch different series on TV. The parents do not want to have them watch something like South Park alone and with an adult not either. In my opinion, it is not only a sense of protection, but also a system of precaution. Some very religious people in the US tend to keep their children from the real world, because they fear that their brainwashed thoughts and learned truths might get disturbed through that. Lets talk about parenting. What is good parenting? Is it keeping children away from the real world with its dramas, political rivals and sexuality?
Or is it better to try to SLOWLY (! ) adjust our children to it and make the effort as a parent to talk to them about it? Good parenting is a permanent process. “You’re constantly exposing your children to new ideas, developing their moral character, and helping them realize their potential, all the while preparing them for a world that doesn’t necessarily share your values. ” (Fagin 2000:1) Children can be opposed to many more things than parents believe, if you just take your time to explain. Indeed, it can be quite an interesting and helpful lesson for them.
If you expose your children “to unfiltered adult issues before they’ve accumulated enough life experience and emotional maturity to deal with them, it may indeed be harmful” (Fagin 2000:1). However, complete isolation from pop culture and critical debates might be even worse. Do not forget that “forbidden fruit is always more tempting” (Fagin 2000:1). Isn’t it better to watch a show like South Park with your children together than find them watching it without you somewhere else? As a parent, you can tell if your children are ready for South Park related topics or not.
Not all episodes are the same. So keep that in mind. If you start previewing some, you will be able to pick some out that are acceptable for the age of your children and you might be even happy afterwards that you found something that you and your kids like and where you can share laughter! Moreover, with the right conversation afterwards, your children can indeed learn something from it. Stan and Kyle often conclude at the end of an episode “We learned something today… ” and a mostly very good understandable morale follows.