originally published February 5, 2012
Whether or not you are a fan of South Park – and I’d consider myself a fan – it’s impossible to deny that it’s a hit. Most episodes also tend to be brewed with political and topical issues. Given the show’s consistent mass appeal among the younger demographic with its filthy (and often clever) humor, it’s quite likely that a significant number of apathetic youth will learn a lot about what’s going on in the world though this animated filter.
Sure, this is tragic. It’s horrible that kids today won’t watch the nightly news, and feverishly follow Anderson Cooper’s tweets. This is hardly new though. When I was young, Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” and Letterman’s monolog gave me as much news as Dan Rather, or whoever the local team of hairsprayed anchors may have been.
So which is worse? Teenagers learn about politics through South Park, and a lot of adults learn about politics through Fox News. Apart from one being honest enough to admit it’s designed to be entertainment, is there really much difference?
South Park creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone have made an effort not to align themselves with the left or the right. Parker has been quoted as saying, “I hate conservatives but I really fucking hate liberals.” This has thrown the politics of the show toward the spectrum’s middle ground, taking if anything a decidedly libertarian view. Parker, it should be noted, is a registered member of the Libertarian Party.
Okay, so the show makes fun of Michael Moore and it makes fun of Glenn Beck. That’s what the show does – it’s satire. I have heard criticism that the show is too right-wing, which it probably is when compared with other comedies on TV. Sure, they have an episode called “Die Hippie, Die”. But I’ve found that, while a lot of liberals are happy to see entire shows built around making fun of the right (and Mr. Colbert deserves some sort of giant trophy for doing this so well for so long), they can get a little touchy when the politics of the left are lampooned.
Well, screw that. As soon as anyone starts taking themselves too seriously they become ripe for a bit of mockery.
And so enters the phrase that prompted me to shake off my hesitations about writing on a show I enjoy and risk looking like a fanboy: the South Park Republican. This is a term that started oozing around the web around 2001 or 2002. British Blogger Andrew Sullivan is credited with coining this term. Sullivan is one of those conservatives that has taken a pro-stand on gay marriage and an anti-stand on Sarah Palin. In other words, he’s a conservative that’s worth listening to.
A South Park Republican is considered to be a young person who holds the center-right position that seems to guide the politics of the show. Matt and Trey are familiar with the term, and they have responded to it rather dismissively. They don’t care for labels, and even creating a new one just for fans of their show’s politics doesn’t sit well with them.
The term caught fire though, as any catchy term seems to do in the world of buzz-politics. Brian C. Anderson wrote a book called South Park Conservatives, in which he bemoans the massive liberal bias he sees in mainstream media.
This is the part of the political world I hate the most. I accept that, because my beliefs tend to be heaped mostly on the left, I probably don’t notice a lot of the liberal bias in popular culture. Yes, The Daily Show is news-like in its delivery with a very broadly-stated leftist perspective, and The West Wing was filled with Democrats as protagonists. But The Daily Show is damn funny, and The West Wing was written with a lot of what I enjoy most in a drama: sharp dialog and a lot of walking tracking shots.
There’s an interesting article from May, 2005 in the New York Times in which essayist Frank Rich discusses the conservatives’ efforts to latch on to South Park as a pulpit on their side of the multi-pulpit church (apologies for the confusingly awful metaphor). Rich points out some of the conservative stances that Anderson references in his book, including the episode that depicts Rob Reiner as a militant anti-smoking activist, and the radical voices of Tim Robbins, Alec Baldwin and Sean Penn, as depicted in Parker and Stone’s film, Team America: World Police.
Except that Anderson’s book doesn’t present the other side; the show is hardly a rallying cry for the Republican Party. Remember, it’s generally conservative groups who raise an outcry over the ‘filth’ on television (such as the episode of South Park in which a filthy word is bleeped out 162 times), and it’s conservative groups who take the toughest stands against homosexuality (which is a source of comedy for the show, but only Cartman expresses an obviously negative view on the subject).
Anderson’s book came out just after the 2004 election, when America’s conservatives were at the peak of their power and also on the verge of an immense backlash in popularity which led to decisive losses in 2006 and 2008. South Park ran an episode that satirized the Terry Schiavo case, in which Kenny was in a persistent vegetative state. In this episode, the Republicans (who fought against Schiavo’s husband’s attempts to remove her feeding tube in real life) were employed by Satan himself to carry out his wishes to keep Kenny alive at all costs.
A USA Today poll released one week later claimed that Americans believe (55% to 40%) that Republicans are using the federal government to interfere with citizens’ private lives. So why would Republicans want to hoist this show on its cultural flag? Is it just because they want something, anything that they can call hip, relevant, and their own? Is it because The Daily Show is such a vocal outcry against them that they desperately yearn for Comedy Central to provide a legitimate flip-side?
No matter, the assumption is complete crap. Any fan of South Park would know better than to assign the show a political cubby-hole. Parker and Stone said it most clearly in their 2004 episode in which the students of South Park Elementary vote on their new mascot, between a Giant Douche or a Turd Sandwich. Stan Marsh, the show’s perennial voice of wisdom, had been resisting casting a vote. Finally he concedes, “I learned that I’d better get used to having to pick between a douche and a turd sandwich because it’s usually the choice I’ll have.”