TelevIsm: The Offensive Olympics - South Park vs. Family Guy
Image: Cartman looks angrily at the camera in front of a tank full of manatees and balls.
Like many twentysomethings USians, South Park and Family Guy made up a big part of my adolescent and college adventures in cultural competence. South Park made a huge impact on culture when I entered puberty and remains popular, and in college Family Guy, then a cult show, was cool and hip. I consumed them with friends, and enjoyed them both even though I saw issues with them (as I so often do). Like all media consumed, it had an impact on the way I saw and reacted to things. South Park's liberal use of slurs like gay, retarded and lame infiltrated my language, becoming the typical synonyms for crappy for me and my peers. And both shows raised my tolerance for bigotry in myself and others. It made me feel more comfortable with my privilege, made me think of it subconsciously as something cool and okay rather than something to challenge and fight. It made me more tolerant of casual oppression especially in the guise of hipster "ironic" oppression that South Park and Family Guy have given the mask of legitimate satire.
The two shows have a lot in common. Both are animated, and popular with a young crowd. Both have the power to wield attention and influence. And both are known for being offensive – whether it's for the sake of making some supposedly critical point or just for the sake of pushing the envelope. These influential shows, consumed uncritically by millions every Sunday or Wednesday, are worthy of analysis. After watching almost every single episode of each of these shows, I want to use my knowledge of these shows to expose how they are harmful.
Both shows have issues. But which privilege do these two shows insist upon most thoroughly? At what rate do these shows oppress which bodies, and in what way? Which is more offensive? In the next few posts, I'm going to take a quantitative (though inherently subjective, of course) look at exactly how offensive these shows are. I will take five episodes spread over the course of each series and analyze the rate at they make offensive comments or jokes, whether in language, image, or action, and break it down by sexism, racism, classism, ableism, cissexism, sizism, and heterosexism (an incomplete list of oppressions to be sure, but the kinds that I feel most comfortable identifying).
I have two tentative hypotheses regarding which is more offensive. I want to think that Family Guy is worse, because I kind of hate it and consider it vastly less considerate, thoughtful, developed, funny, visually striking. Basically, I find it less appealing on every level, and I hope that perception is validated by my kinda-quantitative analysis. Family Guy is boorish, and lazy. And unthoughtful. And ignorant. These are qualities that usually result in more offensive writing.
But South Park is a show that I still enjoy watching and that I still find funny. Though it's very frequently offensive, it's also thoughtful and witty. It tries harder than Family Guy on every level from dialogue to joke-telling to animation, and because of the effort it succeeds much more than Family Guy. And both shows try to be offensive, to create controversy – why wouldn't South Park be better at being offensive, too?
This is a hard line to draw! So I've come up with a specific set of guidelines to enable me to tell a critical joke from a hurtful joke, which you should read if you're interested in understanding how I'm viewing and counting instances of oppressions. I've decided not to cut either of the shows any slack for context" or "satirical intent". Neither of these shows make a consistent rhetorical point of fighting oppression, like say The Boondocks or Mad Men. When South Park or Family Guy do address oppression, it's either on a one-episode basis or in defense of privilege. Both of them are primarily written by white men. They don't deserve a generous interpretation because they haven't done the daily work of consistently writing about or facing oppression.
I did consider whether or not Cartman is a special case because he is so specifically and explicitly evil, and I do think there's a valid argument for his being necessarily critical. burq at Racialicious argues:
Some have asked how it is that I can so despise the bigotry on South Park, but love Eric Cartman so damn much. It's fairly simple, I say. Like Uncle Ruckus on The Boondocks, he is so over-the-top in his racism that one never has to wonder if his ideas are being prescribed to the viewer. The more insidious evil always lay in the show's creators.
But Cartman is also a mouthpiece of the show; though I can't find a specific citation, I recall watching an interview on Vh1 in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone say that they are both the most like Cartman. He is the most popular character on the show, and his oppressive words and actions, like it or not, have an impact – his catchphrases are parroted by bigots in training, and have even resulted in actual violence against redheads.
This whole post, this whole series, is pretty subjective. I'm looking to satisfy curiosity and come up with some kind of considered and semi-verifiable comparison on several different points between the two shows rather than a hazy estimation about their writing and joke style. But my ambition here is not to come up with some authoritative response about which is officially worse. These are shows that I want to analyze, and this is the framework in which I'm analyzing them.
I'd like to use this rather inspecific post to invite the (mostly) awesome commenters I've been interacting with to talk about these shows, comparatively or individually. Are you a fan of either, or both? Or do you abhor either, or both? Why or why not? If you've written on either show, please feel free to share - I found much less web-based social justice writing on South Park particularly than I anticipated, and I'd like to have background reading to link to.
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