The Philosophy of South Park
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on Season 19 of South Park, where we dive into the philosophy and politics of one of our favorite shows. We explore South Park’s themes of politically correct (PC) culture, gentrification, advertising, social justice, safe spaces and narcissism.
Written by: Alec Opperman
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
The Philosophy of South Park
Hey everyone, Jared here – today we’re talking about a show that’s at the TOP of its game after almost 20 years on the air: South Park, specifically, season 19.
Unlike much earlier seasons, Season 19 is a serialized narrative that tells an overarching story from episode to episode. They played with this idea a bit in Season 18, but, overall, it wasn’t nearly as comprehensive. Season 19 is arguably the smartest season yet. It chronicles the small Colorado town as it experiences significant social changes, introduces a new central character, and comments on America’s current political climate.
One of the cleverest aspects of this season is its layered commentary: not only is it about our modern social condition, but also about the show itself. The season opens with the firing of Principal Victoria over an incident referring to rape as a “hot cosby”. When Mackey declares that they’re trying to make South Park a more progressive places, he might as well be talking about South Park the show.
In other words, can South Park’s nearly 20-year-old vulgar sensibility survive
in our current politically correct media landscape?
One could go through the season and interpret these comments on the town changing as a meta commentary on the show itself facing change. The Mayor later makes this explicit to Officer Barbrady, the Newsmen are constantly droning on about noticing “changes”to the town and Mr. Garrison – himself a fountain of unbridled profanity – returns to South Park to save it from those changes.
But what’the deal with the PC plotline? One might be satisfied with the explanation that it’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone taking a dump on liberal politics as they have in the past. The two have espoused their libertarian leanings in interviews before, but they often evade a simple left/right divide. If you felt slightly lost in the connection between the ads, PC Culture, and gentrification, you’re not alone. But find solace, because we think we figured it out, and it all starts with neoliberalism. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of South Park Season 19.
In a nutshell, Neoliberalism is an economic ideology [graphic of neo = new + liberalism, the old kind] that stresses personal freedoms and market solutions to address society’s problems. Want to fix healthcare, the post office or Chipotle? Let the market take care of it!
Or as Philosopher Henry Giroux puts it, the tenants of neoliberalism are: 1. Consumerism is the most important duty as a citizen 2. Individual freedoms trump public freedoms 3. All public social issues are addressed on a private level
Neoliberalism neatly ties together 3 seemingly disparate themes in the show:
gentrification, PC culture and advertising. Which leads us to one of the best lines of the season:
Neoliberalism has one goal: to make everything marketable. Gentrification, for instance, is the free market’s way of dealing with shitty neighborhoods. It’s the process whereby real estate developers and business interests take advantage of low prices and industrial chic to sell white people overpriced tapas without fixing the underlying problem of poverty. Even diversity and multiculturalism serve the engines of profit. Wanna venture to Shi Tpa Town to experience exotic cuisines of other cultures? Well don’t feel too dignified in your worldliness. By suggesting that advertisers are manipulating PC culture in order to gentrify run down areas all over the world, the show playfully points out that in a neoliberal economy, otherness and diversity have just become marketable brands in order to sell anything and everything.
This is all made pretty explicit in the show:
One might say that the ads are a stand-in for the grossly inhuman forces of neoliberal capitalism, ready to assimilate or destroy everything and everyone in its path – but always behind the scenes, and barely noticeable. Leslie and PC Principal stirs up an anxiety: what if my friend, family, or beloved TV shows are just ads or sponsored content? What if I’m an ad? In a world permeates by advertising, how can we know what ideas are truly our own, rather than planted by clever commercials? What makes the ads so dangerous is their ability to cover up the reality of the situation, to distract us.
In the end, as Nathan says, it’s only ads that can live in this world. Reduced versions of ourselves, of cultures, that can be neatly packaged and sold. Cultures of social acceptance that are more of a brand than actual tolerance. Gay pride parades sponsored by TD Bank, or real standards of beauty sponsored by Dove, because who needs real revolution when there’s a clever hashtag?
We’re not arguing that diversity is bad, and neither is South Park. But one thing neoliberalism is really good at is a process called cooptation – to take what was once outside of the system and assimilate it so that it can serve the needs of capitalism. Neoliberalism absorbs identities and diversity, so that multiculturalism becomes a trendy brand to be purchased.
For the town of South Park to advance economically, they have to adopt these marks of tolerance to bring in business and new residents. So how do you convince the world that your town isn’t some antiquated backwater shithole, but rather a bastion of progressive ideals? …Whole Foods. The show uses Whole Foods as a focal point for a ton of the progressive changes in the town. When the whole town think Craig and Tweek are gay, Whole Foods serves as the setting where everyone congratulates Craig’s dad on the news. Randy even credits Whole Foods for their new police-free environment. Whole Foods has ceased to be a place where we can buy organic food and instead become a set of lofty ideals that we buy into every time we purchase a $6 bottle of Asparagus Water.
That kind of branding is good for not only Whole Foods, but television. Here the metacommentary gets pretty explicit. People shower Craig and Tweak with money for being gay. The message is clear: the spectacle of inclusion is good for business. The episode ends with a crowd of voyeurs watching Craig and Tweek through a window, raising the question of whether the affirmation is for them, or for the viewer. In the new neoliberal economy, the spectacle of inclusion is sold just like any other commodity. We fork over some cash and, in return, we get a healthy dose of self righteousness.
Slovenian theorist and curmudgeonly mountain troll Slavoj Zizek thinks that modern political systems can be much more dangerous than they were in the days of yore because they’re just so dang pleasant.
In the face of dictators, bad bosses, or the KKK, it’s easy to point a finger and say “Hey, that’s the bad guy, fuck him.”In other words, this is easier to hate than this. Being a PC bro is still about getting laid and wasted, but now they have a pleasant facade to hide their real motivations. Zizek describes political correctness as “just a form of self-discipline which doesn’t really allow you to overcome”racism, misogyny, and so on. If PC Culture is dangerous, it’s because it’s a nice paint job over the same old discriminatory reality. There’s no longer a villain to rally against, just self-satisfying acts of social justice.
The new “progressive” world of South Park is one where people regularly blow hundreds of dollars at Whole Foods but are expected tofeel good because they donated $1 tocharity. Never mind the wasteful excess of your grocery list, you can wash yourself of guilt with a token gesture of charity.
On the one hand, we have the critics of neoliberalism who bemoan its rampant environmental destruction, creation of poverty, inequality and exploitation of the developing world. On the other, we have those who actively oppose it. Zizek argues that this kind of Whole Food style charity is the perfect marriage between those two camps. You don’t actually have to change the world – change and rebellion become another commodity. Criticism is perfectly disarmed, because you can be a good neoliberal consumer, and still feel like you’re fighting it.
Zizek argues that rebelling against the system is tolerated, even promoted, so long as it stays within acceptable bounds. He uses the term interpassivity, which denotes the practice of “doing things NOT in order to achieve something.”Political correctness,”he says ,”fits the formula of ‘Let’s go on changing something all the time so that, globally, things will remain the same!’”.
Of course, South Park attacks the very heart of this hypocrisy. The town’s real feelings about the poor are brought to light when Whole Foods gets surrounded by the homeless.
It’s not just economic hypocrisy South Park targets either. Multiculturalism becomes a kind of badge to wear, to buy into, rather than a real political project. The denizens of South Park are still just as ignorant, but now know the benefits of feigning knowledge of other cultures. The show is criticizing the individual just as much as they’re calling out other shows. The metacriticism raises the question: does token inclusion really make for more inclusivity, or is it a shell of actual diversity that is meant to boost ratings rather than understand another culture?
In the end, this show of tolerance is more about making white liberals feel good than the marginalized people they seek to help.
The PC frathouse, for all the talk about marginalized people of color, is, well, entirely white. Even their fervent passion to help the disabled is just a cover to crush pussy.
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard used the term charity cannibalism to denote the process whereby “Other people’s destitution becomes our adventure playground,”where we continually seek to “secure the conditions of reproduction of the catastrophe market.”According to Baudrillard, when we run out of tragedies to feel bad about, we start inventing our own. When PC Principle encounters a marginalized person, Jimmy, who doesn’t want his help, he finds Nathan who more aptly suits his narrative of the world. Nathan plays the role of a helpless victim whose feelings of outrage reflect PC Principal’s. The point is not that using the word “retarded”is ok because someone with a disability uses it, it’s that this relation of protector-victim is always disempowering to the victim, who will only be validated by virtue of their helplessness.
This is why, Zizek would argue, this sort of PC Culture is more intolerant to other cultures: We lovingly accept everybody, so long as we can pigeonhole them into a kind of difference we can consume.
Nevermind that Caitlyn Jenner, who is a stunning and brave woman, was accused of killing a person and opposes gay marriage, it’s much easier to congratulate ourselves as a society by plastering her on Vogue. It’s simple, it’s consumable, it sells.
I should probably clarify here that people throw around the term “political correctness”and “safe space”in an entirely vague and not very helpful way. On the one end, you have some guy for whom every social interaction resembles a 12-year-old who just learned the N-Word on X-Box Live. On the other end, you have people who confuse social justice for wanting to live in a bubble where nothing bad happens and terrible things like slavery never existed. These people on both sides are few and far between, so please stop freaking out.
South Park reliably takes down both sides of political extreme, making fun of both Trump-esque conservativism and, well, everyone who got a liberal arts degree. What the show is really doing is that behind both sides, there lies a deep rooted narcissism.
As we’ve already discussed, a lot of buying into the PC brand is more about making yourself feel good than affecting real change. The Whole Foods donation arc ends with Randy morphing a charity about feeding hungry kids, or sending hamsters to college, or whatever, into a charity where kids in the developing world are given iPads to protect the fragile egos of people like Randy. And that’s what this Wholefoods activism is about: being a sell-out to the system while making meaningless gestures to protect your own sense of self-worth.
Then there’s Cartman, who we’ve known for years is a terrible monster, yet suddenly adopts PC Culture. But we also know he’s a pathological liar and raging narcissist, so it makes sense that he’d use safe space language to protect his ego.
On the other side of things, we have Mr. Garrison and his fuck-em-all-to-death attitude. His version of American exceptionalism is more or less the nationalist version of the “special snowflake”complex. Convinced that America’s unique greatness is being ruined by Canadians, he tries to build a wall to protect America. What is his shock to Canadian wall being put up first to keep HIM out but the realization that he’s not the center of the universe? In other words, Cartman, Steven Seagal and Garrison supporters are fueled by a narcissistic obsession with themselves.
Here’s where neoliberalism enters the picture again. Neoliberalism promotes a culture of consumerism centered on the individual. And nothing quite fuels that economy like self obsession en masse. What’s left is a cult of victimhood. For Mr. Garrison, you have the paranoid delusion that everyone’s out to ruin your way of life and steal your job. For the show’s PC Crowd, it’s the mistaken idea that not being a victim of harassment means having someone entertain your’s illusions of grandeur. For those already privileged, it means aspiring to victimhood. In the end, everyone wants to hang reality. The point is not that everyone advocating for safe spaces, or everyone who loves their country, is one of these extreme caricatures, but that otherwise reasonable logic has been caught up in a whirlwind over other societal bullshit.
The creators of South Park probably don’t hate every aspect of PC Culture, but the shallow versions of it propagated in the mainstream media. After all, PC Principal has a sort of redemption: after learning he’s being manipulated by ads, he goes on a rampage murdering all the “inauthentic”pc bros. Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are also acutely aware of their own privileged position, nodding to this in the show. And the finale makes explicit that PC Principal is here to stay, with Stan commenting:
Because, well, it is. Not wanting to seem like a bigot while avoiding the trappings of phony inclusion is really hard. With season 20 around the corner, what will happen? Will the show yield to the pressures of a changing society and reorient itself completely? Or will they stick their middle fingers firmly in the air and double down on their off-color roots? South Park has to navigate our current political climate, whether they like it or not, and as a TV show, well, they need ads…and for that matter…so do we!