How Social Media Ruined Nuance – South Park Season 21 Episode 3 Breakdown
Social Media has made it so that everything we do is permanently on record, and because of that, we all have to be careful with what we do and what we say online. Mistakes made in the past are looked at through the lens of the present, and people are more self-aware than ever about how past injustices affect their current situations. Season 21 Episode 3 of South Park presents a clever critique of social activism in our social media saturated lives.
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Written by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Produced by: Emily Dunbar & Jacob Salamon
How Social Media Ruined Nuance – South Park Season 21 Episode 3 Breakdown
Hey, Wisecrack! Live action Jared, here. These days social media means everything we do ends up on permanent record. Just being on the internet is a minefield, and there’s no survival guide for handling it. We’re not the only people worrying about it either, as the newest episode of South Park tackles these ideas head on, so let’s get into this quick take on Season 21 Episode 3 Holiday Special. And as always, spoilers ahead. If you’ve been listening to our South Park podcast, Respect Our Authoritah, you know we’ve been fascinated by the fact that this season has been more focused on people’s REACTION to world events rather than the events themselves. This has never been more clear than in this past episode, Holiday Special. Randy’s quest for social justice hits a lot of ideas right on the nose, but it also raises some really interesting questions.
First, a quick summary. Randy, caught up in yet another wave of activism, gets Columbus Day canceled, which means no more day off school. But that’s still not enough for South Park’s most vocal father. He sets off to tear down a statue of Columbus, take a crap in columbus square, and berate the residents of Columbus, Ohio. His activism keeps escalating until the kids discover a treasure trove of Instagram pictures depicting Randy in Columbus Cosplay. After that Randy goes to great lengths, including falsifying a DNA test, in the randiest way possible, to inoculate himself against criticism by presenting himself as a Native American, i.e, a descendent of Columbus’ victims. In the end, Randy finds out that he’s just an average white dude of European descent, but with more than the average amount of Neanderthal DNA. A fact he spins into his own story of victimhood, after all those brutal homo sapiens erased Neanderthals from the face of the earth.
So, what does Randy’s quest tell us about the world we live in? Well, more than you think, and to explain why – we’re turning to something that we talked about in one of our Walking Dead videos, the panopticon. The panopticon is an idea originally created by philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It’s a prison where a single guard in a tower can watch all the inmates at once. The prisoners can’t tell if they’re being watched so they have to always be on their best behavior. But postmodern theorist Michel Foucault thought it was a perfect metaphor for how society controls its citizens. Because we never know when our actions might result in punishment, we try our best to follow the rules, which means we become controlled by those rules even when no one can enforce them. We even internalize those rules and systems so we don’t even know if we’re acting because of our beliefs or because of that systemic control and fear of punishment.
Unfortunately for Randy, social media has become a kind of real life pantopticon. Everything we do exists on the internet FOREVER, and because of that we all have to be careful with what we do and what we say online. Randy feels this in a very real way when the kids discover his prior predilection for Columbus. Because he’s always being watched, Randy has internalized his fear of punishment and his desire to live up to social ideals as means of creating social capital. In other words, as a perpetual bandwagoner, Randy needs to be a guy who protests Columbus because that’s he thinks what society wants from him. But, with the advent of the internet, he’s constantly terrified of what his peers might uncover about his past.
With social media our culture is evolving faster than ever, but it’s also becoming more judgemental. Mistakes made in the past are looked at through the lens of the present. This goes for both Columbus, who definitely did horrible things, and Randy who is just kind of an idiot. “It’s only now when everyone is being so indigenous to me that I realize how indigenous I’ve been acting all along.” Randy tries to explain that he’s changed. That what he did in the past shouldn’t matter. “I was younger. We were all younger. You have to understand. It was a different time. It was 2013.” Too bad for Randy there’s no codified statute of limitations on bad behavior.
Randy gets caught acting in the past in ways not entirely kosher with the present. He can’t be an advocate for a cause if he’s seen as disingenuous, and since Randy defines himself by his project of the week, he can’t afford to let that happen. And, because social media judges all action, there can often be a fetishization of purity when it comes to social issues. Luckily for Randy, he stumbles across the commercial for what appears to be a perfect solution: DNAandMe. The DNA testing program lets people claim affinity with marginalized groups, even if they aren’t apparently a part of them. “DNA and me showed I was 8% Navajo. No one’s making fun of me now, or my people who were victims.”
The ability to claim victimhood enables people to stake out a moral high ground and make themselves immune from criticism. The irony of this is, of course, that most people who need a DNA test to find out if they’re a victim of oppression probably aren’t oppressed. To protect himself from potential fallout, Randy pays a Native American to make out with him in order to guarantee he’ll end up with the DNA of an indigenous person. In doing this, Randy demonstrates an indifference toward the feelings of the Native American man who ends up falling in love with him, and even manages to recreate the misdeeds of Columbus all over again.
This all adds up to show that Randy’s political aspirations are ultimately selfish. He’s so desperate to claim victimhood, and so utterly ill-informed about pretty much everything, that he leans on his 2.8% Neanderthal DNA to claim that his people were erased from history. Again, Randy’s bizarre behavior raises something important. How do we decide when people can claim victimhood? That’s not to minimize the suffering of anyone, but how do we distinguish between people who are legitimately affected by a legacy of oppression and this guy. Where’s the line? How close do you need to be on the family tree for oppression to be passed down? Certainly 1000 years is too much, but what about 100 years, or 50 years, even 5? It’s a complicated debate, but we know what Randy thinks. Even tens of thousands of years is fair game.
All of these ideas add up to one compelling twenty minute critique of how we approach politics in the age of social media. questions of how we deal with our public lives being saved online, how we treat past mistakes, and how we understand victimhood in our hyper-aware era are ones that we need to answer and South Park knows that. Until we resolve all of that, there will be a whole lot of misguided Randys running around causing chaos. That’s what the show is ultimately saying. We need to figure out how we talk to each other about history and complicated ideas of culture, or else we’ll just be crossing wires, making messes, and shitting in public places. The 21st season of South Park wants us to think about how we handle an increasingly complicated world that demands faster and less nuanced reactions. “You have to overdo it in today’s society stand. You can’t be nuanced or subtle anymore or else critics go wow what was the point of that.”
The show doesn’t have answers though, and neither do we, but the first step is asking questions. Thanks for watching, Wisecrack. Peace.