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‘You do you, bro’: South Park’s critique of political correctness and the cult of the self

| Monday, November 9, 2015

Comedy Central’s “South Park,” now in its 19th season, has made a name for itself largely through lowbrow vulgarity and gratuitous violence that constantly pushes the envelope of acceptability. One need look no further than the preponderance of animated feces, vomit and entrails in “South Park” to cast doubt on the cultural value of such a program. However, a biting social commentary has always lurked beneath the (“poorly”) impersonated celebrities and the obscene antics of fourth-graders in the fictional Colorado town. This season’s fare has been especially cutting, acute and, in this columnist’s opinion, mostly correct.

Those who view “South Park” as little more than “smut and vulgarity, chiefly for the sake of smut and vulgarity,” (to quote “South Park” character Kyle Broflovski in his assessment of another bit of culture) may be interested to learn of the show’s reception in more sophisticated circles. Universities have offered courses on the Emmy Award-winning comedy, the City University of New York among them. Books have been published on such topics as “Philosophy in ‘South Park’” — books, indeed, that one can find for sale at Notre Dame’s Hammes Bookstore. Some commentators have gone so far as to pin “South Park” as a high caliber, conservative-leaning critique of Hollywood liberalism, as evidenced, perhaps, by the show’s frequent thumbing-of-the-nose at famous actors and their social agenda. Nearer to the truth would be the observation that “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone see no boundaries in the realm of social criticism, attacking positions popularly held by pundits of the right and the left. But before one gets the impression that “South Park” promotes some nihilistic chaos in which nothing is sacred and everyone is wrong, it might be worth taking a look at the newest season’s oddly consistent stance.

While previous seasons of “South Park” jumped around from one theme to another, operating in what is known as an “episodic” framework, this season has moved more toward a developmental storyline, or “serial” framework, that is highly unusual for an animated comedy. The season begins with the installment of a new principal at South Park Elementary, PC Principal, whose hardline stance on political correctness (PC) and proper nomenclature cause him to beat one student into a coma after he perpetrates “micro-oppressions” against Italian-Americans. His offense? Saying the word “capeesh.”

Building on this newfound obsession with being PC, the citizens of South Park desperately petition for the only thing that can save their town from association with the Trump-like bigotry of teacher-turned-political activist Mr. Garrison. That thing is a Whole Foods grocery store, harbinger of all things cheery and politely PC.

Whole Foods persists in subsequent episodes, including the utterly hilarious episode “Safe Space,” in which local dad Randy Marsh spearheads a campaign to create safe spaces in which the negative comments and the demands of personal responsibility are filtered out to leave only “people who support me, surrounded by more people who support me.” The episode ends with Reality, as an embodied character in the show, being hanged from the gallows as crowds clap.

The main point of these first episodes is fairly clear: When political correctness is promoted in a very superficial sense that accommodates hypersensitivity over all else, reality ends up distorted and personal responsibility thrown to the wayside. Viewers see this in the presentation of PC Principal as an overgrown frat boy who sees no problem in hosting ragers and bitterly scolding 10-year-olds but will blow a gasket if someone so much as suggests that Caitlyn Jenner is anything but “stunning and brave.” In this highly exaggerated PC landscape, responsibility doesn’t matter. All that does is personal feelings and safe spaces to house them.

“South Park’s” criticism, however, seems targeted more broadly at a mindset best summarized by the mantra: “You do you, bro.” The problem with this formulation is twofold. First, it forwards a disinterestedness towards one’s neighbor — whether someone is experimenting with hard drugs or pursuing self-destructive ends is essentially written off as “none of your business.” All that matters is that the individual has made he/she/their own choices, that he/she/they is/are authentic or, to employ a common phrase, “true to oneself.” But authenticity does not account for responsibility, nor does it support interaction with others. This is the second flaw of this mantra. It roots everything in the single individual, basing morality and destiny in whatever the individual chooses. It’s right because you choose it to be. You should become whoever you want to become. But what happens when two individual choices, two independent expressions of self, conflict?

“South Park” explores this, too. In the episode “Craig x Tweak,” the self-identity of fourth-graders Craig and Tweak is jeopardized when a group of manga-drawing students is given license to display the pair as a gay couple because the group chooses to do so, and who can override their choice? The community passively accepts this portrayal and applauds Tweak and Craig for their bravery of “coming out” and even pays them as a reward. By going along with the hypersensitive, “you do you” mindset, South Park as a town has set aside its critical self-analysis, as all dissenting opinions are cast aside and a pleasant filter that affirms the self – any self you choose – is substituted for the difficulties of reality the responsibility it brings with it. Luckily, “South Park” as a show has kept its actual critical awareness in tact.

Charlie Ducey is a senior studying the languages of G. K. Chesterton (English) and Edith Stein (German). Please contact him with questions, comments, complaints, appraisals, invitations prognostications and prestidigitations at cducey@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Charlie Ducey

Charlie Ducey is a senior who studies English at Notre Dame. He is currently a big fan of alternative German rock music.

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