South Park is at its A-game on the twentieth season, and that is symptomatic of our society.
Content warnings for: discussions on internet trolling, mentions of suicide and abuse
At its twentieth anniversary, Pokémon has been on-loop, consumed by its franchise’s own desires. Nearing its 30th season, The Simpsons…are sitting around. They’ve become a little blur at the side of your eye, not even actively annoying or offensive. Just there.
South Park, though? Better than ever. What was once a largely topical show, wherein Trey Parker and Matt Stone would write an off-the-cuff episode on current issues has now opened up to overaching, ten-episode story arcs with Plot™ , build-up and overaching themes.
This new approach is a perfect example of comedians adapting to their times. I will heavily argue that South Park is on the highest tier of satirizers in our culture. Their coverage of past, hot-button issues is still refreshing on re-watch and as a whole, the show has definitely aged well.
But on a level of storytelling, restraining themselves to a single set of episodes at Fall, as opposed to the more sporadic schedule they used to favour, is absolutely the right call. With the computer graphics and writing team they have, Trey Parker and Matt Stone could very easily produce a whole episode in less than two days, thereby staying fresh in the conversation. But by restraining themselves and switching to seasonal arcs, they have to get more creative with the writing and build an arc that simultaneously addresses the year in a more nuanced and fleshed out approach, while still being funny.
As an example, “About Last Night….” (after the Obama/McCain race) was quickly edited to include excerpts from the candidates’ actual speeches without it affecting the production schedule at all. I honestly don’t think they could get away with that in our current state of affairs.
Not to be hyperbolic, but 2016 is already making rounds as nothing less than a mess of a year where the line between satire and reality has been incommensurately blurred. Even South Park at its prime would struggle to keep up with everything, “Weiners Out” notwitshtanding.
Going solely on pop culture, when you consider the Spring Slaughter of 2016, with the advent of acedia and the incessant backlash for the inclusion of female characters in male geekdom’s greatest icons, “The China Problem” (the one where they bitched about Indiana Jones 4) looks downright adorable in hindsight.
(As it happens, I have a fic-remake of that particular episode in mind, except the characters are now reacting to the less metaphorical rape of Sansa Stark.)
So sitting this one out, taking their time with the story and cast, was the right choice and it has paid off.
Much like Legend of Korra, South Park has gone a long way to examine and deconstruct itself. Even the jokes that seem cheap-shots have layers to them. Casting Mr. Garrison as the Giant Douche of the equation has devolved into the story of a man caught in the collective hysteria and cult of celebrity he created, realizing just how bone-deep he is. It’s a case of “you use the character the audience is invested with” done brilliantly.
Recent episodes have given a complete role-reversal between Butters and Cartman. Now Butters is the one rallying crowds into a messy revolt, while Cartman stays entirely out of it to indulge in the pleasures of a boyhood crush. It’s genuinely sweet.
The Season 15 combo of “You’re Getting Old” and “Ass Burgers” built its entire central joke on Status Quo and its negative impact on the characters. No matter how off-track the story went, it would all be reset. That is no longer a certainty here.
Season 19 actually had holdovers that I won’t fully describe in case someone’s not caught up yet (South Park now has spoilers), which means there’s internarrative continuity and changes in the overall scenario. And with the role reversal and Stan and Kyle, the moral compasses, now compromising their values to join the Weiners Out (#Men) movement, the show is really challenging itself and subverting the expectations it has created.
South Park makes a thrilling, enjoyable watch, which it always was. But it also continues to be uncomfortably problematic. Yes, the show has built its identity on “mocking everyone” and they are uncompromising when laying it down. But that only makes their mishaps all the more glaring and unpleasant.
As an example outside the season, watch the transgender rape joke from “Handicar”. Would you believe that came after “The Cissy”? Keeping it real classy, broh.
But more relevant to our current season: South Park excels at creating metaphors and analogies for the larger social conflicts at hand. But these metaphors have limits.
I understand what they were going for with rebooting the National Anthem: It sets off the plot and integrates social commentary and pop-culture parody. None of it changes the fact that Colin Kaepernick’s real right to protest has been trivialized as a side effect.
Moreover, the impact of the rising tensions between Boys and Girls loses a lot of strength in the fact that the boys have been our central leads for twenty years. Within the group, we have a very good estimate of their individual personalities and distinct reactions. We can assess how Butters, Kyle, Stan, Token and even Tweek and Craig could react. With the girls, however, none of them besides Wendy is really fleshed out enough. This could change in the upcoming episodes, but it will take very heavy lifting so they don’t come across as a monolithic “The Girls”.
Then we get to the show’s newest banner.
Beyond “World War Zimmerman”, South Park has usually been too restrained in its critique (and that is not a criticism I ever expected to make). I’m really torn about this: On the one hand, the actual political climate and the need for the conversation on race means that South Park can very well save it for next year and give it the consideration it needs. But on the other, I must ask: Why not make the space for it now? Are we meant to assume that Nichole was brought in specifically to fill in the void left by Chef?
The whole concept of PC Principal and his arc in Season 19 works only too well because the show was overwhelmingly white and deep-seated in its own willful privilege. The creators are clearly acknowledging this implication and brought it to light, but have they done enough? Should we respect the story they’re telling or push for better representation in South Park?
I’m actually asking you, guys. I’m very curious to hear your take on this.
I can’t speak for the election arc in any way that the show, or reality itself, isn’t already, but it needs to be said: If you can transpose the Giant Douche/Turd Sandwich mantra (wherein both candidates suck and everything sucks) to this year’s context, unironically, you’re absurdly privileged.
Now at this stage, you might be wondering when I am going to talk about what the title promised. Well, buckle up. I’ve given you the broad strokes of the Good and the Bad. Now we get to the Ugly. As in, “uglier than Ugly Bob” ugly.
The elephant in the chatroom
The reason I felt compelled to give South Park a mid-season overview is very personal. Heads-up, if you have personal experience with internet trolling, you may need pause.
The end of the text, right before unimpressed Kyle, contains profoundly upsetting language and I’m going to get problematic…in the sense of having behaved like an asshole. You see, I had a brief experience with Internet trolling. And I was on the delivering side. I’m rather fond of YGO and play casually on YGOPro. It became my refuge after a long day of work, a declining family life, and the political toils of my country.
One day, some very sassy users threw barbs at me and I replied. Any basic knowledge of men and online gaming should indicate the quality of our wit. Then, the games took another tone: I started playing games just to rile people up in chats. I used other people’s usernames to set up games just to annoy them. The duels were less concerned with card games than with whose insult at the other’s family was edgiest. And it flew beyond the Moral Event Horizon, when I told someone “You are not a person. You have the worth of a used condom.”
I will gladly accept my retribution in the comments. There’s just no other way. It would have been dishonest and unethical to whitewash myself or to keep a safe review and talk generally of trolling as a plot thread and an abstract when I have first-hand knowledge. I’ve been there guys.
My brief flinging in Internet trolling was the exception and not the rule: I quit by my own volition and I didn’t need to get caught in order to look myself in the mirror and realize I was a total jackass.
Sure, I can guarantee you that I’ve never sent anon hate or harassment in any other social media and that I’ve since worked to correct my behaviour. But none of that changes the fact that I was seeped in privilege; that I chose the single, worst possible method to cope with my anxiety. “They’re all assholes too,” I’d think “They’re probably guys as well.” Right because that makes it so much better.
And this is all without considering the extent of the damage I could have caused. The person on the other side might have dismissed me. They might have laughed at me. Or they might have been Scott Malkinson.
My flinging with Internet trolling was so brief that I wonder if maybe I’m about as qualified to talk about it as Professor Tyrion is to talk about slavery. But I can tell you this much: any troll telling you that they were joking, were just having a bad day or really had no idea what they were saying has my cordial invitation to either log off and rethink their lives, or go fuck themselves, because they’re talking out of their asses.
I did not have the cinematic epiphany where someone pointed out what I was doing and just quit. I knew exactly what I was doing, yet still kept at it. It took a dash of empathy and exhaustion for me to properly consider the effect my words were having on that other person. I could have stopped a lot earlier than I did. And so can every other troll out there.
When I became a troll, I was exercising power to a Foucauldian extent. In creating a discourse that demeaned and excoriated the Other, I was affirming a domain of power from which I strongly profit, while managing to avoid any physical or immediate repercussion (you know, other than having to live with myself, as all trolls are wont to suffer). I was effectively dehumanising the other person while veering the entire conversation around myself and how “great” and “creative” my insults got. The great paradox of social media, and the Internet for that matter, is how ultimately alone we are, yet still prey (or indeed predator) to the larger structures of human (read: white, cis, rich, able-bodied, hetero) discourse.
However, the most disturbing thing about troll mentality is how easy it is to dissociate oneself.
When I told someone they were completely worthless, it did not matter in the slightest that I consider myself a feminist, that I am an educated man, or that I have experience with bullying and emotional abuse, wherein I could realize how hurtful my words were. I don’t think IRL as a distinction from Internet usernames is valid at this point. If I could fall back and produce those words as a gut reaction, especially in such a gendered way, something was rotting in the state of Denmark.
This, I think, is the key, underlying theme that will permeate the entire season: Solitude.
There’s solitude in one’s nostalgia when consuming member berries to relieve a simple, white past; the solitude of a Giant Douche caught in the collective delusion he created; and the solitude gained from distancing oneself from the advent of social media and the negativity that comes with it.
Others have made the serious interpretation that what we’re seeing is the result of a collective that has been socially estranged trying to vindicate their voices. I can’t speak for how it’s being expressed as a collective, but there is something to be said for how our Internet culture glorifies white, male rage as something we’re entitled to.
I used trolling as a coping method for my solitude, the growing estrangement I felt from my peers and family. But it ended up perpetuating it, with the added benefit that I look like a jackass and have months ahead to try and rebuild a self-esteem and be sure that people can trust me on the Internet.
Do I think the show’s treatment of this subject is perfect? No.
Because the critique is still too restrained and Gerald/Skankhunt42 is the only troll known to us that doesn’t look like the stereotypical, overweight griefer (i.e. this guy):
We definitely need a few more “everyman” characters here, because chances are most trolls are exactly the kind of people you’d least expect in real life. More like Gerald or Randy than, say, “Dildo Shwaggins”.
Then there’s Scott Malkinson constantly threatened to jump the bridge and quit Twitter. Incessantly. My problem isn’t that a little boy is threatening to commit social suicide. My issue is that it’s framed as an inconvenience to Mr. Mackey, rather than giving him the little boy in question the actual space and focus something like this deserves.
Trey and Matt have earned enough benefit of the doubt where I believe this will go somewhere. But as it stands, it’s second only to “Cash for Gold” as the most offensive suicide joke they’ve pulled off.
As a summary to all readers: I completely understand if you’re avoiding South Park because you’ve been a victim of trolling. It’s a deeply unpleasant experience that has disrupted lives and you should not be obligated to relive it. But I still recommend it, because when it gets right, it nails it. In this day and age, the conversation on trolling and male entitlement is more important than ever and I’m very interested in hearing what you take away from this.
And as a summary to any Internet trolls, past or active, reading this: I get it. It seems like harmless fun, locker room talk. But it comes to a point where it just isn’t that (if it even was). If you’re into it out of depression, anger or anxiety, you need help. I mean this, there are other venues. I’m available if you want to talk, mmkay? But if you’re only doing it because you enjoy seeing the hurt in people, then you’ll just have to photoshop a dick in my mouth because I can’t help you. But just now that this:
is how the world will look at you.
Images courtesy of Comedy Central.