"Respect mah authoritah!"
This Xmas season, a friend told me how excited her 13-year-old stepbrother had been to receive the South Park: The Complete Third Season DVD. The third season, he breathlessly assured her, was “classic,” every episode was “tight.”
I too generally love Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Comedy Central mainstay, and think South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is nothing short of brilliant. And so, even if not every episode in this set is stellar (“Jakovasaurs” is especially lame), and the “extras” are only brief commentaries by Parker and Stone (amounting to about five minutes on each episode), The Complete Third Season is almost always amusing and several episodes are examples of South Park at its dead-on-target best.
Throughout, the boys—Parker and Stone, as well as main characters Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Eric—are up to their usual shenanigans. Potty humor and foul-language abound, pushing at the edges of FCC regulations. Throughout the third season, our elementary school protagonists use “bitch,” “goddamn,” and “pussy” freely, but “shit” and “fucking” have to be bleeped. It’s ridiculous, as if there were any qualitative difference between these profanities. But that is precisely Parker and Stone’s point.
In addition to their overuse of “bad” words, the South Park boys are “inappropriate” in many other ways. They have no respect for authority, of course. Eric Cartman (voiced by Trey Parker) turns this around, shouting at everyone else, adult and child alike, that they must “Respect mah authoritah!” Adults are mostly stupid or inept (with the exception of Chef, voiced by Isaac Hayes), and even if they’re not totally useless, any advice they offer is sure to be. In “Sexual Harassment Panda,” school administrators’ concerns over the possible sexual harassment of children lead to a host of misinformation and obfuscation imparted to the children, and to Eric’s pile of lawsuits against Kyle and the school that nearly bankrupts the town.
In a world filled with bumbling and ineffectual adults, the boys are each other’s only source of support and information. Even when the information they share is wrong, or the consequences dire, they inevitably come through their trial with their friendships strengthened. In “Are You There God? It’s Me, Jesus,” Cartman believes that he is the first to hit puberty because he has gotten his “period,” which is actually a stomach virus that causes colonic bleeding. This creates a schism among the boys after Kenny too “gets his.” Kyle feels ostracized and so starts taking black-market hormones to speed up the process. At the end they realize their errors, but more importantly, realize they shouldn’t be so judgmental and should respect each other’s bodily differences.
South Park is ultimately about the power of friendship. Even though Cartman always calls Kyle a “Jew,” and every one of the boys calls Cartman “fat-ass” incessantly, this is, as they remind us in “Hooked on Monkey Phonics,” just how boys are. For barely pre-pubescent boys, all adults are stupid, fart jokes are eminently funny, and friendship is tested through casual violence and demonstrated through vulgarity and name-calling. At the same time, the show insists that intolerance and abuse form a two-way street: Eric, Kyle, Stan, and Kenny get back as much as they dish out. Moreover, they’re an antidote to the romanticized representations of childhood all too common on television and in the movies.
South Park is similarly cogent when it skewers the sacred cows of dominant culture. The episode “Starvin’ Marvin in Space” is particularly effective at this. Featuring the return of Starvin’ Marvin, the Ethiopian boy the South Parkies “adopted” in the first season’s Thanksgiving special, this episode launches a critique of televangelism and Christian missionaries.
We first find Marvin back home, and starving, in Ethiopia. His village’s only “hope” comes in the form of a missionary who disciplines the villagers with Christianity and tells them that only by “reading the Bible and praying to God” will they be rewarded with food. When aliens land near Marvin’s village, he steals their spaceship to search for a new home for his people on the planet Markvar. The episode then cuts between Marvin’s attempts to save his people and Pat Robertson televangelizing on the “Christian Broadcasting Network,” milking his flock dry in order to expand his missionary work and save the “heathen” aliens. Included for good measure is Parker and Stone’s satire of Sally Struthers’ “Save the Children” campaign. Whereas in the original Starvin’ Marvin episode, she gorged herself on Twinkies financed by contributions to her foundation, now she has grown, literally, to Jabba the Hutt proportions off the fat of charity.
Another critique of consumer culture appears in “Chinpoko Mon,” where the South Park kids become mesmerized by the newest toy craze from Japan. The adults are, naturally, completely at a loss to fathom the toys, their appeal or their children’s interest. They are also horrified by the extent of the kids’ mania, and fear that Japan is somehow threatening to take over U.S. culture. The joke is that they don’t know how right they are. It turns out the toys and television tie-ins are mind control devices and that Japan is planning on using America’s children to bomb Pearl Harbor, again.
The episode points out the hypocrisy of U.S. fears of another nation’s marketing to children, given that that the U.S. so obsessively markets its own culture worldwide. This is a controversy with which Parker and Stone are all too familiar, as South Park is repeatedly the object of much dominant cultural finger pointing. Yet what “Chinpoko Mon” and The Complete Third Season consistently demonstrate is that such fears are, if not entirely baseless, more self-serving for adult culture than concerned with children’s well-being. Despite their vulgarity and aggressiveness, these kids are all right.