“Don’t you ever, ever compare me to Family Guy! If you ever compare me to Family Guy again, I’ll kill you right where you stand.” It is here, in the middle of a desert somewhere between South Park, Colorado and Los Angeles, that Eric Theodore Cartman makes a heartfelt and impassioned monologue about his normally humorous penchant for storytelling, before shoving Kyle aside to escape on his Hot Wheels tricycle. Indeed, he almost succeeds in getting Family Guy pulled from the air. If not for his continual nemesis—Kyle—trailing him all the way into the television studio, he would have completed his mission.
Cartman isn’t always so unlucky—in “Scott Tenorman Must Die”, he successfully murders Scott’s parents and feeds them to him in a bowl of chili, right before Radiohead appears to laugh at the boy who had sold Cartman pubic hairs for $10. Cartman himself even refers to this incident in the two-part “Cartoon Wars”, when scaring Bart Simpson out of line to speak to Rupert Murdoch and present his case about the dangers of Family Guy.
Pop culture references run rampant in South Park, as do the equally biting social commentaries. Let me pause briefly before exploring that idea. Suffice to say, I’m somewhat of a South Park addict. I won’t go as far to claim that I’m a South Parkian, a la Trekkies and other slightly skewed people with too much time on their hands, who dress up like film characters and attend conferences to discuss the existentialist ramifications of Luke Skywalker not finishing Jedi training to help his friends. I’ve never dressed as Yoda and demanded that people “Do, or no do. No try.” I have no plans on buying a costume dedicated to eight-year-olds with large mouths and no morals. But to say that South Park isn’t one of the most culturally relevant (and funny) television shows we have would be equally unacceptable.
I have this friend who pushes buttons. He has the amazing ability to push to the point of complete and unapologetic exhaustion, and then still he pushes more. Somehow you never quite go over the edge. This is most definitely a skill: some people push a little bit and set others off on wild tangents. To annoy, and yet not destroy, is a discipline, and I have the feeling that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are well versed. Besides a run-in they had with Chef (Isaac Hayes) after taking a strong right hook at Scientology a few years back, they are usually let off the hook, no matter what they say or how they say what they say.
For example, in past times they have dressed Cartman up as Hitler, even showing faux Nazi clips to highlight his unrelenting hatred of Jews. Thing is, Cartman dislikes everyone not white and American: in the current season he employs Butters to wipe out all the Chinese in South Park. Back to Halloween: when the school staff makes him remove his Hitler costume, he becomes a ghost—not ironically, in the shape of a KKK cloak. In “Up the Down Steroid” from The Cult of Cartman, little Eric pretends to be retarded in order to win the Special Olympics. (He comes in last; Timmy’s use of steroids wins the title, although he admits his drug use, as the moral of the show.) Cartman’s mom is a crack whore who sleeps with anyone around, even though she’s usually dressed as a perky housemother who babies her baby too much. And we won’t even go into the time her son gave fellatio to Butters and took pictures of it.
Outside of the absurd references—what keeps much of its audience tuning in—the underlying themes are powerful critiques of American culture, and Cartman represents everything wrong with it: racism, sexism, most every –ism that is a mirror reflecting the worst aspects of who we are as people. Hence, in “Cartoon Wars”, when Family Guy is going to show an image of Mohammed on the air (any image of the Prophet is considered blasphemous in Islam), terrorists threaten America. How do Americans react? By burying their heads in the sand. Literally.
A professor from Colorado comes up with the idea of everyone burying their heads as a measure to deal with terrorism. This way, they think that by avoidance, they will not be subject to the terrorists’ terror when they rage against our media machine. Across the country, Americans grab shovels and dig the dirt, except for Cartman, Kyle, and the staff at Fox. (And Bart Simpson, as well as the writers of Family Guy, who happen to all be manatees.) When Rupert Murdoch meets with George Bush to discuss Islamic terrorism, their entire conversation involves them calling one another “President”—another jab at the thinly veiled relationship between government and media.
The terrorism motif is thick in South Park. It is the focus of the exceptional three-episode series that made the “movie” Imaginationland, and is featured on this 12-episode set in “Super Fun Time”, as well. In that one the terrorists are Russian, but employed by America’s original enemy: the British. Nothing is too absurd, which is why in “Cartmanland” his deceased grandmother leaves him one million dollars, and Eric goes on to buy a theme park so that he can ride the rides by himself—“to keep people out.” This sort of isolation and general annoyance at the thought of anybody but himself enjoy themselves is at the heart of Cartman’s character.
To be certain, this is not an American trait alone; I do not mean to make any such accusation. Ego is the center of malaise the world over. The wish for continual and constant self-gratification is considered, by many of the world’s spiritual systems, to be the true fall from Eden. It separates us from the rest of humanity, which is why Stone and Parker leave no stone unturned. They attack everyone with equal regard, and if your skin is too thick, you’ll never enjoy (or understand) the lessons.
But it is an American show about American perspectives, and comprises the central tenet of Cartman’s cult: everything for me. By going over the top, he shows us just how deep the well of egocentricity can, and often does run. What better indication of this can there be than when Cartman tricks Stan, Kyle, and Kenny into carrying groceries while he eats the skins off an entire bucket’s worth of Kentucky Fried Chicken?
To get back at him, the crew pretends he no longer exists. Because of this, in “The Death of Cartman” Eric believes he really died, and only Butters can see him. Butters goes around making apologies for Eric (with the boy standing right behind him), until they see a psychic, who tells them that Cartman is being used for a purpose by God. When they find out about three escaped convicts holding hostages, Cartman helps them escape. He thinks he is now free to ascend to heaven—and to collect the $10,000 cash that everyone receives upon entering. (Even in his most humble and humiliating moments, Cartman is still Cartman.) After this act of heroism, the crew stops ignoring him, with the consequence of Cartman immediately returning to his old habits.
We never change—or do we? In 12 seasons of South Park, Cartman has only become more abrasive, more outlandish, more racist and sexist and intolerable … and lovable. He feeds that inner part of us that may want to say things, but instead remain terrorized (and silent) due to political correctness. What’s more, he shows us gaping holes in our cultural and individual patterns: elitism, fundamentalism, and overt and habitual ignorance. In this way, we may expect his cult to be about closing ourselves off, yet by recognizing these habits in our own lives, it turns out that the cult’s main concern is waking us up.