Social commentary in art relies on the imitation of reality—be it through comedic satire, dramatic realism, or somewhere in between. Thus, the nature of that imitation has a substantial effect on a work’s social commentary. In Poetics, Aristotle argues that a work’s “mode of imitation” is affected by its medium, its “objects” (the way the artist portrays humanity through characters), and its “manner” (the artist’s method of imitation). In the case of South Park, its medium is television, its “objects” are characters of lesser intelligence and moral fiber than most real people, and its “manner” is animation. These elements all contribute to an imitation of life that is exaggerated and simplified, which in turn makes the show’s social commentary fairly heavy-handed and simplistic.
Because South Park is an episodic television program, social issues are tackled in about twenty-three minutes. This leaves writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone with little room for nuance. Even if they wanted to, it would be difficult for them to reflect the true complexity of real-life social issues in such a short amount of time. In contrast, a serialized television program can explore in depth the many facets of multiple social issues, over the span of many episodes (the best case of this being, perhaps, HBO’s The Wire). The medium of television, and more specifically episodic television, contributes to the simplicity of South Park’s social commentary.
South Park’s social commentary is also affected by the way Parker and Stone portray humanity through fictional characters. According to Aristotle, in comedy, people are represented as “worse than they are.” This is certainly true in South Park, in which much of the humor is derived from the idiocy and moral bankruptcy of its characters. This can be seen well in the episode “Follow That Egg,” which comments on the gay marriage debate.
In this episode, the governor of Colorado is faced with a bill that would legalize gay marriage, and he must decide whether or not to veto it. Meanwhile, Mrs. Garrison, a formerly gay male schoolteacher who had a sex change, wants the governor to veto the bill, mostly because she doesn’t want her ex-boyfriend to marry his current boyfriend. Through these two characters, Parker and Stone portray opponents to gay marriage as ignorant and hypocritical.
The governor doesn’t see why gays shouldn’t be able to marry. He says, “What argument can I use to deny them their right to a family?” But, feeling pressure from both sides, he offers a compromise, in a speech in front of both proponents and opponents of the gay marriage bill. “You homosexuals will have all the same rights as married couples. But instead of referring to you as ‘married,’ you can be… ‘butt buddies.’” This is a thinly veiled critique of the concept of civil unions. Of course, no real politician would be so ignorant and out of touch to propose this compromise; the governor’s stupidity is exaggerated for the sake of humor. The effect of this portrayal is a heavy-handed critique of those who would deny gays the right to marry. There is very little subjectivity and nuance when Parker and Stone weigh in on this issue.
Watch a clip of the governor’s speech here.
The effect of South Park‘s negative depiction of humanity can also be seen in Mrs. Garrison’s role in the episode. Her reasons for campaigning against gay marriage are selfish, and hypocritical in their homophobia. When she says, “Marriage is a holy sacrament, between a man and a woman [pointing to herself with pride],” frequent viewers recognize the hypocrisy of this statement. She herself has undermined, and continues to undermine the conservative ideals of family values she claims to uphold, having once been a gay man, and now a transgendered woman. This is another critique of gay marriage opponents, highlighting the fact that they are sometimes hypocritical (take for instance conservative senator Larry Craig’s 2007 arrest for soliciting gay sex in an airport). The depiction of this hypocrisy is so exaggerated, though, that the social commentary is very heavy-handed and one-sided in favor of gay marriage.
Finally, South Park’s ‘manner’ of imitation—that is, animation—also greatly affects the nature of its social commentary. Because Stone and Parker are not limited by the laws of physics or the high cost of special effects, they can use visual imagery that exaggerates real-life situations to the point of absurdity. This too contributes to the heavy-handedness of their social commentary. This can be seen in the episode, “Goobacks,” which is a comment on the issue of immigration.
In this episode, people from an impoverished, dystopic future, symbolic of immigrants from developing nations, travel back in time en masse looking for work. They are racially ambiguous, and can’t speak English. The working-class residents of South Park resent them for supposedly taking their work. They repeatedly shout, “They took our jobs!” with a mumbling, provincial inflection, and brainstorm how to solve the problem. They decide to “turn gay,” so future generations will be prevented, and the time-traveling immigrants will cease to exist. Eventually, their plan turns into a massive gay orgy, made possible by animation.
The image of the orgy is so absurd that the social commentary becomes very removed from reality. Parker and Stone exaggerate the men’s xenophobia so much that it is no longer an accurate representation of real life. There is no nuance in their dealing with the issue of immigration, only a clear-cut judgment: anti-immigration protesters have let their fear and hatred of immigrants reach ridiculous proportions.
Parker and Stone are of course aware that their absurd imagery and storytelling often distances their show far from reality, and that audiences have come to expect this from them. This can be seen in the episode “Trapped in the Closet,” which is a critique of Scientology. There is an extended animated sequence where a Scientologist explains the mythology behind the religion: an absurd story about an alien genocide that occurred 75 million years ago. Realizing that their audience might take this for a hyperbolic parody, Parker and Stone prominently superimpose the words, “This is what Scientologists actually believe,” over most of the scene.
You can watch that scene here.
South Park is an excelent example of how a work’s artistic qualities, including its medium, portrayal of humanity, and method of storytelling can affect its social commentary. Because a) it’s a television program, b) it portrays people as less intelligent and moral than they usually are, and c) it’s animated, South Park’s depiction of reality is very simplistic and exaggerated. This, in turn, makes the social commentary fairly heavy-handed and simplistic.