The creators of this long-running cartoon are open about its wide-ranging offensiveness, but does it sometimes subvert dominant norms to illustrate the raw deal girls often get? Victoria Brewster considers the case
South Park is one of my favourite television shows. For those not familiar with the programme, it is a low-quality animation following the lives of pre-pubescent children. It centres on four American primary school-aged boys: Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny, but is definitely aimed at an adult audience. It is most commonly known for excessive profanity and scatological humour, but I’ve always kind of enjoyed its feminist bent.
This might be hard to believe when co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are very open that they have created the show to be offensive in every respect and not to hold anybody or anything above mockery and criticism – but women and women’s situations in society are vindicated more often than you might think, sometimes in very clever ways. From South Park‘s inception, episodes have followed a format of creating an abnormal situation, exaggerating the ridiculous way it might be treated in real life and moralising over the ignorance of society. For example, in the first series, episodes finish with Stan turning to the camera and explaining why the ‘normal’ way of doing things is wrong, with slow piano music evoking after-school specials.
At the show’s inception, the cast is almost entirely male, but as the series progresses, we are introduced to a varied female cast as well. Women still only account for around 25% of the cast in any given episode (a rough figure, taken from a personal diversity audit of 30 episodes chosen at random from throughout the series). But in the majority of cases, women in South Park have names and the adult women have jobs. The women in the show also hold prominent roles, such as Mayor and School Principal. However, the female characters most often seen are the classmates of the four boys. It is these girls, and the way they are treated in the series, that most interests me.
Female bodies are discussed in several South Park episodes and, like most issues that pass through the South Park lens, the treatment of women’s bodies is disassembled to the view of a child. This can be handled crudely, as in ‘Bebe’s Boobs Destroy Society’; satirically, as in ‘Raisins’; or with blunt force, as in ‘The Hobbit’.
In ‘Bebe’s Boobs Destroy Society’, the perpetually pre-adolescent boys are met with their own devolution, as one of their female classmates, Bebe, starts to develop breasts. The boys’ reaction is to turn into possessive caveman-like forms of themselves, while Bebe is left confused.
This is one of several episodes dealing with the male gaze concerning women. In this case, the reaction is portrayed to be primeval, something the boys do completely by instinct without even realising why they are doing it. Indeed, South Park frequently divides the genders into ‘just how men are’ or ‘just how women are’. However, it also subverts these norms; for example, a man’s behaviour is frequently excused as ‘just the way men are’, but by turning this into a hyperbole, they also express an underlying opinion that ‘just how men are’ is often incorrect, hypocritical and dangerous. In this case, South Park highlights the idea that women’s bodies are for the viewing and possession of men. As usual, the episode ends by telling us why this behaviour is ridiculous.
This issue comes up again in a problematic manner in the episode ‘Raisins’. ‘Raisins’ is the name of South Park‘s elementary school equivalent of Hooters – “Be sure to show off your raisins!” When Butters, a character that exists to represent pure naivety, falls in love with a Raisins girl, his father is forced to explain that these are women who know they can make money out of men liking them. This seems to set women up as predatory, cold hearted creatures willing to use men’s apparent ‘caveman’ instincts to turn a profit. Indeed, in this same episode, Stan is dumped by his girlfriend Wendy, with no reason given. It is an episode about men’s unrequited love.
Yet there are very interesting feminist moments in this episode, which are the key to seeing that it has a feminist spine. When Butters comes to see his ‘girlfriend’ Mercedes after Raisins closes, Mercedes is forced to ask a member of their security team to walk her to her bicycle, in an acknowledgement of the danger often faced by women in an industry that utilises their beauty. Mercedes repeatedly attempts to set boundaries with Butters – telling him to meet her at work, instead of outside of work – and these are steadily ignored. Butters’ ‘mistake’ of believing Mercedes to be his girlfriend is played for laughs, but I’m sure many women watching will, here, recognise the man who considers himself to have some kind of ownership over a woman because she was nice to him or happens to be pretty.
This episode also features a segment that always makes me laugh: Butters’ mother, Mrs Stotch, tries to tell a Raisins girl, Porsche, that she could be a doctor or a businesswoman, or even cure cancer. Porsche’s response is, “Oh-my-God. That would be SO cool. I had a cancer sore on my lip once and it hurt SO bad.” After this exchange Mrs Stotch decides that maybe Porsche is fine just where she is. For me, this represents something else that South Park does very well: the women of the show are not angels or martyrs, in the way they are in many others. Wendy Testaburger might look like smart, marginalised, uncool Lisa Simpson – but she isn’t. On the contrary, she is the head cheerleader and, for much of the series, dates the star quarterback. She is decisive and speaks out when something ill-considered is happening – and people listen. Nor is she a perfect angel, holding an inferior position on the girls club and trying to find her way to being the boys’ new best friend by singing them a rude song.
When Mrs Stotch decides that Porsche is in just the right job for someone “stupid but pretty”, It sounds very much like a problematic statement. But it is also an acknowledgement that people in jobs often framed negatively by conventional society due to being stereotyped as ‘female’ – including service jobs, professions where looks are traded on to earn money (such as modeling) and sex work – deserve respect. Mrs. Stotch also reminds us that women should neither be dismissed nor idealised, but treated as human beings with flaws and virtues.
This approach to challenging the status quo on the ways in which women are treated continues in ‘The Hobbit’, where women’s bodies are discussed in detail and quite frankly. In this episode, South Park looks at the phenomena of women using photographic editing software like Photoshop to re-touch pictures of themselves. It’s a practice that has been happening in the media for years, but earlier computer literacy has meant that people can re-touch pictures at a younger age. And while I very much hope that 10 and 11 year old girls aren’t really airbrushing their pictures before they go on to social media, this episode shows that we may not be far from that happening. As usual, a character – this time Wendy – tries to show her classmates and the adults around her that something is wrong; people are creating untrue images to deal with a gap in their own body image, caused by unrealistic pictures of women in the media. In this episode though, there is no neat conclusion explaining the ignorance of society.
At the end, Wendy is forced to conform. It seems South Park writers believe that there is no conquering this mountain, and say so in a way that leaves the audience feeling bleak and uncomfortable. This is an episode with no punchline.
The issue of the male gaze and its judgement of women’s bodies is further dealt with in ‘The Magic Bush’. This is an episode in which a drone is used to spy on Craig’s mother, and it is deemed ‘disgusting’ because Craig’s mother has pubic hair. Craig’s mother repeatedly points out that shaving the pubic region used to be considered ‘weird’, and that the problem with the video is the invasion of her privacy, but the patriarchal citizens of South Park keep insisting that it is the state of her genitalia that is the real issue here. Their assumption and, by extension, of society as a whole, is that Craig’s mother should be ashamed for what the patriarchy considers a lack of personal grooming.
A challenge to conventional ideas about sexuality in young girls is explored in ‘The Ring’, an episode about the Disney manufactured band, The Jonas Brothers. It opens with the news that Kenny, arguably the most sexually mature of the boys, has started going out with a girl who is a ‘slut’. The other boys warn him away from her, but Kenny is increasingly delighted when they tell him that Kelly once gave a boy a blowjob in the parking lot at TGI Friday’s. Kelly explains later that she only did it because she had been watching The Jonas Brothers, and they made her act in a sexual way.
When The Jonas Brothers are shown performing, later in the episode and on mock ups of their music videos, they are portrayed as gyrating adolescent boys. It is difficult to tell sometimes, with South Park’s animation, how physically attractive a character is supposed to be, but the reaction of the female audience members seems to be the screaming adulation reminiscent of an early Beatles concert. This is supported when a group of girls are invited back stage to meet the band and, on the brothers’ appearance, pop their mouths open ready to administer blow jobs without being asked. However, the band themselves promote purity rings and the idea of sexual abstinence until marriage.
In many ways, this all echoes the sort of confused messages perpetuated by young adult products like Twilight, which are obviously designed to be sexually stimulating but promote a message of abstinence. The episode mostly focuses on how boring married people are (the purity rings acting as a metaphor for marriage) but is specifically about female sexual repression and confused media messages about what women should or shouldn’t want.
Women in South Park are not only an integral part of society, they also have their own. Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, discusses the idea that women do not talk to each other in works of literature produced by men, because a man does not know what a woman says to a woman when there are no men present – a concept reminiscent of the Bechdel Test concerned with whether women talk to each other in visual media. She writes:
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted.
In ‘The List’, South Park seems to take this idea and run with it to imagine the society girls make when there are no boys around. The result is structured, political and convoluted. Girls’ society is based around lists, which are decided in a democratic fashion. There is a hierarchy to the girls’ society and the products are for girls’ eyes only. Stan is allowed a glimpse of this world, as his ex-girlfriend Wendy attempts to whistle blow on a list that wasn’t correctly put together. It transpires the list was tampered with by the leader of the girls’ Pleases and Sparkles Committee, Bebe, for her own personal gain. And shoes.
While the subject that the girls describe in private seems frivolous and is motivated by desires the boys don’t understand, it has an extreme impact on the boys’ world. Kyle goes into a deep depression, because he believes himself to be the ugliest boy, from the girls’ point of view. Craig, meanwhile, turns into an arrogant jerk because he was voted the cutest. The fact the list is a judgement that rates the boys’ looks should not be overlooked; as films such as The Social Network remind us, the first iteration of Facebook was a vehicle for men to be able to rate women’s appearances.
It is perhaps easy, when cherry-picking specific episodes, to come to a feminist conclusion. I will be honest that the more feminist episodes of are the ones I find most interesting. It is true to say there are plenty of episodes of South Park that are entirely unconcerned with feminist issues, along with some that seem to be absolutely un-feminist. However, as this type of cartoon goes, I would say the points it makes in favour of feminism, or that satirise feminist concerns in subversive ways, make it a clear front runner for women’s issues in its genre.
Image description and credit:
[First image: Screenshot from season 11, episode 14 (‘The List’). This shows the Pleases and Sparkles Committee in the middle. Bebe is at the top/centre, at a dusky pink desk with a ribbon on its front, with Jenny Simons (bottom/left) and Lola (bottom/right) in front of it.
A real-life picture of Corbin Bleu (Chad Danforth in High School Musical) is to the (audience view) left of Bebe, while a real-life picture of Orlando Bloom is on her right. Shared under fair dealing.
Second image: Screenshot from season 17, episode 10 (‘The Hobbit’), showing Wendy’s photoshopped picture with the controls and a cursor arrow over a grey background on the left. Wendy wears a figure-hugging purple top with a yellow skirt and pink beret. Shared under fair dealing.]