South Park TV Show Analysis

  • Updated May 6, 2022
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The concept of parody is subtle in nature, and in order for it to function properly audiences must be aware of the complexities of the parodied object as well as be open to discussion. Take the Goobacks (Season 8), and Last of the Meheecans (Season 15), episodes as examples on the topics of racism, the economy, and undocumented workers. The commonalities of the language used in the episodes relate to contemporary understandings surrounding the main issues. The focus remains on how parody functions to challenge ideologies, including the successful and least successful aspects of the ideology. “There are no guarantees that minds will be changed, but there is hope through the vehicle of parodying racist language and representation that dialogue can be engaged” (Bailey, 2013, p. 9).

Frames serve as perspectives from which all interpretations of experience are made. Within the context of rhetoric, the frame becomes a method of using one’s own interaction with the world to shape another’s interaction with the world. South Park uses the comedic frame in the way that it illustrates individual interactions between characters in the most extreme ideological scenarios in hopes of forming more modest actions of its diverse ideological viewers. Kenneth Burke described the comic frame as a method that is “neither wholly euphemistic, nor wholly debunking—hence it provides the charitable attitude towards people that is required for purposes of persuasion and co-operation, but at the same time maintains our shrewdness concerning the simplicities of ‘cashing in’” (Burke, 1937, p. 166). Critical to the comic frame is an understanding that humanity is good, but flawed. “One must be open to the idea that the opposing side is not evil, but rather is working for a value that they have mistakenly deemed as good. Complimenting this idea is the recognition that one’s own group has the potential to be fallible” (Burke, 1937, p. 4). South Park illustrates this in the way that societal groups are very self righteous in their perspective on a particular situation, however through playing out the social or political theory to the nth degree these groups come to realize that they aren’t always correct and righteous. In the comic frame the weaknesses lie in societal structures themselves. “The end goal of the comic frame is ultimately to raise a “maximum consciousness” within man, from which he can “‘transcend’ himself” to recognize and correct “his own foibles” (Burke, 1937, p. 171).

Parodic, humorous, or satirical political discourse is naturally vague. The need to remain oppositional becomes even more clear in South Park’s allusive approach to popular culture and politics. “South Park mobilizes hyperbolic visual and narrative rhetoric to emphasize cultural dissonance. Such dissonance is not about politics but rather is a radically allusive political strategy in its own right, in which the acceleration of actions and thoughts considered to be “common sense,” including stereotypes and cultural logics, renders them absurd and unreliable” (Gournelos, 2009, p. 148). South Park attempts to breakdown existing power structures and social norms, through grotesque realism. When the structures and norms of society are absurd and contradictory, with politics following this same arrangement, pointing out the instability and absurdity in society gains the utmost political importance. “It is comedy whose humor relies on instability and fragmentation rather than a regime of discourse previously settled with its distributors or audiences, South Park charts areas of political discourse not approached by the parodies and satires in Beavis and Butthead, The Daily Show, or The Simpsons” (Gournelos, 2009, p. 148).

South Park creates humorous situations through constant allusions to and violations of the boundaries of the performative, in a hyperbolic emphasis on normativity and difference. The show does this typically through irony, by which the show is able to engage an existing sociopolitical reality from the perspective of inside that reality. South Park insists on the need for community but does so comically and ironically, through conflicts that do not resolve into a community connected as one. This allows for a methodology through which political performativity itself is placed in a recurring state of change. “By amplifying the dissonance of inconsistent or overdetermined gender identity in episodes such as “Marjorine” and “Bebe’s Boobs Destroy Society,” South Park uses an allusive tactic to emphasize elements from the dominant in ways that critique their construction and reification. The show therefore provides an example of how cultural production even within the mainstream can mobilize tropes from within repressive and oppressive systems to engage and destabilize those systems themselves” (Gournelos, 2009, p. 151).

The carnivalesque incorporates parody, satire, and inversion as techniques intended to humble and unify people in a humorous, humanistic sense. Bakhtin draws the carnivalesque from medieval festivals during which rigid social boundaries were temporarily suspended. Street parades included wild pageantry, where the poor dressed like the rich and/or powerful, mocking the speech and behavior of the elite class. The exaggerated and colorful celebration’s primary function was the mockery of people in positions of dominant social authority that controlled the daily functions of the lower classes. Those at the top of the social pyramid are brought down to the ground level of the average people during carnival. “Parody is a practice that temporarily disarms the prestige of the elite and, in mocking them, reminds all what unites them: humanity. Authors have used this technique in the past to critique society, leaders, and ideologies that require the lower classes to conform to behaviors or regulated norms that at times do not make sense. It is in this spirit that Stone and Parker utilize the carnivalesque and canonical texts. In South Park’s reference to literature, parody operates to provide allegories to contemporary social issues that can easily be identified” (Bailey, 2013, p. 11).

Like the medieval carnival, South Park relies heavily on spectacle and outrageous satire in its visual gags and writing. Time and again, South Park focuses on celebrities or politicians who are in the public spotlight at the time. A few examples are; Jennifer Lopez (Fatbutt and Pancake Head, season 7), George W. Bush (The Mystery of the Urinal Deuce, season 10), or Bono (More Crap, Season 11). In each episode, the the personas of the celebrities or politicians are exaggerated, drawing attention to some of their perceived faults; like Lopez’s self-centered focus, the suspected inability of Bush, or Bono’s frequent presentation of humanitarian awards. From the perspective of the average person, these people receive privilege, power and prestige that the average person may dream of attaining. In the act of portraying their personas as wild and outrageous, while making them the butt of the joke, their privilege and social status are inverted. This is symbolic of the resentment and jealousy felt by those in lower classes toward politicians or celebrities. “Vulgarity may also remind the audience of a concrete, contentious reality ‘that high art must, necessarily, make abstract in order to achieve striking artistic unity’. The vulgar then, is not just the realm of the bawdy, the lewd and the distasteful, but also the register of concrete, stark illustration” (Thorogood, 2016, p. 228). South Parks’s crude and vulgar satire of politicians and celebrities allows normal people to relieve tensions, drawing a comparison to the origins of the medieval carnival.

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South Park TV Show Analysis. (2022, May 06). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/south-park-tv-show-analysis/

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