Derogatory language has a lengthy history in being used to demean people of certain minority populations. The way some words are defined by society can change. However, it takes much time and general acceptance by society for a meaning to amend. Marcus Schulzke explores the notion of meaning transformation in his scholarly article. Schulzke (2012) specifically analyzes South Park’s episode “The F Word”. The episode portrays a group of kids in the town of South Park attempting to change the meaning of the word fag. The kids go on a relentless journey to convince the town adults to change the definition from being targeted toward the gay community, to target loud and annoying bikers.
During the process, the bikers are consistently attacked with the derogatory word, often eerily similar to how LGBTQ people have been attacked in the past. In the end, the kids are ultimately successful in their arguments and the definition is changed (Parker, 2009). Schulzke (2012) ultimately makes the argument that the meaning of words can change through various strategies. He specifically outlines how genealogical critique and Orwellian strategies are used in “The F Word” to redefine the controversial word. I agree with Schulzke’s argument that genealogical critique can aid in redefining words, however, I partially disagree with him on the aspect of his Orwellian argument.
Schulzke (2012) defines genealogical critique as showing “how moral and aesthetic categories change over time” (p. 29). In the context of redefining words, the strategy symbolizes how the definitions of words can change over time with a changing culture. Genealogical critique is unmistakably used in “The F Word” when the town’s bikers are scouring the dictionary for the formal definition of fag. They come to find that there are numerous different definitions for the word, all of which evolved over time (Parker, 2009).
Schulzke (2012) points out that “the way the bikers actually trace the word’s development and draw attention to its changes makes the genealogical critique explicit” (p. 29). He argues that in the context of this scene, using the genealogical critique method to redefine words is powerful. To this point, I agree with Schulzke. I believe that words can be redefined over time with cultural shifts. The scene where the bikers are looking through the dictionary portrays the very idea that the meaning of words can change over time.
The idea is clearly portrayed when the bikers read aloud the various definitions of the word that have been transformed over time. In my experience, I have witnessed words that used to be shocking if someone said them out loud, now being stated loosely in everyday language. However, I think there is a fine line when redefining these words and society must be ready to accept the change before it is made. South Park proves a point that words can be transformed but I believe chose the wrong word to demonstrate the idea.
In my opinion, the word fag is still too commonly used to direct hate toward the gay community. The overuse of the word in “The F Word” only perpetuates the usage. As cited in Schulzke (2012), Michael Jones states that “the fact that South Park used the word so frequently… likely means that more people are saying the word today than yesterday” (p. 26). So, while Schulzke (2012) makes a great claim about how the usage of genealogical critique can alter the definitions of words, I do not believe that it was very effective in South Park’s rendition.
Schulzke (2012) claims that South Park also uses another strategy to try to change the definition of the word fag. Schulzke (2012) claims that the Orwellian method, derived from George Orwell’s theory of language, is used throughout the episode “to eliminate concepts that we would be better off without” (p. 29). The basis behind Orwell’s theory that Schulzke (2012) claims is being promoted by South Park is the idea that if people stop using the word to describe a difference, then the difference would be less apparent in society.
I differ from Schulzke in that I do not necessarily agree that the Orwellian strategy can have a significant impact to the transformation of words. In my opinion, simply ignoring that a word exists does nothing to progress society. Just removing the word fag from language discounts the extensive history and struggle the term carries. A word can be erased from vocabulary, but the connotation it carries will persist. Some people in society will still view the gay community as inferior and most likely always will. Instead of eradicating an offensive word from language, I believe it is more effective for the communities of people affected by said terms to reclaim them. Words have been reclaimed by the people they affect in the past.
According to Gary Nunn (2015), the word “suffragette” was originally used to ridicule and demean women that were fighting for their rights during the early 1900’s. Over time, the word has become a term of female empowerment and pride. In a way, words that have been reclaimed follow the Orwellian model. However, the way Schulzke describes the idea makes it seem like if people just forget about the word, it will lose its meaning. The following statement is contradictory to my beliefs about words being redefined, and therefore I do not agree with his argument on Orwellian strategies.
Marcus Schulzke (2012) makes poignant arguments in his journal article centered around transforming the meaning of words in society. I agree with one of his main arguments that over time the definitions of words can change, in fact, it is natural to do so. However, I do not fully agree with his support of the Orwellian method. While both methods are potential ways to redefine words, I believe that it is most powerful to redefine words over time and with the support of the group objectified. While some LGBTQ critics were accepting of South Park’s attempts to redefine the word fag, it is impossible to say whether all feel the same. I believe to redefine a harmful word; the process takes multiple years of community reclaim and acknowledging the struggle and hate a word has been built upon.