August 2, 2017

What South Park tells us about ourselves

And now we come to the confession portion of today’s blog, wherein I tell you that I’ve never, ever, seen an episode of South Park. (Not boasting, just fact. Although I've never watched it, I'm quite familiar with it, thanks to my efforts on behalf of you, dear readers, to keep abreast of the pop culture scene.) Now, I know what you’re thinking – well, duh, all you ever watch is classic TV anyway, so what? True, South Park doesn’t exactly fit into my M.O. for TV viewing, but as this article at the AV Club reminds us, it has now been on for 20 years, and so it’s bound to fit into someone’s definition of classic. More than that, and the reason I bring it up today, is that this article asks us to take a close look at the effect South Park has had on society over its run, and how it’s shaped the way people behave. As Sean O’Neill writes, an entire generation has now grown up with South Park always there, a constant part of their lives, with the effect of “allowing a healthy, amused skepticism to ossify into cynicism and self-satisfied superiority, then into nihilism, then into blanket, misanthropic hatred.”

South Park’s influence echoes through every modern manifestation of the kind of hostile apathy—nurtured along by Xbox Live s**t-talk and comment-board flame wars and Twitter—that’s mutated in our cultural petri dish to create a rhetorical world where whoever cares, loses. Today, everyone with any kind of grievance probably just has sand in their v****a; expressing it with anything beyond a reaction GIF means you’re “whining”; cry more, your tears are delicious. We live in Generation U Mad Bro, and from its very infancy, South Park has armed it with enough prefab eye-rolling retorts (“ManBearPig!” “I’m a dolphin!” “Gay Fish!” “…’Member?”) to sneeringly shut down discussions on everything from climate change and identity politics to Kanye West and movie reboots. Why not? Everything sucks equally, anyway. Voting is just choosing between some Douche and a Turd Sandwich. Bullying is just a part of life. Suck it up and take it, until it’s your turn to do the bullying. Relax, guy.

(Sorry about the language there; I tried to edit it as much as possible. But I think it’s equally important to understand just what these cultural forces are, how they walk and talk and influence, and so I’m going to let some of this go through.)

Perhaps this will wind up as part of a chapter in my book, where we can discuss this more at length, but I don’t want to give South Park too much credit for this; we can’t really know whether it created this mindset, exploited it, or merely gave it a louder volume. Neither, however, should we dismiss it's impact as insignificant. The point here is that in comparing television of the past with that of today, one thing we have to consider is the effect the programming has on the public – not just the people who watch the programs, but those who live in the culture populated by and in large part created by those viewers. We’ve seen television pass through many stages during its existence, all the while questioning the effect it has. At various times its purpose has been to entertain, to educate, to challenge, to prevaricate, to lead.

In particular, the history of television is littered with discussions regarding its effect on children. Here, too, the hope has been to educate, but along with that – or maybe I should say in conflict with it – we’ve seen it portrayed as a mindless babysitter, a manic instigator of hyperactivity and short attention spans, an agent provocateur, a thief that robs the young of their childhood and turns them into cynical, sexualized, immature mini-adults. This is what happens when television’s purpose is to tear down.

Sometimes television mirrors the culture, sometimes it drives it. In this case, it’s not clear there’s even anyone at the wheel. Parker and Stone, the creators of South Park, may not have intended this when they started out, and indeed O’Neill suggests they may well have struggled with what their creation hath wrought. But then, we all know the composition of the road to Hell.

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