South Park is nothing short of one of the most successful shows airing today. Premiering in 1997, Matt Parker and Trey Stone’s low-budget and off-color animated series has as many accolades as it does seasons. South Park has won five Emmys, have made its creators obscenely wealthy, and is arguably most responsible for the prolonged success of the Comedy Central channel. More than anything, though, South Park is a cultural touchstone and I’d venture that there’s not a single American between 13 and 65 who wouldn’t recognize the iconic paper cut out art style.
I, like just about everyone else I know, watched South Park religiously as a teen and young adult, which is a decision I deeply regret now. As the show continues to voice tired and dangerous ideas, I hate how influential South Park was to me and how relevant it remains in my social life. South Park is to me what I imagine Harry Potter is to a lot of other people and I’m nothing short of exasperated every time the show comes up. In the midst of this frustration, all I can do is remind myself that I’m trying to be a better person than the show and people who inspired many of my values and hope that I succeed in this effort.
Being a South Park Fan Between 2010 – 2016
I watched South Park in my free time between my Freshman year of High School and Sophomore year of college. This means that I watched a lot of South Park, since Comedy Central had reruns of the show playing constantly. Looking back, I probably watched an average of an hour of South Park every night between the ages of 14 to 18; maybe more if you count playing it as background noise while on my laptop or doing homework. I don’t think I made a conscious effort to watch the show as much as I did; it was just always available, had so many episodes that reruns rarely got stale, and was popular enough that I could talk to my friends about it.
Oh boy, did my dumbass friends and I talk about South Park a lot.
In High School, it was almost a game to see who had watched more of it, or who got the most references. I’m not sure if it was because the show was already popular, or because it had a lot of swears in it and was therefore ‘adult,’ but my buddies and I were obsessed with South Park. In my first two years of college, about eight of my friends would cram into a dorm room, overtake a common area, or pile into an apartment to watch new episodes as they aired. In fact, the second ever non-mandatory student social event I attended (the first being Sex Out Loud’s Kink and Consent on Campus event, because even at 19 I was on brand) was a watch party and cooperative analysis of the ‘Go God Go’ episodes.
I didn’t just watch South Park, I dissected episodes for meaning and learned about the world through them. I first learned about trans people from South Park episode “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina”. This show was the first program I ever watched to call out specific politicians for their failings or flawed beliefs, like in the infamous “ManBearPig” episode. South Park gave me perspectives on the US immigration policy and illegal immigration that I certainly wasn’t getting from mostly conservative adults in my small, rural hometown; as seen in the episode “Goobacks”.
I don’t know if I’d be who I am today if South Park didn’t exist. I was doing media critique and analysis on the show before I even knew what that was and it was a shared interest that helped cement some of my most meaningful relationships. Which, really sucks, because South Park is bad and I hate how much impact it still has on my life and broader culture.
Hating South Park From 2017 – Present
I grew to despise South Park as I realized that its creators didn’t actually believe in the ideals presented in a given episode and figured out that their “both sides” mockery was cowardly instead of brave.
As a teenager, I really bought into South Park’s integral belief that all jokes are okay and should be allowed, or none of them will be. The implication here being that any kind of censorship or criticism of humor will eventually led to the stifling of content that the person leveling the critique does enjoy. As someone who liked subversive content and niche media, this really resonated with me. Sure, I hated classmates who made bigoted jokes, but rationalized that to suppress that kind of material or thinking would stop jokes that I did like from existing. Of course, as a teenager the irony of one of the most successful animated shows ever making itself out to be the little guy that needed to be protected , nor was I aware of how desperate I was to be apart of any kind of perceived counter culture.
Then the 2013 episode “Informative Murder Porn” aired and a seed of doubt germinated in my psyche. This episode seemingly came off as pro-censorship and argued that people shouldn’t watch, and channel’s shouldn’t air, true crime shows. I was surprised and confused that a program that had so vehemently opposed censorship would advocate for it in this episode. Brushing it off, I continued watching South Park regularly, but noticed more and more that the show would often go back on its biggest and most controversial messages.
Now that I’m an adult and have all the benefits and horrors that come with that perspective, I realize that the reason South Park episodes have so many contrary themes is because the people behind it don’t actually believe in anything. South Park exists solely as a means for it’s creators to make fun of the things that annoy them; meaning the show will only get worse as Matt and Trey become older, richer, and more libertarian. For as much as the creator’s like to boast that they make fun of everyone, South Park advocates for the perspective of the privileged more so than perhaps any other airing comedy. After all, these are the people who convinced millions of Americans that Democrats are as bad as Republicans in “Douche and Turd,” because to them ineffective leaders are just as bad as those who want to do harm to the marginalized.
(Before anyone @s me, I’m acutely aware of how bad Democrats are and their role in upholding a status quo that also harms the marginalized and will ultimately lead to the destruction of the human race. We aren’t talking about them right now, though.)
The final nail sealed my South Park fandom coffin in the show’s 20th season, which failed to lampoon internet culture and provide an entertaining, season spanning narrative. Between the show whitewashing the Trump campaign and trying to make Cartman, the show’s stand in for the worst people in the world, more relatable; it became blatantly clear to me how little I connected to the show and the people who liked it. I’ll never forget a tweet the South Park account retweeted (yes, I used to follow the official South Park Twitter account and deeply regret it), where someone thanked the show for having Cartman enter into a relationship, as they were afraid he’d be alone forever.
Cartman should be alone! He’s awful and that’s the entire point of the character! I dropped the show after realizing how little my values overlap with the show and how little in common I have with the people who still like it. This irks me to no end because the show helped inspire a lot of my values!
Life Post South Park
About once every other week a friend makes a reference to or reminds me of a joke from South Park. Most of the time I’ll laugh because the joke their alluding to is genuinely funny, especially in the given context. South Park has been on the air for 25 years, so of course it has some good jokes. I still giggle every time I think of the joke where Butters excitedly reveals that his birthday is on 9/11 or the (now strangely titled) “Pandemic” episodes where the supporting character Craig roasts the main characters for…being main characters in an adult animated series.
I have to catch myself every time I do fondly remember the show, though, because it spends so much time elevating dumb and harmful ideas. In the latest special (labeled a movie for some asinine reason despite having a 62 minute runtime) South Park postulates that those advocating for wearing a mask during a global pandemic are as bad as anti-maskers. Never mind that the latter group is quantifiably more dangerous and perhaps responsible for the pandemic lasting as long as it has, they both annoy the millionaires who make the show so they’re equally bad. Which of course only excuses and normalizes the behavior of anti-maskers, and now I remember why I hate this show.
I go through this train of thought at least every other week and it’s exhausting. Someone please put me or the show out of our misery so that this cycle can finally end. Actually, now that I think about it, there’s a non-zero chance that South Park will still be cranking out bad takes by the time I’m on my deathbed, and that’s deeply depressing.
I imagine the loop I find myself in isn’t all that different from the purgatory that that socially responsible Harry Potter fans call home. My fondness for the series is constantly put in check by the harm that it and its creators perform on a regular basis. The big difference being that South Park remains the primary medium through which its creators espouse their shitty, contrarian beliefs. So I guess I just need to co-opt the countless pieces of advice and guidance lobbied towards the Harry Potter fandom over the years.
It’s okay that I found meaning, value, and community in a piece of media that I now recognize as deeply problematic and detrimental to social progress. That being said, I can’t ignore the issues in the show and the troubling politics perpetuated by its creators. So I now need to do everything I can to offer a complete picture of the series and its impact, while simultaneously advocating for its finale, so that we as a society can move on and a new, better show can hopefully fill its shoes.
This, of course, isn’t an ideal situation, but it’s all that can be expected when art you value turns into something that you despise. Although, it’d be more apt to say that I’ve turned into a person that despises art that I used to love. My grudging affinity for South Park has been weighing on me for a while, and I’m glad I could finally purge all of these thoughts from my system. I never want to think about this dumb show again, but I know that the world isn’t going to let that happen.