TelevIsm: The Offensive Olympics' Closing Ceremonies

Rachel McCarthy-James
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Today, I conclude my comparative review of South Park and Family Guy. This is the last part of a four-part series (one, two, three for your convenience) called the Offensive Olympics. These shows are both notable for their propensity to rely on political shock value and the oppression of marginalized bodies to make their jokes, so I am investigating which is worse, and on which axis.

I am slightly sad to find that South Park is by my completely unscientific and totally subjective survey a very slightly more offensive show. Family Guy had a total of 212 net instances of oppression to South Park's net 223. Additionally, South Park's most offensive episode, with 69 instances (that's three offensive jokes a minute!) blew Family Guy's highest scorer (with 47 instances) out of the water. South Park's least offensive episode ("Die Hippie Die") had no net offensive jokes, similarly crushing Family Guy's least offensive episode (which had 34 offensive jokes).

South Park did, however, have many many more jokes critiquing systematic privilege than Family Guy. South Park had a total of 54 critical jokes, whereas Family Guy had three.

Family Guy was the more sexist show, and more ageist. South Park was considerably more racist, with the majority of their jokes being racist by a rather long shot. FG also took a more scattershot approach to enacting privilege – sexist jokes were a plurality rather than a majority.

For comparative measures, I also evaluated an episode of The Simpsons and King of the Hill each. The King of the Hill episode Bobby On Track was slightly sizist – it associated fatness with inactivity and laziness, though that was more character based, and much of it was critical. There were a net six instances. The Simpsons' recent episode "Judge Me Tender" was a little worse, with 11 net instances of oppression.

The comparison to other animated comedies targeted at similar audiences does confirm my (completely subjective) observation that Family Guy and South Park are unnecessarily and outsized in their oppression. These two shows do not need to be so offensive to be popular or funny – they are exercising their privilege for its own sake.

What does this show us about South Park and Family Guy? Nothing we didn't know, really. They're both pretty offensive shows, but for different reasons.

Family Guy is lazy and falls back on oppressive jokes because it's not a very good or smart show. They don't think hard or critically about their oppression; it's just what they turn to when they're out of ideas. They don't try to get away from it or have ideas that enable them to move away from oppression and into character development, which is why they have about the same amount of oppressive jokes in every episode.

South Park is a better show than Family Guy. It's got better characters, more interesting and expressive animation, inventive plots, creative jokes. It's not just "HEY FARTS" [full disclosure: fart jokes are awesome] or "HEY OPPRESSED PEOPLE SUCK". They have a considered statement to make about society. Though it's arguing for privilege, it's considering the way that it crafts its arguments. The writers of South Park have the ability to critique privilege and the ability to rely on character development.

The writers of Family Guy are lazy, out for a quick buck and a cheap laugh, and they use their privilege to do that, as privileged people do. But the writers of South Park want something more than just a quick erasure. When they want to exercise their privilege, they know what they're doing and they make a pointed effort to pump up and show off their oppressive points of view, actively proselytizing to their viewers.

And from my perspective, that's worse than Family Guy, though it's also, from my perspective, a better show and a more critical show.

South Park is, from my point of view, more offensive than Family Guy because it's not just plugging the leaks on the structure of kyriarchy. It's creating tools to further build that structure, and to destroy critical counter-attacks. South Park's not just passively reinforcing the smug superiority and oppressive behavior of us privileged folks. It's not just letting us go unchallenged. South Park's giving us a reason to defend their privilege. It's giving us an argument against critique.

There are things that South Park does not do as badly or as often as Family Guy. FG frequently traffics in jokes about rape and child molestations, as some folks pointed out in the entry on it in this series. Though I don't have any numbers to back this up, I've perceived South Park to make these kind of jokes far less, and they frequently critique rape culture in the Catholic Church.

When Family Guy makes a joke about "the Blaccuweather forecast ", viewers laugh and move on, their white privilege reinforced and perpetuated. But when South Park devotes an episode to promulgating hate-crime rhetoric, that results in white people parroting it for years and actively spreads misconceptions. When Family Guy shows a character barfing for forty seconds about sex with a trans woman, the viewer laughs and moves on, their cissupremacist notions about trans sexuality reinforced. But when South Park devotes an episode to dehumanizing and racializing transition experiences and then reinforces the idea that trans woman are deceptive, flighty "men with mutilated penises", it gives the viewer tools and languages to vocalize and spread cissexist argument.

Both Family Guy and South Park are offensive, hostile to oppressed folks, and invested in defending privilege. Is Family Guy's oppressive rhetoric better than South Park's? No, it's not. They also contribute to the ongoing supremacy of privileged bodies in society, and that is reprehensible. But South Park's oppression is better developed, more considered, and requires more active engagement of privilege on the part of the viewer. And that's reflected in the frequency of its oppressive jokes.

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26 Comments Have Been Posted

one correction

It isn't "the Blackie Weather forecast". It's the "Blaccuweather forecast." As in, the common Accu-Weather crap they use on local television stations. Um, and it's Blaccuweather, because Ollie Williams is Black, and I guess that's the joke.

It's a joke along the lines of Blackula, and less uhm, "Blackie"?

Correction has been made,

Correction has been made, thanks!

I disagree that South Park

I disagree that South Park makes it's offensiveness look "appealing" to viewers. Everyone I know who watches that show is *in* on the joke that South Park's ridiculous plots are making fun of the hatred and bigotry of others. The show ALWAYS concludes on an inclusive note, usually with the main characters trying to find a balance between two points of view and bring peace to their little town. And I don't think that South Park leads to "white people parroting it for years" so much as generating actual conversations about the differing viewpoints offered. And, oh yeah, South Park ALWAYS presents more than one main point of view which Family Guy NEVER does.

Meanwhile, everyone I know that watches Family Guy knows that the sexist and racist views spread through it will never be apologized for, and the white stupid male, Peter, will keep being a jerk to everyone until he dies.

That, to me, makes ALL the difference.

The show ALWAYS concludes on

<i>The show ALWAYS concludes on an inclusive note, usually with the main characters trying to find a balance between two points of view and bring peace to their little town. </i>

Um. No, it doesn't. How about the episode where it ended with the sentiment that trans women are men with mutilated penises, and that women who are trans should just be happy being men?

I like south park and all

I like south park and all but, your logic:

"They were making a critique on people who actually think that way, the show wasn't saying that, they were pointing out the ridiculousness of the people who actually say that. That's what South Park does."

That's exactly the same as saying a rude comment and then when someone gets mad at you for it, you say "It was just a joke!! Can't you take a joke?!!"

What about the people who didn't get the "joke"? Those people go around spreading the idea that trans women are men with mutilated penises.

there IS a diff tween what the character says&what the show says

I think articles and conversations like this all too often come with an almost intentionally superficial/reductive understanding of comedy and narrative.

I've seen a similar analysis (for The Office) done in Bitch more successfully recently where the author seemed to make a somewhat concerted effort and a more informed attempt to analyze not just whether the message *the character* sent was oppressive, but whether the message *the program* sent was oppressive. (Yes, an anti-oppressive program can make an anti-oppressive point by having a character can say an oppressive joke.)

The mechanics of comedy (both in delivery and reception) are simply more complicated than we usually give it credit for. Oftentimes a racist joke is really geared towards making the audience laugh at the absurdity of racism. That being said, that intent can often be lost in the process of reception - and whereas I am laughing AT racism, the person next to me may be laughing WITH racism, regardless of the intent. This complexity can be seen in the reactions to Archie Bunker, Sarah Silverman's infamous "I love chinks" joke, or the red haired kids who got picked on in the aftermath of the "ginger kids" episode of South Park.

Of course, going this route is much more complicated and less cut and dry because it requires a certain interpretation of intent and affect - which are treacherously subjective and varied depending on the audience member receiving the message. It is this complexity that makes it easy for... lets say "less ambitious writers"(?) to just break things down into a tidy though somewhat absurd mathematical tally and then say pretty much whatever they wanted to say before they began.

Not that I disagree about the quality of either of these shows, but it seemed like a pretty toothless analysis. "I don't like it" probably would have accomplished about the same amount, though I do appreciate the distinction between the laissez-faire oppression of FG and the active oppression of SP.

mechanics of comedy


I have to disagree with you that this article is reductive or demonstrates a superficial understanding of comedy. This is the fourth article in a series that has analyzed both SP and FG in depth, and many of the points you bring up here were addressed previously–there is no need for you to condescend to RMJ by implying that she doesn't understand "the mechanics of comedy."

On that note, RMJ actually wrote a post deconstructing the very jokes you're talking about (those that walk the line between mocking oppression and reinforcing it) here:

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Didn't mean to offend, here

Yes, there are another 3000

Yes, there are another 3000 words to it, linked in the first paragraph, explaining my point of view on these shows individually and my research methods in detail.

The tally method is not perfect, but all readings/review of television are subjective. This method is very heavily based on the article on the Office, and <a href="">its companion piece (which also addresses Family Guy and South Park).</a>

Thanks for this thoughtful

Thanks for this thoughtful series of posts.

I'm pretty annoyed by lazy comedy writing masquerading as "edginess." I think South Park in particular, gets way too much credit, where people will even argue its a progressive show. I can only throw my hands up. The trans penis mutilation line is a perfect example of SP's problems.

And I think you've done a good job exposing how this style of supposedly irreverent humor is really just a cover for celebrating their own position of privilege.

Thanks so much :) I've

Thanks so much :) I've enjoyed your contributions in comments.

Seconding this, years later

Absolutely have to second this comment--I've never been a South Park fan but always heard it praised for being progressive comedy. Imagine my shock a few weeks ago when I watched the Bigger, Longer and Uncut movie for a history and film class!! I was blown away by the misogyny, homophobia, racism etc. in the show, all in order to champion free speech for cishet white straight men, at the expense of everyone else!! I especially loved this paragraph:

<i>"South Park is, from my point of view, more offensive than Family Guy because it's not just plugging the leaks on the structure of kyriarchy. It's creating tools to further build that structure, and to destroy critical counter-attacks. South Park's not just passively reinforcing the smug superiority and oppressive behavior of us privileged folks. It's not just letting us go unchallenged. South Park's giving us a reason to defend their privilege. It's giving us an argument against critique."</i>

One of the most horrifying moments in my undergraduate academic education was sitting through the discussion, watching my peers vibrantly, passionately, and vehemently defend this movie--and the show, and the creators. They couldn't even consider that maybe, <i>maybe</i> the show and its creators were/are fallible!! Very troubling. THANK you for your critical analysis.

I love this post! I had

I love this post! I had always felt that Family Guy was way more offensive and oppressive than South Park, but after reading your critiques of them, my opinion has changed.

I think you might have

I think you might have jumped the gun here. Last night's Family Guy episode was entirely about abortion.


...and? I don't see how this is relevant, or evidence that I've jumped the gun?

Intent and audience

The audience context of each show, I think, makes a difference for the effect of the offensive content. Also, the way that the content is used by the audience. SP's jokes aren't as soundbite friendly, so they don't have the same repetitive nature as the non-sequitors that FG passes off as jokes. Anyone who has acquaintences who watch FG know that after every new episode, they'll end up parroting line after line for kicks. And repetition breeds familiarity, which quickly builds into a value system.

The targets of each show also mean something. FG is reactionary in its choice of targets. Picking on race, weight and gender is a push-back. SP tends to be more critical when going after those targets, while the non-critical jokes tend to be on highly marginalized groups. See the ever abhored transgender jokes -- Trans has barely made it into popular consciousness. Everyone knows you don't make a joke about a person in a wheelchair, but FG jumps up and says "yes you can, and should, because you're better than that person and so it's funny." While SP's jokes at the expense of Trans people are the same in terms of activation of privilege, it can come out of a place of ignorance. It's not nearly as likely that a SP viewer will know or encounter a Trans person, while it's highly likely that a FG viewer will have daily contact with someone who has a disability.

I don't think I agree

First off: intent does not matter, ever. If someone intends not to be racist, but does something racist, they still did something racist. Intent does not mitigate.

SP doesn't just pick on trans folks, it also picks on POC (see the Shitty Wok character) and PWD (Jimmy and Timmy). And, uh, FG is pretty fucking hateful about trans people as well. And whether or not viewers will actually meet a trans person.... it's still contributing to a culture that hate trans people

And I really don't see how you're making that argument (with regard to FG being parroted more than SP) about one of the most catchphrase-rich shows of the last ten years - "OMG they killed kenny" "Respect my authori-tah" "You guys wanna get high?" My partner is a huge SP fan, so I can definitely say that SP is parroted as a joke in a huge way. FG is more popular right now, but it doesn't really equal the impact that South Park has had on popular culture and particularly my generation.

I really disagree that

I really disagree that intent doesn't matter. Perhaps those of us who feel differently about such things will just have to agree to disagree. Granted, I don't think intent should ever be used as an excuse or to let someone off the hook, but it certainly is worth taking into consideration from an analytical standpoint, especially in reference to popular cultural. That and author intent and audience response aren't always straight lines. They can't always be thoroughly studied or quantified, but they shouldn't be dismissed. I feel strongly about this as an analytical approach (I utilized aspects of author intent and audience response in my grad work in education) because I think it more accurately reflects my day to day life. I don't find in the vast majority of cases that people say or do offensive things with mustache-twisting self-awareness and malice. However, what they say is offensive, none the less. Beyond analysis, there is an everyday practicality about understanding intent. It's worth understanding and acknowledging that certain ways of seeing the world are often framed within certain contexts. For me, understanding intent is really about understanding context. It's important to me to understand, to put it colloquially, where people are coming from.

Perhaps "intent doesn't

Perhaps "intent doesn't matter" is a little strong - there are instances in which it's worth considering. But it's less a deciding factor than something to lightly consider when reading into art and language.

RMJ- you're right, intent

RMJ- you're right, intent doesn't matter (viva death of the author!). I've really enjoyed your multi-part analysis - though, I must admit, I don't always agree maybe South Park just does that to me. I was wondering if you had any opinion on the political manifestations of South Park - i.e. the so-called "South Park Republican" (a phrase coined by Andrew Sullivan) who are usually independent -leaning white-men under forty.

I ask because your posts have focused around your subjective reaction to South Park's jokes and the series of standards you used to determine the "offensiveness" as a joke. I think the "South Park Republican" is interesting because they're hearing the same jokes and interpreting them quite differently than you are (obvs). But it just makes me wonder about other political discourses that South Park infuses.

SBE, thanks for the

SBE, thanks for the compliments. As I've said many times, I'm also a fan of South Park, and I intend on continuing to watch it because it's really funny and well-written. (Family Guy is not).

WRT SP GOP: Hmm. I would guess that it's more that it's written for them? Trey is a libertarian (and seems to be anti-abortion, though he's never made a big point about it) so I think he's mainly expressing his point of view, and SP Republicans are recognizing and adopting that.

I understand

I find this article the reason i find Feminist projects a failure. That one is more oppressive or bad then the other seems to be a high school subject to worry about. What about our society finds comforting and appealing about these two wildly loved shows would have been a great read.

I dont think your wrong to write it. I dont think your points are wrong. I also dont think your points are right. Perhaps it is a generational thing. I dont enjoy reading or listening to people state over and over how bad something is with out getting into the dirt of it all. Talk to me of why every one of my generation loves these shows. Talk to me of how this will effect the next generation.

It felt more like show an tell. And i hope that show and tell is not all that is left in the Feminist media. I would rather read NON PC then sugar coated look what i watched last night reviews.

I don't think you do understand, actually.

Sugar coated? Really? So I've spent 4000 words explaining why and how these shows are awful, and you call it sugar coated?

If these are two "widely loved" shows, why the hell would I write more about how they're awesome? What does that have to do....with anything?

<i>Talk to me of why every one of my generation loves these shows.</i>

Um, well, not every one of your generation loves it, I can guarantee it. And maybe those who do (like me, I think South Park is often hilarious) because oppression is systematic? And because privileged people don't mind having their privilege reinforced?

<i>Talk to me of how this will effect the next generation. </i>

Um, it will help to ensure that privileged people continue to be privileged?

Since you seem to only want to read about happy things, maybe you should go look at some cat pictures. If you don't enjoy feminist response to pop culture, maybe you should find another website, one whose express purpose is not "feminist response to pop culture".

Pop culture

Madam, I do not like your article. Simple fact. And yet here we sit.

I do hope that the creators of "Bitch Mag" do not share your view. That anyone who disagrees with them should GO AWAY. However there are many who write for this site that i enjoy, and i will avoid reading your pages as you wish.

I can only assume that what i said hit close to home.

Your commentary is rather tired

I was pretty insulted by your comparing my professional writing to high school, but other than that, what's to hit home?

This is a website called Bitch, and I'm a feminist, so you know, suggestions to be nicer are rather overused and tired - I'm used to hearing "why is this such a big deal, this is a funny show, why are you always talking about the bad stuff, you're making too much of it" and all variations thereof. No, you caught me on a bad day, and were condescending besides, so I decide to send a little fire your way.

People who disagree are welcome. Sometimes, folks bring great dissent and new ideas that I hadn't considered - see jordanb's comment above.

You're not doing that. You're telling me that I should find things to like about a show I find offensive, and then insulting my writing.

People who tell me that they find feminist projects to be failures? People who tell me that they don't like my article because I'm being too critical? I'm inclined to wonder what you are doing on a feminist site.

I can't speak for Bitch since I am a guest here, but the fact remains that this is a feminist website, and those are generally not really given to endorsing privilege and interested in being non-offensive - being "PC" as you would call it.

I don't care if you read or not, but I intend upon defending my writing and my point of view.

South Park is awesome show!

South Park is awesome show!

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