TelevIsm: The Offensive Olympics - South Park vs. Family Guy

Rachel McCarthy-James
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Image: Cartman looks angrily at the camera in front of a tank full of manatees and balls.

Like many twentysomethings USians, South Park and Family Guy made up a big part of my adolescent and college adventures in cultural competence. South Park made a huge impact on culture when I entered puberty and remains popular, and in college Family Guy, then a cult show, was cool and hip. I consumed them with friends, and enjoyed them both even though I saw issues with them (as I so often do). Like all media consumed, it had an impact on the way I saw and reacted to things. South Park's liberal use of slurs like gay, retarded and lame infiltrated my language, becoming the typical synonyms for crappy for me and my peers. And both shows raised my tolerance for bigotry in myself and others. It made me feel more comfortable with my privilege, made me think of it subconsciously as something cool and okay rather than something to challenge and fight. It made me more tolerant of casual oppression especially in the guise of hipster "ironic" oppression that South Park and Family Guy have given the mask of legitimate satire.

The two shows have a lot in common. Both are animated, and popular with a young crowd. Both have the power to wield attention and influence. And both are known for being offensive – whether it's for the sake of making some supposedly critical point or just for the sake of pushing the envelope. These influential shows, consumed uncritically by millions every Sunday or Wednesday, are worthy of analysis. After watching almost every single episode of each of these shows, I want to use my knowledge of these shows to expose how they are harmful.

Both shows have issues. But which privilege do these two shows insist upon most thoroughly? At what rate do these shows oppress which bodies, and in what way? Which is more offensive? In the next few posts, I'm going to take a quantitative (though inherently subjective, of course) look at exactly how offensive these shows are. I will take five episodes spread over the course of each series and analyze the rate at they make offensive comments or jokes, whether in language, image, or action, and break it down by sexism, racism, classism, ableism, cissexism, sizism, and heterosexism (an incomplete list of oppressions to be sure, but the kinds that I feel most comfortable identifying).

I have two tentative hypotheses regarding which is more offensive. I want to think that Family Guy is worse, because I kind of hate it and consider it vastly less considerate, thoughtful, developed, funny, visually striking. Basically, I find it less appealing on every level, and I hope that perception is validated by my kinda-quantitative analysis. Family Guy is boorish, and lazy. And unthoughtful. And ignorant. These are qualities that usually result in more offensive writing.

But South Park is a show that I still enjoy watching and that I still find funny. Though it's very frequently offensive, it's also thoughtful and witty. It tries harder than Family Guy on every level from dialogue to joke-telling to animation, and because of the effort it succeeds much more than Family Guy. And both shows try to be offensive, to create controversy – why wouldn't South Park be better at being offensive, too?

I get a lot of pushback about how some instance or other isn't actually reinforcing the kyriarchy because it's satire and thus it's actually reinforcing it.

This is a hard line to draw! So I've come up with a specific set of guidelines to enable me to tell a critical joke from a hurtful joke, which you should read if you're interested in understanding how I'm viewing and counting instances of oppressions. I've decided not to cut either of the shows any slack for context" or "satirical intent". Neither of these shows make a consistent rhetorical point of fighting oppression, like say The Boondocks or Mad Men. When South Park or Family Guy do address oppression, it's either on a one-episode basis or in defense of privilege. Both of them are primarily written by white men. They don't deserve a generous interpretation because they haven't done the daily work of consistently writing about or facing oppression.

I did consider whether or not Cartman is a special case because he is so specifically and explicitly evil, and I do think there's a valid argument for his being necessarily critical. burq at Racialicious argues:

Some have asked how it is that I can so despise the bigotry on South Park, but love Eric Cartman so damn much. It's fairly simple, I say. Like Uncle Ruckus on The Boondocks, he is so over-the-top in his racism that one never has to wonder if his ideas are being prescribed to the viewer. The more insidious evil always lay in the show's creators.

But Cartman is also a mouthpiece of the show; though I can't find a specific citation, I recall watching an interview on Vh1 in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone say that they are both the most like Cartman. He is the most popular character on the show, and his oppressive words and actions, like it or not, have an impact – his catchphrases are parroted by bigots in training, and have even resulted in actual violence against redheads.

This whole post, this whole series, is pretty subjective. I'm looking to satisfy curiosity and come up with some kind of considered and semi-verifiable comparison on several different points between the two shows rather than a hazy estimation about their writing and joke style. But my ambition here is not to come up with some authoritative response about which is officially worse. These are shows that I want to analyze, and this is the framework in which I'm analyzing them.

I'd like to use this rather inspecific post to invite the (mostly) awesome commenters I've been interacting with to talk about these shows, comparatively or individually. Are you a fan of either, or both? Or do you abhor either, or both? Why or why not? If you've written on either show, please feel free to share - I found much less web-based social justice writing on South Park particularly than I anticipated, and I'd like to have background reading to link to.

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23 Comments Have Been Posted

SP > FG, but why?

While I don't regularly watch either, I definitely prefer <i>South Park</i> for all the same reasons as you, coupled with my general like of Parker's and Stone's other work, ie. <i>Cannibal</i>. Basically, I find it wittier and more original, and sometimes astute and timely in its satire. It's certainly not without problems, but I think a major reason I find it less aggressive in its -isms than <i>Family Guy</i> is in the protagonist. If <i>FG</i> has a main character, it's Peter; he's an all-together offensive persona, but the watcher is nonetheless meant to identify with him somewhat due to the fact that he's the show's focal point. If <i>SP</i> has one main character, I'd argue that it's Stan, who tends to be inoffensive and unassuming, and even gets angry with other characters about their -isms on occasion.

Looking at your "pushback" links made me shake my head. I am so tired of the "It's satire!" repeaters, especially because they often seem to expect people to respond with, "Oh really, it's a satire? I didn't know! It's all totes okay then!" We can like shows and still criticize them. Moreover, we *should.*

Originality is pretty key.

Originality is pretty key. It's certainly not the first time that the pottymouthed kids joke had been used, but it's miles better than Family Guy's bleak ripoff of The Simpsons and King of the Hill.

I actually see Cartman as the main character of the series, but the thing is that while Peter's actions often go rewarded or uncommented on (often because of those fucking cutaways), Cartman actually has a very strong foil who consistently counters him under the conditions I laid out for critical jokes: Kyle. On the rare occasion that Peter's actions are critiqued, the critique is usually shown to be ridiculous or result in further violence (actual or metaphorical) to the critquer.

And yeah, I need to bookmark <a href=" law</a>!

on the foil

I have always thought SP to be a more effective form of social commentary because Kyle and Stan regularly confront Cartman on his intolerance and ridiculous actions or ideas. I remember liking FG a lot more when I was younger, but even at that time some of the earliest episodes (which weren't all that bad) didn't bear repeated viewing. It seems like I can always return to some of the oldest episodes of SP for a good laugh on a bad day (Cartman's explanation of rainbows... rofl).

While SP was more of a mainstay during my adolescent years, in my first few years of college I didn't watch the show very much. FG kind of took over for awhile, followed by a couple of years where I didn't watch either show. A couple of weeks ago I caught the episode of SP about Michael Jackson's death and... well, let's just say I'm watching a bit more SP than in the past couple of years. While it definitely still has problems, it seems to have retained its originality and goes further in depth than any episode of FG (cutaways aren't really necessary in shows that are actually funny).

As for newly introduced characters... I have to agree on SP again. While FG paints Quahog as being a smallish town, it's worth noting that most of the characters aren't well developed beyond the jokes they're used for - for example, while Simpson's barkeep Moe has had the advantage of time to develop, at least he's a character within the Springfield community, unlike the barkeep on FG who really doesn't seem to be part of the community beyond owning a bar. When an angry mob appears, many of the characters represented are known, or at least recognizable in the Simpson's. With FG... beyond the street the Griffin's live on, I certainly couldn't tell you many names.

At any rate, my choice is either SP or Golden Girls.

My rule of thumb for jokes:

My rule of thumb for jokes: who is making the joke - the marginalized group or the privileged? if it's the latter it just not funny.

So theoretically both shows fail. Then again, my parents are not monsters, but thoughtful, educated people who like South Park, so I'm inclined to give South Park a looksy.

Then again, I am satisfied with the lulz provided by King of the Hill. That show makes me think a lot about class, race, cultural identity and regional pride.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Your rule is I think the key

Your rule is I think the key starting place for looking at anti-oppression jokes. I think that jokes made about oppression by privileged individuals are automatically worthy of the side-eye, I'll say that much.And obviously folks joking about their privilege have a much wider range of motion.

But, I think it's possible for folks of privilege to humorously critique the kyriarchy with some degree of success and impact. However, these jokes will necessarily be problematic on the axis they try to fight on some level (but I think that applies to pretty much any time a privileged person speaks against their privilege). So while both shows (and the Office, and Lost, and KOTH) are necessarily problematic, they're not necessarily worthless or ineffective.

I LOVE King of the Hill - wanting to write about it was actually one of the reasons I started blogging, though I've never followed up on it. I love a lot of the work of Mike Judge and Greg Daniels, too. It's a really complex show, and also one of the few shows on TV that portrays folks with Southern accents as people rather than caricatures. It's also necessarily very problematic because of ... a lot of reasons, but it's well-written, well-developed, and thoughtful - charecteristics sometimes evidenced by South Park, but never Family Guy.

Matt and Trey

<i>I recall watching an interview on Vh1 in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone say that they are both the most like Cartman.</i>

I remember a similar interview, but Matt and Trey said that Stan and Kyle are their cartoon equivalents - actually, their Freudian ego - and Cartman is their combined Freudian id. It made a lot of sense to me. :)

Yes, that's the one - but my

Yes, that's the one - but my memory was that it started out with Matt being Kyle and Trey being Stan, but then they realized they were both more like Cartman. I took it to be something of a comment on the evolution of the characters of the show.

It's very, very hard to say

It's very, very hard to say that you're a fan of either show after reading what you wrote. I'm not saying that in a <i>oh you're so right</i> way, but I'm not that you're wrong, either. I'm saying it in a <i>I'm intimidated</i> way. The way I read your writing, the shows are basically indefensible and that, as such, being a fan of them is <b>bad</b>. I'm sure that wasn't your intent, and I admit I may be reading more into your text than was intended - as I often do. But I'd be willing to wager some fictional currency that I'm not the only one who is going to read this text and decide to run the other way.

Incidentally, I've read in your other postings talk of ableism, and I totally get that...which is why I found the use of a math question as a "captcha" rather ironic. (See <i>dyscalculia</i>.)

I'm saying it in a I'm

<i>I'm saying it in a I'm intimidated way. The way I read your writing, the shows are basically indefensible and that, as such, being a fan of them is bad. I'm sure that wasn't your intent, and I admit I may be reading more into your text than was intended - as I often do. But I'd be willing to wager some fictional currency that I'm not the only one who is going to read this text and decide to run the other way.</i>

If you don't want to read a serious consideration of pop culture, I don't know what you're doing at a site about feminist response to pop culture in the first place. I think that the most of the Bitch magazine readership seeks out challenging material, and I don't talk down to my audience.

My interpretation, as I have emphasized, is not authoritative. I'm not assigning moral value to watching one show or another - I avoid the second person and focus on the material itself and my reading of it.

I really don't like Family Guy, but I really like South Park, but like all shows, they're problematic. It's a matter of interpretation.

Apologizing for unwelcome input

Perhaps I was unclear. I meant no offense by my comments. And if my criticism of your writing is unwelcome, I apologize.

That said, I must respectfully say that your reply ("If you don't want to read [this]...I don't know what you're doing [here].") is an unnecessary attack. I realize you probably get blasted by trolls all the time. I think that most people would become defensive in your position (i.e. criticizing popular culture on a deeper level). But I am not a troll and <i>I meant no offense</i>. I was not asking you not to challenge your audience, and I was not asking you to talk down to your audience, either.

I was sharing my genuine criticism of your text - which is that I found it intimidating. As a person who endeavors mightily to engage thoughtfully and civilly with others, I decided against replying to your content because I did not see any room for debate. I read your text twice more and I still don't see any. Again, this is merely my interpretation - someone who is admittedly not very bright - and you are more than welcome to dismiss it.

Again, I apologize if my input was unwelcome.

Look, I'm sorry I come off

Look, I'm sorry I come off as intimidating and I'm sorry you feel attacked. I think you are trying here, and I'm trying not to be mean. But it's not about your feelings or how other people might feel.

Your "genuine criticism" is a tone argument - I'm too mean, too intimidating - and it's a derail. You're inferring that I am too intimidating and scaring people away. That's not really cool, and it's not on topic.

It seems like you are writing in good faith, and I don't know if you're new to feminist sites, so I'm going to provide you with some reading on why tone arguments are not okay:

My analysis is just that - my analysis. It's not authoritative or the end-all be-all, which is why I specifically invited. You are welcome to disagree and debate with me. But you need to not question my rhetoric, and instead engage in debate about the content of my posts, Family Guy and South Park. Which you have not done.

When you comment again on my posts, please write about the content of the posts and not how you feel persecuted by it. If you start writing about how my argument is too strong, stop. It's not helping. If I see you commenting with more tone argument stuff, I will delete it. Engage with the topic instead.

sp beats fg

Well since it's already been mentioned that South Park is at least somewhat funny and Family guy ceased to be so a long time ago I'll throw something else out. I like how while South Park will exploit certain sub groups by a caricature like Big Gay Al but once the character is introduced they often join the regular cast of the show and become just another townsperson. For example Timmy is included whenever the larger group of children are playing not just when they need to make a joke or a point about/by way of disability. While that's not perfect is does trump Family Guy's back stock of running jokes involving a homosexual/disabled/female/whatever character that are dumped in the storyline via non sequitur. Running-greased-up-deaf-guy (I think that's actually the proper name...) isn't a resident of Quahog; he only shows up when the writers need a laugh at his expense.

I'm pretty troubled by both

I'm pretty troubled by <strike>both</strike> all of the characters you mention, but I agree that SP's development of the town is a big part of what sets it apart from Family Guy.

The non-sequiters just get very tired. No show lasts without a strong cast of characters and sense of how to develop them - I think that's a big part of the problem with 30 Rock, too, a lot of the characters are poorly developed. One note characters can be hilarious, but they get old quick.

They are both poison.

South Park, and everyone who ever had anything to do with South Park, in my opinion, deserves long, drawn out, and painful karmic retribution.
The only thing i hate worse than SethMcFarlane is factory farmers. He hides behind 'oh, i'm just being progressive', and his shitty humor, which is just a front for spewing his hatred and bigotry out into a world which sucks it up and spreads it around, making it common and hiding it beneath 'comedy' so it's okay.

You said that Cartman's famous lines have spawned violence against redheads, so it is safe to assume that crimes against LGBTs and disabled people have been commited based on lines that people have heard from the mouths of their favorite charachters.

Both of the shows are disgusting, toxic crap being passed off as lighthearted comedy, and it breaks my heart every year it comes back. Do we really have nothing better to do as a people than laugh at the objectification and humiliation of others?

I admire your passion, you

I admire your passion, you seem very principled!


when these shows came out, they were kind of startlingly funny. i remember thinking they were brilliant, actually, for making fun of the fucked up shit that is our hegemony. but the initial tranformative protential, if it was ever real, was lost when these shows continued for a decade, but little else changed. they became the panacea for people who felt too taxed to actually deal with the fucked up culture being 'critiqued', while people who hadn't questioned any of those tropes and truisms before didn't have to when they watched the shows, because the shows weren't really eliciting any questions.

i still love mr. show and think it was amazingly pointed and funny. but it's legacy has been these shows and comics and audiences who think being shocked is being amused and that giving a shit about who you offend means you are a 'pc' idiot. and that shit really gets in my craw.

i have to add, i find it hard to believe that sp's use of the epithets you mention affected your use of them. i was in highschool before any of the shock-funny, post-pc comedy shows came out and we had quite a bit of those words to go around. i think the shows' use of those words is reflective of our culture, where those words are really common. the shows hide behind the -idea- that those words were considered unacceptable at some point, so they are using them 'ironically' or whatever they want to call it now, but they were never out of the teenaged usian lexicon, and probably not unusual in casual adult conversation either.

As I've said, I do think

As I've said, I do think that SP has some strengths and some thoughtful critique, but it's too often paired with bigotry.

My thoughts on how SP impacted my language may be due to my age - I was about 11 when SP came out (I wasn't allowed to watch it but I certainly knew about it), and it seemed like use of those words suddenly sprouted. My partner, who's 2 years older and a huge SP fan, agreed with me. But the connection may be spurious and we just don't realize because we were just getting into adult language at that stage.

Family Guy

I don't care for either show-- politics aside, I just don't find them that interesting-- but from what I have seen and heard, I'd say your initial hypothesis is spot on. South Park may be offensive, but at least it tries, at least some of the time, to make a point. Family Guy is just offensive for the sake of being offensive. I came across <a href="">this long post about why Family Guy is a sucky show in general</A>, and I think this paragraph in particular says it well:

<blockquote>It's one of those things that presents itself as "cutting-edge" but is actually gutless. Its "offensive" jokes are neatly calculated to make sure they don't actually risk offending their fanbase; instead they make jokes that would be offensive to the kinds of people who don't watch the show -- sexual prudes, for example. Any genuinely cutting-edge comedy will risk offending people who watch it; but how is a penis joke supposed to offend the average college student? The answer is, it's not supposed to offend anybody who watches the show; it's supposed to give college kids a smug sense of superiority in believing that someone else might theoretically be offended by that penis joke. (An animated sitcom that actually dared to be tasteless and offensive was Duckman, which took on actual social and political issues; another animated sitcom that actually dares to challenge its audience is South Park, which takes the things that its youngish viewers have been told on other TV shows -- say, saving the rainforest is good -- and tells them the opposite.)</blockquote>

Both shows are offensive and

Both shows are offensive and completely unwatchable. I've only watched a substantial amount of Family Guy so I can only speak to that.

The most repulsive instances I remember is when Peter would rather inexplicably hit Meg. If memory serves he one time punches her through a wall. There's simply no way to redeem this. It's not ironic, there's no implicit criticism of violence against women. It's trying to get its laughs from shock. The comedy world, in its crasser guises like Family Guy, is so often prejudiced because it has its own set of in-values by which comics are supposed to measure themselves. One of these values is "edgy" which too often means "being offensive for the sake of being offensive" in order to "push the envelope." So they misinterpret their common prejudices as markers of integrity.

I find South Park and Family Guy so offensive that they are completely unwatchable. But many others here evidently enjoy the programs while admitting they are highly problematic, or less poetically, deeply bigoted. That makes me wonder how we can draw a line separating what's an acceptable amount of bigotry. The works of Shakespeare are often racist and misogynist. We cant simply throw those out. Even relatively innocuous progressive shows like The Office have moments where it's unclear if a joke is exploiting stereotypes or criticizing them. The lesson is we should always bring our critical faculties to the TV. And maybe we have to accept that art/entertainment can be deeply pleasurable and immensely ethically disturbing at the same time. Still, it's interesting to think about where the personal cut-off line is between what we will watch and what we wont watch.

In Defense of that Park in the South

I LOVE LOVE LOVE SP. I didn't watch it in jr. high/high school, when it was first released - I found it more potty and less political in its initial seasons. But 9/11, uni, and various life experiences brought me back to SP and its increasingly political statements. I personally feel that SP deals with the -isms better than any show out there - their "differently-abled" characters are well developed and often make more insightful decisions/statements than the "abled"characters on the show. I feel that Kyle and Cartmen rep the extremes present in our current ideological landscape, and Stan plays the undecided do-gooder who so often gets caught in the middle of their rhetoric (but Stand and Kyle often switch positions in this regard). And who can say that season 12, episode 2 ("Britney's New Look") isn't one of the most sympathetic depictions of the effects of fame/public attention on young women today? Maybe you missed the Feb 25 2010 article, "Matt Stone and Trey Parker aren't your political allies (no matter what you believe)", so here's the link I think it's pretty obvious from this interview that Stone and Parker don't value any one ideology over another - SP is just an honest look at the fucked up world we live in, through their personal lenses. They recognize yet give no apologies for being problematic/biased, and I respect that a helluva lot more than someone who tries to be "politically correct," because once you start playing that game, EVERYONE loses.

I like South Park better, but also enjoy Family Guy

South Park > Family Guy

Big difference: South Park has respect for the subjects it lampoons; very unlike Family Guy which unabashedly stomps all over marginalized groups in society. Minorities, women, rape victims, the disabled, etc are subject to the wrath of the Family Guy writing staff who are, apparently, not cognizant of their potential sociopolitical harm. South Park definitely has their 'off days' where they step over the line and/or are completely ignorant of their responsibility as an entertainment medium that reflects, and has the power to distort, sociopolitical paradigms. Family Guy has no concern whatsoever about their role in this 'game', the 'offensive olympics' as the author suggests (good title btw). So imo, South Park wins by a mile.

I hear what you're saying in

I hear what you're saying in the post. I just respectfully disagree. Both shows are offensive because they reflect the most offensive aspects of society. I do find your criteria regarding critical jokes to be a bit simplistic; Family Guy and South Park take oppressive behaviors and paint them in the worst ways imaginable by having incredibly bigoted/savage characters (Peter/Cartman) partake in it.

FG and SP are legitimate satire, believe it or not. You just seem to have a very limited idea of what constitutes satire. I mean no offense by saying that of course. It's just an observation.

The fact that there are going to be people who don't get it is just the nature of artistic expression.

SP is more intelligent than FG

South Park is more intelligent than Family Guy because South Park picks its battles, they might go after small businesses and say hey, maybe those big corporations aren't really so bad. I think South Park is actually pretty progressive sometimes, like the Big Gay Al Boat ride, and the queef sisters. It will turn around sometimes and attack the Liberals for considering everything a hate crime but honestly I think they are just criticizing stupidity a lot of the time. Lots of times when South Park makes fun of people they sort of have a, we're just fucking with you, attitude. Family Guy seems to actually dislike the people they attack lots of times. South Park for example I doubt would have a character start singing a line that says "trash like Tara Reid". Not to mention, South Park attacks bandwagons more of the time whereas Family Guy attacks the target of bandwagons. The bandwagon 1 time might be to hate corporations and South Park will defend corporations, the bandwagon another time might be a movement towards signing more laws to help blacks against white oppression so to speak and South Park will more likely criticize the liberals behind it rather than actual black people. Basically, South Park doesn't want minorities to be above or below the whites so to speak, they're messages are truly equal.

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