Today, in my effort to compare and measure just how guilty I should feel for laughing at Family Guy and South Park, I'm looking at five different South Park episodes individually and quantitatively.
On my research methods: I've watched these episodes carefully and repeatedly, counting every time I saw an instance of sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, ageism, sizism, classism, and racism using my conditions for kyriarchical vs. critical jokes. My perception of what constituted an instance of oppression was quite broad: I did not give South Park the benefit of the doubt. Language, stereotypes, depiction of violence, conflation or misinformation, and direct defense of privilege constituted most instances. When there were flurries of problematic jokes, I trusted my instinct and just counted things as I saw them. At the end of the episode, I subtracted the critical jokes from the kyriarchy-reinforcing jokes for net oppressive jokes in each category and in total.
I tried to space out my choice of episodes pretty evenly over the many seasons, but my main criterion was whether I was interested in watching it. (I tried to make myself watch the Britney episode again, but I just couldn't; I hate it too viscerally).
Let me make this clear: My research methods are extremely subjective. My research is careful but not at all objective nor particularly scientific. I'm not writing a journal article here. I'm taking a quantitative approach as a way to explore a new avenue of analysis. My data are thoughtful but not authoritative or necessarily reliable–if another person did this same study, s/he would probably have different results.
I have word count limits, so I'm not going into a lot of detail. You are welcome to question my methods or ask for examples from the episodes in the comments.
Image: A notebook with messy handwriting. Sorry for the lack of transcript; I'll try to add one later.
The season two episode "Chickenpox" is an example of how South Park uses social commentary effectively for its b-story and less examined oppression throughout. In the episode, the boys' mothers try to get them to contract chickenpox from their friend Kenny, who lives in poverty. The visit to Kenny's house includes a LOT of classism but leads to a more critical b-storyline in which Kyle and Kenny's dads critically confront their class differences. But then there's a whorephobic, sexist act III storyline in which the boys get a prostitute to use their parent's personal items so they will get herpes. Yeah. Ableism and sexism also stood out in this episode, with 14 net instances of sexism and 21 net instances of ableism. There were 13 net instances of classism (23 classist statements and 10 critical statements). In total, I counted 62 net instances.
Image: A notebook with messy handwriting.
"Cartman's Silly Hate Crime 2000" had me convinced for years that hate crimes were actually totally racist. There are some valid arguments against hate crime laws, but they're not articulated here. Instead, this episode is used to say that since everyone should be treated equally, the law should be totally equal and not protect groups of people that are routinely targeted for violence. There's also a ton of thoughtless mockery of fat people (a common theme in South Park). There's a little collateral sexism as well. I counted 27 instances of racism, 21 instances of sizism, and 12 instances of heterosexism, with a grand total of 69 net instances. Reflecting the sanctimonious, privilege-defending tone of the episode, there were no critical jokes at all.
Image: A notebook with messy handwriting.
"Child Abduction is Not Funny" is the epitome of South Park at its most effectively critical and kyriarchal. The a-story was, to me, a pretty brilliant critique of how the news capitalizes on fear. Child abduction is serious and it happens, as the episode demonstrated, but the coverage is also overblown, predatory, and ageist. Of these jokes, there were a net 24 critical jokes.
But the b-story, about the owner of City Wok building a wall to keep out abductors/Mongolians is just blatantly, tauntingly racist. I'm not going to go into how it's offensive because it's obvious wank-bait, but I counted 53 instances of racist language and depictions.
The episode, with 36 net instances of racist oppression, was almost entirely free of other forms of oppression. It's a demonstration both of how effective and how harmful South Park can be.
Image description: I stopped taking notes, so instead, here is a picture of Cartman with messy hair in orange holding a CD reading "Slayer."
I chose season nine's "Die Hippie Die" because, unlike many of these other episodes, this isn't just wank bait that I'm playing into by getting offended. This brings to fruition Cartman's long-developed hatred of hippies when he must combat a music festival by driving a giant turbine through the crowd. I love this episode, as a festival-going certified hippie.
I could not find anything wrong with this episode (though abbyjean convincingly argued it supported capitalism, when I asked on tumblr). It's critical of the privilege that hippies hold–all of them are white, all of them are educated, and all of them are utterly uninterested in doing anything. There is one instance of ableism when the mayor says that Cartman needs treatment, but otherwise there's not even a "lame", "retarded", or "weak."
"Die Hippie Die" is an example of how South Park can be funny and critical without reinforcing the kyriarchy almost at all–by focusing their critique on the privileged. There were zero net instance of oppressive jokes in this episode!
Image description: Cartman, wearing glasses, a button-down, and a jacket, holding up a picture of Bill Belichick.
"Eek, A Penis!" is the episode in which Mr. Garrison re-transitions by growing a penis (because only men have penises, and men must have penises to be men) on a mouse (I don't even know what this is about). As with all episodes in the Garrison-transition-arc, this one is just stunningly cissexist, transphobic, transmisogynistic, essentialist… it's seriously terrible. All of these episodes imply that trans women are actually men, that gender identity is irrelevant, and that biology is destiny. This three-season exercise in applied cis privilege and constant misgendering was a low point for South Park–you might hear more about it from me in the future. In this episode, there were 28 instances of cissexism.
The b-story, in which Cartman becomes an inner-city school teacher, is initially troubling on a race/class axis. It took a good turn when Cartman was strongly critical of white people, who he characterizes as cheaters. I was pretty into it until he tells a pregnant student that abortion is "the ultimate cheat." Yeah, no. So, while there were only two net instances of racism, there ended up being 18 net instances of sexism, and 56 instances total.
South Park is an offensive show. This is not new information. It exercises its privilege and spews hate and misinformation constantly: sometimes to bait, sometimes to make a point, and sometimes out of willful, hateful ignorance. It can also be funny, and insightful, without exercising that privilege, and that's the sad part; that's what makes the hateful episodes burn, the knowledge that it could be better, that Trey Parker and Matt Stone can and do write better.
In total, there were 223 instances of oppression throughout my (extremely limited!) sample of 105 minutes of the show. The strongest current in these was racism, with 161 instances. My subjective analysis confirms my belief that South Park, while funny, is pretty frequently oppressive. The question I want to answer now is how it compares to Family Guy. But first, I'll have to give Family Guy its own analysis. Check back on Thursday for that (unless I get really sick of Family Guy, in which case it will run on Saturday).