South Park has become an American classic over its 20 seasons. It is second only to The Simpsons in terms of longevity for a cartoon, and has fought its way from the fringe of subculture to the mainstream. It's hard to believe that after so many season, South Park continues to stay fresh. Everyone wants to know what Trey Parker and Matt Stone will have to say about the political climate, as they are some of the most adept social commentators of our time. South Park has introduced us to a litany or hysterical and controversial characters, and more laughs than we could possibly count.
15 Looks Aren't Everything
South Park deals with a lot of problems that younger kids experience, and it that's apparent in the finale of the eleventh season, "The List." In this episode, the girls in the school make a list of the attraction levels of every boy in school. When the boys get a hold of it, they find out that Clyde is ranked as the cutest with Kyle at the bottom, even below Cartman. Kyle joins forces with another ugly kid from school, and decides to set the building on fire (Milton voice).
Kyle gets a visit from the ghost of Abraham Lincoln (referenced as a successful ugly man) who details the moral of the story: that looks fade but personality endures. Kyle is told that attractive people get handed a lot in life, while less attractive people have to work and become better people in order to achieve the same thing. Being South Park, Kyle doesn't initially take the advice, but when it is revealed that the list was rigged in favor of Clyde, Kyle refuses to look at the new list as he reflects on the lesson he has learned from the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.
14 Don't Judge Someone Based on Their Faith
It is well documented that the creators of South Park are fascinated with the Mormon religion. In the episode "All About Mormons", the show goes deeper into the understanding of the Mormon text, as a new boy, Gary, is introduced to the school. Gary is irritatingly perfect, which rubs most of the kids the wrong way. Stan is meant to beat him up, but eventually becomes friends with him after he's charmed by his politeness. Stan goes to dinner at Gary's where he sees a model family that is honest, loving, and fun, all things that his own family is not.
While the episode pokes fun at the religion as a whole, the overall point of the episode is that the story doesn't matter. Stan is transfixed on how none of it's real, but Gary tells him it's irrelevant. Gary's life is shaped by the positive aspects of his religion. He doesn't care if it's all a fairy tale, because the church now preaches about helping your neighbor and loving your family. Stan can't look past Gary's religion, and therefore misses out on making a genuine friend.
13 Family Isn't Limited to Blood Relation
In the third episode of the second season, aptly called "Ike's Wee Wee," it is revealed to Kyle that his brother Ike is not his blood brother at all. Initially, Kyle misunderstands what a bris is and thinks that Ike's penis is going to get cut off. In order to protect his brother, Kyle sends him to Nebraska and makes a fake Ike doll, which subsequently gets eaten by a dog. Kyle's parents presume Ike dead, but at the funeral Kyle is told that his brother was adopted from Canada.
Kyle had no idea that his little brother was adopted, and it hit him hard. He felt betrayed, and didn't even consider Ike to be his true brother anymore. He told his parents where he sent Ike and they retrieved him, but when he returned Kyle wanted nothing to do with him. That was until Ike rushed to him for help, and Kyle saw old pictures of the two of them that made him realize that blood didn't matter; they were brothers. He defended him from the evil circumcision, only to find out later that it was a routine procedure that he himself had already gone through.
12 It's Okay to be Gay
As stated above, South Park tackles some of the more difficult issues facing modern-day children, even if it's in a bizarre manner. In the episode "Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride", which aired in the first season, Stan's dog is, according to Cartman, "a raging homosexual." Stan finds him mounting other male dogs, and is in distress, saying that he wishes he had a butch dog instead of a gay one.
Sparky, Stan's dog, overhears him talking and decides to run away from home, where he comes across Big Gay Al's Big Gay Animal Sanctuary. Stan goes looking for him, and finds him with Big Gay Al, who gives him a tour of the property and a speech about how there's nothing wrong about being gay. Stan comes around to this inclusive way of thinking, as he didn't truly understand what being gay was to begin with. Once he understood that gay people weren't evil as Mr. Garrison suggested (an example of a self-hating gay man and a commentary on the right-wing position on the matter), he was able to accept his dog for everything he was, sexuality included.
11 Racism is a Social Construct
In episode seven of the fourth season called, "Chef Goes Nanners", the show explores the roots of racism and the beauty of childhood ignorance on the subject. The South Park flag is hotly debated in town, as it depicts a black man being hanged by a group of white people. The two figures in this debate are Chef and Jimbo, with the rest of the town sitting on the fence, seeing both sides of the argument. Jimbo argues that the flag is tradition while Chef argues it's racist (a commentary on the Confederate flag issue).
The boys don't understand why Chef is so mad, especially when he lashes out when they tell him they want to keep it. Eventually, the children's debate decides the fate of the flag, and Kyle argues that killing is a natural part of life and not something to be offended by. When Chef interrupts by telling them to address the color of the man being hanged, it becomes clear that the boys did not even take race into account. They truly saw everyone as equals, and therefore saw no need to change the flag.
10 The Infomercial Scam
The episode entitled "Cash for Gold" deals with the exploitation of the elderly and the cycle that could be behind the "Cash for Gold" scheme. Stan receives a bolo tie from his grandfather, an old man who can't even remember Stan's actual name. Stan tries to sell the tie to a cash-for-gold store but finds that he will only receive $15. He realizes that the whole system is scamming old people, and that these shopping networks make most of their profit when social security checks are released to the elderly.
Eventually the whole system is revealed, showing these items being made in India, shipped to the US, sold on shopping networks, sold back to cash-for-gold stores, smelted down, and sent back to India to be remade. This most likely isn't what's really happening, but a form of this is definitely in play. One thing's for sure, the elderly are being taken advantage of by the infomercial jewelry stores, and South Park takes a strong stance against it.
9 The Ownership of Content
In episode 88 entitled "Free Hat," the boys combat the changes and re-releases that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are making of their content. They are changing some of their movies' endings, nuances, and graphic content, and the boys form an organization to stop them. Of course, their attempts go awry and the episode is filled with Indiana Jones references, but there is a larger point to consider in the subtext.
Creators release their work to the public, and it has success because so many people fall in love with it. The creators of the work may feel that they have complete ownership of the product, but once you release your content to the world a part of that ownership is relinquished. Changing certain things on a whim should not be taken lightly, as the millions of people who love the content feel a deep connection to it. While creators are responsible for creating, consumers are also entitled to an opinion and a sense of collective ownership of the material in which they are invested.
8 Learn to Love Yourself
The episode "Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?" has a few thematic points, including the hypocrisy of religion and the over-the-top ritualistic nature that is so prevalent in organized religions. The name of the episode comes from a question the boys ask of their priest: will Timmy, who can only say his own name, go to hell because he is unable to confess his sins? The priest says yes, but is later found by the boys banging a local woman in the confessional.
The more important lesson in this episode is that you need to love yourself before you can love someone else. Satan is torn between his lover, Chris, and his abusive ex, Saddam Hussein, who sexually excites him. He is forced to make a decision, but in the end he decides that he shouldn't be with either of them. Satan needs to take time to find himself and come to grips with his own life before he can be involved with anyone else.
This is an important lesson, as many people in our society are serial monogamists, going from relationship to relationship and never truly being alone. Being alone gives you time to put your priorities in order and find what's really important to you.
7 Timmy 2000
The first episode to features the iconic character Timmy deals with two issues that are prevalent in our society. The first of the issues is the over-diagnosis of ADD, as the person who is determining ADD reads The Great Gatsby in entirety to his subjects and then asks them one random question. By the end of the episode most of the town is on Ritalin and the people who prescribed the drugs are seen counting their profits.
The second, and more profound message is that disabled people don't need to be patronized. In this episode, Timmy joins a rock band as their singer. They make a good song with Timmy, and it's a huge success. The success is followed by backlash from the public, who are saying that people are laughing at a disabled person. This isn't true, though, as people genuinely love the music they are hearing and don't care that the singer is disabled. Just because a disabled person is in the spotlight doesn't mean people are making fun of them, or even care that they're disabled at all.
6 Pain is a Necessary Part of Life
In the episode entitled "Raisins," Stan is informed that his girlfriend, Wendy, would like to break up with him. Stan becomes extremely depressed and starts hanging out with the goth kids who drink coffee, wear black, and hate everything.
Meanwhile, Butters gets involved with a waitress at the restaurant Raisins, a Hooters parody that the group goes to in order to cheer Stan up. Butters becomes obsessed with the girl, not realizing that she treats all of the boys the same way and is only interested in tips. He eventually professes his love for her, to which she replies by telling him they were never in a relationship to begin with.
Butters is devastated, but when Stan and his new goth friends approach him, Butters tells them that he's alright. He says that he's actually glad to feel sadness; that sadness proves how much he could care about something. He knows that he has to accept the sadness in order to feel joy again, something that Stan did not realize until now.
5 Faith is Positive
South Park takes a lot of shots at organized religions, but they turned the cannon on atheism in the two-part episode "Go God Go." The main plot is that Mrs. Garrison is finding love and Cartman is anticipating the Wii release to the point of freezing himself until it comes out, but the larger point is that faith in something greater is not inherently bad.
In the first episode, Cartman accidentally travels to the future, where several sects of atheists are at war over who is the most logical. The insight is made by "The Wise One," an elder member of the group of evolved otters. He says, "Some of the most intelligent otters I've ever known were completely lacking in common sense. Maybe, some otters do need to believe in something. Who knows? Maybe, just believing in God makes God exist."
Belief in God can be important for some people, and no one has the right to say another's views aren't valid. The point of the story was that there will always be war. People are always going to find something to disagree about, and the atheist argument that God is the reason people fight is nonsense.
4 Mindless Rituals Driving People From Religion
The episode "Red Hot Catholic Love" deals with the molestation accusations driving people away from the church. Father Maxi, the resident priest, is outraged by the idea of molestation in the church and seeks answers. He finds that all of the priests except for him are doing it because it is not specifically banned in the doctrine. Maxi decides he wants to find and change the hidden literature, and does just that.
Meanwhile, back in South Park, the boys were asked if Maxi ever put anything in their butts. The boys have no idea what he's talking about, but Cartman deduces that he must mean you can eat through your butt and crap out your mouth. When he proves that this is the case, the whole town starts doing it. Father Maxi eventually finds the doctrine but is told by the queen spider (the leader of the church) that it can't be changed. He rips it in half and the whole building crumbles. Maxi exclaims that the needless ceremonies are dead.
Clouding the moral lessons of the bible only drives people away. Religion is about being a good person, and without a God to believe in, people just walk around spewing crap out of their mouths.
3 The Hypocrisy of the Anti-Bullying Campaign
The plot of the fifth episode of the sixteenth season, "Butterballs," revolves around Butters getting bullied by his grandmother. He shows up to school with a black eye, and is then repeatedly pressured to tell people who his bully is and to get involved in the anti-bullying campaign.
The anti-bullying ambassador who shows up at the school bullies Mr. Mackey into calling an assembly on the issue, and eventually bullies the students into making a video to promote anti-bullying. Stan eventually directs the video, but Butters is reluctant to be included because he doesn't want to make matters worse for himself. Stan is again bullied by the anti-bully instructor, and Butters is pressured by Dr. Oz to reveal who has been bullying him.
The episode sends a strong message about the presence of bullies in life, but it also sheds light on the hypocritical anti-bullying campaign. The campaign is forcing children to tell their stories, even if they don't want to, and it begs the question: when does the anti-bullying campaign start to bully the bullies?
2 Douche and Turd
This episode of South Park provided multiple insightful themes, both about the election process and the role of PETA. The overarching plot is that a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich are the two options for a new mascot due to the intervention of PETA, who claimed that using a cow was unjust. Stan doesn't want to vote because, in his eyes, both are inherently the same thing. He is eventually banished from town for not voting, and runs into PETA in the forest. P. Diddy shows up to kill Stan (a "Vote or Die" reference), but settles on killing the PETA members who throw fake blood on his fur coat. All of the animals run away, as they have no interest in saving the humans who cared so much about saving them.
The appearance of PETA is funny and apt, but it appears that South Park was ahead of its time with the Turd v Douche analogy. The political opinion that many of us share was perfectly articulated by one of the PETA members: "It's always between a giant douche and a turd sandwich... They're the only people who suck up enough to make it that far in politics."
1 The Power of the N-Word
Perhaps the most interesting piece of social commentary came in the form of the episode "With Apologies to Jesse Jackson." Randy is on an episode of Wheel of Fortune where the puzzle is complete but for one letter. The hint is "people who annoy you" and the puzzle says: "N_GGERS." Randy blurts-out the N-word, to the shock of the audience. The answer to the puzzle was, of course, "NAGGERS," and Randy is ostracized for having said the N-word on television. He is unable to escape being called "the n***er guy," and eventually meets up with others who have said the word in a public forum.
The episode concludes with this group lobbying to make the phrase "n***er guy" illegal, a task which they succeed in. Meanwhile, Stan is trying to appease Token about his understanding of N-word, but eventually relents and realizes that he will never understand what the word means because he is not African American. The point of the episode is that white people have no idea what it's like to be called that word, and if there was a word that was even close to as powerful for white people, it would be made illegal.
What other surprisingly deep messages did you find in South Park? Share them in the comments!