A Twitter thread by journalist and author Dana Schwartz has set off something of a firestorm after she accused the hit TV show South Park of causing significant “cultural damage” due to what she feels is its underlying message. This is far from the first time South Park has faced criticism for potentially spreading a damaging message to a huge fanbase, but for whatever reason, Schwartz’s thread took off and now everybody is talking about it.
In retrospect, it seems impossible to overstate the cultural damage done by SOUTH PARK, the show that portrayed earnestness as the only sin and taught that mockery is the ultimate inoculation against all criticism— Dana Schwartz (@DanaSchwartzzz) February 13, 2020
“Smugness is not the same as intelligence; provocation isn’t the same as bravery,” she continued. “The lesser of two evils aren’t the same.”
Whether you’re a fan or not, it’s difficult to deny that South Park has had a significant impact on U.S. culture. Its popularity has resulted in it being frequently referenced and quoted by everyday people as well as other media, and, as Schwartz found out, criticizing the show can result in serious backlash from fans.
some very normal well-adjusted south park fans! pic.twitter.com/ggfs0SieYr
— Dana Schwartz (@DanaSchwartzzz) February 14, 2020
If you can wade through the trolls, however, you can uncover a nuanced and perhaps important conversation. Schwartz herself acknowledges that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone apologized for their “ManBearPig” episode from 2006, which mocked Al Gore’s warnings about climate change.
She also recognizes that at least some of the blame for potential negative cultural shifts lay at the feet of the fans who may have taken some of its jokes too seriously.
To be clear, I don't blame the show itself as much as I do the generation of boys who internalized it into their personalities. Which maybe isn't the show's fault!— Dana Schwartz (@DanaSchwartzzz) February 13, 2020
“To be clear, I don’t blame the show itself as much as I do the generation of boys who internalized it into their personalities,” she explains. “Which maybe isn’t the show’s fault!”
It’s an age-old question—do the creators of popular fiction hold responsibility for how people interpret and react to their creation? If some fans missed the point of the Cartman character and used him as an excuse for their antisemitism, for example, is the show and by extension Parker and Stone to blame for that?
Schwartz argues that the show’s overall message may be the most damaging of all.
People saying “they make fun of everyone!!!” — that is my point. South Park IS a political show, but one whose message is: both sides are equally terrible so the only correct thing to do is nothing, while mocking it all from your position of intellectual superiority.— Dana Schwartz (@DanaSchwartzzz) February 14, 2020
“My point was that South Park seemed to teach that it was always cooler to be reactionary and contrarian, and anyone who criticizes anything is ‘offended’ and that’s the *real* problem,” she says, including screenshots of angry emails she’s received in response to her initial tweet.
She ends by explaining that South Park shouldn’t be let off the hook for making fun of “everyone” and that the message of “both sides are equally terrible so the only correct thing to do is nothing, while mocking it all from your position of intellectual superiority” is ultimately harmful.
I think of this Reddit comment on South Park enough that I have it saved pic.twitter.com/Vh9BWw1NZH
— Aaron Farber (@_aaronbnb) February 13, 2020
Schwartz’s words do seem to be supported by past interviews with Parker and Stone, who have expressed disdain for “both sides” of the U.S. political spectrum, describing themselves as “middle-ground guys.”
“We find just as many things to rip on on the left as we do on the right,” said Parker in one interview. “People on the far left and the far right are the exact same person to us.”
To be fair, South Park has arguably been harder on the far right in recent seasons than the left, which may have been missed by those who stopped watching years ago.
If you dig through all the standard “you’re triggered” and “you don’t understand satire” comments and South Park gifs, you can find something resembling a nuanced discussion of the issue.
Mockery is both the best disinfectant and most powerful equalizer. Nothing deflates the puffed up egos of the self-anointed and self-important like laughter directed at them.
No wonder you’re so afraid of South Park.
— furious_acquitted_forever_a (@furious_a) February 13, 2020
I left the South Park fandom when I heard Matt & Trey proudly announce they don’t vote because it doesn’t matter and all politicians are the same. I realized that attitude seeped into every character, every episode.
— kristy (@kristysf) February 13, 2020
I love South Park and I disagree with your take, but I respect your right speak to your mind without people attacking you for expressing how you feel. People’s online outrage is fucking stupid. It’s hard not to engage when being attacked, but if you ignore them, they’ll go away.
— Jenny Johnson (@JennyJohnsonHi5) February 13, 2020
This vibes with my theory that David Letterman sold an entire generation (mine) a lousy bill of goods when he only laughed and mocked and never cared. He seems to be repenting with his new talk show.
— Mark Drop (@markdrop) February 13, 2020
South Park could have made the same social commentary with more intelligent humor. It's 5 minutes of social commentary with 20 minutes of edgelord jokes a 15-y-o would make. There are many eps with good storytelling, so I know they could do better. They just don't bother to.— Maisie-whimsie (@RhododendronWil) February 14, 2020
If people could get past their defensiveness for a minute, we might be able to have a real conversation about how media impacts culture and the way people view the world and how much responsibility we have for what we create and consume. But that would be harder and might not get as many likes as posting a gif or making a predictable joke using that song about a certain individual being a b—tch.
Can we at least agree that sending a woman mass amounts of hate mail for not liking your favorite cartoon is something that Cartman would do?