Critical South Park: Political Satire, Expectations, and the Issue of Donald Trump

With South Park having become serialized the most recent season placed greater emphasis on storytelling, while using real world events to maintain their topical edge. Season 20 focused on the presidential race, paralleled with the complications of Internet trolling. The end result was a show that had become self aware, and acknowledged the likelihood of existing, “in the post-funny era of satire.”

The show faced a curve ball when Trump won the election. Since 2008 South Park had produced their election episodes based on betting odds in Vegas. When Clinton lost they had to rework the episode with less than 24 hours to air. But I’m less interested in their portrait of Clinton, as she was depicted in her own likeness.

South Park has taken it upon themselves to include the sitting president, in addition to a number of other politicians, and their depictions, though crude, are fitting for the character they sought to represent. Bill Clinton looked like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush looked like George W. Bush, and so on.

Then we get to Donald Trump, and we’re faced with the complication of entity. The discourse of the 20th season goes back to the first Christmas special, and the first time Herbert Garrison asked if their township could, “get rid of all the Mexicans.” His anti-immigrant sentiments have echoed on, ever since.

Season 19 was the first to implement serialization through the entirety, and that story world was carried over into Season 20. In an early episode Garrison finds himself overwhelmed by the sudden influx of Canadian immigrants, suggests getting rid of them, and declares his desire to build a wall between Canada and the United States. He’s distressed by the fact that Canada has beaten him to punch, by building their own wall between the countries. It’s revealed that Canada has been taken over by a character known as ‘Canadian Trump.’ By the end of the episode Garrison has raped Canadian Trump to death, and begins his own campaign for the top office in the country with running mate, Caitlyn Jenner.

Season 20 began, and Garrison is tanned to a bronzed orange. Topical interviews and dialog are voiced through this character, as a deliberate entity of Donald Trump is never produced. This struck me, over and over as the season progressed. The writers had avoided the low hanging fruit of the previous administrations, rarely depicting any president as incompetent on a consistent basis, so why establish the distance of depicting a candidate by means of another character? Aside from Mr. Garrison and Caitlyn Jenner, every other reference to the contemporary political arena mirrored that of the real world. Even then South Park left some of the sensationalism to the media, as their depiction of Steve Bannon showed him looking over a clipboard, and making a simple statement about the transition going smoothly.

It’s sharp satire, because it defies expectations. Such expectations include a Trump figure in the likeness of real world Trump. By having put that agency onto a character already established in the story world, it allowed for the writers to play with the kind of atmosphere that cultivated the results we have today. They made sharper and deeper cuts than their late night counterparts, but were never called out by the Twitter prone President Elect. Though poking fun at Trump, it’s done so through the veiled obscurity of distance, a nuance not employed by late night comedians or other political satirists, which is why South Park hasn’t been on the receiving end of a Twitter rant (or the trolls that follow).

In a time when the President Elect decries negative commentary in the media, the obscurity of South Park has allowed them to make some scathing comments without personal backlash. It could be that South Park is just a silly little cartoon show, while Saturday Night Live is culturally relevant, but I’d argue that the distance established in how Trump has been depicted on South Park is the best bet for artistic media to criticize the coming administration without fear of repercussion.

 

Critical South Park- S20E1: ‘Member Berries’

Spoiler Alert: South Park, Season 20-Episode 1: ‘Member Berries’ will be discussed.

There are no greater minds contributing to contemporary satire than those of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. As South Park enters its 20th season the audience was enticed by a commercial that suggests the show has been there for a number of our own personal milestones. The advertisement juxtaposes clips from the show with a family, and depicts their youngest daughter growing up with the show. It is similar to my own experience, as I recall being in the fifth grade when the first season premiered. South Park has changed since then, and I argue that such change has been for the better. It maintains a particular freshness, while other shows become stagnate victims to their own routines. Season eighteen gave us a light serialization to the episodes, while the format of season nineteen was that of a chronological storyline. Season twenty seems to pick right up where we left off last year.

 

Episode I: Member Berries

To open the season with our current discourse the scene opens at a volleyball game where four girls sit down during the national anthem to, “protest all the harassment and trolling they receive on the internet.” With parallels to the recent Colin Kaepernick controversy, the internet trolling is used to make light of some of the heavier topics they tackle on the show, including race relations and cultural misogyny. The decision to sit out the national anthem is used as a device that gives light to the greater divisions being explored. “The final result: four athletes sitting out on the national anthem, three of them not even black.” The national anthem ends, the crowd leaves, and the girls play their game in front of empty seats to present the absurdity of the public backlash against peaceful protest of a celebrity.

To parallel the message of the commercial, season twenty opens with the theme of nostalgia. We are faced with the same language the show used twelve years ago concerning the nature of American elections and the voting process. Hillary Clinton is called a ‘turd sandwich’ while Mr. Garrison (the figure standing in for Donald Trump… probably to satirize Trump in their own way since he is the low hanging fruit of late night comedy) is called a ‘giant douche’ with the intent to carry out an immigration policy of, ‘fucking them all to death.’ Such a policy is also carried over from the story line of the previous season. Stan Marsh isn’t pleased with the throwback language, and suggests something negative about the writing in Meta fashion. Randy Marsh, his father, suggests that Stan is being ‘cynical’ and a ‘nihilist’ for voicing such concerns. This moment stands as a veiled attempt to please everyone through self-deprecation, and to this point I’ve heard no complaints.

The school message boards continue to be trolled by an anonymous figure, and the primary targets are women. All of the students assume the troll, known as Skank Hunt 42 is Eric Cartman, but the final scene reveals Gerald Broflovski, Kyle’s father, lawyer, and member of the city counsel. The use of this character suggests the complication of anonymity, as the shroud permits a person free of suspicion to partake in the vile expressions of photo shopping, ‘a picture of Heidi Turner’s mom with a dick in her mouth’ to the amusement of some of the boys. It suggests we may not know a person as well as we’d like to assume, and that that no one is born above the inadequacies of environment. This trolling creates a divide between the genders that is used to reflect upon the contemporary discourse concerning rape culture, and that the character of a reputably good person is susceptible to that of cultural vice.

With politics and the election being at the forefront of the narrative, the adults seek the refuge of escapism through chemical indulgence. Through the episode we see Mr. Mackey, Mr. Stotch, and Randy Marsh partaking in a ‘new super fruit that helps you mellow out’ known as member berries. These bunched fruits have the appearance of grapes, but bear faces, and speak with the voices of nasally children with thick New York accents. They make suggestions of comforting nostalgia. Lines like, ‘member Star Wars?’ are followed up with, ‘oh I love Star Wars!’ They make suggestions of nostalgic entertainment where the comforting suspension of disbelief stands in for the crippling anxiety of our shared reality. It is only as we near the end of the episode that the berries begin to lull Randy into a nostalgic stupor with suggestions of, ‘member when marriage was just between a man and a woman?’ ‘member when there weren’t so many Mexicans?’ ‘member no ISIS?’ and my personal favorite, ‘member feeling safe?’ Randy resents the sentiments of the member berries, and panics at the momentary connection he feels in being nostalgic for a past that wasn’t so great, and the possibility/complication of having harbored such prejudices.

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