South Park is obscenely violent, purposely grotesque, it holds nothing sacred, it is racist, sexist, homophobic as well as heterophobic, and abuses people of every political and demographic persuasion, all in the interest of humor. I completely agree with the disclaimer issued by its creators—it should not be viewed by anyone. In fact, I had to stop watching it a couple of years ago. However, in spite of (or maybe because of) these transgressive qualities, the show is often brilliant. Its parodies and/or satires are often accurate and very funny, while its portrayal of life in postmodern America feels almost too on the nose. It reflects the real world at a high comedic pitch, a world that includes horrifying activity: casual bigotry, gun violence, mass killings; American presidents invading sovereign countries with very little justification; the continuation of the Crusades; the global refugee crises—the list goes on.
South Park succeeds by tapping into what the Russian literary theorist M. M. Bakhtin called “the carnivalesque,” an aesthetic mode that might, with a level of Freudian inflection, be a useful method of understanding postmodern American culture as a whole. “Postmodern” is a big word—but, for the purposes of the show, the postmodern condition is characterized in part by a breakdown of the normative order of things. The show suspends hierarchies, so that elementary school-aged children are portrayed as part-adolescent and part-adult and can partake of conflicts and problems that are endemic to the conditions of contemporary life.
Likewise carnival and the carnivalesque represent (for Bakhtin) a time and conceptual space in which various cultural and artistic acts that are subversive in relation to the dominant culture are temporarily sanctioned, or at least tolerated, by that culture. Such acts include travesties, parodies, and satires, as well as other kinds of theatrical and text-based forms of subversion. An important example is the mockery aimed at established religion and its offshoots, such as monastic institutions and the literature and music of the church. Bakhtin cites the parodia sacra, which were parodies in various forms (but mainly text-based) that made fun of aspects of traditional devotional texts, concepts and institutions. Other examples includes the mockery of the feudal hierarchical system and its politics through ritualized degradation, such as the use of obscene and abusive language (“Billingsgate speech”); or when peasants, lower-level clergy, and political functionaries, riding in donkey carts, flung excrement at people without regard to their societal status outside of carnival.
In general, the medieval carnival turned everyday, “normal” reality on its head. Everything was reversed, often via what Bakhtin calls “ritual crownings and de-crownings.” Peasants became kings or priests (for a day or for the duration of carnival), whereas royal landlords, clergy, and other social authority figures were abused and debased (if only symbolically). Two principles addressed by Bakhtin as among the most important aspects of the carnivalesque are the image of the “grotesque body” and the actual bodily strata (described by Bakhtin with the phrase “the lower bodily stratum”) that become dominant in that image. The image of the grotesque body includes those aspects that express and contain the ambivalent nature of physicality, the areas where the body interacts with the world—eating, drinking, defecating, passing gas, urinating, sex. The actual body parts that become dominant include the mouth, the anus, the genitals, and the buttocks (see Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel). The ambivalence that’s so important to the carnivalesque has two faces: a life-affirming, life-giving aspect, and an aspect of death.
Dung captures the ambivalence of the grotesque body perhaps most completely. On the one hand it is waste left over from the all-important activity of nourishment; it is unpleasant and smells bad; it is socially quarantined; and it can be seen as dangerous. On the other hand, dung also fertilizes the land—it is actually used as fertilizer by farmers (see Ridley Scott’s The Martian)—and thus fosters new growth. Given all this, the character in South Park who most obviously encapsulates the carvnivalesque is Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo.
Mr. Hankey is a piece of human fecal matter who shows up every Christmas dressed in a Santa-like outfit and helps Kyle (especially) and the other kids celebrate the Christmas spirit. In his theme song, Mr. Hankey is referred to as “a gift from down below,” a phrase which could almost have been taken verbatim from Bakhtin. (A Freudian take on Mr. Hankey would no doubt refer to anal eroticism.) In one episode, “A Very Crappy Christmas,” Mr. Hankey defends the status of feces (in response to his son, Cornwallis, who is unhappy because he’s “just a turd”) by singing “The Cycle of Poo” (a parody of the song “The Circle of Life,” from the Broadway musical The Lion King), in which the entire life-giving cycle of waste is portrayed, starting with the consumption of organic matter and ending as a resource for the growth of new life. This all occurs among many other wild and grotesque circumstances, but it seems to represent perfectly Bakhtin’s notion of carnivalesque ambivalence.
A few additional examples of the carnivalized nature of South Park include the real Jesus as a talk show host, a paraplegic boy named Timmy becoming a star in a teen heavy metal band called “The Lords of the Underworld,” Satan as a sensitive gay man, adults shown enjoying the smell of their own flatulence, the attempt on the part of adults to provide guidance to the children failing completely, and so on. Kenny almost invariably dies violently at the end of every episode, only to appear in the following episode, usually with no allusion to his prior death—a ritualized enjoyment of death, death as a joke, as well as resurrection between episodes, which implies a kind of topsy-turvy religiosity.
While the Hankey episodes are useful to highlight the obviously carnivalesque nature of the show, another episode perhaps represents South Park and its ethos more fully. “You got F’d in the A” parodies the 2004 competitive hip-hop dancing movie, You Got Served. The original movie is a typical pop culture story of youth competition, in which the underdogs battle against various obstacles to win a competition with very high stakes. In the episode, Stan, Cartman, Kyle, and Kenny are playing with remote-control trucks in the True Value parking lot when some kids of color from a neighboring town “serve” them. That is, they turn on a portable CD player and dance, as a challenge to the South Park kids to “dance back.” But the South Park kids have no clue what it means to be “served.”
The episode is full of carnivalesque reversals. To take just one example, the parents and other authority figures in the town understand what it means to be served, while the boys are without a clue. The adults even phase in and out of the hip-hop/rapper speech idiom while collectively egging the kids on to compete with the out-of-towners. Usually in South Park, it’s the adults who are unaware and get everything wrong, often to the detriment of their children; in this episode, although the parents still get the kids in trouble, it is not through cultural ignorance on their part, but cultural savvy.
Not only do the adults know what it means to get served, but getting served is seen both as a challenge and also as a physical assault, like getting beaten up, even though there is no actual physical contact. (Subject of many of the episode’s jokes.) Stan’s father is ashamed that Stan and his friends just “stood there and took it” and insists on teaching Stan how to dance. Even funnier is the fact that Stan’s dad chooses the country song “My Achy Breaky Heart” as his music and teaches Stan dance steps that are suggestive of a country line dance. The next time the boys are out playing, the same kids come and serve them again. Stan “dances back” (using his father’s country music and choreography) and “it’s on”: that is (to the kids’ surprise), an official competition between the two groups is now inevitable.
Now the South Park kids have to form a “crew” for the competition. Stan becomes the leader, since he was the one who danced back. He manages to recruit three more dancers, leaving him one dancer short. The girl in the group remembers that Butters (Leopold “Butters” Stach, a minor but important recurring character) was a state tap-dancing champion. The group tries to recruit Butters, but they learn that when Butters won the state championship a horrible accident occurred, which traumatized him to the extent that he gave up dancing.
At this point, Butters (who freaks out when Stan asks him to join the dance team) retreats to his room and pulls out his old tap shoes, which are in a shoebox containing clippings about the accident. This triggers a flashback: one of Butters’s shoes flew off during his performance, causing a chain reaction in which stage lights, metal support beams, and other pieces of stage infrastructure began falling on the audience. Eight people were killed and several severely maimed (in keeping with the tone of the show, the mayhem is presented in the most graphic style possible). An important feature of the flashback is the music to which Butters performs his tap routine. The lyrics seem to echo (or foreshadow) the trauma that could well be the underlying cause of the disaster:
I’ve got something in my front pocket for you.
Why don’t you reach on in my front pocket and see what it is?
There, grab onto it – it’s just for you.
Give it a little squeeze and say, “How do you do?”
There’s something in my front pocket!
There’s something in my front pocket!
The lyrics suggest sexual deviance, conjuring images of pedophiles, and the last lines are sung in a frantic pitch, suggesting climax. If the song represents the kind of trauma that could happen to a child of Butters’s age, the original disaster would seem to express his unconscious, repressed wish for revenge. The song’s importance is emphasized as it plays once more over the closing credits. This is not necessarily an indication of trauma in the narrative—the evidence for that is, at best, ambiguous—but a meta-textual nod toward the formal system of trauma and repression. The song originates not within the narrative but on the level of the show’s writers; the lyrics come from outside the carnivalized world of the show.
This look back at his memorabilia, combined with the flashback, reinforces Butters’s unwillingness to join the crew. Stan, and Butters’s parents, try to persuade him to perform again by arguing that the tragedy wasn’t his fault, that it was an accident, and that it won’t happen again. Their arguments do not convince Butters. At the last minute Stan’s crew manages to recruit a dancing duck, which completes the required five-member team.
The dance competition is to be held at the Orange County Convention Center. Stan’s crew shows up, but their dancing duck has injured one of his legs. They will have to forfeit the competition, until, at the last possible minute—another parody of competition movies—Butters shows up in his tap outfit. (In true parodic spirit his appearance is accompanied by dramatic music and visual effects.) He dances with the crew. He’s incredible. It looks like they will win. Until (of course), the tragedy repeats itself: one of his shoes flies off while he is dancing and the opposing team is killed. Butters is deeply traumatized, but, in typical South Park fashion, the show presents this as one of the best and most definitive ways of winning a competition, and the kids are proclaimed the champions.
A psychodynamic interpretation of the episode might identify this event as a representation of trauma expressing itself through symptoms that are generally tamped down by repression. Examples of such symptoms might be the development of cruelty of one kind or another; a phobia of male relatives or friends of the family; or a more general disorder such as extreme anxiety. During real-world psychotherapy, a therapist might discover that the child has been having fantasies or daydreams in which the child does violent things to adults. Such fantasies would represent and include the child’s repressed desire for retaliation. Since South Park is carnivalized, however, the desire for retaliation plays out during the tragedy.
Butters’s tap-dance tragedy functions just like a daydream or reverie, in Freud’s sense, unconsciously fulfilling the wish for vengeance. What is obscured by symptoms in normal, non-carnival time, what’s socially unacceptable and therefore usually repressed, expresses itself directly because of the show’s carnivalized aesthetic. There is purpose and meaning in Butters’s loss of his tap shoe and the resultant chaos. It’s important to bear in mind that, just like a daydream, the violent acting out of the repressed rage is not done purposely by Butters. Its causality is undetermined (notably, the source of the song is unidentified too); it simply happens.
As presented by the show, this final accident, in addition to killing people and winning the competition, causes Butters a great deal of emotional distress. If we continue to see the “accident” as an expression of repressed rage, there is a lesson in Butters’s distress: revenge is itself always avenged. In Freudian terms, repression is a defense mechanism. It enacts the authority of the superego against violating social and emotional taboos, e.g., purposely killing people in order to win a competition, and protects the person who is doing the repression by sparing him the punishment that usually results from breaking such taboos.
If we put this in more general terms, most of the time, taking out one’s anger on people or things (whether consciously or unconsciously) causes more harm to the angry person than true revenge on the object of anger. A mundane example is kicking one’s furniture as an expression of frustration. While this may be a temporarily satisfying expression of anger and frustration, what most often happens is that one stubs one’s toe badly, or a piece of furniture gets broken and is no longer usable. On a more serious note, “flying off the handle” often has the effect of alienating loved ones, with nothing gained by the expression of anger except a very transient, false feeling of empowerment. And, of course, someone who goes as far as murder or other kinds of criminal activity as a way of acting out repressed rage is subject to punishment by law.
A carnivalized setting like South Park blurs the line between fantasy and reality, and allows the desire for violent revenge to express itself in the real time of the show—a statement which could apply to the entire postmodern condition, to a greater or lesser extent. On the other hand, since South Park is a comedy. It intends to make the audience laugh. Bakhtin writes that from classical antiquity through the middle ages, a principle (which persists in less obvious ways in the present) exists that he calls “the laughing word.” The laughing word is opposed to and juxtaposed with the “official word.” This tradition began in ancient Greece, where the presentation of classical tragedies always included one satyr play, which made fun of the tragic/serious word of the plays, either directly or indirectly. Medieval carnival inherited many of the comic traditions of antiquity and was more or less structured around the laughing word as a ritualized retort to the serious, official word. The laughing word presented a life-giving alternative to the sometimes deadly seriousness of the official word, and the laughter generated by this opposition helped the common people live their lives in a more creative way.
Nothing is sacred or beyond reach in South Park. Everything from religion to love to popular music to politics, to war and even to childhood itself is the butt of satire and/or parody in equal portion. Not even the fourth wall is safe from the show’s satirical point of view. We are allowed, and actually invited, to laugh at things we are normally expected to take very seriously. This is carnivalization on a large scale. At the same time the show has a strong element of nostalgia for childhood and the psychological “otherness” of children, to which the adult can never really return. The reminder of what it is, or was, to be a child, along with the satirical and/or parodic attitude toward the world of adults (our world, if the show’s MA rating is to be taken seriously) sometimes adopted by children, is a kind of liberation from the adult obligation to live in the realm of the “official word.”
Yet, South Park often barely transforms the actual content it satirizes. So much of the show is drawn in perfect parallel to real-life events. The show reveals something shocking and essential about our entire postmodern condition—the real world. They share what a psychologist or psychiatrist might call a disturbing level of “disinhibition.” Whereas in Bakhtin’s discussion of Carnival, disinhibition is limited to carnival time, which is special and (safely) removed from real life, in the postmodern condition—our everyday reality—disinhibition is increasingly evident in daily life. To put it another way, in Carnival (as Bakhtin sees it) ambivalence, or balance, is maintained between the principles of life and death (what Freud would call Eros and Thanatos), and each provides a check for the other. In the postmodern condition and the contemporary world as reflected in South Park, the balance seems to be failing and contemporary life seems to be “tilting” toward Thanatos: toward the side of the equation that is guided by the death instinct.
Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents comes immediately to mind. The stabilizing force in a society that functions adequately for its constituents is the sublimating and repressing of innate, naturally occurring hostility and the reigning in of the instincts, at all levels of society. We must repress fundamental instinctual impulses in order to obey the directive to “love our neighbors,” which is the standard of conduct (if not outlook) that allows civilization to operate with some stability. Of course such sublimation and repression is never completely successful, but in South Park, and increasingly in the real world, these sublimations and repressions seem to be breaking down (for very complicated reasons, of course), to be replaced by all kinds of transgressive, disinhibited phenomena—from the Orlando nightclub shootings to the successful antics of Donald Trump. South Park (and other, similar cultural phenomena) help us laugh at our shared condition, which makes it a little easier to deal with. But the show lies, for me, just a little too close to the bone to offer complete relief.
Ian Ganassi's poetry, prose, and translations have appeared in numerous literary journals, including, most recently, New American Writing, The Yale Review, New England Review, Offcourse, and Stand. Selections from an ongoing collage project with a painter have appeared in galleries and online, and can be viewed at www.thecorpses.com. His first poetry collection, Mean Numbers, is forthcoming in September.