“South Park” thrives on bad taste. The adult animation behemoth is notoriously offensive, unapologetically taking swings at every available target. Surprisingly, it has been one of the only hyper-controversial series that has survived today’s trigger-happy cancel culture.
The series has a dedicated core fanbase and enjoys consistent ratings, some of the highest of Comedy Central, which may explain their relative safety, even in 2020. But the key likely lies more in the show’s unabashed openness about its offensiveness. They even worked this reputation into the marketing for season 23, circulating #cancelsouthpark across commercials to announce the continuation through season 26.
However, one place it is bizarre to see this bastion of offensive comedy is HBO Max. The newly launched streaming service, a breakout of HBO, has been using its acquisition of “South Park” aggressively in their marketing,
The streaming service faced serious scrutiny due to its attempts to make their content increasingly politically correct. First, they rid “Looney Toons” cartoons of guns, as choosing give Elmer Fudd a scythe to hunt Bugs Bunny is obvious less scary than a rifle. Then, the service announced it would no longer stream “Gone with the Wind,” eventually adjusting to delay the arrival of the 1939 epic romance until they can discern some means by which to put the film into historical context for viewers.
You would be hard pressed to find a single “South Park” episode less offensive than “Gone with the Wind.” The show has featured every stereotype known to man. One of the four protagonists, Eric Cartman, is a virulent racist, antisemite, sexist, and all-around evil kid. The show compared the PC mob to a concentration camp in a “Schindler’s List” homage. The “Pokemon” parody episode displayed Japan as an imperialist nation intent on destroying the United States.
They’ve offended virtually every religion, be it Catholics with a menstruating Virgin Mary statue and two pedophile priest-centric episodes, Jewish people with the near-constant barrage of antisemitic jokes Kyle Broflovski faces from his frenemy Eric Cartman, and Scientologists by describing what they believe, just to name a few.
Interestingly, the HBO Max did decide to remove five episodes of “South Park,” due to the potential to offend Muslims through depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had previously clashed with Comedy Central over their desire to portray Muhammad in the season 5 episode ‘Super Best Friends,’ which saw important figures from major religions (Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Krishna, Joseph Smith, Laozi, and an Aquaman-like character) come together to fight evil and protect the world.
The controversy that arose from the episode led to it being removed from the South Park website and not streamed on Hulu. Undeterred, Parker and Stone continued to use the ‘Super Best Friends’ team, but this time displaying Muhammad as a censor bar. This version of Muhammad was shown in two episodes: season 14’s ‘200’ and ‘201’. Similar to “Super Best Friends,” these episodes were also banned from streaming.
HBO Max is further censoring two episodes that previously were able to be shown – the two-part season 10 episode ‘Cartoon Wars.’ While Muhammad is not shown, the entire point of the episode centers around Cartman being offended that an adult animated show is planning on depicting him on air, and his attempts to stop them. The circumstance is a clear parallel to the controversy surrounding ‘Super Best Friends.’
A major supporting character, and the only black kid in South Park Elementary, is named Token. Throughout season 20, Cartman wears a T-shirt saying “Token’s Life Matters,” an obvious riff on Black Lives Matter. These examples do not even begin to scratch the surface of the jokes, subplots, and storylines that make “South Park” so controversial.
The series has made several episodes that would definitely run afoul of the recent standards the streaming service (and contemporary political correctness) has set for itself. While many of these episodes are meant to be satirical in nature, they still include very incendiary ideas and topics. The following four episodes have left me surprised that the series survived the woke mob and are allowed to remain on HBO Max.
‘The Red Badge of Gayness,’ Season 3, Episode 14
While “Gone With the Wind” was accused of glorifying the Confederacy and antebellum south, “South Park” went one step further. To win a bet against Stan and Kyle to make them his slaves for a month, Cartman decides to revive the Confederacy during an annual Civil War Reenactment, keeping his fellow reenactors compliant through copious amounts of alcohol.
Cartman and his army of drunken men come very close to reestablishing the Confederacy. Absolutely no discussion of the implications of the Confederacy are discussed, as Cartman’s insane actions are purely to win a bet. That doesn’t change the fact that the episode literally features a resurgence of the Confederacy, and several “inspiring” speeches to rally the troops to continue pillaging.
‘Here Comes the Neighborhood,’ Season 5, Episode 12
Token, tired of being from the only wealthy family in South Park, creates advertisements highlighting the mountain town as an idyllic location to move. Several celebrities move their families to the town. This influx of population creates a sharp class divide, as the working-class residents don’t welcome their rich new neighbors, eventually trying to scare them away.
The rich celebrities who move to South Park all happen to be black, but this is not addressed. Instead, the white residents of Colorado engage in Klan-like tactics, with non-racist explanations. They burn a “lower-case t, meaning time to leave,” clearly a burning cross. Likewise, the ghost costumes used to scare away the celebrities are eerily similar to Klan robes, but once again, this is uncommented, as no one in South Park seems to be aware of the implications of the actions.
It never crosses anyone’s mind on either side that race could have anything to do with the tensions, as it squarely falls along class lines. It is mere coincidence that the actions directly resemble racism. Only one line at the end implies that any character had racist intent with the attempts to remove the black celebrities from the neighborhood. And it comes from Mr. Garrison, the depraved fourth-grade teacher who eventually becomes the show’s version of Donald Trump.
It is easy to see how this episode is considered among the most offensive in “South Park’s” lineup. The punchline of the entire episode comes from the tension in using racist imagery devoid of intent, played for laughs. For all its faults, “Gone with the Wind” did not use racism as a punchline.
‘With Apologies to Jesse Jackson,’ Season 11, Episode 1
Randy Marsh begins the episode by saying the n-word on national television, incorrectly guessing the slur as an answer on Wheel of Fortune. He is ostracized and attacked for being a racist when he returns to South Park. Rather than take any measure of accountability (aside from literally kissing Jesse Jackson’s butt), he petitions Congress to render it hate speech to judge white people for using the n-word, and shockingly succeeds.
However, despite the nihilistic ending of Randy’s plot line, his son Stan ends the episode in a much more constructive place. Stan spends the entire episode attempting to defend his dad to Token, but his explanations and attempts at relating are politely rejected. Stan eventually realizes that he will never understand what being called the n-word feels like for Token, which was all Token needed to hear.
To get the point of the episode across, the n-word is used liberally and uncensored. While the discussion of slurs is used to make a point, they go about the argument in a shocking way that may turn off some viewers and offend others. Randy’s plot line is heightened to the point of absurdity, which many may find either minimizes or mocks an issue that is personal and important to many people. There’s nothing nearly that exaggerated in “Gone With the Wind.”
‘Cartman Finds Love,’ Season 16, Episode 7
When there’s a new girl at South Park Elementary named Nichole, Cartman decides to fix her up with Token, purely because they are the only two black kids in the class. When he discovers she actually has a crush on Kyle, he does everything in his power to keep her away from his frenemy, including telling the entire school that he and Kyle are dating.
While Cartman’s fix-up attempts are presented in a negative light, the episode centers on Cartman’s desire to set the two black kids up due solely to their race. Nichole struggles with the identity politics on both sides as she navigates her developing feelings for both Kyle and Token. Her confusion is treated with sensitivity, and it is highlighted that Cartman’s interference is harmful.
That being said, Cartman has both the majority of screen time in the episode, and his perspective is highlighted the most. It’s highlighted to make a mockery of him, but he is still given central focus. While the punchline of the episode is that Cartman is racist, some find the episode to be offensive due to the existence of racist jokes, even if the point is to laugh at the joke-teller, not the joke itself.
The episodes of “South Park” are not endorsing racism or discriminatory behavior, but highlighting social issues through biting satire. By having the racist acts or words being said by the show’s most evil protagonist (Eric Cartman), the dumbest protagonist (Randy Marsh), or the most depraved character (Mr. Garrison) they’re calling attention to the absurdity, stupidity, and evil that is hate.
However, it’s “South Park.” The satire is always shocking, over-the-top, and crossing many lines. The entire series is ripe with examples of shocking content that could offend someone.
That being said, I am definitely not arguing for censorship of “South Park.” Far from it. Satire exists to provoke thought and a reaction through humor. Despite a reputation for cynicism, some of the most shocking episodes of “South Park” have had more good to say than bad.
These four episodes, and countless others, highlight the arbitrary nature of “Gone with the Wind’s” censorship by HBO. In a time when even innuendo can lead to disaster, “South Park” exists in a fascinating alternative dimension where a plurality of thought is permitted and shocking jokes can be used to further conversations while making people laugh.
“Gone with the Wind,” however, exists in this world, and therefore is written-off. It’s fascinating to see those worlds intersect on one streaming platform.