In 2017, the two-headed monster of Donald Trump’s inauguration and South Park’s 20th anniversary prompted much hand-wringing over the show’s legacy. In the post-2016 rush to point fingers, a cartoon about the adventures of some potty-mouthed 8-year-old boys was made to bear at least some of the blame. Dana Schwartz tweeted that it was impossible to overstate the cultural damage of South Park’s portrayal of “earnestness as the only sin” and mockery as “the ultimate inoculation against all criticism”—and then, her point seemingly proven, she was descended on by trollsSouth Park didn’t invent the alt-right, Sean O’Neal wrote for The AV Club, “but at their roots are the same bored, irritated distaste for politically correct wokeness, the same impish thrill at saying the things you’re not supposed to say, the same button-pushing racism and sexism, now scrubbed of all irony.” For Lara Zarum in The Village Voice, the show’s misogyny—the creators “never seem content just to make fun of women; they relish sexually humiliating them, too, all while shunting the show’s female characters, young and old, to the maddeningly familiar role of disapproving nag”—is deeply tied to Hillary Clinton’s election loss. 

The consensus that seemed to calcify was that South Park’s corrosive influence on popular culture raised a generation of nihilistic trolls that revived American fascism for the lulz. At best, it inculcated a wilful apathy, political and otherwise. According to Lindsay Ellis, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone spent the whole 2000s “explaining that things were fine actually, both sides bad”: both symptomatic of, and feeding into, a wider apathetic cultural attitude towards social injustice in the 2000s. As Schwartz outlines, South Park has always skewered “both the left and the right—and anyone who believed in anything—as equally ridiculous. The smart people were those detached enough to know that everyone was full of it.”

There is some ring of truth to all this. The best of these critiques—like Zarum’s or O’Neal’s—are rooted in an acknowledgement that South Park is and has always been extremely funny, and that its cultural effect is not necessarily reflective of Stone and Parker’s intentions. But even still, a fundamental rift inevitably opens up between these arguments and my experience of the show itself.

I wrote about South Park, shock humour, and morality in art for Current Affairs. You can read it here!

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