Aesthetic and Ethical Relationships in South Park

by Chris Wallace (wallyosu@hotmail.com)

The animation in Trey Parker and Matt Stone's pilot episode of South Park, as well as their two short films which inspired it, was created by using construction paper cutouts and a stop-motion camera. However, even after the series was picked up by Comedy Central and became computer-animated, the creators continued to emulate the primitive style which had helped popularize their short films on the internet before South Park was even marketed as a series. This concept is important in analyzing the show's aesthetic value and the relationship it has with the show's ethical value. In addition to the fact that the primary characters on the show are children, the primitive animation (which in many ways resembles the Charlie Brown series of cartoons) almost seems to suggest that the show is aimed towards children, or perhaps more likely, is supposed to give the illusion of being aimed towards children while its primary audience is actually adults. Related to this notion is the fact that in almost every episode, the characters learn some sort of explicitly stated moral "lesson" near the end of the episode based on the experiences and events of that particular episode, which seems to be a plot device reminiscent of the "after-school special" television formula. However, while the series employs this seemingly children-geared aesthetic and ethical basis, the additional aesthetic and ethical elements used in conjunction with and/or in support of this basis suggest otherwise. In other words, the simple animation is often used to portray violent or vulgar aesthetic elements, while the lessons learned in an episode are often arrived at via offensive subject matter. For example, in one episode, Santa Claus declares that "Christmas will be a day for remembering a brave man named Jesus" only after Jesus has been shot to dead by Iraqi soldiers after his rescue of the captive Santa from Baghdad ("Red Sleigh Down"). Thus, it is through this combination of seemingly children-oriented and adult-oriented aesthetics and ethics that the creators are able to poke fun at extremely offensive or sensitive subject matter, yet still come to a rational and moral conclusion about such topics by the end of an episode.
Perhaps the subject matter which best exemplifies these concepts is contained within the film, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, which, because of its theatrical release, is able to deal with material that even the cable-based series cannot. The plot begins with the four main children characters (Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman) going to see a new movie, Asses of Fire, starring the Canadian title characters of their favorite show, Terrance and Phillip. In this film, Terrance and Phillip frequently use words normally "bleeped out" in both their own show and in South Park (such as "fuck", "shit", etc.), which causes the boys to begin using these words and results in almost all the major conflicts in the film.
Yet to fully understand and appreciate the ethical implications of the film, it is important to examine the implicit meanings behind some of the elements. The self-referential nature of the film seems apparent considering that the boys sneaking into an R-rated cartoon mirrors the fact that many underage South Park fans presumably did the same thing to see Bigger, Longer & Uncut. However, this type of self-reference goes much deeper and is important to understanding the ethical elements of the film. In the audio commentary for an early episode, "Death", Parker reveals that "Terrance and Phillip are basically [himself and Stone]" and were a reaction against early negative criticism about the show (Parker). He mentions that many people criticized the simple animation and "fart jokes" of South Park, and Terrance and Phillip was created as a reactionary show-within-a-show in which the characters do nothing but "fart" on one another and the animation is significantly worse than South Park's. For example, Terrance and Phillip's bodies are composed entirely of rectangles and their heads are two disconnected halves of an oval which creates a "flapping head" effect when they talk.
Thus, in this episode, Parker and Stone have set up an implicit theme of both the series and the movie in which Terrance and Phillip in South Park's "reality" represents South Park in "actual reality", which serves as a tool for them to comment on the nature of their own work. For example, in this episode, Kyle's mother leads the other parents in town in a crusade to get Terrance and Phillip taken off of the air because it is unsuitable for, yet attracts, a large child audience. The parents must leave all the children home alone in order to protest the show in New York City, and because the parents are not there to protect them, "Death" (the Grim Reaper, although he arguably symbolizes any potential danger or threat) shows up and chases the boys in an attempt to kill Kenny (who dies in almost every episode). During a pause in the chase, Stan and Kyle (who Parker and Stone have frequently mentioned are also supposed to represent themselves, albeit as children growing up in today's world), express their frustration at the fact that if their parents had been there to protect them, then Death may not have appeared, which also serves as the episode's lesson:
[If] parents would spend less time worrying about what their kids watch on TV, and more time worrying about what's going on in their kids' lives, this world would be a much better place.[Parents] only get so offended by television because they rely on it as a babysitter and the sole educator of their kids ("Death").
After the series finally gets taken off the air, the boys discuss alternatives to watching cartoons that they've heard are fun, such as breathing gas fumes, smoking crack, and watching pornography, which suggests the relative harmlessness of even the most offensive cartoon.
It is relevant to note that many of the themes of this episode reappear in Bigger, Longer & Uncut, though they are much more elaborated upon. After using their newly found curse words in school, the boys' mothers are called in by the school counselor. Again, Kyle's mother, Sheila Broflovski (who has often been characterized as a "bitch" by Cartman for her various crusades in previous episodes) begins a local campaign against the movie. If it weren't already obvious from Mrs. Broflovski's negative characterization as well as the basic premise of the film, the film also explicitly outlines one of its ethical arguments via a televised debate between Mrs. Broflovski and "The Canadian Minister of Movies", who mentions that, "The United States has graphic violence on television all the time. We can't believe that a movie with some foul language would piss you off so much" (South Park). This statement, which attempts to disguise its moralizing nature with the aesthetically ridiculous "flapping head" characteristic of the Canadians, reveals the creators' argument against what they perceive as hypocritical American censorship.
However, Mrs. Broflovski's movement gains national recognition only after Kenny accidentally lights himself on fire attempting to ignite a "fart" after seeing Terrance and Phillip do it in their film. This segment seems to be a veiled reference to a 1993 incident in which "a two-year-old Ohio girl was killed in a fire lit by her five-year-old brother" (Torre). The child had apparently set fire to his family's mobile home using his mother's cigarette lighter after watching an episode of the MTV cartoon, Beavis and Butt-head, in which the title character, Beavis, often used a lighter to light cigarettes and spouted the catchphrase, "Fire! Fire!" (Beavis and Butt-head). However, it is interesting to note that it was later discovered that the family did not have cable, and thus, did not have access to the show, although this information seemed to have little effect on the growing anti-Beavis and Butt-head movement.
This interpretation seems valid given that Beavis and Butt-head creator, Mike Judge, did a guest voice in Bigger, Longer & Uncut, both Kenny (who is often made fun of by his friends for being poor) and the boy who set the fire are/were from apparently low-income families, both cases resulted in censored versions of and protests against their respective subject matter, and Terrance and Phillip resemble Beavis and Butt-head in that both pairs consist of two young men, one blond and one brunette, who constantly sit on a couch and laugh at things such as "farting". The segment may also be a subtle reference to an incident in which a twelve-year old boy's suicide note allegedly referenced his death in comparison to the various deaths of Kenny.
Plato might have suggested that such imitations are inevitable among people, perhaps especially children, and that the Beavis and Butt-head incident is a prime example of what can occur when such entertainment is available to the citizens of a state. Others may raise the question of whether it is the creator of the show or the show itself which is primarily responsible for the consequences of the show. While it is not entirely clear how Parker and Stone feel about this issue, it seems that perhaps they would place the burden of responsibility for such material on children's parents. They hint at their feelings on this issue during the boys' opening musical number, in which they sing, "Off to the movies we shall go, where we learn everything that we know, cause the movies teach us what our parents don't have time to say" (South Park). In general, the creators do not seem to be endorsing the viewing of South Park by children, but rather emphasizing that, because of the aesthetic nature of the program, children will inevitably watch it, and it is the parents' job to censor and/or explain it to their children, not the creators'.
Looking back to the "Death" episode, the plot implies that had the parents been at home with their children rather than out of the state protesting a television show, perhaps Death (or whatever he may be seen as symbolizing) would not have appeared and Kenny would not have been killed. Likewise in Bigger, Longer & Uncut, even though the boys had already seen the film, their mothers go to great lengths (as well as great distances) to protest the film, when perhaps, as a monologue by Kyle near the end of the movie suggests, it would have been more productive for the mothers to actually talk to their children about the film and explain why they shouldn't have watched it:
But Mom, you never took the time to talk to me. Whenever I get in trouble, you go off and blame everybody else. But I'm the one to blame. Deal with me. You keep going off and fighting all these causes, but I don't want a fighter. I want my Mom (South Park).
It is interesting to note that while other characters in this scene get teary-eyed, Mrs. Broflovski is still not convinced by this point in the film and shoots Terrance and Phillip in a fit of rage.
This scene serves as another example of the hypocrisy the creators seem to see in American censorship of popular culture between the general aesthetic acceptance of violence without questioning its ethical basis and the general ethical condemnation of bad language despite the comparatively harmless (relative to violence) aesthetic images that it implies (sexual, excremental, etc.). After Mrs. Broflovski's organization gains national clout, President Clinton appoints her as his "Secretary of Offense", and she uses this position to order the capture of Terrance and Phillip into American custody. In response to this, the Canadians commit terroristic bombings on the homes of American celebrities, such as the Baldwin brothers, which results in the U.S. declaring war on Canada.
From this point forward, the film emphasizes the fear and tension among the characters over the impending war. Such emphasis would perhaps make these concerns sympathetic and believable were they not constantly contrasted by reminders that the war is ridiculous in that it is being fought because of a movie containing bad language. This notion is most explicitly exemplified during Mrs. Broflovski's address to the soldiers immediately before the war:
Men, when you're out there in the battlefield and you're looking into the beady eyes of a Canadian.and people are dying all around you, just remember what the MPAA says: 'Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don't say any naughty words.' That is what this war is all about! (South Park).
Again, Mrs. Broflovski later exemplifies her own adherence to this notion through her murder of Terrance and Phillip. For some strange reason (presumably simply as a plot device), their murders are the necessary condition for Armageddon, and thus, violence, as opposed to bad language, literally unleashes Hell on Earth. It is not until after Cartman's innovative use of curse words helps repel the forces of Hell that Mrs. Broflovski sees the error of her ways. Thus, the creators have reinforced their point by showing that, at least in this case, violence brought about evil, while bad language helped repel it.
Similar to this topic, it is important to note the significance of Hell itself in the film as almost the entire subplot of the film takes place there. The subplot consists of Satan and a recently-deceased Saddam Hussein's abusive homosexual relationship and suggests an interesting aesthetic and ethical relationship between and within these characters. Hussein is animated as having a rectangle-composed body and a "flapping-head" characteristic of the Canadians (although his head is an actual photograph of the real Hussein), as well as a high-pitched, accented voice also similar to the Canadians. He is presented ethically as a verbally-abusive, dominant homosexual who uses Satan for sex and a chance to rule the world once Terrance and Phillip are murdered. The aesthetic manner (both in appearance and voice) in which Hussein is presented, combined with the ethical manner in which he is presented, creates a ridiculous and quite unrealistic representation of the former Iraqi leader.
If Plato were to comment on this representation, he would perhaps point out not only the error of imitating a less-than morally good person, but also that the creators' far-from-perfect representation may cause those viewing the film to perceive Hussein as someone who he is not, and consequently, underestimate the alleged threat he once represented. It is not clear what, if anything, the creators mean to say or emphasize through the contrast between their aesthetic and ethical representation of Hussein and the real Hussein. It seems possible that through his ridiculous representation, the creators are attempting to deemphasize the potential threat to America that the real Hussein allegedly once represented, although it seems equally possible that the contrast exists for pure comedic value and has little political intentions behind it.
It seems that this relationship may be made clearer through a similar examination of the character of Satan. Satan is aesthetically presented (as one might imagine him) as a monstrous, red-skinned, horned demon with hoofed feet, although he has a slight "homosexual accent" to his otherwise deep, menacing voice. However, ethically he is presented quite differently in that he acts effeminately, is on the subservient end of an abusive homosexual relationship, takes relationship advice from an eight-year old boy (the recently-departed Kenny), and is even called a "whiny little bitch" by God in a later episode ("Probably").
The contrast created when an aesthetically fearsome-looking Satan talks about matters such as relationship problems to the point that the viewer almost sympathizes with him comes across as quite ridiculous and seems to serve primarily for comic effect. However, the ethical representation of Satan in the film (which Plato might label as a representation of a representation two generations removed from the original concept) differs significantly from the ethical representation of Satan in a document such as the Bible (which Plato might label as a representation one generation removed from the original concept).
Similar to the distinction between the representation of Hussein in the film and the real Hussein, it is not entirely clear what the creators are trying to say or emphasize given the ethical distinction between the two representations of Satan. On the surface, it seems that this distinction is used for comic effect, in that it is humorous for the audience to see, and perhaps even sympathize with, a side of a biblical character such as Satan that is quite different from what they might normally expect. However, somewhat along these lines, perhaps the creators are suggesting that viewers should challenge their own notions about what exactly constitutes entities such as Satan and God, rather than merely accepting those which are commonly perpetuated by both religious and secular cultures. This notion is supported by the fact that, in an appearance in a later episode, while God has the stereotypical "booming voice", His body is a composition of various animal parts, which defies all the townspeople's aesthetic expectations of His appearance. When God asks a surprised character what he expected Him to look like, the character thinks for a moment and responds, "Well, not like that!" ("Are You There God? It's Me, Jesus").
In closing, it is important to return to the question of whether or not it is tolerable for viewers, especially children, to accept concrete moral prescriptions from aesthetically innocent-looking children characters (who appear as though they could have originated in any number of actual children's cartoons) given the fact that such prescriptions are often arrived at via offensive and/or immoral aesthetic and ethical means. Mary Mothersill provides an interesting passage which seems relevant to this issue:
Each fictional world has its own perspective and when we find one [world] appealing and another repellant, one convincing and another implausible, what we are comparing and assessing is different world views.Judging the merits of a [fictional world] is judging the author's perspective, by determining how adequately it answers the question of how we should live (Bermúdez 85).
A proponent of this argument might suggest that one's acceptance of South Park is dependent upon how applicable the show's moral prescriptions are to one's life.
However, this notion does not solve the potential problem that even if one finds the show's lessons useful, one may still find the means used to arrive at those lessons offensive. Based somewhat on the argument above, one might argue that one's acceptance of such moral prescriptions requires one's acceptance of the means used to arrive at them, or in more philosophical terms, if one takes the conclusion to be true, one must accept the premises to be true as well. However, speaking more practically, it seems unlikely that one could come to an authoritative conclusion given this potential moral divide, although it seems probable that those who find some sort of moral truth in the lessons of South Park are highly likely to accept the means from which those lessons are drawn, no matter how offensive or immoral.

Works Cited:

  1. "Are You There God? It's Me, Jesus". South Park. Comedy Central. December 29, 1999.
  2. Beavis and Butt-head. MTV. 1993-1997.
  3. Bermúdez, José Luis, and Sebastian Gardner, eds. Art and Morality. New York/London: Routledge. 2003.
  4. "Death". South Park. Comedy Central. September 17, 1997.
  5. Parker, Trey, and Matt Stone. "Audio commentary for 'Death'". 2004.
  6. "Probably". South Park. Comedy Central. July 26, 2000.
  7. "Red Sleigh Down". South Park. Comedy Central. December 11, 2002.
  8. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Dir. Trey Parker. Paramount. 1999.
  9. Torre, Paul. "Beavis and Butthead - U.S. Cartoon". 2004.