By Ali Asadullah
For the past few years, South Park has been a mainstay of Comedy Central’s Wednesday night cable television lineup. It is arguably the most politically incorrect, irreverent, in-tune, raunchy, filthy, on-point, vulgar, insightful, acerbic cartoon on television. In other words, it’s many things to many people. However to most, it is simply an exceedingly funny satire of modern America; and it is this undeniable humor that draws audiences of old and young alike to their televisions to watch the cast of poorly computer-animated 4th graders say the most outrageous things.
Humor does have its bounds though; and South Park has, on a number of occasions, stretched the limits of propriety. Consider the episode aired this past summer in which the characters took turns using that universally offensive expletive, “S**T”, some 162 times over a 30 minute time slot; or perhaps an earlier episode that dealt a little too cavalierly with the issue of pedophilia.
Always game for controversy though, South Park continues to push the envelope as it did this past week with an episode dedicated to the war in Afghanistan. It was, in a word, offensive.
The episode centered on President Bush’s request that children in the United States donate $1 each to a special relief fund for Afghan children. The four main characters, Kenny, Kyle, Stan and Eric, perform their civic duty and, to their surprise, receive a goat in return as a goodwill gesture from their Afghan counterparts. When trying to return the goat to Afghanistan however, the four are mistakenly shipped off to the war zone where they are kidnapped by the Taliban and taken to Osama Bin Laden’s mountain hideout.
Eventually the kids are rescued and Bin Laden and the Taliban are vanquished; but not before a wide range of ethnic slurs issue forth from various characters’ mouths. From Eric referring to the Taliban as “towel-heads” to his making a mockery of Islamic prayer, the episode took any number of cheap shots at Islam, Muslims and Afghans.
Now to be fair, it must be noted that South Park is an equal opportunity offender. With one of the main characters being a young Jewish boy, jokes about Jewish religion and culture abound. Another character, the only Black child ever seen on the show, is named Token, as in “the token black character”. Even the fan favorite character Eric Cartman provides an opportunity to offend, as his obesity is a non-stop source of fat jokes.
However the best measure of appropriateness for satire, is often the distance an audience has from the actual content. Much of the racial satire present in South Park, for instance, would not have been appropriate for earlier periods of American history. The sensitivity of race issues of during the 1960s would have made a cartoon character named Token, completely unacceptable. And indeed many African Americans frown severely on cartoons aired during the Civil Right struggle – Tom & Jerry being one particularly egregious offender – that failed to recognize the signs of the times. And for what it’s worth, November 7 was not the right time to poke fun at a people who are being killed by American bombs or at a religion being castigated by the media and the government.
Another good measure of appropriateness of satire is the state of humor and comedy in a targeted community itself. As humor can be a healing tool, ethnic communities often engage in self-deprecating humor as a way to deal with a painful past or the harsh realities of a present existence. However at this particular time, there are precious few Muslims using the current crisis as a platform to dispense the healing wonders of comedy. Death and destruction is as serious an issue as one can tackle, and it is safe to say that it will be many years to come, if ever, before Muslims decide to laugh about the Afghan catastrophe.
The reality of the situation is that South Park went for the easy win. It’s the middle of November Sweeps and airing an episode making fun of the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden was a clear ratings victory (despite the fact that cable doesn’t actually engage in Sweeps competition like the networks do). Additionally, it was an opportunity to do a little cheerleading for America. But as the history of cartoons has shown, such wartime propaganda has proved hurtful in retrospect.
Some animation aficionados will remember that another popular cartoon took a stab at satirizing a people and a culture some 60 years ago and that in doing so, some of the most offensive racial and ethnic stereotypes were loosed on the American public, helping foment negative public opinion. The people being satirized were the Japanese; the instruments of that satire were the popular characters of the day, including those from Paramount’s animation studios and the wildly popular Looney Tunes produced by Warner Brothers.
It’s hard to imagine these days that Bugs Bunny ever had a racial slur in him. But rewind to 1943, and there he is in “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips” (“Nip” being a slur used to refer to the Japanese) calling Japanese “slant-eyes”.
Or how about everyone’s favorite spinach eating sailor, Popeye? Most people see him as the noble naval grunt defending the honor of his girlfriend Olive Oyl. However in 1942, he was beating up on gross caricatures of Japanese soldiers, complete with overly slanted eyes and bucked teeth in the cartoon “You’re a Sap Mr. Jap”. The same caricatures appear in the cartoon “Tokio Jokio” from the same period.
[Editor’s note: “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips” can be viewed online in the following three parts: Part I,Part II, Part III. “You’re Sap Mr. Jap” can be seen in three parts as well: Part I,Part II, Part III. And “Tokio Jokio” can be seen in three parts too:Part I, Part II,Part III.]
For years, Japanese Americans have protested the airing of such blatantly racist cartoons. One of the more recent salvos in the campaign to keep such animation off television was fired this past July by the Japanese American Citizens League. In a press release, the organization noted that:
Some may underestimate the damage that cartoons can cause, regardless of their content, since these drawings do not contain real people. However, the truth is quite contrary to that misconception, since cartoons target children as their primary viewing audience. Children are easily impressionable, and therefore subject to thinking that the racist behavior demonstrated by a famous character they readily identify with is acceptable.
Although it is true that South Park is an adult, late night cable series that airs content disclaimers before each episode, many children no doubt have access to the program. But more importantly, it is a show that passively gives the cue to audiences that it is OK to laugh at certain sensitive subjects. But the plight of the Afghan people, with some 20 years of suffering behind them and possibly several more ahead of them, will probably never be a laughing matter.