‘South Park’ Never Shies Away From Social Commentary—Here’s The Best Points The Show Has Made

An adult animated comedy that’s been relevant since its conception, South Park hits the people where it hurts. And oddly enough, when no one is safe from your hilariously cruel grasp, you can get away with a lot. And that’s what Trey Parker and Matt Stone have for decades. When this dynamic comedy duo incorporate current world politics and pop culture events into their other-the-top plot lines, the result is dark, hilarious, and bitingly earnest.

Let’s be real. There’s a slippery slope with this show and its audience, one that definitely involves a questionable level of media literacy. We’ll throw the words “lost in translation” into your heads while we’re at it. Nevertheless, we’ve gathered just some moments where people have agreed that South Park made some strikingly good points. Read more below.

“Trapped in the Closet” Exposes The Church Of Scientology

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First, it must be said that the Church of Scientology is litigious. However, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone held no such reservations when they wrote “Trapped in the Closet,” arguing that Scientology masquerades as a religion, but is really nothing more than a money-making scheme. In “Trapped in the Closet,” which aired in 2005, the Church of Scientology decides that Stan is the reincarnation of their founder and prophet, L. Ron Hubbard. The church president and various celebrities of Scientology ask Stan to continue Hubbard’s writing, so Stan obliges.

What follows is a hilarious episode satirizing the Scientology religion. It has Hollywood celebrities that are part of the church, like R. Kelly, Tom Cruise, and John Travolta, run into Stan’s closet, refusing to come out. Stan then starts arguing with the president of the church, saying that the church shouldn’t be charging money to help people. The president reveals that that is the entire point of the Church of Scientology. In Stan’s final ‘doctrine,’ he admits he is not the reincarnation of Hubbard and that “Scientology is just a big fat global scam.” The episode ends with the church threatening to sue Stan.

The central focus of the episode revolves around the institutions of religion. Here, South Park highlights issues of money, for-profit-like behavior, and a none-too-subtle questioning of said celebrities’ sexualities in the Church of Scientology. 

“Best Friends Forever” Commentates On Disrespectful Media Coverage

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Terri Schiavo suffered a heart attack in 1990 that cut off oxygen to her brain and left her comatose. She had severe brain damage. After two months of unsuccessful rehab, she was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state, which she remained in for 15 years until her death on March 31, 2005. One day before her passing, South Park aired the episode “Best Friends Forever,” commenting on her case and the media circus surrounding it. 

In this episode, Kenny is struck by an ice cream truck and left in a vegetative state. Thus begins the battle for Kenny’s right to live versus his right to die. Cartman takes the latter side, trying to get Kenny’s feeding tube pulled so he’ll die. Stan, Kyle, and Kenny’s parents argue that Kenny has a right to live, fighting to keep the feeding tube in place. What ensues is a media frenzy sparking a national debate and outrage, bringing protesters from both sides into Kenny’s very hospital room as the two sides publicly war. At the height of the fervor, Kenny’s attorney finally finds Kenny’s will and reads his wishes about the possibility of being in a vegetative state: “Please, for the love of God, don’t ever show me in that condition on national television.” This is the heart of the issue surrounding Terri Schiavo.

In 1998, Schiavo’s husband petitioned to have her feeding tube removed, opposed by Terri’s parents. For seven years, the case was fought in the public eye until the original ruling of Schiavo’s ‘right-to-die’ was upheld and her feeding tube was removed in March 2005. At the conclusion of “Best Friends Forever,” Kyle realizes that his side was wrong for the right reasons, while Cartman was right for the wrong reasons. However, perhaps even more poignant is the realization that Kenny (the analog for Terri Schiavo) had a right to privacy that had been violated by virtually every party involved, including the national media and the nation itself. 

“You Have 0 Friends” Highlights The Absurdities Of Early Social Media

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It’s no secret that Facebook has wildly changed the way we interact with one another, and naturally the creators of South Park had to put in their two cents on the matter; fortunately, they managed to make a legitimate but hilarious commentary on the pitfalls of social media in the process. In “You Have 0 Friends,” Kyle goes against the grain and friends loner Kip Drordy, which has the adverse effect of causing Kyle’s social cache to plummet. Meanwhile Stan, who wanted nothing to do with Facebook in the first place, winds up getting sucked into the machine and has to digitally battle for his own survival in the real world. The fact that Cartman goes out of his way to create a “Mad Friends” podcast, which keeps track of who in town is worth friending and who is a newly minted social pariah, only adds to the dichotomy experienced between the friends and their relationship with Facebook. 

Whether they want to or not, everyone in South Park is drawn into Facebook one way or another.

“All About Mormons” Makes A Complex Point About The Religion

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In “All About Mormons,” which aired in 2003, Stan befriends a new kid in town, Gary Harrison. When he goes over to Gary’s house to meet his family, they proceed to tell Stan about how the Mormon faith came to be. The most memorable element of the retellings is the background music playing during Joseph Smith’s discovery of the golden plates, where the lyrics repeats a jaunty refrain of, “dum, dum, dum, dum!” (read: dumb). What’s even crazier is that South Park creators Stone and Parker were able to make a satirical musical called The Book of Mormon that further spread the message of this episode, but that’s for another time. 

In “All About Mormons,” Stan’s father, Randy, is furious that the Harrison family would try to indoctrinate his son. However, when he confronts Mr. Harrison about it, the man is so nice that his anger cools quickly. He even agrees to hear the story himself, after which he tells the family that they’ll be converting to Mormonism. 

While the episode makes fun of Mormonism, using Stan as a mouthpiece to decry some of the religion’s beliefs, it ends with Stan learning a valuable lesson from his new friend, Gary, about respecting the faith of others: 

“Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.”

“Stunning and Brave” Explores Political Correctness

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In the first episode of Season 19, which aired in September 2015, South Park introduced a brilliant new character, PC Principal. PC Principal is not just a social justice warrior, he’s the social justice warrior. However, it truly is problematic when social justice warriors take the political correctness fight too far because it can kill dialogue and discourse. And that’s the point that PC Principal makes so hilariously in his debut.

In this episode, the world is still abuzz about Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, oozing with admiration for how brave she was. And she was. But that does not inoculate her from criticism for her pre-existing narcissism and other less-than-admirable personality traits she possessed before her transition. Kyle makes this point in the episode – or at least, he tries to. 

PC Principal and his PC frat bros will not even entertain discussion on the matter: Caitlyn Jenner is a hero because she transitioned publicly – any word to the contrary will be met with violence, even if it’s a valid and salient point. Ultimately, to avoid public backlash, Kyle must state that Jenner is a hero despite his beliefs. Thus, South Park brilliantly highlights how zealous and strict overuse of PC results in no discourse, which stunts society by refusing to hear valid counterarguments.

“Safe Space” Explains Its Perspective On Victimhood

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“Safe Space” delves into some dichotomous relationships by expertly juxtaposing victimhood and victimization in the public sphere (mostly social media). In the episode, which aired in 2015, Randy is shamed at Whole Foods for not donating to a charity, and Cartman is fat-shamed for posting shirtless photos online.

Randy’s situation initially takes the side of the victim of PC culture. The cashier at Whole Foods utterly humiliates Randy for his unwillingness to donate a dollar to charity. Randy has the right to not make donations. That said, he is shopping every day at the most expensive store in town to keep up the association with shopping at a socially conscious grocery store, but he is not willing to put his money where his mouth is, so to speak.

Cartman’s situation is a bit more controversial. When Cartman is fat-shamed on social media, PC Principal forces Butters to triage every single message Cartman receives so that he only sees the positive ones. This showcases the disgusting nature of too many humans who are perfectly comfortable with harassing complete strangers from behind a keyboard. It also makes the point that it is naïve to expect wholly positive treatment when putting oneself on the Internet. Victim-blaming is usually unfair, but the reality is, if someone like Cartman does post such photos online, they should do it with the knowledge that they will invariably be attacked, fair or not. Poor Butters is forced to act as a human shield for Cartman and the negativity of humanity takes a serious toll on him. 

“Douche and Turd” Is An Allegory About The 2004 Elections

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An allegorical take on the 2004 elections, South Park wasn’t afraid to confront the reality of politics, most especially when the voting populace is forced to chooser between two less than stellar options. “Douche and Turd” revolves around South Park Elementary having to choose a new mascot after PETA complains about the school using a cow as their mascot; when the write-in options leave the students with the choice of either voting for a giant douche or a turd sandwich, which goes just about how you’d expect. Kyle throws his weight behind the douche, Cartman does the same with the turd sandwich, and Stan refuses to vote for either because the whole thing is stupid in his opinion. 

Stan eventually comes around – it requires Puff Daddy slaughtering a number of PETA members, among other things – and decides to cast his vote for the turd sandwich. Regardless, the giant douche wins the race by 1410 votes to 36. It looks like South Park Elementary has found its new mascot, until, that is, Mr. Garrison shows up to share the news about the murdered PETA members, thus negating their need to find a new mascot in the first place. In the end Stan was right; his vote really didn’t matter and the whole thing was stupid. Ah, politics.

Characters Timmy And Jimmy Are The “Goodwill Ambassadors” Of People With Disabilities

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In 2005, Jeff Shannon of the Seattle Times wrote a glowing endorsement of South Park‘s depiction of disabled characters, calling the show “the source of the most progressive, provocative, and socially relevant disability humor ever presented on American television.” There are a bevy of episodes that support Shannon’s high praise. For example, Season 4’s “Timmy 2000” shows how Phil Collins misguidedly tries to shield Timmy from public ridicule, but just ends up painting him as “other.” The episode also confronts the over-diagnosis of ADD in children.

There is also “Cripple Fight,” where the progressive children of the town protest the firing of a gay Boy Scout leader. Jimmy is introduced, inciting Timmy’s jealousy, which leads to a fight between the two until they ultimately put aside their petty differences and declare disability pride. It’s the way these characters are represented that makes South Park a social leader in disability issues.

“With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” Shows Us The Power Of Language

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The 2007 premiere of Season 11 opened with Randy Marsh competing on Wheel of Fortune, trying to complete a phrase with the clue, “People who annoy you.” The letters he had can be seen above; unfortunately, he did not guess an A. After his guess, the n-word is used another 41 times throughout the episode. Randy becomes a pariah and receives wide spread public backlash, at one point even being threatened by some white supremacist-looking guys who don’t “take kindly to intolerance.”

Co-creator Matt Stone said of the n-word, “If there was a word like that against white people, [they] would make it illegal.” The episode was praised by Kovon and Jill Flowers, the co-founders of an organization called Abolish the “N” Word, who said, “This show in its own comedic way, is helping to educate people about the power of this word and how it feels to have hate language directed at you.”

“Go God Go” Highlights Society’s Growing Hunger For Instant Gratification

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The two-episode story arc in Season 10 called, “Go God Go,” aired in 2006. It’s about Cartman freezing himself so he doesn’t have to wait an excruciating three days until the Nintendo Wii is released. Obviously, this element of the storyline is a commentary on society’s rapidly decaying ability to delay gratification. The episodes then take on another issue when Cartman is unfrozen in the distant future, having overshot his intended reanimation by 540 years.

This future world is inhabited by three warring factions: the super-intelligent otters of the Allied Atheist Alliance (AAA); humans of the United Atheist Alliance (UAA); and the Unified Atheist League (UAL). Religion has been done away with, thanks to Richard Dawkins (one of the real world’s most celebrated atheists in the 21st century), but these future beings still war over the “great question”: which group’s name is the most logical for a society of atheists?

Of course, the point is that humanity (and ottermanity) is destined to war amongst themselves as it is in their terrible nature. Dawkins conceded that there was some truth to the depiction of mankind’s inevitable infighting. However, he was not a fan of the episode because his animated-self was depicted “buggering a bald transvestite.”