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South Park is an American adult animated sitcom, a production of South Park Digital Studios, LLC that started airing on August 13, 1997, till now. with 20 seasons and over 270 episodes in total, South Park has received numerous awards and even ranked as the tenth Greatest TV Cartoon of All Time by TVGuid. Being famous for its dark, surreal humor that covers a wide range of topics including social problems, politics, and internet sensations. South Park became a popular entertainment among adults all over the world, mainly in the United States. Although South Park had been famous for its well-scripted comedy that applies to different situations, groups and even individuals, according to Roland Barthes’s concepts discussed in Mythologies, there are still tricks played on us that causes us to invest in the ones in greater power willingly or even wholeheartedly.
Through the book Mythologies, Roland Barthes shows how truths are hidden behind the banalest and natural aspects of everyday life. According to Barthes, things often present themselves as being natural, therefore, are transparent to the public. His analysis of different “natural” mythologies today reveals the ideological nature of the products. Barthes considers Myths as speech, that it is a system of communication which bears meaning in itself. He expresses his view on how every symbol conveys a meaning, unlimited by the nature of the symbol, be it a text, an image or even human actions. As Barthes explained in Mythologies “Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things. A tree is a tree. Yes, of course.” (Mythologies 1972 p.1) He considers every cultural product as a symbol itself, conveying at least a meaning conditioned by a myth.
Any cultural product can be analyzed and reviewed in Barthes’s consideration since there is always a realm of second-class signification which distinguishes its symbolic meaning from its denotation through analysis. Barthes’s explanation of his analysis in the article ‘The Romans in films’, “Signs ought to present themselves only in two extreme forms: either openly intellectual and so remote that they are reduced to an algebra, as in the Chinese theatre, where a flag on its own signifies a regiment; or deeply rooted, invented, so to speak, on each occasion, revealing an internal, a hidden facet, and indicative of a moment in time, no longer of a concept…”(Mythologies 2009 p.28) Applying Barthes’s concept presented in Mythologies on South Park, as an American animated sitcom, it often expresses people’s view and thoughts through comedy and satire, presenting themselves to be true and universal. Ironically, similar to its own characteristic of presenting ideas through imaginary characters and stories, South Park is actually a fiction that tricks us into benefiting the more powerful members of the society. It’s use of comedic approach to expressing ideas and thoughts increase social acceptability on transgressions. It also decreases the viewers’ tendency on voicing out, through fulfilling their will of express and reflecting on social issues or problems when they are enjoying the show. The mixing of highly-realistic setting and contents with surreal situations cuts back imagination and expectations of the public on different aspects. South Park slowly dull viewers’ individual and critical thinking and tricks them into being an easier public to mass media or governance by slipping ideas and myths into the show.
South Park is famous for its use of humor relating to social issues or taboos, the use of comedy encourages the acceptance of transgressions such as racism and sexism. South Park often over-exaggerate public’s reactions and social problems to create comic yet relatable stories or situations. Although it is considered done ironically to encourage social participation or awareness, it also encourages social acceptance on transgression. Suggested by Brain L. Ott, ‘South Park does not simply depict the violation of social taboos; it enlists viewers’ participation in them. By “watching” the show repeatedly transgress the boundaries of social acceptability, public complete the communication circuit vital to the show’s violations.’ (Taking South Park Seriously 2008 p.41-42) The constant violation of social taboos in the show made viewers dull towards transgression, which increases their acceptance of the violation of social taboos. In South Park season 20, the theme focuses on internet trolls, the 2016 United States presidential election, and nostalgia. Multiple social taboos are comically discussed and over-exaggerated, in the episodes of the 20th season, numerous racist, sexist jokes and ideas are presented. In the episodes, the Member Berries speaks of memories of older days some quotes that over-exaggerates nostalgia like “Member when there weren’t so many Mexicans?”, “Member when a white man kissing a black woman on national television was considered daring?”, “Member when interracial marriage wasn’t legal?” are racist comments relatable to Americans. Similarly, sexist jokes about women being not funny and irrational are constantly made throughout the season, such as “What’s the one thing women don’t have? Semen and a sense of humor.” Not only in one or two seasons but throughout all airings of South Park, offensive jokes or remarks and extended use of slurs and foul languages often appear in the show. Since it is considered as an “Adult-only” sitcom, viewer automatically considers them to be only for comical effects. The overuse of offensive jokes with the excuse of “only for comedic effects” slowly dulls viewer’s negative feelings on the violations of social taboos, by creating the myth of not needing to take violations of social taboos seriously if it’s comical. With long-term exposure of such remarks and language, viewers are unconsciously brainwashed into the acceptance of transgression, believing that it’s not a serious problem.
South Park fulfills the viewers’ needs of expressing and reflecting on social issues or problems through the fictional characters’ highly-relatable expressions on up-to-date topics, which my decrease the viewers’ need of expressing themselves in real life. According to Fiske, “Cartoons and comedies frequently invert ‘normal’ relationships and show the adults as incompetent, unable to understand, and the children as superior in insight and ability.”(Television Culture 1992 p.197) South Park uses the same tactic, revolving around four 4th grade boys, Stan Marsh, Kyle Broflovski, Eric Cartman, and Kenny McCormick, and their bizarre adventures. In season 19, the adult’s greed leads to the growing intelligence of online advertisements, while the children are the ones understanding and noticing the problems, being the main force of defeating the “evil ads” that the adults had created. The reverse in relations are even more vivid in Season 20, some adults trolls and bullies people online leading to a potential world war, adults fail to resist the temptation of nostalgia that causes poor decision making, and professionals failed to complete the right formula for the discovery of a new energy; while all the problems are solved with the children’s intelligence and insights. In all episodes of South Park, it’s the children often speaking the truth or intelligence with surreal abilities and ways, while adults are often the ones who cause trouble. As Brain L. Ott had pointed out, “They are invited to engage the show and the world not as responsible individual adults, but as children at play. Such liberation is an intense but fleeting pleasure because when one turns off South Park, he or she must re-enter the world of social rules and conventions.”(Taking South Park Seriously 2008 p.44) The highly-relatable expressions in the show pleasure the viewer’s need of expressing or reflecting on the social issues and problems they encounter, leading them to believe that their thoughts are similar to concepts and ideas presented by only children with their surreal abilities. And since they are invited to engage the show as children at play, the viewers’ will to express or reflect on those topics are automatically diminished when they turn off South Park. Not realizing that the show had invert the relationships, showing the children to be superior in insight and ability, viewers are tricked into believing in the myth of being a responsible individual adult, is to not fully expressing and voicing out their own thoughts.
South Park uses highly-realistic, up-to-date setting and contents but adds in some surreal and imaginary situations. Although the surreal situations on realistic events actually reflect the viewers’ imagination and expectations, the situations often turn out to be delusional or disappointing, which cuts back the viewers’ imagination and expectations on different aspects. The setting and characters are highly relatable and realistic. The show mainly locates in the fictional small town that is within the real-life South Park basin in the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado. There are prominent settings, including bus stops, the local elementary school, even various neighborhoods and the snowy landscape. Actual Colorado landmarks and the shops and businesses along the town’s main street, are also prominent and are based on the appearance of similar locations in a real town in Colorado— Fairplay. The choice Colorado is simply because of the creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s origin, but the realistic setting made the show easily relatable. The shows do not only create relatable characters but also uses real names and persons, depicting an extremely realistic social setting. Although the show is highly relatable and realistic itself, each episode of South Park opens with a simple disclaimer— ”All characters and events in this show—even those based on real people—are entirely fictional. All celebrity voices are impersonated…..poorly. The following program contains coarse language and due to its content it should not be viewed by anyone.” The comical disclaimers remind viewers of its fictional content while the truth is that most of the content is based off real-time, up-to-date events of since each episode is written and produced during the week preceding its broadcast. Since they are based off real-time events, expectations and imagination of the public on related topics are also depicted, such as the common expectation of Americans on NASA having great discoveries on projects of Mars, or the wish of having a peaceful cyber-community. Just like all the other common depiction of dreams or expectations, the expectation on great discoveries of Mars as well as the dream a peaceful cyber-community turns out to be dilution and disappointing in South Park Season 20, since the project on bringing mankind to Mars is destructed by an explosion and first mail of the newly built cyber-community is still about trolling. Both situations is a common imagination or expectation of the public, but through the mixing up of realistic characteristics with scripted delusional outcome, viewers might unconsciously expect the same delusional outcome in real life. They might cut back their own imagination and expectations on different aspects, believing in the myth that imaginations and expectations will always end up as a disappointment.
“One learns how to watch South Park as surely as one learns how to take in Shakespeare (we learn for instance that Kyle is almost always right and Cartman is almost always wrong; that if Kenny dies, he most likely will be back again in the next episode; that Chef’s advice invariably has more to do with libido than with the actual problem at hand, and so forth)” (Taking South Park Seriously 2008 p.19) Ironically similar to the hidden rules among the characters in South Park as well as the show itself being an American animated sitcom, South Park is actually a scripted fiction that tricks us into benefiting the more powerful members of the society. The show slowly shapes the viewers into an easier public for mass media and governance through the myths hidden in the show itself, causing viewers to be more accepting on transgression, being less criticising on social issues, and being less sensitive to the cutting back of imagination or expectations. And by simply putting on a disclaimer and listing itself as a satirical American animated sitcom for adult viewers only, South Park can protect itself from all the possible critics with the expectation of the viewers themselves.
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