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Language can be a very multifaceted thing. With different meanings, associations and contexts, people from different backgrounds bring their own perspective to the table when analyzing and understanding language. The show South Park uses language in a way that is intended to push the boundaries of social norms and political correctness, especially in the episode “The F Word. ” As discussed in Marcus Schulzke’s (2012) “South Park and the Transformation of Meaning,” language is not only a powerful tool but also a malleable one. Although Schulzke makes a strong argument that South Park “explores the treatment of language” while making clever social commentary through the use of extreme and sometimes vulgar language and imagery, I believe that South Park’s approach and execution of creating social commentary is too clandestine. Requiring the viewers to read between the immense amount of foul language and imagery in order to identify the producer’s social commentary ends up being more dangerous, specifically to first-time viewers and children, than enlightening (Schulzke 2012, p. 22).
“The F Word” and South Park as a whole uses intense and vulgar language and imagery to such an extreme that the intended social commentary could potentially be overlooked by a new viewer. As someone who had never seen South Park, and was not aware of the producer’s ambition behind such language and imagery beforehand, I was caught of guard and distracted by the vulgarity. So much so, I was misguided on the intention of using social and political commentary and more focused on the inappropriate jokes and comments themselves. Schulzke explains that “South Park’s use of bad words is driven by the entertainment of shock” and “The F Word” “take[s] a more thoughtful look at language” which he believes is “among the most sophisticated” of episodes (Schulzke 2012, p. 26-27). As a first-time viewer, I was less focused on the sophisticated underlying commentary and more impacted by the “entertainment of shock” caused by the use of “the common ‘bad words’” (Schulzke 2012, p. 26). Even though Schulzke addresses his belief that “The F Word” deserves attention from both scholars invested in South Park and also those interested in the transformative power of language, he does not seem to discuss the deserved attention from or the perception of a first-time viewer or child (Schulzke 2012, p. 30).
The concept of children both in South Park and watching South Park sparks an interesting dialogue as to whether or not this portrayal of kids and profane language in tandem is appropriate and effective when communicating the show’s social commentary. Although scholars like Schulzke argue that this use of “bad words” in relation to children teaches us real media literacy and how to navigate the endless amount of ‘bullshit’ thrown at us in our ‘Age of Information,’ at the same time, displaying children using words such as ‘fag,’ ‘shit,’ ‘damn,’ ‘fuck,’ ‘asshole’ and other sometimes offensive words can set a negative example and set a standard of what is acceptable in terms of language usage amongst kids (Schulzke 2012, p. 26). According to an article from the Johns Hopkins Health Library, “as children grow and develop, they can be easily influenced by what they see and hear, especially on television” (Television and Children). Therefore if a child were to view South Park at a young age, I believe that they would not be able to fully understand or identify the underlying commentary and they might begin to take after “the children of South Park,” who “often use the word gay as an insult,” and perhaps begin bluntly calling people ‘fags,’ ‘gay,’ ‘assholes’ or other generally unpleasant names used by South Park characters (Schulzke 2012, p. 27). In the case of South Park, the danger comes when a new or younger viewer might see an episode such as “The F Word” as only a vulgar show because they are too distracted by the crude language or are simply too young to fully understand and recognize the intended commentary.
Although Schulzke’s argument that South Park makes smart and savvy commentary on today’s social issues can be true, first-time viewers like myself and younger viewers are not able to identify the show’s underlying commentary and political wit due to the distraction of the shockingly foul language and imagery. South Park needs a savvy, invested, long-time and mature viewer who has seen many episodes in order for their messages to be revealed, and this is why I believe the show is more dangerous than enlightening. The extreme language used by child characters employed to execute the social commentary, in fact, distracts the first-time viewer from the actual social commentary itself. First-time viewers and children alike may not immediately read between the ‘shits,’ damns’ and ‘fags’ and instead take the show for the surface-level foul and offensive cartoon that it appears to be.
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