Thursday, December 12, 2013

In Which I Take An Episode of "South Park" Far Too Seriously

Just a few thoughts about the latest episode of—of all things—South Park. I've always thought the show was cute, but one of the side effects of cohabitation is that I'm now suddenly exposed to a lot of South Park, and I've become a full-on convert of its inspired mix of goofiness and social criticism and blah blah TV critic circa 1999. Anyway, it's always a treat when I see a media outlet besides the usual suspects take on my pet topics, which Trey Parker and Matt Stone did last night.

For those who don't watch the show or didn't see last night's episode: When one of the main characters tells a girl who asks him out that she's fat, the suddenly feminist cheerleading captain, Wendy, sets out to prove a point about unrealistic beauty standards by Photoshopping the girl's picture. But Wendy's plan backfires, as the boy now believes the girl is actually "hot"—and when the girl's manipulated photo goes viral, she's the school catch. Soon the entire cheerleading squad hits the gym—in truth, a computer lab where a trainer yells at them to digitally whittle their bodies faster—leaving Wendy alone and frustrated that her point has been totally missed. Worse, everyone from the school counselor to the nightly news team assumes she's taken up the crusade because she's jealous (or "jelly," in the show's parlance). The show ends with—spoiler alert—Wendy giving up by digitally manipulating her own photo so she looks as "good" as her friends. (There's also a side plot involving Kanye West's slow discovery that Kim Kardashian is the inspiration for The Hobbit. It is South Park, after all.)

In my recollection, this is the only episode this season—and one of the few overall—that has focused on the girls of South Park Elementary, and this is the topic they chose. And it's with a decidedly male perspective; men ages 18-24 are South Park's top viewers, and the prime target audience. Perhaps this was meant to cater to the show's female audience, but I don't think so: I'm guessing this was a (relatively) straightforward Parker-Stone perspective shown, as ever, through the South Park lens. Which means that on some level, the whole unrealistic-beauty thing is of concern to the target South Park audience—witness the last scene of the episode, where Wendy, with a tear in her eye, hits "send" to circulate her edited babe pic to the entire school. It was a quiet, surprisingly sincere ending, one that echoed the ending of last week's trilogy, when the main characters decide to put down their video games and actually play with each other.

What struck me about the episode was how the ability to manipulate one's own image was seen as a psychological gold mine—none of the girls besides Wendy saw it as anything other than a way to attract attention, and maybe as a way to trick themselves into thinking they truly looked as picture-perfect as their, well, pictures. (Now, to be clear, we're talking about a student body that has previously embraced mass murder as a route to scoring XBoxes, as well as defecating out of their mouths, so I'm not trying to say that the show is remotely rooted in realism here, mkay?) The focus of the episode was not so much on the other students' dismissal of Wendy's critique but of their embrace of the ability to edit their own images. It's this that's being mocked, not Wendy—the potential narcissism that accompanies the sudden ability to look as good as your digital skills allow. 

While calling out digital photography as a cesspool of narcissism is hardly new (and let's not forget that narcissism existed before social media), it's rare in the forthrightly feministy circles I tend to run in to see someone blatantly call a preoccupation with one's own image flat-out vain or narcissistic. I'm likelier to frame it in terms of social pressures, a psychic tradeoff for women's growing power in the world à la The Beauty Myth, or self-esteem or whatever. And I'm quick to defend the occasional charge of, say, makeup use as vanity (especially when it comes from men), because it is something usually leveled squarely at women. But, yes, narcissism does play a role, at least potentially—and it's interesting that this is what two male creators talking with a male audience come up with in regards to women/girls manipulating their own photos: the masses discarding the (righteous) political points surrounding the issue. It's interesting because the accusations of self-interest are still done with a relatively sympathetic hand: The girls see the rewards becoming digitally "hot" can bring them, so why wouldn't they go along with the plan? I wonder if Parker and Stone's—AND THEREFORE ALL MEN'S, ha—emotional distance from the question of visual self-representation is what allows them to squarely finger the role of self-absorption in image control. And more than that, I wonder if the reason they're looking at this topic now is because men are becoming evermore enveloped in these questions. (I see the sign on the clubhouse now: Boys allowed!)

Now, I'm hesitant to say that a single episode of a single cartoon indicates any sort of sea change for men's attitudes about beauty standards. But the first scene of the show that followed South Park last night makes me wonder. Comedy duo Key & Peele (another show that's grown on me) are walking in some sort of warehouse that's being redone with paint and plaster and the like, and a blob of paint falls on Key's shirt, right on his pecs. He smears it to the other side of his shirt, then laughs, "It's like I have two paint titties"—and then Peele suddenly can't look Key in the eyes, so transfixed is he by Key's "titties." The gag goes on just long enough, when another blob of paint falls on Peele's shirt too. The duo look up and see a painter above them, leering, "Hey, ladies!" They're literally subject to the male gaze, and they don't like it.

So I don't know, I'm drawing no Big Thoughts here, but it doesn't seem a coincidence that along with the boom in the "grooming" industry for men comes little bundles of criticism on the matter. And the only study I've found so far on the matter actually shows that that men are more likely than women to use an edited photo as their profile pictures on social networking sites. I can't help but wonder: Are men who don't necessarily identify as feminist paying more attention to appearance standards? Will the fallout be a shift in those standards, or just cleverer, deeper encoding of them? Are men likelier than women to call out vanity or narcissism in people's reactions to the beauty imperative?


  1. Fascinating. And I admire how you're always out there on the front line spotting important social developments in seemingly unimportant places. "South Park" often addresses big issues in a literally cartoonish way, hiding the seriousness of its social criticism.

  2. I love this post. I am a 36 year old woman, and a huge fan of South Park. I don't know if that means I have the taste/sense of humor of a frat boy (Oh God...I really hope not), or that I appreciate the intelligent irreverence. (I'll just keep telling myself that.) Have you seen the episode "Britney's New Look"? I think it was a good 5 years ago. I'd love to hear your take on that one....

  3. Also a South Park fan here too! In the one data point that is my marriage, I can tell you that I see my husband much more affected by body image issues than myself. I do think that with the great focus on males and beauty (and the rise of metrosexuals and more male grooming products) that's its become a shock for many men even if the standards are still not the same. But I have to say that I absolutely see that beauty choices that my husband makes are evaluated at work and commented public on (a new haircut or new shoes, for instance, would receive comments from other male coworkers). Ditto with weight loss or gain.

  4. Great post! I'm a longtime South Park fan but often have to take their treatment of social issues with a grain of salt. I thought this was one of their more sensitive treatments of a social issue to which they do not directly identify (which isn't saying much given, for example, their terrible episode on people who are transgender), but your critiques are spot-on.

    That said, I give Matt and Trey some credit for having a reoccurring feminist character that is smart and principled rather than a hackneyed straw(wo)man. Wendy's primary attitude towards the accusations that she is "jelly" is spot on -- she seems exasperated and annoyed at being treated with condescention. And on some level, her surrender to the Photoshop (and accompanying tear) expresses the tension between her deeply felt principles and the extremely real social pressure that exists for women. It would have been better if they drew out the connection between that social pressure and (the outward appearance of) narcissism, both of which are themes in the episode, but I don't know that Matt and Trey are that aware (or have the right emotional proximity, as you suggest).

    But, minimally, the episode shows a process by which one of the least narcissistic characters on the show winds up pressured into playing the image game despite her continued ambivalence. The Paris Hilton episode followed a pretty similar script, with Paris being the Kim Kardashian equivalent who represents the shallowness of pop culture. What I appreciate is that in neither episode do they pull the classic trope whereby she really WANTED to be slutty/photoshopped all along and was just pretending to have principles. In both episodes, although they don't drive this home as strongly as I'd like, Wendy is responding to the rigidity of social norms which can't be rejected without real social consequences. In some ways I prefer this approach to either of the common alternatives: feminist character maintains all principles like a goddamn superhero sans ambivalence or feminist character gleefully abandons principles at first opportunity.

  5. Love South Park! I didn't see this episode yet, but I did a job last week that involved powdering a bunch of (mostly male)executives from an unglamorous industry. And the photographer let me know that after the last run these guys sent more demands to make them look younger and thinner in Post than any woman he's ever worked with.

    I think that men *pretend* to not be worried about their looks (they're always protesting the powder, btw), but when it comes to presenting their image to the public, via official or social media profile photos, they can be just as insecure/vain/eager to impress as women.

  6. Excellent writing! One small but meaningful correction is in order: the character Wendy is not "suddenly feminist" but is in fact a notorious feminist on the show. She has a circa 17 year season history as a voice of reason, moderation, wisdom and has been a consistent beacon for feminist causes. I do believe a retraction / correction is in order.

    I would hope you didn't make the error out of some assumption that a cheerleading captain couldn't also be a feminist.

    Thanks, B!

    PS. Keep enjoying that South Park. It's one of the damn finest and most incisive, entertaining and smart shows on tv. If you haven't seen many of the previous seasons, you are in for a real treat.

  7. I think you misunderstood the episode. In my view the whole episode actually mocked Wendy and every other person (mainly feminists) who are saying that photoshopping is bad because it is fake and creates unrealistic self-image to girls. There weren't anything negative presented about photoshopping in the episode. It just gave the girls the opportunity to be beautiful regardless of how they actually look. So it was a kind of Fairy Godmother for the Cinderella - a magic tool that makes your dreams come true. And in the end girls got attention, boys boasted about having a great girlfriend, and everyone was happy.

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