South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone are ruthless about challenging conventional pieties at all points on the political spectrum; on the whole, their voices are healthy for the discourse, occasionally hilariously so. And yet, what I find lacking in their signature TV show, and have since its inception, is a willingness to genuinely take ideological risks, beyond making ribald fun of religious icons and celebrities. Beneath the potty-mouthed facade, they often play it safer than you’d expect. Wednesday’s season premiere, a send-up of “PC culture,” was a perfect example of that failure.
The big, hilarious juxtaposition that framed the episode,”Brave and Stunning,” was that the new PC enforcers in town were macho white frat boys, with Oakleys, initiation rites, and raging parties. Yes, their initial assessment of the town’s (and, by extension, the show’s) treatment of minorities is accurate, but their response is an overcorrection. They beat the crap out of anyone using “microaggressions” or “problematic language” and scrawl penises on the face of young Kyle for daring to say that Caitlyn Jenner is not a hero (not because of her transition, but because she wasn’t nice on TV!). “Brave and stunning” is all anyone else can say about Jenner, afraid of the PC backlash if they deviate.
I get the concept: by making the PC police types into frat boys, Parker, Stone, and their writers are pointing out the conformity and bullying, some of it empty, that can take place in the name of social justice. Overzealous defenders of solid principles can behave just as badly as the people they’re mocking, get it? And by portraying PC types as frat boys, they seem to be implying that the worst offenders in this arena are not those who actually represent oppressed groups, but privileged folks who claim to speak on their behalf.
OK, sure, chuckle chuckle. There’s groupthink on the Internet. Bigotry and thoughtlessness alike create equally enraged pile-ons, and now people do sometimes have to think twice before they say casually obnoxious things. It’s also true that there are major schisms within every social movement, so often the only points of agreement are when people say obviously dickish or prejudiced things in public and everyone gleefully bands together to call out that bad behavior. And yes, there is a handful very annoying white people on Twitter who use social justice as an ego booster.
But these are all petty problems, and beyond pointing out these fairly obvious phenomena, the episode makes no larger point. In particular, it’s a lazy cop-out to have all the characters in an entire episode devoted to social justice culture be white men. From a storytelling perspective, there are no dramatic stakes, no one whose life is actually improved by PC culture. The writers are too wimpy to humorously weigh in the balance the fact that the drivers of that culture are young women, queer people, and people of color.
Now, if the episode had ended with one of the “PC bros” acting dismissively to a woman of color, for instance, or elbowing her aside in order to claim to understand her pain better than she did, the satire would have at least been well aimed , and the tenor of the episode changed from blunt to sharp. As it is, “Brave and Stunning” has already been thoroughly embraced online by Gamergaters and Breitbart as the scathing takedown of all Social Justice Warriors the world has been waiting for. Certainly, these newfound fans are morons who misunderstand satire, but why pander to them?
Pointing out that this episode’s satire was boring and redundant might dismay South Park‘s fanboys — who also, much like certain cartoon characters, tend to think of its creators as “stunning, and brave,” and brook no dissent in the matter. But the episode sounded more like the voice of old people yelling about “kids today” than a subversive piece of art. Even Sarah Silverman, who is one of the “edgier” mainstream comedians out there, says making fun of PC culture is a sign of getting crotchety. “To a degree, everyone’s going to be offended by something, so you can’t just decide on your material based on not offending anyone. But, I do think it’s important – as a comedian, as a human – to change with the times, to change with new information,” she recently said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with changing with the times. I think it’s a sign of being old when you are put off by that. You have to listen to the college-aged because they lead the revolution.”