Songs for the Struggling Artist

South Park World, or, Learning to Like the Boy Stuff

In 1997, I was touring the country with a Shakespeare company. There were 8 men and 4 women in our troupe and because of that gender imbalance, it felt a little like living in a fraternity. For a life-long feminist like myself, it was a pretty big challenge. I mostly stayed quiet and kept my feminist killjoy thoughts to myself.

I’m thinking about this today after reading Lindy West’s essay about the South Park guys. She’s a bit younger than I am so South Park was a thing she grew up with and a show that had a particular kind of impact on her generation. I was introduced to South Park while I was on tour with the fellas in 1997. It was a video cassette of a short cartoon that somebody had gotten from somebody and we watched it on the company VCR. It was this underground, almost contraband, video.

I didn’t love it. It felt sort of mean spirited and homophobic and it was a world of boys. But I was living in a world of boys and they watched this video cassette so often, it became an oft quoted part of the culture. By the end of the year, I had a real affection for those potty mouth boys – the ones on South Park and the ones I was working with.

Then that little underground cassette got picked up by a network and become a TV show. I watched it sometimes, in part, because it reminded me of being on tour and it made me feel like an insider and also because I’d sort of come to like it. And I want to talk about my liking it because the liking isn’t uncomplicated. It wasn’t neutral. I think it says something about culture in general.

I was thinking about how a lot of things I like, I like because to like them made me part of the group. In this case, in this company, it was a bunch of fellas and a few women who knew how to hang with a bunch of fellas. They knew how to be cool with the dudes. That is not a skill I had picked up anywhere – being the feminist killjoy that I was – so it was something I had to learn on that tour. Laughing at the same jokes is a big part of it, I discovered. You learn to find things like South Park funny as a way to survive. But what I can’t stop wondering about is what it would have been like if that tour group’s gender numbers were reversed. What if there were 8 women and 4 men? Would the men have learned to laugh at the Kathy and Mo show? Would they have giggled at their dramatization of Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Got their Periods”? Would they have adapted to our jokes the way we adapted to theirs? I don’t know. And the reason I don’t know is that I was never IN the reverse position. I was never in an acting company that was mostly women. I directed a lot of shows that were like that but I’d have to ask my actors how that was. I don’t know.

I did go to a college with a 1:3 ratio in favor of women. I bemoaned it at the time but thinking about the South Park effect, actually makes me very grateful for that imbalance. It makes me curious about the experience of some of the men I know who went there with me. Are there things they like because they adapted to the environment that they wouldn’t have responded to in other circumstance? Like – did they all become big Ani DiFranco fans when their friends at others schools turned up their noses?

The thing of it is – most of culture in the 90s was men’s culture. Most things were for the fellas with a couple of rare exceptions. You could either get on board or be seen as the feminist killjoy. South Park was no exception to that. (Are there any girls on South Park? All I can think of are some moms and a pretty offensive take on Winona Ryder.) I was struck by the way Lindy West described South Park’s aesthetic; It sounded quintessentially Gen X. I hadn’t thought of South Park that way before – but the irreverence and nihilism is classic “whatever” energy. It’s also classic Gen X misogyny and in retrospect, I’m sorry I ever laughed at it. But I learned to laugh at it. Which in a weird way gives me a kind of hope in this world where people still debate if women are funny. It gives me hope because it’s clear people can adapt to the group. The group can change. We can laugh at more expansive things and things that AREN’T cruel. We can learn to laugh with an entirely new group.

I learned from West’s essay that South Park has been on for Twenty Years. TWENTY YEARS of Kenny getting killed. (I assume. I haven’t watched in maybe 18 years so I don’t know how things have changed.) When this show went on the air, we were having a pretty big cultural conversation about how we talked to each other. We were learning that there were kind and unkind ways to talk about one another’s identities. A lot of people hated this conversation and there was a lot of railing against political correctness. South Park showed up in the middle of that conversation and farted.

And now we’re in the middle of the same conversation twenty years later, though we use different words and South Park is still farting the place up.

Like, maybe it was funny in 1997 when we were all very serious about hyphenating our identities or whatever – but once you’ve farted in a serious room once, the joke is of over, guys, Now you’re just stinking up the place while the grown-ups are trying to solve things like violent insurrections at the capital. And speaking of violent insurrections supported by Republicans, it turns out the South Park guys are Republicans. Right now. Or at least as of Lindy’s publication date in 2019. Honestly, I was surprised – not because they said or did anything to suggest otherwise – it’s just that Republicans don’t tend to be funny.

But I guess the thing is – those guys haven’t really been that funny since I saw them on a VCR in 1997 surrounded by a bunch of fellas. So I guess it makes sense. I guess it makes sense.

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