South Park turns 20 years old this summer, meaning that if those foulmouthed, crudely fashioned 8-year-olds that were first introduced on August 13, 1997 followed the rules of linear time, they’d all be adults farting down the barrel of 30. Similarly, there’s now an entire generation of people—spanning high-schoolers to middle-aged people who remember watching its early seasons in college, and who can’t believe they’re reading/writing 20-year retrospectives on it now—who were actually raised on South Park.
The show celebrated this existential crisis-inducing fact last year with a tongue-in-cheek ad, depicting South Park as a sort of benevolent guarantor keeping reliable watch over a girl from infancy until her first trip to college. It was a typically self-effacing joke, but it’s true: Our world is now filled with people for whom South Park has always been there, a cultural influence that, in some cases, is completely foundational to their point of view. The ad doesn’t end with the girl logging onto Twitter to complain that social justice warriors are ruining the world, but otherwise, spot on.
After all, for most of its 20 years, South Park’s own point of view has more or less been this: “Everything and everyone are full of shit—hey, relax, guy.” It’s a scorched-earth, deconstructionist approach steeped in equal-opportunity offensiveness that’s made South Park one of the funniest satires ever produced, and particularly potent in the time in which it debuted. “When we started, [it was] Beavis And Butt-Head, and us, and in some ways The Simpsons, and Married With Children—shit like that,” Matt Stone told Vanity Fair last year, putting the Comedy Central cartoon in the company of other ’90s series that diverged from the “bland… shitty sitcoms that were just so lifeless” Stone and co-creator Trey Parker were reacting against. But South Park has now lived long enough to see the experimental become the conventional. And it’s outlasted all but one of those series not just by subverting formulaic TV, but by feeding directly off current events. As a result, for many of those raised by South Park, the show has functioned as sort of a scatological op-ed—in some cases, maybe the only op-ed they’ve ever been interested in.
To these acolytes, Parker and Stone have spent two decades preaching a philosophy of pragmatic self-reliance, a distrust of elitism, in all its compartmentalized forms, and a virulent dislike of anything that smacks of dogma, be it organized religion, the way society polices itself, or whatever George Clooney is on his high horse about. Theirs can be a tricky ideology to pin down: “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals,” Stone said once, a quote that has reverberated across the scores of articles, books, and message-board forums spent trying to parse the duo’s politics, arguing over which side can rightfully claim South Park as its own. Nominally, Parker and Stone are libertarians, professing a straight-down-the-middle empathy for the little guy who just wants to be left alone by meddling political and cultural forces. But their only true allegiance is to whatever is funniest; their only tenet is that everything and everyone has the potential to suck equally. More than anything, they’ve taught their most devoted followers that taking anything too seriously is hella lame.
So while they’ve advocated, in their own fucked-up way, for stuff like the right to abortion, drug legalization, and general tolerance for others, they’ve also found their biggest, easiest targets in liberalism’s pet causes, those formerly rebellious ideals that had become safely sitcom-bland over the Bill Clinton years—all of which were steeped in actually, lamely caring about stuff. Taking the piss out of the era’s priggish, speech-policing, Earth Day-brainwashed hippies was the most transgressive—and therefore funniest—thing you could possibly do. And so, South Park joked, global warming is just a dumb myth perpetrated by “super cereal” losers. Prius drivers are smug douches who love the smell of their own farts. Vegetarians end up growing vaginas on their face. “Transgender people” are just mixed-up, surgical abominations. The word “fag” is fine. Casual anti-Semitism is all in good fun. “Hate crimes” are silly. Maybe all you pussies just need a safe space.
“Did South Park accidentally invent the alt-right?” Janan Ganesh asked recently in the Financial Times, articulating a theory that began gaining traction as an entire political movement seemed to crystallize around the show’s “anti-PC chic” and general fuck-your-feelings attitude. Way back in 2001, political blogger Andrew Sullivan had already coined the term “South Park Republican” to describe the supposedly emerging group of young people who, like the show, were moderate on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, but also rejected the stuffy doctrines of diversity and environmentalism. They also believed, as Parker and Stone would soon illustrate in Team America: World Police, that the world needed American dicks to fuck assholes, over the objections of liberal pussies and F.A.G. celebrities. That voting bloc never actually materialized—though to be fair, the show was only four years old at the time. It would take at least another decade of people with Cartman avatars just joshin’ about hating Jews before the South Park generation would truly come of age.
Let’s be real, though. South Park didn’t “invent” the “alt-right,” even accidentally. The “alt-right” is the product of lots of things—disenfranchisement; internet echo chambers; aggrieved Gamergaters; boredom; the same ugly, latent racism that’s coursed beneath civilization’s veneer for millennia; etc. The growing, bipartisan distaste for Wall Street-backed career politicians and the epically bungled machinations of the Democratic Party certainly didn’t help, nor did the frustrating inability of the social justice movement to pick its battles—or its enemies. Furthermore, it’s always dangerous to assign too much influence to pop culture, even something that’s been part of our lives for this long. And as South Park itself derided in “The Tale Of Scrotie McBoogerballs,” you shouldn’t go looking for deep sociopolitical messages in your cartoon dick jokes. (Then again, only three years earlier, it also argued that imaginary characters really can change people’s lives and even “change the way [you] act on Earth,” making them “more realer” than any of us—so you decide.)
Still, it’s not that much of a stretch to see how one might have fed the other, if only through the sort of intangible osmosis that happens whenever an influential artwork spawns imitators, both on screen and off. South Park may not have “invented” the “alt-right,” but at their roots are the same bored, irritated distaste for politically correct wokeness, the same impish thrill at saying the things you’re not supposed to say, the same button-pushing racism and sexism, now scrubbed of all irony.
There’s also the same co-opting of anti-liberal stances as the highest possible form of rebellion: Parker and Stone used to brag that they were “punk rock” for telling their Hollywood friends how much they loved George W. Bush; Parker even told Rolling Stone in 2007, “The only way to be more hardcore than everyone else is to tell the people who think they’re the most hardcore that they’re pussies, to go up to a tattooed, pierced vegan and say, ‘Whatever, you tattooed faggot, you’re a pierced faggot and whatever’”—a quote that may as well have been taken from 4chan’s /pol/ board this morning. “Conservatism is the new punk rock,” echoed a bunch of human cringes a decade later. Whatever, you faggot, a dozen Pepes tweeted a few seconds ago.
But well beyond the “alt-right,” South Park’s influence echoes through every modern manifestation of the kind of hostile apathy—nurtured along by Xbox Live shit-talk and comment-board flame wars and Twitter—that’s mutated in our cultural petri dish to create a rhetorical world where whoever cares, loses. Today, everyone with any kind of grievance probably just has sand in their vagina; expressing it with anything beyond a reaction GIF means you’re “whining”; cry more, your tears are delicious. We live in Generation U Mad Bro, and from its very infancy, South Park has armed it with enough prefab eye-rolling retorts (“ManBearPig!” “I’m a dolphin!” “Gay Fish!” “…’Member?”) to sneeringly shut down discussions on everything from climate change and identity politics to Kanye West and movie reboots. Why not? Everything sucks equally, anyway. Voting is just choosing between some Douche and a Turd Sandwich. Bullying is just a part of life. Suck it up and take it, until it’s your turn to do the bullying. Relax, guy.
Again, it’s a world that South Park didn’t create intentionally, just by setting out to make us laugh, or by Parker and Stone trying to get rich off a bunch of farting construction paper cutouts. But even Parker and Stone seem slightly, if only occasionally uneasy about the overarching life lessons they’ve imparted—often expressing that anxiety in the show itself. In “You’re Getting Old,” South Park’s most moving half-hour, Parker and Stone grappled directly with the cumulative effects of perpetually shitting on things—of allowing a healthy, amused skepticism to ossify into cynicism and self-satisfied superiority, then into nihilism, then into blanket, misanthropic hatred. That dark night of the soul later formed the through-lines of seasons 19 and 20, where South Park wryly, semi-sincerely confronted the series’ place as a “relic from another time” by putting the town under the heavy thumb of PC Principal.
Then—after hooking its red-pilled fans with an extended critique of the emptiness of neoliberalism, epitomized by a sneering, “safe space”-mocking character that was literally named Reality—it tried confronting the audience who had most embraced their ramped-up anti-PC crusades. Last season kicked off with Cartman admitting to Kyle, “We’re two privileged, straight white boys who have their laughs about things we never had to deal with,” a confession rendered only slightly tongue-in-cheek by the fact of who was saying it. And it culminated in Gerald, who’d spent the year gleefully harassing people online, squaring off with the Danish prime minister, a stand-in for every troll the show’s ever nurtured:
I want to stand here and tell you that you and I are different, but it’s not true. All we’ve been doing is making excuses for being horrible people. I don’t know if you tried to teach me a lesson, but you have. I have to stand here and look at you. And all I see is a big fat reflection of myself.
Ultimately, of course, Gerald comes to a familiar conclusion: “Fuck you, what I do is fucking funny, bitch!” he cries, before kicking the prime minister in the balls. Fair enough. South Park is, and always will be, funnier than any of the maladjusted creeps who have spent decades internalizing the show’s many false equivalencies and ironic racism, then lazily regurgitating them in an attempt to mimic its edginess—or worse, by treating them as some sort of scripture for living. And to be certain, there are millions of Poe’s law-defying viewers for whom South Park really is just a comedy, one that satisfies the most basic requirement of saying the things you shouldn’t say, in a far more clever way than you could say them. But regardless of their satirical intent, or the humanity that grounds even their nastiest attacks, it’s clear that even Parker and Stone sometimes question the influence they’ve had on the world, and who is and isn’t in on the joke.
Which brings us (as all 2017 articles must) to Donald Trump, the ultimate troll, and one that Parker sees as a natural outgrowth of South Park’s appeal to a nation bored with politeness. As he recently told the Los Angeles Times:
He’s not intentionally funny but he is intentionally using comedic art to propel himself. The things that we do—being outrageous and taking things to the extreme to get a reaction out of people—he’s using those tools. At his rallies he gets people laughing and whooping. I don’t think he’s good at it. But it obviously sells—it made him president.
Trump’s blithe offensiveness, rampant narcissism, and faith that everyone but him is stupid makes him a natural analog to Eric Cartman. But instead, South Park made him into Mr. Garrison—a decision that makes some logical sense (Mr. Garrison is of constitutional age, hates Mexicans and women, and doesn’t give a shit about anyone but himself), though it also felt a bit like dissembling. Nevertheless, as the election wore on, South Park again seemed to acknowledge its role in helping to create a world where someone like Trump could seem like an exciting, entertaining alternative to conventional blandness. And it made a real, concerted effort to stymie any suggestion of support by having Garrison declare repeatedly that he was “a sick, angry little man” who “will fuck this country up beyond repair,” all while openly mocking those who still loved him anyway as nostalgia-drunk idiots.
“Is it just me or has South Park gone full cuck?” wondered fans on Reddit’s The_Donald immediately after that episode aired, and probably not for the first (or last) time. But in the aftermath of Trump/Garrison’s election, those same, vigilant cuck-watchers were back to crowing over how South Park had really stuck it to politically correct types in a scene where Trump/Garrison tells PC Principal, “You helped create me.” That South Park positioned this as less of a triumphant comeuppance than a suicidal backfire didn’t seem to matter. And the show more or less left it there—portraying Trump/Garrison as a dangerously incompetent buffoon, but also as the ultimate “u mad?” to all those liberals they fucking hate.
All of which makes Parker and Stone’s recent declaration to lay off Trump in the coming 21st season a real disappointment at best, cowardice at worst. The duo is, of course, under no obligation to tackle politics—or anything else they don’t want to, for that matter. They’re also right that mocking Trump is both redundant and “boring,” and also that everyone does it. For two dyed-in-the-wool contrarians, Trump comedy feels every bit as bland, lifeless, and sitcom-safe as an episode of, say, Veronica’s Closet. Furthermore, Parker’s complaints of the show just “becoming CNN now” and not wanting to spend every week endlessly restacking the sloppy Jenga pile of Trump-related outrage is completely understandable. Believe me, I get it.
That said: Man, what a cop out. South Park has already spent the past 20 years being CNN for its CNN-hating audience. Meanwhile, Parker and Stone have proudly, loudly thumped for a “fearless” brand of satire that’s willing to mock everyone from George W. Bush to Scientology to Mormonism to Muhammad, even under death threats. To shrug now and say, as Parker did, “I don’t give a shit anymore”—right when, by their own admission, the influence of the show’s worldview has reached all the way to the White House—feels especially disingenuous, and suspiciously like caving to the young, Trump-loving fans with whom they have forged such an uneasy relationship. (“South Park bends the knee on their fake-news-fueled portrayal of President Trump,” one The_Donald post gloated, followed by many, many more.) If they truly believe that those trolls in the mirror are “horrible people” who are helping to “fuck the country up beyond repair,” it would be truly fearless to tell them why, with no hint of ambiguous, everything-sucks irony that can be willfully misinterpreted.
Instead, Parker now says he’s eager to get back to “the bread and butter of South Park: kids being kids and being ridiculous and outrageous.” Which is great! South Park is absolutely at its best when it focuses on that stuff, and I look forward to watching it all on my hurting butt. Still, after 20 years, even they seem to realize that many of those ridiculous, outrageous kids for whom it’s “always been there” have long since grown up—and some of them have gone on to do some real, destructive adult shit. Like their inspirations, South Park’s generation of trolls are tiny but loud, and they’ve had the strange effect of changing the world. It sure would be nice if South Park would grow up as well and take responsibility for them.
Or, you know, maybe I just have sand in my vagina.