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South Park recognizes the need for nuance without actually offering any

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South Park is known for its special brand of commentary on current topical events, often leaning into sophomoric humor to give its two cents. I thought the first six episodes of season 23 demonstrated what the show does best, but after watching “Board Girls,” I’m wishing “Season Finale” had actually been the season closer and not just the name for a new strain available at Tegridy Farms. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker swerve four lanes and two whole counties from their own and leave nothing but dismay in this latest episode.

“Board Girls” begins with an intro to the PC Babies show, an ongoing subplot in season 23. PC Principal and Strong are now a family. He is helping her train for a competition that shares her namesake. This is quickly interrupted by the two parents having to check on their children who are upset thanks to the Disney movie Mulan. Strong Woman explains the babies find Mulan problematic because it’s about a character who identifies as male but doesn’t bother to discuss trans issues. This description pretty much describes the entire plot of the episode, unfortunately.

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Meanwhile, at school, the Dice Studz board games club—Cartman, Butters, Stan, Scott, and Clyde—are playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons when they are interrupted by Mr. Mackey, who introduces two girls, Tammy and Nicole, who want to join the club. Cartman, of course, takes issue with this and doesn’t want them to play, stating they can’t join the game because they’re in the middle of a difficult battle. Immediately the girls pull out their dice and character sheets. Nicole cast a spell with her warlock and ends the battle just as quickly as she and Tammy pulled out their belongings. It’s clear this subplot is meant to further the main story in “Board Girls,” but it doesn’t end up being up to the task.

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The day finally arrives for Strong Woman to compete. While being interviewed before the competition begins, Strong Woman is asked how she feels about a trans woman competing. She mentions that she has friends who are trans and that she is inspired by the trans woman competing. The interviewer dismisses her remarks, asking her if she has ever met Heather Swanson, the trans athlete they’ve been discussing, to which Strong Woman replies she has never competed against her before. The interviewer then goes on to explain that Heather is not your “usual” trans athlete, whatever that means. And then in walks a person who is intentionally meant to resemble Randy Savage. Heather, the Randy Savage look-a-like, states how she is now identifying as a woman and ready to smash the competition.

This is when the episode starts to punch down, literally. I was immediately reminded of South African athlete Caster Semenya, who was barred from defending her 800-meter title and compete in September’s world track and field championships in Qatar after a Swiss court reversed its ruling back in July of this year. The court ruled that the 800-meter runner needed to adhere to rules passed by the sport’s governing body—the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)—that require intersex athletes like Semenya to take testosterone-suppressing drugs. Honestly, if anyone is going to try and discuss what happened with Semenya it should be another Black intersex woman, not two cis white guys, but they did and now we’re here with this episode.

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Over the course of a montage of the “Strong Woman” competition, Heather Swanson is shown beating the hell out of the other opponents in everything from weight lifting, to boxing, to tire flips. The montage cuts back to the Dice Studz gamers club, where the boys are getting their asses handed to them by both Tammy and Nicole. Eric is clearly annoyed. As the scene ends, Heather is standing in the first place on the podium with Strong Woman coming in second and some poor woman who was beaten down by Heather in the boxing match in third. The scene is beyond absurd but that’s what South Park is about, leaning into the off-color humor to showcase how ridiculous something is. This worked well earlier in the season, especially in Mexican Joker storyline—the entire idea of children being separated from their parents only to be held in detention centers like animals is wildly insane in real life, which is reflected in the show. Even Randy being a homegrown terrorist created by his own frustration about others having access and the ability to grow their own weed instead of buying from him because he felt like it was his thing and his thing only, scans.

This is not the case for the “Randy Savage-resembling character as a trans woman” gag. It does more harm than good, so much so that even if there is an eventual payoff, it won’t be enough. Trans women face an immeasurable amount of discrimination and violence, especially Black trans women, who are killed at an alarming rate. Having a trans character, Heather Swanson, stand on the podium next to a woman she clearly caused physical harm seems to sends the message that people, specifically cisgender women, should be scared of trans women, when actually it is trans women who are in just as much real danger at the hands of cisgender men in real life as cisgender women.

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Throughout the episode, different characters bring up that Heather just started identifying as trans two weeks ago. It’s revealed later in a plot twist that Heather was at one point in time the ex-boyfriend of Strong Woman, who tells PC Principal that Heather, formerly Blake, hates women and can’t stand to be beaten by one. When Strong Woman broke up with him, he swore he would get back at her and is now doing so as Heather Swanson. The reveal of Heather’s true motives feels like justification for people who believe some men would claim to be trans so they could go into women’s bathrooms. It’s a conversation that’s rooted in bigotry but masked as actual concern for women’s safety, kind of how this episode is masked in what’s supposed to be desire for nuance without bringing any. And the episode continues to take jabs at trans women, with Heather Swanson visiting the PC household to taunt Strong Woman about losing the competition to her. When PC Principal asks Heather to leave, he is accused of being a transphobe, which suggests that trans women are quick to call someone a transphobe when met with any kind of criticism—an unfair claim for the show to make.

The subplot continues with Cartman in front of a Supreme Court, arguing that inclusion is both good and bad, because boys and girls are different in ways that make competition between the two unfair. He literally only cares because the girls have been besting him at something he thought he was good at when all they did was learn the rules and play the game with strategy. At this moment, it feels like this season has been about white men feeling threatened by having anyone other than white men in their “sacred” spaces, which were never theirs to begin with. It’s ironic though, because “Board Girls” is the result of two white cis men barging into a discussion with no real intention of making it a nuanced one.

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“Board Girls” wraps up the Heather Swanson story with another jab at marginalized people, as PC Principal interrupts an interview with Heather to babble about how sometimes it’s difficult to have an opinion on issues that aren’t so black and white. Heather calls him a transphobe again, and PC Principal responds by saying all he wants to do is have a discussion. Heather calls him a transphobe again, and PC Principal shoves her so she crashes into a table. This exchange presents marginalized people as incapable or unwilling to have a nuanced discussion with seemingly well-meaning people (here, white cis men), and it also seems to suggest that all opinions on a matter are valid. But the truth is, they aren’t—certainly not when we’re talking about Black trans women issues.

The main plot and the subplot finally converge when PC Principal invites Heather Swanson to speak to the students in an attempt to make things right after having pushed her. Heather is going on about loving to beat other women when she is interrupted by one of the girl students about not being able to beat one of them in a board game. Heather loses to several of the board game club girls; she then throws a tantrum, repeating what Cartman said about how the way the girls play is unfair, because they actually learn the rules and strategize. Heather also mentions that because she grew up as a boy, she just started identifying as a woman she is at a disadvantage. Both she and Cartman storm off, declaring they are going to go make their own club.

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If Heather is going to stick around for the rest of the season, it will be cringy at best. I’m honestly not holding my breath when it comes to there being any justifiable payoff for the introduction of this character. This episode left me wanting to go back to Tegridy Farm—at least there it seemed like the writers were within their range.

Stray observation

  • This is my least favorite episode of the season. Actually, I’m really disappointed because I felt like the first 6 episodes the show really did a good job of making valid points with its off-color humor, but this episode was severely tone-deaf.
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