As cultural snipers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have never been afraid to widen their rifle scopes during South Park. An episode may start out by making fun of a specific group of people before the creators step back for a more expansive field of vision, keeping their original targets in their crosshairs while setting their sights on some new folks, too. More often than not, these new targets end up being exactly the same as the old ones, even if it didn’t appear that way at first. It’s a strategy that, on top of being comedically surprising, often forces the viewer to keep their own feelings of superiority in check.
That’s certainly the case with “Safe Space.” It begins with two very different instances of shaming: Cartman being body-shamed after posting shirtless photos of himself online and Randy being charity-shamed when he won’t add a $1 donation to help starving children onto his grocery bill at Whole Foods. At first, the two narratives appear to be opposite of one another, with Cartman being an example of the shamee who’s at fault—if he didn’t want people to make fun of him, then why did he post the pics?—and Randy’s story showing how the shamer can be the one at fault. After all, the cashier’s guilt tactics only get more absurd as the episode progresses, eventually forcing Randy to yank a sandwich from the mouth of a starving girl (or at least a cutout of one) to get his change.
But as things unfold, it becomes clear that Randy’s just as much to blame for his humiliation as the Whole Foods employee. For one, he goes to the store every single day when he doesn’t need to. Two, he’s the South Park citizen who fought hardest to bring the franchise to his jerkwater mountain town, and he did so as part of a quest to make his community appear classier and more socially responsible. He doesn’t give a shit if it actually is those things—he just wants South Park to seem that way to the outside world. Granted, Whole Foods’ methods to convince him to donate become more and more aggressive—not to mention that when he does finally cave, he’s made into an embarrassing public spectacle—but he could just as easily shop somewhere else, or buy enough groceries in a single trip so that he doesn’t have to go back each and every day.
But no, Randy, being Randy, wants to feel like he’s a part of something important while never actually doing the work to make any kind of significant change in the world. He wants to immerse himself in a hip and self-righteous environment without experiencing any of the inherent consequences of doing so. Or, to paraphrase the season premiere and, if we’re going even further back, the season-seven episode “I’m A Little Bit Country,” he wants to have his cake and eat it, too.
So does Cartman, who loves meting out cruelty whenever he feels like it, but can’t bear to be the subject of any negativity on Twitter, despite the social-media platform (and social media in general) being a breeding ground for that sort of thing. After his shirtless images get lambasted online by just about everyone who sees them (also a direct effect of Cartman being a complete and utter asshole for 18 seasons and counting), he runs crying to PC Principal about the whole ordeal, which leads to a mandated career for Butters as a living, breathing social-media filter not just for Cartman, but an expanding list of celebrities. Every day, it’s his job to sift through tweets directed at the likes of out-of-shape stars such as Steven Seagal, as well as more conventionally attractive ones like Vin Diesel and Demi Lovato, to remove anything that’s negative in a final printed report. The diversity of Butters’ Hollywood roster drives home the point that, when it comes to the internet, no one is safe. By the end of the episode, however, it’s not the Hollywood A-listers that are the true victims, but our hapless Leopold Stotch, who’s been driven mad by the sheer workload and frightening tantrums of his new bosses.
The celebrities’ oversensitivity (along with Cartman’s and Randy’s) culminates in yet another knockout musical number in a season that’s been full of them. Angular white lines dart across the screen to form cubes for everyone who’s been made fun of—literal safe spaces that protect each person from the outside world with “bully-proof windows.” Still, that doesn’t prevent a Snidely Whiplash-like villain named Reality from trying to get in, and that’s the one aspect of the episode that falters. I don’t mind him popping up as a cartoonish symbol in a fantastical show tune, but his appearance in the real world (and Butters subsequently being forced to execute him) was a bit much, even by South Park standards. The rest of the narrative conveys Parker and Stone’s message just fine without it.
The other moments that gave me a little bit of pause, at least at first, were the inclusion of plus-size models in Butters’ clientele and Steven Seagal’s awkward “SeBoomBoom” dance, viscerally funny as it was. Both examples had a whiff of actual fat-shaming about them, this idea that anyone who’s overweight and expressing themselves online in a self-embracing way should expect to be made of. Then again, maybe they should. Not because they’re overweight and overweight people aren’t deserving of self-confidence, but because that’s the dog-eat-dog nature of the internet, raw and simple. Anyone willing to go online and put themselves out there in a public forum should expect to be made fun of, whether it’s someone posting a selfie or me posting this review. The internet is full of people, and at the end of the day, lots of people are nasty. That’s the risk you take just by choosing to go online. That’s the downside to participating in any public forum. If you open your web browser and expect otherwise, you might as well be Randy shopping at Whole Foods every day and expecting not to get asked for a donation. You might as well be expecting to have your cake and eat it, too.
- That makes one new song a week since “Where My Country Gone?” and one more reason why I really want Parker and Stone to write another musical.
- Speaking of which, does anyone know if the song is a direct parody of anything? The retro ’60s animation makes me believe that it is, although I can’t for the life of me figure out what. However, I wasn’t savvy enough to pick up on last week’s Sling Blade homage, so maybe one of you can point me (and others) in the right direction in the comments section.
- “Lena Dunham just put a picture of her asshole on Twitter and wants only the positive comments.”
- That above quote could have summed up the entire episode, as could this simple yet effective gem from Kyle: “If he doesn’t like what people say on Twitter, he can get off.”