Using outrageous humour and apparently harmless animation
Using outrageous humour and apparently harmless animation that centres children, the creators expose inconsistencies and injustices typical of the public's responses to disability by contrasting the humanity of disabled persons with cultural assumptions and constructions about them. South Park highlights the pity, charity, and symbolic trope discourses that prevail in mainstream U. S. Culture. South Park stands out as an original, critical voice prompting its audience to question and rethink how our society constructs the social identities of disabled people.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker-creators of the animated television comedy, South Park, aired on Comedy Central--have shocked adult audiences into exploring and rethinking cultural idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies, including disability.
In "Timmy 2000," they address the shortcomings of medicalisation and issues of inclusion and exploitation. Lastly, in "Thanksgiving Special," they redefine the externally determined role of disabled persons through an inversion of social hierarchies and subvert modern constructions of disability in the media.
When a cartoon involves scathing social critique, "it is a backlash against the medium's stereotype, a violation of some unwritten rule, and thus, fits into a comedic mold" (Landsberger-Attardo, 1999).They also avoid rebuke for several other, interconnected reasons: the show's complete irreverence, the use of children as the vehicle for social criticism, and animation as the visual medium.
The three episodes we have chosen to discuss, then, probably will, but may not always, contribute positively to the important mission of disability awareness.
Episode 404: "Timmy 2000," Originally Aired April 19, 2000
Here Stone and Parker address the shortcomings of a strictly medical model of disability and explore the public's restricted views of social inclusion. Both subplots centre Timmy, a mentally retarded [sic], wheelchair user with a four-word vocabulary.
The sub-plot reveals how blindly people rely for remedies on a medical perspective and on medical professionals, who, historically, have been the authorities who define knowledge of disability. By organizing such knowledge according to medical needs and principles, they have encouraged all of us to think of disability as a personal, rather than social problem (Linton, 1998). The parents accept the validity of the obviously ludicrous ADD tests because they are performed by a doctor. Only Chef remains a voice of reason amidst the Ritalin haze. Although he advocates "smacking" misbehaving children and telling them to do their homework, the community places their faith in the power of drugs.
The second subplot features Timmy as lead singer in a teen-age rock-and-roll band, The Lords of the Underworld. When they take the stage at the Battle of the Bands, the crowd initially appears shocked to see a wheelchair user taking centre stage, but once the music starts, many enjoy themselves, dancing and cheering. One crowd member yells, "Dude, that handicapped kid rocks!" (Parker & Stone, 2000a).
Nonetheless, one woman scolds, "You guys are terrible!...They're ridiculing that singer!" (Parker & Stone, 2000a). When his fellow fourth-graders praise Timmy as "awesome" and he "rules," another woman admonishes: "Boys, you shouldn't laugh at him! He's handicapped" (Parker & Stone, 2000a). Phil Collins, for whom Timmy's band is scheduled to open for after winning the Battle of the Bands, also protests: "I think it's a horrible tragedy. Isn't it? I mean, people aren't going to see Timmy for his musical skills. They're laughing at him and I think you should not laugh at people with disabilities.... Society has to learn to be more compassionate" (Parker & Stone, 2000a). Finally, one of the nondisabled fourth-graders acquiesces tongue-in-cheek, "Phil Collins was right....Timmy should be at home where he is protected from laughter" (Parker & Stone, 2000a). However, once the people of South Park unknowingly drink the Rital-Out, they come to their senses and boo Phil Collins off the stage and chant for Timmy and the Lords of the Underworld. Stan expresses Stone and Parker's view:
[W]e learned something today. Yeah, sure, we laughed at Timmy, but what's wrong with laughter? Just because we laugh at something doesn't mean we don't care about it. Timmy made us smile, and playing made Timmy smile! So where is the harm in that?! The people that are wrong are the ones that think people like Timmy should be protected and kept out of the public's eye! The cool thing about Timmy being in a band was that he was in your face, and you had to deal with him whether you laughed or cried or felt nothing! That's why Timmy rules!" (Parker & Stone, 2000a).
Exploitation emerges nowhere in the episode. Timmy genuinely enjoys singing with the band and they enjoy their new-found success. Because Stone and Parker imbue the opposition to Timmy's inclusion with a farcical quality, it becomes clear that, although the naysayers behave as Stone and Parker believe the public would in such a situation-feeling discomfort in allowing a disabled person to be the star--their responses are gratuitous (See also Goode, 1989; Rosenbaum, 2003).
Episode 414: "Thanksgiving Special," Originally Aired November 11, 2000
Humour has so much cultural power because of its elastic polarity: it both a) reinforces pejorative images and facilitates their erasure and b) acts as a both divisive and coalescing agent (Boskin, 1997). In typical South Park fashion, the final outcome in each of these episodes undermines the cultural assumptions of those characters representing society-at-large and draws attention to uncalled-for injustices.
Stone and Parker challenge prevailing cultural assumptions and stigmatizing attitudes that constrain how we relate to and interact with disabled persons. By using an animated format that centres children and presenting each disabled character as just one more citizen of South Park (Haller & Ralph, 2003), they are able to slip sensitive issues into mainstream culture palatably and persuasively (Haller, 2003). In many episodes, they make apparent the inconsistencies and injustices typical of the public's responses to disability by contrasting the humanity of disabled persons with cultural assumptions about them. In "Timmy 2000," they are forced to confront their own underestimations and their reluctance to allowing disabled people a place in the limelight. Although every indication suggests that being part of the Lords of the Underworld was entirely positive for Timmy and his peers, there is outspoken resistance to enjoying Timmy for the music he is creating. Instead, people who appreciate his performance are upbraided for ridiculing the boy.
Of course, South Park is only one part of the answer to problematizing television viewer's attitudes toward disability, if indeed, viewers do not just "laugh it off." Also, it may not offer so powerful a challenge to people's thinking as disabled people's autobiographical theater troupes (e.g., Fox & Lipkin, 2002; Strickling, 2002), memoirs (e.g., Berube, 1998; Finger, 1990, Linton, forthcoming; Mairs, 1984,1996), stand up [sic] comedy (Stoughton, Reid, & Smith, under review) and perhaps other live, liberatory arts and entertainment that enable the audience to see and hear about the disability experience first-hand. Nevertheless, in a society where television is a ubiquitous and determinant element in people's relationship to and construction of their realities, it is essential that viewers experience multiple versions of this meta-reality to inform and challenge the taken-for-granted and often destructive ways we relate to our environment and our neighbors. In an atmosphere of political correctness that buries representations of difference, South Park stands out as an original, critical voice prompting its audience to question and rethink how our society constructs the social identities of disabled people. Televised representations of disability, then, affect us all (Berube, 1997).
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