In 1995, college students Matt Stone and Trey Parker created “The Spirit of Christmas,” an animated short that became one of the first viral videos on the internet and led to South Park’s creation. Twenty years and 277 episodes later, the adventures of four children in a fictitious Colorado town have made the series infamous for its absurdist humor that satirizes hot button social, political, and cultural topics. South Park, known for its anti-partisan satire and relentless transgression of acceptable boundaries, has kept viewers from across the globe tuning in for over two decades. It has been nominated for 18 Emmy Awards, winning five, and a recipient of the prestigious Peabody Award for pushing the limits of free speech and fighting against censorship not only in the United States, but around the world. The show averages eight-million viewers weekly, has been translated into 30 languages, watched in 130 countries, and spawned a global merchandising industry that has generated hundreds of millions of dollars. Though two decades is an impressive stint on television, South Park’s cultural impact will supplant its time on air as its stinging satire and relentless transgression of boundaries has and will continue to push the limits of free speech in popular culture for years to come.
South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are so irreverent in their analysis of religion that the heart of their humor lies in the religious foundations they are satirizing. While much of the show’s success can be attributed to its impudent approach to American philosophies and identity politics, explicitly pushing the boundaries of taste, their approach to religion is somewhat nuanced. They use implicit rather than explicit messaging to challenge religious institutions and the abuse of authority within them, focusing on symbolism, imagery and extended metaphor to get their point across. Though Parker and Stone’s critical method is not new and even has roots in the ancient world of religious iconoclasts who “destroyed images in order to destroy the deity or at least that particular manifestation of the deity” (Goethals 87), their willingness to challenge institutional corruption expanded the minimal role that religion had previously played in television. South Park analyzes religion through a critical, sophisticated lens that demonstrates contrasting arguments by connecting each episode’s subject to the power – good and bad – that religion has in society. Through satire, metaphor, and explicit language, the writers focus on the irrationality of believers and power-hungry individuals and institutions manipulating them, not the beliefs and lessons the religion preaches. This argument is evident through three specific episodes in the series that portray the writers’ ideology that the idea and tenants of religion are positive, but the way in which it is practiced and structured is troubling by reinforcing three themes that are crucial to South Park: that religion is about the compelling message of looking beyond ourselves to help others and come together; the power of religion lies in the lessons it teaches and the strength it offers believers, not in its institutions; and, religion cannot and should not solve every societal and individual challenge.
In “All About Mormons,” the writers poke holes in the story behind the creation of Mormonism and diminish its importance while implying a belief in religious pluralism that “personal transformation occurs through love and compassion” (Arp and Decker 92), which should be at the basis of any belief and should aim to unify people of different faiths. The Harrisons, a Mormon family new to town, is depicted as a stereotypical Mormon family that, in contrast to other families in South Park, is unusually close and joyful. Although Stan is encouraged by the other boys to beat Gary up after attending the Harrison’s “Family Home Evening,” Kyle is so taken aback by the family’s togetherness and politeness that he leaves their home curious and intrigued by Mormonism. After conveying this message to his parents, Stan’s father fears that his son has been brainwashed, and like Kyle, he visits their home with the intent of beating up Gary’s father but is so stunned by their way of life that he decides to convert his family to Mormonism. Though the initial response to the Harrison’s way of life is positive, the show’s characters have lingering suspicions about the sincerity and validity of the religion and the principles it preaches. The uncertainty is expressed throughout the show in two main ways: the first being the show’s characters mocking the virtuous deeds of the Harrisons; and the second, and most important, repeated questions about the creationist story behind Mormonism. The show’s tone quickly changes as it delves into the founding of Mormonism with voices frequently interrupting in a chant of “dumb, dumb, dumb,” during the actual story of creation, and “smart, smart, smart” throughout the sections that the show satirically makes up, proclaiming the flaws in the religion’s origins. Stan and Randy, believing the tale is implausible, go back to their Christian roots, and Stan takes it a step further, stating that he can’t be friends with Gary because of his beliefs.
Though the show demonstrates that the story of John Smith is a myth, the ultimate message is in Stan’s intolerance and bigotry, as Gary evokes sympathy from the viewer when he acknowledges that “Maybe Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense,” and “All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.” The episode ends with Cartman, who can be defined by his ignorance toward others, saying, “Damn, that kid is cool, huh?” The underlying message, which Arp and Decker refer to as “Religious Pluralism” (92), conveys that although the basis of the religion may not be credible, it provides people like Gary with belief in a higher power and a system that promotes unity and help toward others, and by recognizing that, Gary, not Stan, is in fact “cool.”
Stone and Parker approach “Red Hot Catholic Love” in a similar fashion as “All About Mormons” when they criticize outdated scripture and the leaders of the Catholic Church. Having placed their trust in the authority of the church’s leader, many South Park Catholics abandon the Church as the worshippers fuse the weight of the institution with the authority of the Bible. Parker and Stone condemn the individuals who run away from Catholicism entirely because they focus on the Vatican traditions that scare them rather than the emblematic parameters that unify them. According to David Scott, Stone and Parker’s approach of mocking “not the belief, but the believer” (Scott 154), as they do in this episode, exemplifies their pragmatic approach to religion. The episode quickly identifies father Maxi, the towns’ Roman Catholic Priest, as the protagonist when he confronts the church’s hierarchs over their dogmatism and reliance of ancient manuscript, the “Holy Document of Vatican Law,” which they contest doesn’t prohibit molestation. South Park shows no sensitivity regarding this highly contentious subject, as Cartman reaffirms his theory that ingesting food through his anus would conversely cause his mouth to excrete, a grotesque thought that holds significance later in the episode, by stating after finding out if his theory holds true, “Is that something I’d want to do? Is the Pope Catholic and making the world safe for pedophiles?” The episode uses satire and an innovative metaphor to damage the Catholic Church using a queen spider who oversees “The Holy Document of Vatican Law” that cannot be found or changed and a group of atheistic aliens that have embraced Cartman’s theory of defecation. This outlandish representation points out two subtle, but important, points that Stone and Parker are making; the first is that to defend child molesters, you’d have to be from a different universe, and the second is that atheists are literally spewing a “bunch of crap out of their mouths.” Although the episode highlights the unchanging and ancient nature of certain texts and figures, as Maxi puts it, “We’re here to bring the light of God, not harm the innocent!”
Stone and Parker’s bigger metaphor is that the Spider and the Gelgameks, which represent the administration of the Church, are an “other worldly” phenomena that we can’t understand in modern society and that Priest Maxi, who embodies the voice of Catholicism, is not trying to undermine Catholicism but rather preach the importance of its values and discredit the institution that surrounds it. Many critics, including Scott, have noted that Stone and Parker utilize metaphor to accentuate their argument, which in this case is how the Vatican is “dogmatic and distant from the daily lives of worshippers” (Scott 158). The episode concludes with Maxi finding and tearing the document, which accompanies the collapse of the Vatican. South Park’s ultimately pragmatic view of religion is suggested by the fact that only after the institution is discredited and torn down does Maxi’s diatribe recognize the “limited value of sacred texts as moral guidelines” (Scott 159), which allows them to, as they often do, mock not the belief (Catholicism) but the ignorance of the believer in taking the scripture too literally. South Park ultimately credits Maxi’s diatribe when they realize the show’s overarching message that Catholicism is not about any one document, person, or building but rather good-natured, ethical practice that provides strong moral guidelines for virtuous living (Scott 160).
In “Are You There God? It’s Me, Jesus,” South Park criticizes those who believe prayer and belief will solve all of life’s troubles by showing the inherent humor in the similarities between the attempts Stan and Jesus make to claim God’s help. The episode takes place around New Year’s Eve as South Park’s residents anticipate a momentous event will take place to ring in the new millennium. Jesus, acknowledging the loss of faith among many, believes he can mount a “comeback” if he can convince God to make an appearance. Instead of having answers for the people, Jesus is presented as a susceptible and uncertain arbitrator between humanity and God, more concerned with a desire to be heard than divulge truth or meaning to South Park’s residents. This narrative is intertwined with Stan’s troubles as the only kid in school who isn’t getting his “period,” as the other boys mistake a stomach flu with the beginning of puberty. After the attendees of Jesus’s New Year’s Party realize it’s a Rod Stewart concert, they try to crucify Jesus a second time, which leads him to pray and beg for his father’s appearance to no avail because God is not ready to intervene for Jesus. Stan, more worried about his personal troubles, asks Jesus why his wishes were not heeded, to which Jesus responds:
Well, God can’t just answer every prayer and suddenly give you everything you want. That takes all the living out of life. If God answered all our prayers, there’d be nothing left for us to do ourselves. Life is about problems, and over-coming those problems, and growing and learning from obstacles. If God just fixed everything for us, then there’d be no point in our existence… That’s why he wouldn’t show up to my New Year’s party.
This quote clearly aims to show the contradiction in what Jesus is practicing and what he preaches. Stan and Jesus are both trying to enlist God’s help but for very different reasons. Jesus asks for God to appear on earth to make the people believe in him again, and Stan wants to menstruate and begin puberty. Jesus’s roles become reversed as he is initially the student as God teaches him a lesson by forcing him into a coming-of-age story, which parallels Stan’s misery and literal coming-of-age story that places Jesus in therole of the teacher.
Decker and Arp argue that Jesus’s religious message is necessary, but his inability to breech social and institutional constraints to advance his message is a result of the show’s low ratings, which makes him resort to marketing strategies (such as the concert) to combat the weaning support of his constituents. As in “Red Hot Catholic Love,” characters blame South Park’s residents for Jesus’s inability to address complex moral quandaries, and they mock the intellect of the individuals who need to see a miracle for Jesus to disseminate his message. In framing the episode in this context, South Park aims to place the blame in Jesus’s contradiction between what he practices and preaches about the constraints established by South Park’s residents rather than the religion itself. Jesus ultimately comes to the realization that he, like other mortals, must work through life’s challenges without intervention from God. While Jesus is depicted irreverently, he ultimately becomes a mechanism for the critique of American religiosity rather than of Jesus himself. The critique places blame on Jesus’s followers as they fail to realize what Jesus did and see the ethical practice that is preached, to understand that challenges in life are inevitable and necessary in one’s personal development, and to realize if everything in our world were fixed by God, “there’d be nothing left for us to do ourselves.”
Beneath South Park’s irreverent satire is an overarching theme of mocking religion that becomes clear during the three episodes I analyzed; Stone and Parker mock not the belief itself but the ignorance and at times irrationality of the believer. By “taking on people who are powerful,” (Michael Tuth Interview) and mocking everything and everyone, including Kyle, the Catholics, and the Christians in the episodes I analyzed, South Park conveys a deeper meaning or moral lesson in each episode. If South Park’s characters did not reject and challenge convention while tackling trivial matters, an approach that John Fiske refers to as “an alternative semiotic strategy of resistance or evasion” (Television 240), Stone and Parker would not be able to tackle meaningful, hot-button cultural issues effectively. South Park is consistent with the postmodern culture favoring personal religiosity over, and at the expense of, institutional religious worship, which ultimately poses a bigger question of whether Parker and Stone believe in the philosophical position known as pluralism, which I believe they do. John Hick (1922-2012), a notable pluralist, says that because there are so many religions around the world and so many of them produce religious experiences for religiously minded people, we should consider these religions to be roughly “on par” with one another in terms of their truth. In other words, we shouldn’t claim that one religion is better than another because this disagreement hinders each religion’s ability to foster the greater good of humankind. Hick’s beliefs are consistent with the larger message Parker and Stone aim to get across in not only the three episodes I analyzed, but throughout the entirety of the show, that differences about specific doctrines, history and ideas about the divine should be deemphasized, and, instead, we should focus on the truth expressed in all religions.
Griff O’Brien is a Senior at Wake Forest University from Denver, Colorado. He is a Communications major with an emphasis in Media Studies and an Economics and Film Studies minor.
Arp, Robert, and Kevin S Decker. “The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Ser. : The Ultimate South Park and Philosophy : Respect My Philosophah! (2).” The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Ser. : The Ultimate South Park and Philosophy : Respect My Philosophah! (2), John Wiley & Sons, Somerset, MA, 2013, pp. 71–119.
Scott, David W. “Religiosity in South Park: Struggles Over Institutional and Personal Piety Among Residents of a ‘Redneck Town’.” Journal of Media & Religion., vol. 10, no. 3, 2011, pp. 152–163. Communication and Mass Media Complete [EBSCO], Accessed 20 June 2017.
The Sitcom Reader, Second Edition: America Re-viewed, Still Skewed (Kindle Locations 4716-4717). State University of New York Press. Kindle Edition.
Cramer, David C. “John Hick (1922-2012).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, www.iep.utm.edu/hick/. Accessed 15 July 2017.
Gregor T. Goethals, The TV Ritual: Worship At The Video Altar (Boston: Beacon Press, 1981), 87.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Jesus” South Park. Comedy Central. December 29, 1999. Television.
“All About Mormons” South Park. Comedy Central. November 19, 2003. Television.
“Red Hot Catholic Love” South Park. Comedy Central. July 3, 2002. Television.