South Park is an American animated sitcom whose frequent depiction of taboo subject matter, general toilet humor, accessibility to children viewers, disregard of decency standards, and portrayal of religion for comic effect has generated controversy and debate throughout the world over the course of its 20-year run and 20 seasons. The show's creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who both continue to be heavily involved in the writing and production of each episode, use the show to frequently lampoon a wide range of topics and both sides of contentious issues. Parker and Stone usually reply to such controversies by regarding themselves as "equal opportunity offenders". They reject the notion of political correctness, and state that no particular topic or group of people be spared the expense of being subject to mockery and satire, out of fairness to any person or group of people who have been ridiculed before.
Criticism and ProtestsEdit
Several groups have called for a boycott of the show, its sponsors, and the networks which air it. In attempts which have all been unsuccessful, fewer have pleaded with a respective network to remove the show from its lineup or prevent a specific episode from initially airing. In late 2008, a group of prosecutors in Moscow, on behalf of Muslim activists and members of the Russian Pentecostalist Church, sought to have the Russian channel 2x2 closed in an attempt to prevent them from broadcasting the series, which they claimed promoted "hatred between religions." Their appeal was rejected by Russian media officials, and the channel's broadcasting license was extended until 2013. Aside from the efforts in Russia, no group or individual in a country where the show is aired has mounted a significant campaign to ban the series and its availability on home media entirely.
As the series first became popular in America, schools in the states of Georgia and Connecticut suspended students for wearing South Park-related t-shirts, while a group of school principals in New Jersey mounted a small campaign to notify parents of the show's content. In a 1999 poll conducted by NatWest Bank, eight and nine-year-old children in the United Kingdom voted the South Park character Cartman as their favorite personality. This drew the concern of several parent councils who were expecting a character from a educational television show aimed at children to top the list, and the headmaster of a Cambridgeshire public school urged parents to prevent their children from watching the show. Parker and Stone, who are not opposed to allowing older children and teenagers to watch the show, assert however that the show is not meant to be viewed by young children, and the show is certified with TV ratings that indicate its intention for mature audiences.
The Parents Television Council has frequently criticized South Park for "over-the-top vulgar content" and "tastelessness", condemning the show as a "curdled, malodorous black hole of Comedy Central vomit" that "shouldn't have been made". Among the episodes that the PTC has criticized include, according to columns by its advisor and former president L. Brent Bozell III:
- "It Hits the Fan" for excessive use of the expletive "shit".
- "Red Sleigh Down" for depicting a desecration of Jesus Christ.
- "Proper Condom Use" for depiction of teaching sex education to young children.
Action for Children's Television founder Peggy Charren, despite being an outspoken opponent of censorship, claims that the show's use of language and racial slurs represents the depravity of Western civilization, and is "dangerous to the democracy". Several other Christian and conservative activist groups have protested the show's parodies of Christianity-related matter and portrayal of Jesus Christ— who South Park has depicted saying "Goddamn", shooting and stabbing other characters, and as unable to perform actual miracles. In its review of the South Park movie, the ChildCare Action Project stated that children who watch either the show or film would have their efforts to "understand or [develop] an understanding of the Gospel" hindered or corrupted. The Christian Family Network prepared an educational guide on how to "protect our youth from vile trash like South Park", and claims their efforts to "restore morality, and protect life for the individual, family, and community" would be impeded if children watched the series. Stone insists that "[kids] don't have any kind of social tact or etiquette, they're just complete little raging bastards", and claims that parents who disapprove of South Park for its portrayal of how kids behave are upset because they "have an idyllic vision of what kids are like".
Vulgarity and depiction of racismEdit
The show further lampooned the controversy surrounding its use of profanity, as well as the media attention surrounding the network show Chicago Hope's singular use of the word "shit", with the season five premiere "It Hits the Fan". A counter superimposed in the bottom left corner of the screen tracked each of the episode's utterances of the word "shit", which was said 162 times without being bleeped for censorship purposes, while also appearing uncensored in written form. The backlash to the episode was mostly limited to 5,000 disapproving e-mails sent to Comedy Central. The PTC also criticized the show for its excessive use of the racial epithet "nigger" in the season 11 (2007) premiere "With Apologies to Jesse Jackson". Despite its 43 uncensored uses of the word, the episode generated relatively little other controversy, as most in the black community and the NAACP praised the episode for its context and its comedic way of conveying other races' perceptions of how black people must feel when hearing the word. While some in the Jewish community have praised the show's depiction of the character Eric Cartman holding an anti-Semitic attitude towards fellow student Kyle Broflovski as a means of accurately portraying what it is like for a young Jew to have to endure bigotry as an ethnic minority, other Jews have blamed South Park and Cartman for having found themselves surrounded by "acceptable racism".
Lampoon of ScientologyEdit
South Park parodied Scientology in a short that aired as part of the 2000 MTV Movie Awards. The short was entitled "The Gauntlet" and also poked fun at John Travolta, a Scientologist. The season five (2001) episode "Super Best Friends" features illusionist David Blaine forming his own cult, called "Blaintology". Parker and Stone have admitted that this is meant to be a reference to Scientology. In the season nine (2005) episode "Trapped in the Closet", Stan is recognized as the reincarnation of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard before denouncing the church as nothing more than "a big fat global scam". Tom Cruise, a Scientologist as well, is seen in the episode locking himself in Stan's closet and refusing to come out, as other characters plead for him to ambiguously "come out of the closet" in a parody of rumors involving Cruise's sexuality. One scene retold the story of Xenu, a story Scientology normally attempts to keep confidential and only reveals to members once they make significant monetary contributions to the church. The show's closing credits billed every member of the episode's cast and crew as "John Smith" and "Jane Smith" in a parody of both Cruise and the church's reputations for litigiousness.
Departure of Isaac HayesEdit
On March 13, 2006, nearly two months after suffering a stroke, Isaac Hayes, the voice of the character Chef, quit South Park. A press release cited his objections to the show's attitudes toward and depiction of various religions. While the press release did not specifically mention "Trapped in the Closet", Parker and Stone assert that he quit due to the episode and its treatment of Scientology, as Hayes was a member. Stone commented that Hayes practiced a double standard regarding the treatment of religion on South Park: "[We] never heard a peep out of Isaac in any way until we [lampooned] Scientology. He wants a different standard for religions other than his own, and to me, that is where intolerance and bigotry begin". Fox News suggested that, because he was still suffering from the effects of his stroke, Hayes was hospitalized and not in a position to make a rational decision to leave the show. Fox also reported that Hayes left the show because of the external pressure forced by his fellow Scientologists and that the decision was not voluntary, noting that Hayes had previously defended the episode after having an amicable discussion with Parker and Stone about its content. Fox also claimed that the original press release announcing his departure was put out by someone who was not authorized to represent him.
"Trapped in the Closet" was scheduled to rebroadcast on March 15, 2006 on Comedy Central, but the broadcast was canceled without prior notice, and was replaced with a repeat of the season two (1998) episode "Chef's Chocolate Salty Balls". The controversy that soon followed was dubbed "Closetgate" by the Los Angeles Times. Representatives of Comedy Central insist that the episode was changed as a tribute to Hayes following his departure. Comedy Central's parent company, Viacom, also owns Paramount Pictures, which was set to distribute the then-upcoming film Mission: Impossible III, which stars Cruise. Several media outlets alleged that Cruise threatened to boycott the publicity tour for the film unless Viacom canceled the episode's rebroadcast. Comedy Central, as well as Cruise's representative and publicist, immediately denied the allegations. Cruise himself later said that he would not "dignify" the rumors by personally addressing whether or not they were true.
In response to the episode being pulled, Parker and Stone issued the following statement, with several mocking references to Scientology:
“So, Scientology, you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for earth has just begun! Temporarily anozinizing our episode will NOT stop us from keeping Thetans forever trapped in your pitiful man-bodies. Curses and drat! You have obstructed us for now, but your feeble bid to save humanity will fail! Hail Xenu!!!”
—Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park
Depiction of the Virgin MaryEdit
Several Catholics took offense to the season nine (2005) finale "Bloody Mary". In the episode, a statue of the Virgin Mary is portrayed as releasing copious amounts of actual blood while undergoing overt menstruation, while characters had declared the phenomenon as a miracle when they had initially thought the blood was flowing from her rectum. Another scene also features Pope Benedict XVI closely inspecting the anal and vaginal regions of the statue. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights demanded an apology from Comedy Central and unsuccessfully campaigned to have the episode both removed permanently from the network's rotation and never be made available on DVD. Viacom board member Joseph A. Califano, Jr. and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued formal complaints with then-Viacom CEO Tom Freston. In February 2006, leaders from the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference, the Council of Christians and Muslims, and other religious groups together lobbied media conglomerate CanWest to stop the episode's debut airing and potential rebroadcasts in New Zealand on the music channel C4, while protesters condemned the lobby for attempting to take advantage of the New Zealand government's lack of a guaranteed right to the freedom of speech. The network rejected the plea, and was allowed to air the episode, doing so ahead of schedule to take advantage of the media attention surrounding the campaign.
Self-censorship and the depiction of MuhammadEdit
The season 10 episodes "Cartoon Wars Part I" and "Cartoon Wars Part II" feature a plot in which the Fox network plans to air an episode of the animated show Family Guy that contains an uncensored cartoon depiction of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. Residents of South Park panic, fearing a terrorist response and a repeat of the real-life violent protests and riots that occurred worldwide after some Muslims regarded the prophet's cartoon depiction in a Danish newspaper as insulting and blasphemous. The first episode had a cliffhanger ending instructing viewers to watch part two to find out whether the image of Muhammad would be shown uncensored. In the second episode, Kyle persuades a Fox executive to air the Family Guy with the image uncensored, while echoing Parker and Stone's sentiments regarding what should or should not be censored of "[either] it's got to all be OK or none of it is". Within the universe of the episode, the Family Guy episode is aired uncensored, despite a retaliation threat from Al-Qaeda. However, the actual South Park broadcast itself ran a black screen that read "Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network" instead of the scene containing Muhammad's depiction, which Parker and Stone say was neutral and not intended to insult Muslims.
Parker and Stone note the contradiction in being allowed to feature a profane depiction of Jesus, while being forbidden to feature a purely benign depiction of Muhammad, but claim they harbor no hard feelings toward Comedy Central for censoring the scene, since the network confessed to being "afraid of getting blown up" rather than claim they refrained from airing the scene uncensored out of religious tolerance. Parker and Stone claim the only regrets they have over the incident was that their mocking of the show Family Guy in the episode generated more attention than its commentary on the ethics of censorship. Previously, Muhammad was depicted uncensored and portrayed in a heroic light in the season five (2001) episode "Super Best Friends", which resulted in virtually no controversy. Muhammad also appears among the large crowd of characters gathered behind the main characters and "South Park" sign in the some of the show's previous opening sequences.
Depiction of Steve IrwinEdit
Several viewers criticized the season 10 (2006) episode "Hell on Earth 2006" for its depiction of Steve Irwin with a stingray stuck in his chest. The episode originally aired seven weeks after Irwin, an internationally-popular Australian TV personality and wildlife expert, died when his heart was pierced by a stingray barb. Several groups and even devout fans of the show derided the scene and its timing as "grossly insensitive" and "classless", while Irwin's widow Terri Irwin expressed concern that her children could one day see the episode.
April Fool's PrankEdit
One of Parker and Stone's earliest responses to the show being condemned as "nothing but bad animation and fart jokes" was creating a show-within-the-show about two even-more-crudely-drawn characters named Terrance and Phillip who do little else but pass gas around each other. The child characters on the show find Terrance and Phillip, who debuted in the season one (1997) episode "Death", to be hysterical, while their parents' find them to be horribly offensive. An entire episode featuring the duo aired on April 1, 1998. It was broadcast in lieu of an episode that was supposed to continue from the show's previous episode from six weeks earlier, which ended with a cliffhanger promising to reveal the identity of Cartman's father in the show's next airing. Several fans were angered by the April Fools' Day prank, and Comedy Central received thousands of e-mail complaints. Comedy Central moved the planned air date of the next show up a month, so that fans could sooner watch the actual show they originally intended to see.
Michael Moore interviewed Matt Stone for his 2002 film Bowling for Columbine. Stone discussed his experiences growing up in the Littleton area and the social alienation that might have contributed to the Columbine High School massacre. Stone, who is a gun-owner himself, said that Moore's presentation of their interview was fair, but he criticized the director for a short animated segment that followed the interview. The cartoon, which is about the history of guns in the United States, implies that there is a connection between the Ku Klux Klan and the establishment of the National Rifle Association. Matt Stone, who did not have anything to do with the short, criticized Moore for making the cartoon "very South Park-esque" and argued that Moore deliberately sought to give viewers the incorrect impression that he and Trey Parker had produced the animation, by playing these two completely separate segments consecutively. "We have a very specific beef with Michael Moore. I did an interview, and he didn't mischaracterize me or anything I said in the movie. But what he did do was put this cartoon right after me that made it look like we did that cartoon." Although the animation actually appears later on in the film, Stone called it "a good reference to what Michael Moore does in films [...] he creates meaning where there is none by cutting things together." The pair responded by depicting Moore in an unflattering light before having his character blow up in their 2004 film Team America: World Police.