South Park is Bicurious

http://www.southparkstudios.com/episodes/ Season 11, Episode 2

Hello Gender Goggles Readers! Eloriane’s in India at the moment, so I’m standing in for her. If you don’t know, my name’s Dolly and I blog at Dolly Speaks. Like Eloriane, I do write movie/book/game reviews from a feminist perspective, but my blog tends to focus more on politics and current events. So if you’re a regular here, check out my site some time!
Okay, enough self-promotion. So when eloriane approached me to do this guest post, I really had no clue what I wanted to write about. Eloriane and I have had some top-notch discussions on Miyazaki and feminism, so I considered doing another review of one of his films, but my heart wasn’t in it. Then, I thought I might do a feminist review of one of the Zelda games as I’m a huge Zelda fan–but that would require replaying a whole game and I don’t have the time for that. It wasn’t until I read eloriane’s post on homophobia that South Park’s Butters came to mind. And it was like cliche light bulb over the head, eureka moment. Why not look at perceptions of heterosexism and homophobia in South Park?

So, posted above is a link to the South Park episode I’m going to review: Season 11’s Cartman Sucks. Now, I know there is a danger in critiquing South Park. A show that exists to brutalize everyone and everything is definitely not going to be characterized as “pro” LGBT. Obviously, from the constant use of the slur, “You’re gay,” by the four boys as an insult is proof of that. But I’d also like to argue that the creators aren’t necessarily concerned with word choice (like I said, they don’t care who they’re hitting on) as much as they are with the subtler, more important message of this episode: being gay is okay. Let’s take a look.

Part 1: Cartman Takes a “Gay” Photo
Now, the 20-minute plot splits focus on two main stories: one in which Cartman works against all odds to retrieve a photo in which he has placed Butters’ penis in his mouth, and one in which Butters is forced to attend a Christian re-sexualization camp. Butters, of course, is chosen as the “bicurious” boy because the audience is expected to think he’s “kind of gay.” The dopey blonde hair, the high-pitched voice, the naive innocence–his character is feminized in a way that the other boys are not. So, in this sense, the creators are using negative stereotypes (all gays are effeminate) to make a joke.

But the joke backfires when Cartman (the most assertive of his masculinity of the four boys) takes a picture of Butters’ penis in his mouth so that he can show everyone that Butters is “gay” (and, inevitably, have people laugh at him). As he finds out at bus stop from his friends, however, having Butters’ penis in his mouth does not make Butters gay. Kenny informs him beneath his orange hood, “That makes you really f@*!ing gay.” This is followed by frantic outbursts on Cartman’s part to defend his straightness, revealing a fear of being characterized as a homosexual. His fears speak to the homophobic nature of our culture and traditional roles of masculinity: to be a real man, you must be straight, and if you’re not straight, you’re a joke, an insult, etc. I know, I know, we’re definitely not at the pro-LGBT part yet. Just hang with me.

So, Cartman tries to “cancel out the gay” by taking a picture of himself putting his penis in Butters’ mouth. Butters, being as naive as he is, goes along with the plan (albeit, rather unknowingly). The process of Cartman taking the picture is interrupted though when Butters’ father spontaneously enters the room. Mr. Stotch (who is staunchly Catholic) is disgusted by his son’s apparent behavior. He laments, “How did my son become reduced to this! … Wait, wait, it’s okay, Butters. This isn’t a serious problem. You’re just bicurious… It’s just harmless curiosity and we need to get you some help.” Mr. Stotch obviously thinks that Butters might be exploring gay sexuality and is highly disturbed by it for religious reasons. He sees it as a “reduction” of personhood and a potential “problem.” This speaks to another important aspect of the homphobia in our culture; often, religion is at the root of intolerance.

Part 2: Butters Goes to Camp
As Reverend Maxi tells a “confused” Butters, “My son, these feelings are just the Devil’s way of trying to get a hold of you. (ominous music starts to play in the background)… There is a camp where young men like [you] can go and be cleansed by the power of God.” Homsexuality isn’t just a curiosity, but a dirty, sinful choice. Religion then points people in the direction of making the “right” choice and inform them that God does not approve of the choice to be gay. And if God doesn’t approve of the choice you make, you go to hell. Take a moment to expel any bile that may be bubbling in your throat. Because after you’ve done that, things are going to start improving (slightly).

After Reverend Maxi makes this suggestion to Mr. Stotch, Mr. Stotch’s response is, “A secluded camp where all bicurious boys are put together? That sounds like a really good idea!” Why is this important? Because here is that subtle context where the creators start to take jabs at homophobic institutions like traditional religion. The implication here is not that if the camps really wanted to encourage the boys to make the right choice they’d put up pin-ups of girls around the church and separate the boys–rather, the joke is based on the viewer’s understanding that the boys will inevitably be attracted to one another. The implication is that homosexuality is not a choice but the way some people are.

When Butters arrives at the camp, his counselor tells him he will have an “accountabilibuddy” named Ryan. Butters seems content with this until the counselor opens the door and it’s revealed that Ryan has hung himself. This follows right after a sequence of the counselor telling Butters that “with the power of Jesus Christ, anyone can choose to be straight.” While the counselor says nothing to Butters and moves on like nothing has happened, as soon as another counselor walks by, he whispers off to the side, “We’ve got another one, room 222.” While the black humor is questionably morbid, the message is coming across clearly: from Butters new accountabilibuddy who nervously chatters Bible verses to the multiple deaths of “bicurious boys,” homosexuality is not a choice. Even the strongest attempts to force the boys to make the “right” choice ends in disaster. The “cleansing process” of the camp is 100x more harmful to the children than their sexuality would ever be.

Part 3: Cartman Tries to Retrieve His Photo
Of course, intermittent all of this, Cartman is having angry outbursts in attempts to keep Kyle and his friends from revealing to his other classmates that he is “gay.” When he loses the photo of himself putting Butters’ penis in his mouth, he angrily blames Kyle and tries to assert his masculinity by getting in a physical fight with him. When this fails, he goes to the police to report robbery (while still trying to avoid explaining the content of the picture). Cartman is determined to protect his identity as straight because that is what is considered normal and manly in his culture. Yet, as is often the case with Cartman on South Park, we find he insults/laughs at others, gets angry easily, and demands respect to hide his own insecurities. So, while he originally tried to plant Butters as “gay,” Cartman himself may actually have homosexual interests. This isn’t surprising, as eloriane discusses in this post that the more adamant someone is about how disgusting nature of sexuality, the more likely they are to be a “closet” gay.

Part 4: Butters is Bicurious, Cartman is Duped
At the end of the episode, we reach a climax for the Cartman and Butters’ story branches. When Butters’ accountabilibuddy Bradley threatens to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, Butters finally talks back to the camp counselors. He states, in the defining mini-monologue of the episode:

“I am sick and tired of everyone telling me I’m confused. I wasn’t confused until other people started telling me I was. You know what I think? I think maybe you’re the ones who are confused. I’m not going to be confused anymore just because you say I should be. My name is Butters, I’m 8 years old, I’m blood type O, and I’m bicurious. And even that’s okay because if I’m bicurious and I’m somehow made from God then I figure God must be a little bicurious himself.”

It is this speech that inclines Bradley to return safely from the bridge and Butters’ father to admit that he actually enjoys being bicurious too (For bigger South Park fans, in the token Butters Very Own Episode from Season 5, Mr. Stotch goes to gay pornos and a gay bathhouse for sex). So, despite all the mockery of the flamboyancy of gays throughout the episode, it ultimately ends on the note that homosexuality is normal, acceptable, and okay, that even God finds it so.

The Cartman story ends in similar fashion. In his great fear of being exposed by Kyle, Cartman decides to show the picture himself to his class and explain his “artistic” interpretation of it (“What this is is a statement against the war in Iraq”). Interestingly, Bebe squeaks “Ew!” when the picture is displayed (the one example of potential lesbianism in the episode). Of course, seconds after the picture is displayed Mr. Mackey appears to inform Cartman that his mother found his photo and Kyle didn’t have it after all. Cartman’s every attempt to prove his straightness has backfired. Had he not tried to mock Butters for being gay in the first place, had he not tried to mock Kyle for being gay, had he not been concerned with the potentially heterocentric/homophobic expectations of his peers, he would never have had any problems in the first place. So the creators would seem to argue then that obsessing over sexual orientation is stupid and attempts to belittle homosexuals will ultimately hurt the person making the attacks.

Ultimately, the message of a show notorious for using homophobic language is actually anti-heterocentrist. Being gay is normal, acceptable, if (I would argue, unfairly characterized as) a little flamboyant. Using religion to “other” people of nonstraight sexual orientations is what’s weird, harmful, and unacceptable. And attempting to change people from the way they are will only create disorder and upset. Do I condone SP’s use of the word “gay” as an insult or the way Mr. Slave, Big Gay Al, and the token gay reverend in this episode are all overtly feminized? No, of course not. But I think the larger, underlying message of the story is what makes it meritorious overall.

But don’t ever expect Matt Stone or Trey Parker to admit that.

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7 Responses to South Park is Bicurious

  1. […] Park and “Bicuriosity” Crossposted at Gender […]

  2. Crowfoot says:

    Dolly, this is really great! I’m not hugely familiar with South Park but what you’ve written rings true (I may have seen this episode, but don’t have the time to re-watch it now.)

    I actually wouldn’t be surprised if Stone or Parker did admit it – they impress me as being those “cool” guys that are oh-so-progressive but still use slurs but it’s just a joke maaaaan etc. Or “it’s ironic!!”

    While I think their homophobia counters the anti-heterocentrist message, I suppose what it might do is plant some seeds in the minds of rednecks who watch, who may be outwardly homophobic, but have the potential to.. well, grow the fuck up.

  3. dollyann says:

    Good point. I’d like to think of it as planting seeds. Sadly, I’ve met too many guys who do like South Park who enjoy it purely for the cursing and the fart jokes that these kinds of subtleties fly over the head. Maybe, MAYBE the seeds are planted subconsciously, but for me that’s wishful thinking.

    You’re right on though that Matt and Trey maintain this “cool” image in their progressiveness. While I find it amusing when I’m in the mood for South Park, it kind of irritates me other times, because I think we should be allowed to be open about our progressiveness without having to mask it in jokes that counter our messages. Then again, Matt and Trey reach a larger audience by being “cool.” I guess it all depends on the success of their “seed-planting.”

    Thanks for your comment! 🙂 I had a burst of interest in South Park last year, so I’ve seen all the episodes at least once I think. Some of them are better than others, but they’ve all got a few more layers to them than people would expect.

  4. Really love that series, South Park knows mixing humor and ridicule to expose the taboo of society and is a recipe that works, then saw to it continue!

  5. Jack says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Gay_Al's_Big_Gay_Boat_Ride
    Another pro gay south park episode. Accrually I think south park isn’t pro gay, but it isn’t anti gay either. Maybe pro gay rights, and gay friendly, but I think anti homophobia more than anything else. I hate it when people say south park is homophobic. I am not gay, but I hate homophobia and I am a south park fan, and I am sure south park isn’t homophobic. Sure it pokes fun at homosexuality, but it pokes fun at everything, and poking
    fun at homosexuality doesn’t make them homophobic.

    • eloriane says:

      I have to admit, you sound oddly defensive for someone who doesn’t think South Park is homophobic. Did you see Dolly’s conclusion?? It went like this:

      Ultimately, the message of a show notorious for using homophobic language is actually anti-heterocentrist. Being gay is normal, acceptable, if (I would argue, unfairly characterized as) a little flamboyant. Using religion to “other” people of nonstraight sexual orientations is what’s weird, harmful, and unacceptable. And attempting to change people from the way they are will only create disorder and upset. Do I condone SP’s use of the word “gay” as an insult or the way Mr. Slave, Big Gay Al, and the token gay reverend in this episode are all overtly feminized? No, of course not. But I think the larger, underlying message of the story is what makes it meritorious overall.

      “It pokes fun at everything” is a far weaker argument than what Dolly is saying here, so it strikes me as odd that you’ve chosen to use it. I’ve never seen South Park, so I have no idea if it’s homophobic or not, but Dolly had basically persuaded me that there was good in it– until I saw it being defended so poorly. Now I’m not sure!

    • Dolly says:

      …there is a danger in critiquing South Park. A show that exists to brutalize everyone and everything is definitely not going to be characterized as “pro” LGBT.

      It’s been several months since I’ve written/read this article, but I still stand by this statement. Because of that, I agree with you Jack when you argue the creators are neither “pro” or “anti” gay. I think, more than anything, Stone and Parker get a kick out of tripping people up on their expectations, whether they are right or left leaning. So, the show (this episode in particular) ends up as a paradox, where homophobic stereotypes are used to justify a pro-LGBT message.

      I would dispute this though…

      Sure it pokes fun at homosexuality, but it pokes fun at everything, and poking fun at homosexuality doesn’t make them homophobic

      It sounds too much like, “Just because I tell sexist/racist jokes, doesn’t mean I’m sexist/racist!” Trey and Parker are both white men who think by creating paradoxes like the one in this episode, they are presenting some kind of objective viewpoint. Yet in doing that, they are perpetuating the same trap of privilege where white men dictate what’s right and what’s not. I think they also recognize that most of their viewers (teenage guys) miss this subtlety and that they use it to their advantage when it comes to creating cultural influence.

      Since I wrote this article, I have openly come out as bi. I think that has made a difference in the way I am reflecting on it. I still think South Park is more complex than most of its viewers and non-viewers realize. But, like Eloriane, I am skeptical of its merit when its target audience regularly misinterprets these complexities and when its creators fail to acknowledge their own privilege. I will finally add that I oppose how dichotomously South Park frames issues, when often subjects (such as sexuality) are much more varied and fluid.

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