The Importance of Satire in Popular Culture

Super-smart computers, Ice-nine and Tralfamodorians: Why Science Fiction is crucial to the works of Kurt Vonnegut (Kurt Vonnegut’s America, Fall 2011)

            Kurt Vonnegut is a science fiction author. There, I said it. He does not like the label; he said so himself in an essay entitled

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve...

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“On Science Fiction.” Whether he likes it or not, though, a science fiction author is exactly what Kurt Vonnegut is. However, this is not a bad thing, which is what Vonnegut seems to convey in his essay. Vonnegut’s novels are generally not purely science fiction, particularly the later novels, but he has a knack for infusing his signature literary style with super smart computers, apocalyptic-level chemicals and aliens, among other things. “The name of Kurt Vonnegut will inevitably appear in any discussion of the problematic relationship between science fiction and ‘high literature (2-3),’” writes Tamás Bényei in his essay “Leakings: Reappropriating Science Fiction — The Case of Kurt Vonnegut.” This is certainly true, since Vonnegut uses his science fiction roots to add a decidedly unusual spin to his “high literature.”

Bényei goes on to argue an interesting idea: There are two Kurt Vonneguts. One Vonnegut is well known for his science fiction novels. The other Vonnegut writes “proper novels (3)” which utilize his scientific imagination. The problem we are faced with here, though, it what is the difference between Vonnegut’s science fiction novels and so-called “proper novels” in which he uses his knowledge of science? The only difference I can see is that as Vonnegut continued to write novels, science fiction themes played a less critical role and that he threw plot right out the window on numerous occasions to get his messages across.

Despite, Vonnegut’s seeming disdain for the label of science fiction writer, he does the genre proud, particularly in his novels Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle, and Slaughterhouse-Five. In fact, I would argue that in today’s technologically advanced world that it is Vonnegut’s tendency to write science fiction into his novels that keeps his work relevant. For the sake of clarity, my essay will be split into three sections dealing with this idea, the first section being about Player Piano.

EPICAC XIV and the rising of machines: Player Piano

Cover of "Player Piano"

Cover of Player Piano

Vonnegut’s debut novel Player Piano was published in 1952 and is often overlooked by literary critics as a serious endeavor. However, it is here we see Vonnegut’s style slowly beginning to emerge.

Player Piano is set in a dystopian American future after a presumed World War III where the machines have all the cards (quite literally) and where average humans struggle to find a reason for life without work. The story follows Dr. Paul Proteus, an engineer and the manager of the Ilium Works. Paul struggles to find happiness and purpose through his work and in his relationship with his wife Anita, but ultimately cannot. The return of an old colleague and friend Dr. Ed Finnerty, changes the course of Paul’s life quickly.

Paul begins to realize through various events that his life’s work has deprived those with lower I.Q.s of meaningful and purpose-driven lives. The machines he helped design decide who can hold which jobs. Eventually, this guilt drives Paul to join the rebel cause as its puppet leader. The rebellion succeeds at first, but ultimately fails when the rebels responsible for the destruction of all the machinery begin to repair it.

Player Piano is a classic dystopian novel with some science fiction flair. The sci-fi element is the role that technology plays in the novel. The computers control the lives of the people in the novel, the largest of these being EPICAC XIV, a super computer, which essentially controls the very infrastructure of the country. Vonnegut uses the technology in Player Piano to get his message across: Progress for the sake of progress is dangerous; human beings need a purpose to live life fully. In Player Piano humans have rendered themselves obsolete because of the amazing machines they were able to create.

Vonnegut’s work at a General Electric plant in the 1950s certainly affected the early short stories of his career as well as his debut novel. Vonnegut points out in “On Science Fiction” that he was “completely surrounded by machines and ideas for machines, so I wrote a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will.” The reviewers then told Vonnegut something of which he had been previously unaware: He was a science fiction writer.

“I supposed that I was writing a novel about life, about things I could not avoid seeing and hearing in Schenectady, a very real town, awkwardly set in the gruesome now,” Vonnegut writes in response. “I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file-drawer labeled ‘science- fiction’ ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a tall white fixture in a comfort station.”

In this essay, Vonnegut discusses that all that is necessary for a work to be labeled science fiction is that the author notices and employs technology in his or her work. Vonnegut goes on to say that many people think that no one can be a respectable writer if they understand how machinery works, and that the current higher education system may deserve the blame. “English majors are encouraged, I know, to hate chemistry and physics, and to be proud because they are not dull and creepy and humorless and war-oriented like the engineers across the quad,” he writes.

However, it is the technological elements — the science fiction elements — which make Player Piano such an important work. It is a book about revolution and what it is to be human, but first and foremost, it is a book about the technology humans create and about how this technology may destroy us in the end. Vonnegut was not the first to peak into this dystopian nightmare, and he certainly wasn’t the last. His vision is also not the most extreme. There are many films, like The Matrix, which conjure a far more horrifying picture of machines taking over. Yet, Vonnegut’s Player Piano, though under-appreciated, might be one of the better science fiction-based dystopian novels of the 1950s. This is because of the way Vonnegut uses science fiction in his novels. He does not rely heavily on elements of science fiction, but rather uses elements of the genre to strengthen his universal messages.

Ice-nine and the end of the world: Cat’s Cradle

           

Cover of "Cat's Cradle: A Novel"

Cover of Cat's Cradle: A Novel

Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, is another novel of Vonnegut’s labeled as science fiction; however, we can see him begin to distance himself from the genre in this apocalyptic tale. Certainly, Vonnegut uses science within the novel, but the point of the book is broader: Human beings “brains… are well in advance of their moral powers (Klinkowitz, 43).”

Cat’s Cradle is the story of how the world ends, and it happens because of a chemical possessed by the children of a dead scientist. This chemical mixture is called ice-nine. “Ice Nine is a superweapon of sorts, a catalyst that, if ever unleashed, would rapidly convert all the water in the world into solid matter, effectively destroying all life and rendering the planet uninhabitable,” according to an analysis of the novel in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. The catalyst in unleashed toward the end of the novel, as Papa, the dictator of San Lorenzo who committed suicide by touching ice-nine to his tongue, spills into the sea. Ice-nine freezes everything, which prompts most of the island’s natives to commit suicide as well.

The novel is a stunning end-of-the-world narrative, which compares the supposed panaceas of humanity — religion and science. Vonnegut is equally critical of both modes of thought, comparing and contrasting the lunacies of each one through the characters of Bokonon, the religious leader of an outlawed faith on the island of San Lorenzo and Dr. Felix Hoenicker, and absent-minded scientist and a creator of both the atom bomb and ice-nine.

“The contrasts between Bokonon and Hoenikker, the negligent scientist, underscore Vonnegut’s views about individual responsibility and his skepticism about the ability of science to solve all problems, an attitude that placed him at odds with the majority of science fiction writers and readers of that time.” Even when Vonnegut was writing science fiction, we see that he approached it in a different way than most other science fiction authors.

The science fiction elements of the novel seem obvious. Readers are treated to the fictional creation of ice-nine, a chemical compound designed by Hoenikker to eradicate the problem of mud for the Marines. The only problem, of course, is that everything will freeze once ice-nine is used. Our unnamed narrator learns about ice-nine from Dr. Breed, a colleague of Hoenikker’s. When the unnamed narrator points this glaring flaw out to Breed, Breed becomes angry and assures the narrator in no uncertain terms that ice-nine does not exist. “Dr. Breed was mistaken about at least one thing: there was such a thing as ice-nine. And ice-nine was on earth (50),” the narrator reveals.

Ice-nine is then entrusted to Hoenikker’s three children, and eventually this brings about the end of life as we know it.  This novel is less a science fiction novel than an apocalyptic novel discussing problems with religion and science; however, the science fiction element of the novel is absolutely crucial to its success. If Vonnegut had not added his characteristic sci-fi spin to Cat’s Cradle, he would not have been able to comment on the issues found within religion and science, on the arms race, or on humanity’s capacity to create horrible new weapons, which could easily destroy us. Without science fiction, Cat’s Cradle could not exist.

Tralfamadorians and the bombing of Dresden: Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s Dresden book and is widely regarded as his finest work. Slaughterhouse-Five, however, is not

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five (Photo credit: Wikipedia), however, is not

your typical masterpiece. The book is certainly about World War II, Vonnegut’s experience as a prisoner of war in Germany, and the firebombing of Dresden. You’d think a book like that, essentially a work of historical fiction with a little autobiographical narrative thrown in for good measure, wouldn’t be a novel with any science fiction elements at all. You’d be wrong.

Woven throughout the tale of the novel’s main character, Billy Pilgrim’s, time as a prisoner of war during World War II, there are snippets of time travel and aliens. “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time (29),” Vonnegut tells us at the beginning of chapter one. Billy, in the course of the novel, is kidnapped by Tralfamadorians, which are little green aliens shaped like toilet plungers. The Tralfamodorians introduce Billy to a new concept: There is no free will. Each moment is trapped in time like an insect trapped in amber.

The aliens and time travel, of course, are nothing new in the world of science fiction novels. However, we never really know if Billy is actually time traveling or if he has simply gone crazy. In the context of the novel, I don’t think it really matters. It is not important whether the science fiction elements found in Slaughterhouse-Five actually happen in the book. The important thing is that they are present at all. However, Peter Freese makes an excellent point concerning the reality of Billy’s situation in his essay “Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or, How to Storify an Atrocity:”

…Slaughterhouse-Five leaves it vexingly open whether it is Vonnegut—who uses science-fiction strategies to distance the terror of Dresden—or Billy who employs them to flee into a more hospitable fantasy world. But by pointing out that Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim “were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe” and that in this attempt “science fiction was a big help” (101), the text provides the crucial raison d’être for linking the Dresden firestorm with science-fiction motifs. Vonnegut employs the science-fiction level of his tale as one of several generic conventions through which to search for the meaning of the Dresden massacre. (4)

Whether or not Billy Pilgrim time travels and meets little green aliens is irrelevant. Vonnegut is not using science fiction elements here in the same way he uses them in Player Piano or even in Cat’s Cradle. The science fiction in Slaughterhouse-Five is just another way of coping — of distancing himself and Billy Pilgrim from an experience far too painful to write about.

Josh Simpson presents a similar view of the Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five, pointing out that a closer reading of the book suggests that the Tralfamadorians are not real at all. They are simply a mechanism used by Billy to cope with his wartime experiences. Simpson’s reasoning is that Billy reads a story similar to his Tralfamadorian experiences called The Big Board, which is about an earthling man and woman being abducted by aliens and displayed in a zoo on their planet, Zircon-212. “Comparing the description of Billy’s abduction with the plot of Trout’s The Big Board makes it clear that Tralfamadore is nothing more than a product of Billy’s mind,” Simpson writes. “In that light, his Tralfamadorian existence must be approached as an escape mechanism grounded in mental instability but—and this is key—fueled by Troutean science fiction (7).”

Again, it does not matter if these science fiction-esque experiences ever took place. What matters is that Vonnegut uses science fiction as a means of coping with his traumatic experience in Dresden, just like Billy Pilgrim. Instead of reading science fiction and creating a fantastical world, like Billy, Vonnegut writes science fiction to create a fantastical world.

“You could do worse than throw in a little chemistry or physics”: Conclusion

Throughout the semester, I was fascinated by the way Vonnegut used science fiction to construct his narratives. I was also fascinated by the idea that using science fiction discredited him as a serious author in some way. Certainly, most literary critics believe the science fiction element of Vonnegut’s style is less important than his seemingly pessimistic view on humanity or his trademark schizophrenic style. However, I think Vonnegut’s use of science fiction in his novels and short stories is extremely important. As I stated before, Vonnegut’s use of technology in his novels gives his work a better chance of continuing to resonate with 21st century readers. Those of us who have grown up alongside computers are more likely to feel the urgency of the implications in Player Piano, now more than ever. Those of use who have watched treaty after treaty signed by the United States government and other governments can relate to Cat’s Cradle because most of us believe something worse than an atom bomb could be on its way. Those of us who have talked with family members fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq can begin to understand the plight of Billy Pilgrim and his need to distance his wartime memories in Slaughterhouse-Five. It is this science fiction element found in much of Vonnegut’s novels and short stories that will keep his work alive.

Works Cited

Bényei, Tamás. “Leakings: Reappropriating Science Fiction — The Case of Kurt Vonnegut.” Kurt Vonnegut, New Edition, Bloom’s Modern Critical Views (2001): 3-5. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Web. 9 Dec. 2011. <http://www.fofweb.com/‌activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin= MCVKV007&SingleRecord=True.>.

D’Ammassa, Don. “Cat’s Cradle.” Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2005): n. pag. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. <http://www.fofweb.com/‌activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin= ESF083&SingleRecord=True.>.

Freese, Peter. “Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or, How to Storify and Atrocity.” Salughterhouse-Five, New Edition, Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations (1194): 4. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2011. <http://www.fofweb.com/‌activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin= MCISF003&SingleRecord=True.>.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut’s America. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2010. Print.

Simpson, Josh. “’This Promising of Great Secrets’: Literature, Ideas and the (Re)Invention of Reality in Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless, You Mister Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions Or ‘Fantasies of an Impossibly Hospitable World .” Kurt Vonnegut, New Edition, Bloom’s Modern Critical Views (2004): 7. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Web. 7 Dec. 2011. <http://www.fofweb.com/‌activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin= MCVKV010&SingleRecord=True.>.

Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Cat’s Cradle. New York, NY: Dial Press , 2010. Print.

– – -. “On Science Fiction.” The New York Times 5 Sept. 1965: n. pag. The Vonnegut Web. Web. 9 Dec. 2011. <http://www.vonnegutweb.com/‌archives/‌arc_scifi.html&gt;.

– – -. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York, NY: Dial Press, 2005. Print.

Come on Down to South Park: A look at how South Park employs crude humor to illustrate important ideas (American Pop Culture, Fall 2011)

ALL CHARACTERS AND EVENTS ON THIS SHOW–EVEN THOSE BASED ON REAL PEOPLE–ARE ENTIRELY FICTIONAL. ALL CELEBRITY VOICES ARE IMPERSONATED…..POORLY. THE FOLLOWING PROGRAM CONTAINS COURSE LANGUAGE AND DUE TO ITS CONTENT IT SHOULD NOT BE VIEWED BY ANYONE. –Opening disclaimer, South Park

            Above are the words that adorn my television screen each Wednesday night at 10 p.m. when South Park is in season. This crudely animated adult cartoon debuted in 1997 and has reached an astounding 15 seasons to date. Creators Trey Parker and Matt stone often use the show as a vehicle to deal with controversial topics that incite many to decry the show for it’s vulgar humor and approach to handling sensitive subjects such as politics and religion. However, some academics have taken a closer look at the series and have found that South Park is more than meets the eye. In this essay I will discuss South Park in the carnivalesque context, ethnic humor in South Park, and the Generation X values the show demonstrates.  Before I get into any of this, I will give a brief background on South Park and why I believe it is a staple of popular culture in America.

South Park: A brief summary of the show and its cultural impact

The town of South Park, as pictured in the opening credits of the television show (sharetv.org).

As I mentioned above, South Park burst onto the scene in 1997, making its debut on the cable channel Comedy Central. The show follows four boys — Stan Marsh, Kyle Broflowski, Eric Cartman and Kenny McCormick — who live in the small town of South Park, Colorado.

From the get go, South Park challenged American ideas about what was appropriate for television and how crude humor could be used. Not only did Parker and Stone push the boundaries of vulgarity, they also pushed the envelope when it came to social and political issues in contemporary society. Known for it’s foul language, controversial topics and crude animation, South Park has become a staple in American pop culture. But why?

I have my own theory about that. I believe that Americans need at least some television that pushes the boundaries of political correctness. Sitcoms like All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Roseanne used to serve this function. However, as time has gone on, sitcomes have gotten more and more safe when it comes to controversial issues aside from sex. This is seen as progress, but I believe Americans need comedy that reminds them that racism, sexism, class-ism and other undesirable “isms” are still major problems in our society. If our sitcoms can’t provide that, we inevitably turn to adult cartoons, where political correctness is almost frowned upon.

Now that I’ve provided a brief summary and analysis of why South Park matters, I can move on to the main portion of the essay. And it begins here: South Park is a modern day carnival.

“South Park-esque is the new carnivalesque”

            Before I explain why South Park is the new carnivalesque, I’ll first explain the carnivalesque in brief. Carnivalesque can be applied to literature in that crude literature is like a carnival in the Middle Ages. Carnivals were places where “inequality was suspended and everyone feasted, drank, and laughed… the usual hierarchies were turned on their heads… it was a medieval free-for-all… (Johnson-Woods, xiii)”

At carnivals, even in the Middle Ages, the body was king. Toilet humor ruled, as it does in the South Park universe. Johnson-Woods cites Rabelais, a medieval writer who penned Gargantua and Pantagruel. These five books are rife with satire as well as what would today be considered toilet humor. “In Rabelais, Gargantua’s horse pisses away an army; a woman scares away the devil by exposing her vaginal and Pantagruel describes in some detail his experiments with ass wiping. There are pages of incredibly convoluted swear words and crude expressions (xii).” If that doesn’t sound like a medieval episode of South Park, I’m not sure what would.

Allison Halsall also discusses South Park as the modern carnivalesque in her essay “Bigger Longer & Uncut: South Park and the Carnivalesque.” She states that South Park is related to Rabelais’ biting humor because “the program interweaves levels of parody and satire to mock many of the figures and symbols that are iconic of American culture (23).” Halsall also points out:

The liberating comic energy of the carnival provides what many have found to be a welcome antidote to staid and conservative American social values. South Park’s carnivalesque humor and the pride that creators Parker and Stone take in rejecting official dogma and in mocking “high” culture make South Park so deliciously liberating and important as popular text. (23)

Halsall points out that because South Park mocks official dogma and high culture, it is incredibly similar to carnivalesque literature, which does the same thing. This comparison is important because “to downplay the carnivalesque qualities of South Park is to ignore the cathartic release that Parker and Stone’s satirical potty humor generates (24).”

Basically, the carnival revolves around sex, excrement and general revelry at the expense of others. There are numerous examples of carnivalesque humor in South Park, but I will provide only two for the sake of brevity.

In the season one episode “Weight Gain 4000,” Kathie Lee Gifford comes to visit South Park because Cartman wins an essay contest. Chef, the school cook and one of the few black characters in the show, is asked to sing Gifford a song welcoming to her to the Colorado town. Upon her arrival, Chef sings Gifford a song about how he’d like to have sex with her (most of Chef’s songs are about sex). At the end of the episode, we see Chef and Gifford in bed together.

In the season 1 episode “Death,” the parents of South Park are on a crusade to get the cartoon Terrance and Phillip taken off the air because it is too crude. Throughout the episode, though, the adults make numerous vulgar references to excrement due to the fact that everyone has come down with a case of explosive diarrhea.

Throughout 15 seasons of the show, Parker and Stone have time to perfect their crude brand of humor. In addition to humor involving sex and excrement, we are treated to ethnic humor, racist stereotypes and Cartman’s hatred of all things liberal (mainly hippies and Jews). The next section of this essay explores some of that humor, particularly the representations of Jews and Muslims and commentary on relations between different ethnic and racial groups.

Ethnic Humor: Representations of Jews and Muslims in South Park

South Park is a hotbed of racial and ethnic slurs, the majority of which come from the fat little boy in the red parka, Eric Cartman. Perhaps no animated character exemplifies out and out racism quite like Cartman. I would go so far as to argue that he is the modern generation’s younger, animated version of All in the Family’s Archie Bunker. For many people, the inherent racism of the Cartman character is what makes South Park so offensive. However, there is generally a deeper meaning when it comes to the racism that runs rampant in South Park, particularly when it comes to Jews and Muslims.

In their essay “Beyond a Cutout World: Ethnic Humor and Discursive Integration in South Park,” Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx classify South Park as a program that uses ironic racism, which is defined as such:

Ironic racism… takes advantage of the notion that in a culture so concerned with political correctness, only creators “secure (in their) lack of racism would dare to make, or to laugh at, a racist joke.” Thus, to present racist characters in the current comedy environment may, paradoxically, testify to the creator’s ultimate lack of prejudice. (2)

Certainly, this definition of ironic racism can be applied to South Park. The majority of racist statements are there to make a point. Cartman’s rampant intolerance of all the things he does not understand is not funny (or, is not supposed to be funny) because the racist remarks are true. Rather, it is because Cartman’s prejudices are so outrageous that viewers of the show find them humorous.

The two groups of people Cartman despises most (aside from hippies) are Muslims and, above all, Jews. In reading Sienkiewicz and Marx’s essay, I found that they provided two excellent examples of Cartman’s racism towards Muslims and Jews that are intended to provide commentary racial and cultural relations. I will begin with the Muslim-centric “The Snuke.”

In “The Snuke,” “resident bigot Eric Cartman is alarmed at the presence of a new Muslim student in school, instantly paranoid that he is a terrorist (12).” This episode aired in 2007 and was largely a parody of the popular Fox drama 24. Cartman, despite being told to leave the student alone because not all Muslims are terrorists, continues to pursue the idea that Bahir is dangerous. There is, in fact, a bomb plot, but Bahir is in no way involved, as the culprits are actually Russian and British. Cartman defends his prejudice, stating that although Bahir wasn’t a terrorist, “bigotry and racism saved the day.”

This is not an uncommon sentiment even a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Muslims still incur much suspicion throughout the United States, and many people see no problem with this. The idea that a bomb plot can be found and stopped because of incorrectly judging a person of a certain ethnicity is not such a stretch, and that is what makes this episode an interesting commentary on the way Muslims are treated in this country.  Now, we can move on to Cartman’s fierce hatred for Jews.

The Passion of the Jew is a South Park episode that pokes fun at Mel Gibson and the media (animatedtv.about.com)

In the 2004 episode “The Passion of the Jew,” Cartman defends Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, “praising it’s ability to expose the ‘filthiness of the common Jew (Marx, 10)…” Later in the episode Mel Gibson comes to South Park and is portrayed as completely insane. Although Cartman’s prejudice is never overtly contradicted, the presence of a mentally unstable Gibson is enough of a negation. “Yes, Cartman is anti-Semitic, but by implication the broader narrative suggests this to be a major flaw in his character (Marx, 10).”

This episode can also be viewed as a commentary on the way that the media portrays racial and cultural relations, particularly major debates. Certainly, The Passion of the Christ sparked fierce debate between many Jews and Christians, and the media ate it up. Marx and Sienkiewicz had this to say about “The Passion of the Jew:”

In this case, offensive elements are employed in the service of making a larger point. The target of the episode’s satire is not the absurdity of anti-Semitism, but the way in which discussions about such prejudice are presented in the media. As evidenced by the episode’s final scene, “The Passion of the Jew” ultimately focuses on the irrationality of the debate surrounding Gibsons’s film. (12).

It is episodes like “The Passion of the Jew” and “The Snuke,” among others, which really allow us to step back and take a look at the way debates over serious issues are presented in the media in this country. Another episode, which illustrated this point accurately without using racism is the 2005 episode “Best Friend’s Forever,” which focuses on a situation similar to that of Terri Schaivo. The unfortunate Kenny winds up in a coma after being hit by an ice cream truck. Stan and Kyle, as well as Kenny’s family want Kenny to remain on life support, while Cartman, Kenny’s alleged BFF (according to Cartman), wants to take Kenny off life support because it’s inhumane to let Kenny go on as a vegetable. In reality, Cartman just wants Kenny’s PSP, which was left to him in Kenny’s will. This episode was a commentary on the Shaivo situation and also on the way that different groups often co-opt the suffering of innocent people and exploit it for their own agendas through the media.

South Park and Generation X values

            In his essay, “I Hate Hippies: South Park and the Politics of Generation X,” Matt Becker discusses the idea that traditionally conservative attitudes and ideals are expressed through the show, particularly through our racist little buddy Cartman. However, this interpretation of the television show, South Park as conservatively oriented, is misleading, according to Becker. While South Park consistently attacks left wing values and celebrities, it does not leave conservatives untouched. “South Park also routinely lampoons issues commonly associated with contemporary right-wing conservatives, such as zealous gun owners, Ayn Rand followers, and the Religious Right (Becker, 146).”

The best word to describe South park, in my opinion, would be libertarian. South Park has characters that consistently espouse conservative values, such as Cartman and Mr. Garrison in the earlier seasons. However, many of the characters in the show believe in social freedom. Most of the characters are also distrustful and cynical about the government and authority in general. Becker argues that this is why “the political worldview of South Park is consistent with that of Generation X, the birth cohort to which Parker and Stone belong. Rather than adherents of one political worldview or another, members of Generation X are characterized by irony, apathy, feelings of disenfranchisement, and deep cynicism toward official political institutions (Becker, 148).”

If this description doesn’t sum up both the show and its two creators, I don’t know what would.

A pop culture tour de force

Based on the arguments I’ve found in researching for this paper, it is clear to me that South Park is a force of nature in the pop culture world. Not only is it’s irreverence highly amusing and popular, it is also culturally and socially relevant. Stone and Parker use four little boys and their friends and families to creature a carnivalesque world where nothing is off limits. Stone and Parker use this modern day carnival to comment on racial, political, and social issues that are currently affecting Americans. They also use it as a way to express their own political ideology. This, I believe is why South Park has survived 15 season and why it continues to be socially and pop culturally relevant.

Works Cited

Becker, Matt. “I Hate Hippies: South Park and the Politics of Generation X.” Taking South Park Seriously. Ed. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, Albany, 2008. 146-148. Print.

Halsall, Alison. “Bigger Longer & Uncut: South Park and the Carnivalesque.” Taking South Park Seriously. Ed. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, Albany, 2008. 23-24. Print.

Johnson-Woods, Toni. “Yesterday’s Future Is Today.” Introduction. Blame Canada!: South Park and Contemporary Culture. By Toni Johnson-Woods. New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2007. xi-xvi. Print.

Parker, Trey, and Matt Stone, dirs. “Best Friends Forever.”  South Park. Comedy Central. 30 Mar. 2005T. Television.

– – -, dirs. “Death.”  South Park. Comedy Central. 17 Sept. 1997. Television.

– – -, dirs. “Weight Gain 4000.”  South Park. Comedy Central. 20 Aug. 1997. Television.

Sienkiewicz, Matt, and Nick Marx. “Beyond a Cutout World: Ethnic Humor and Discursive Integration in South Park.” Journal of Film and Video 61.2 (2009): 5-18. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2011. <http://web.ebscohost.com/‌ehost/‌detail?vid=4&hid=112&sid=8042e9cf-12d4-478f-864d-0654df1fe095%40sessionmgr110&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=37564154&gt;.

Thoughts on these papers

Both of these papers were written in the first semester of my senior year, and each deals with a topic I thoroughly enjoy. Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors and South Park is one of my favorite television shows. The works of Kurt Vonnegut and South Park hardly seem related at first glance, but this is not the case. Both Vonnegut and the creators of South Park (Trey Park and Matt Stone) use satire and absurd — and often crude or offensive — humor to attack the inconsistencies of life in America. Both operate by using satire to teach readers or viewers about the issues affecting us. Vonnegut takes a literary approach, peppered with science fiction and an unusual writing style to teach about the dangers of putting too much faith in science and religion, as well as using his satire to point out that America often does not live up to her lofty ideals. Parker and Stone take a decidedly cruder approach, but use satire in the same way — to teach a lesson. They use their comedy to make racists, religious fanatics and other bigots objects of ridicule instead of celebrating them. Certainly, the novels of Vonnegut and South Park have their difference, but they are not worlds apart.

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