Fourteen years after it first started, South Park remains one of the funniest comedy shows in the world. I am a massive fan, I’ve watched every single one all the way back to the start. Some of them are among the most powerful satirical statements of our time, like the way they absolutely nailed Mel Gibson’s obsession with torture to the one where they managed to make every single person involved in the Terri Schiavo sitation look evil.
I wanted to say all that to make it clear at least part of the reason I’m writing this is concern for the future of a show I love. Because although the most recent series still have hilarious episodes, there are more and more crap ones as well. And a big part of the reason is that South Park is increasingly depending on the “shock value” of rape jokes.
The absolute low point came a couple of years ago in season 12, with an episode about the newest Indiana Jones movie. In it, there were repeated scenes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg raping Indy, as a comment on how crappy the 4th installment of his adventures was. Before we see this we see the boys having flashbacks, traumatised and crying, as they come to admit that “one of our friends was raped.” But then, da dum tsh, the joke turns out that the rape is of Indiana Jones. Ha ha, you never saw that coming did you?!
This episode was widely criticised for being insensitive, unpleasant and unfunny. As if to rub in our faces what they were doing, they didn’t make this joke once, but kept coming back throughout the episode to graphic and pretty horrible rape scenes that aped movies like ‘Deliverance.’
Since then the word rape crops up week after week. In this week’s episode, school councillor Mr Mackey comes out with “Don’t touch that or I will rape you in the mouth!” out of nowhere, before we see a scene of him being abused as a child. Last week they made a character from a US reality TV show into a weird monster which pounced on Cartman with him crying “It’s raping me! It’s raping me!”
Yet again, it seems, we need to go over why it’s not cool to make rape jokes. People who find rape funny are generally men, and generally have no idea just how prevalent it is in our society. The odds are that you know someone who has experienced rape or sexual abuse. A big part of the reason I can’t find these episodes funny is because when they start laughing about rape, I think about my friends and how it has affected their lives. Shows like South Park, Family Guy and The Mighty Boosh use rape so freely, as just another word to shock and get a laugh, that they rob it of how important it is. In their ignorance, they have no idea how many people are going to watch these episodes and suffer from real flashbacks, and genuine trauma, unlike the pretend horror and terror experienced by Stan and Kyle “for a laugh”.
Now, a common response to this is, yes, rape is awful, but so is murder, so why is it being singled out? The problem with that is it ignores the way rape is treated by the justice system throughout the world. Rape is a crime overwhelmingly committed by men against women. In Scotland, only 3% of those tried for rape end up convicted. There are two ways to explain this: either 97% of women who report being raped are crazy liars, or the justice system is systematically sexist and biased against women. These figures of course leave out all those who didn’t even go to the police because they knew at best it would be a waste of time, and at worst it could lead to their public humiliation in court and being branded a liar by the press.
In other words, our society doesn’t take rape seriously. We’ve come a long way from the past in terms of attitudes, but their remains the patriarchal social attitude that women basically deserve it (“What were you wearing? How much had you had to drink? Are you sexually promiscuous?”), and that rape basically performs a function of putting women in their place, and disciplining them for not being sexually available.
In that context, rape jokes help to normalise rape, help to make people feel that it’s not that bad. If rape is only as bad as the latest Indiana Jones movie, then what’s the big deal? When you try and pull someone up for making an unfunny, offensive and hurtful rape joke, inevitably they get defensive, because they find it hard to deal with being challenged. They will tell you that you’re being ridiculous, that it was just a joke, that you should calm down. The fact that big popular shows back them up on rape as comedy scenario is only going to make this worse.
Now, I also want to make clear that I know South Park deliberately sets out to offend. I have been watching it you know. And I understand that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are nobody’s political allies. They are just as happy to mercilessly rip the pish out of anyone from anywhere on the political spectrum. They are not feminists.
But there’s a difference between the rape jokes and, say, Cartman’s constant anti-semitic abuse. And that is that ultimately, you are not meant to respect and admire Cartman. He is ultimately a fat, unbearable spoiled little dick. And many of the targets of the show’s satire are well found – it is funny to laugh at the hypocrisy of liberal Hollywood actors for example. But laughing at the expense of rape survivors just isn’t funny. What South Park does best is forensically take apart why a person or group is hypocritical, full of shit or otherwise worthy of being mocked, and do it mercilessly. The rape jokes aren’t that, they are harnessing the power of rape to shock to produce a cheap laugh from ignorant, uncaring idiots. For the rest of us, it’s JUST NOT FUNNY.
There really isn’t much that’s funny about rape survivors, and they don’t deserve to have their pain mocked, or treated as if it’s the same as seeing a really bad film. Hurting or offending them is something I care about, in a way I don’t, for example, about Scientologists or John Edward. If the show isn’t funny, then it’s failing not just in terms of feminism or decent treatment of fellow human beings, but in terms of COMEDY.
FAO The Mighty Boosh: Changing the rapist to the Donnie Darko bunny doesn't make it funny
So I’m not just saying this because I am pro-feminist. I am saying it because I love South Park. I think it is genuinely one of the greatest and most daring comedies that’s been on in my lifetime. I know it will come to an end one day, but I don’t want it to have a slow death of seasons sprinkled with unfunny episodes. Constantly relying on rape jokes is a sign that the writing is weakening, that they can’t come up with the goods as often as they used to. I’ve seen it happen before, with the latest series of The Mighty Boosh, which was far less funny than the other two, and, not coincidentally, relied heavily on rape jokes.
Another thing that shows that South Park and The Mighty Boosh understand what they’re doing is the reliance on what initally look like cute things that then turn out to be evil. In the latest episode they go on a field trip to the woods, where there’s a mascot called Woodsy Owl that sings a little song encouraging the kids not to litter. As soon as I saw it, the first thing I thought was that it would turn out to be some kind of paedophile. And surprise surprise it turned out I was right. I’ve been trying to see if I can find if there’s a proper term for this phenomenon of the cute turning out to be evil, and couldn’t get any closer than coulrophobia or fear of the ‘evil clown’ (e.g. “Stephen King’s It”). But you’ll know what I mean when I refer to the Woodland Critters of the South Park Christmas special a couple of years ago for example.
Blending horror concepts with comedy can work and be funny, but the fact that I knew what Woodsy Owl was the second I saw him means that this particular trope is being overused and is losing it’s power. To me, it’s appearance was simply about using things that are cute, and therefore associated with childhood and innocence, and violating those expectations to give the eventual shock all the more power. Except it’s getting boring and predictable. But more importantly, the shock and horror of abuse are very real for millions of people, and by laughing at it you’re making them feel humiliated and angry.
I’m not saying that rape is a topic that can never be discussed or treated in TV or other media. Absolutely not. But I would like to see the makers of shows try and do it a bit sympathetically, with at least a token of trying to understand reality rather than sensational patriarchal propaganda that has no care for people’s feelings. Using the word and the act of rape as a cheap shock tactic to get a nervous laugh out of the audience (or, certainly, a big laugh from sexist, ignorant bastards) just isn’t good comedy. And it’s killing the enjoyment of one of my favourite shows for me. So consider this a plea to Trey Parker and Matt Stone to think a little bit more, and come up with more episodes of the show I love.