Ever since LGBT-Today launched more than a year ago, I’ve wanted to devote one of my monthly articles to Comedy Central’s cartoon series South Park. There’s no question in my mind that the program sends pro-gay messages, but it’s a challenge to synthesize what the program has to say about virtually any subject for at least two reasons.
First, South Park is steeped in satire, which means it’s hard to sort out what’s being parodied and what’s being pilloried. Second, the program’s creators pride themselves on defying all labels, whether it’s that the series is liberal or conservative . . . pro-diversity or anti-diversity . . . women-hating or women-loving.
So I’ve finally decided that the approach I’ll take is to focus on what I consider the program’s definitive episode showing its pro-gay leanings. My choice is “Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride,” which aired way back in 1997 during the program’s very first season.
The plot line I’m interested in revolves around one of the show’s central characters, a third grader named Stan, and his brand new dog, Sparky. To test whether Sparky is as tough as his owner claims, another of the central characters, a third grader named Cartman, challenges Stan to have his dog fight the town’s widely acknowledged toughest dog, Sylvester.
When Sparky opts not to attack Sylvester but, instead, to hump him from the rear, Cartman announces that Stan’s dog clearly is a “gay homosexual.”
(One of the delights of the segment is that Sparky’s voice—which is limited entirely to barks—is provided by George Clooney, a guy who’s known for enjoying humping in his own right.)
Stan isn’t sure exactly what being a “gay homosexual” means, so he goes to his teacher, Mr. Garrison, and asks him. South Park isn’t real keen on the American educational system, and Mr. Garrison is a symbol of what’s wrong with it. And so, in keeping with the show’s celebration of satire, the teacher tells Stan:
“Stanley, gay people, well, gay people are evil. Evil right down to their cold black hearts, which pump not blood like yours and mine, but a thick, vomitous oil that oozes through their rotten veins and clots in their pea-sized brains which becomes the cause of their Nazi-esque patterns of violent behavior.”
Even this early in the series, fans know that Mr. Garrison isn’t just an idiot but also a closeted gay man, so they recognize his ridiculous tirade as . . . a ridiculous tirade.
(For those of you who aren’t familiar with the standard South Park format and, therefore, are wondering when the pro-gay content is coming, hold on . . . you’re almost there!)
After hearing his teacher’s condemnation of gay people and as Cartman continues to snipe “Stan’s dog is a homo,” Stan comes up with a tactic he’s sure will make his pet’s masculinity come shining through. That is, he introduces Sparky to what the boy sees as an irresistibly feminine French poodle named Fifi. But instead of humping the pretty pooch, Sparky steals her jewel-encrusted collar.
Series creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker don’t like labels, but they LOVE stereotypes!
After Stan’s plan fails, the increasingly frustrated boy says—not knowing that Sparky’s within earshot—“I don’t want a gay dog. I want a butch dog. I want a Rin Tin Tin.”
Sparky’s so broken hearted after hearing this comment that he runs away from home, wandering into the mountains of Colorado where the town of South Park is located.
Stan then goes in search of his dog, eventually discovering that Sparky’s been given shelter at a place called Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Animal Sanctuary.
The Big Gay Al character is the definition of flamboyance. He lisps, rests his hand on his hip, and wears a baby blue scarf and a shirt that’s a swirl of neon-bright colors. What’s more, the plump and effeminate man dots his conversation with words such as “precious” and phrases such as “silly buns.”
(South Park’s creators don’t limit their stereotypes to gay ones. The only African American boy in town is named Token, and the most prominent African American man in the series is also the show’s most highly sexualized character.)
It’s when the location switches to the animal sanctuary that the episode’s pro-gay messages start appearing. Big Gay Al invites Stan to join him on Big Gay Al’s Boat Ride that turns into a journey through history, South Park style.
“Gays have existed since the beginning of time,” Big Gay Al tells the lad, while the shoreline is lined with images of gay cavemen, gay pharaohs from ancient Egypt, and gay Shoguns in long-ago Japan—all of them smiling and holding hands with each other.
The boat’s paunchy pilot also introduces Stan to anti-gay forces when he suddenly screeches, “Look out, it’s the oppressors—Christians and Republicans and Nazis, oh my!” These words are reinforced by images of the various types of homophobic zealots standing along the shoreline.
“Let’s steer our Big Gay Boat out of here,” Al then says, “to a place where gays are allowed to live freely.” That place turns out to be inhabited by men wearing skin-tight black leather pants and vests (more stereotypes!) as they watch a male figure skater glide by in a frilly costume (still more stereotypes!).
By this point, Stan’s been completely transformed in his attitude toward homosexuality. So when Big Gay Al asks the boy how he’s feeling, Stan responds, “This kicks ass!”
The boy’s quote not only captures the third grader’s feelings about being introduced to the positive side of the gay world but also provides a taste of the explicit language that’s a trademark of the series—as well as a reminder that one of South Park’s strongest themes is unequivocal support of speech being free, free, gloriously free!
Now that he’s all rah-rah about all things gay, the enlightened Stan apologizes to his dog, saying, “I’m sorry I tried to change you, Sparky. I just didn’t understand.”
The episode next shifts to the South Park football stadium where the team’s playing its annual homecoming game, and Stan takes his place as quarterback.
This part of the segment allows the creators to toss in a few of their signature offensive lines. Among the gems that spew out of the men calling the game’s plays are “I haven’t seen a beating like that since Rodney King” and “I haven’t seen a Jew run like that since Poland, 1938.”
In the final play, Stan throws a touchdown pass and becomes the game’s hero. He then stands in front of the cheering crowd and announces, “It’s OK to be gay.” As the townspeople drop their jaws at the boy’s high fives to homosexuality, a smiling Stan adds, “Being gay is just part of nature and a beautiful thing.”
Matt Stone and Trey Parker don’t like labels, but they definitely got a big fat “Pro-Gay” one after the episode aired. The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Newsweek were among the titans of American journalism that praised South Park for sending unambiguously supportive messages vis-à-vis the LGBT community.
Out magazine jumped on the bandwagon, too, when it named Big Gay Al one of the year’s most influential gay men.
By Rodger Streitmatter
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