Last month I wrote an article describing how South Park sends positive messages about gay men. This month I’m looking at how the series treats lesbians and transgender people. As to whether the messages about the L and the T in LGBT are positive, the regrettable answer is . . . not so much.
The best way to approach the program’s content on this topic is to focus on Mr. Garrison, a character who teaches at the town of South Park’s elementary school.
For the first several seasons, Mr. Garrison was shown to be not only inept at his job—he claims to hold a master’s degree from Denver Community College, and he’s sometimes shown walking into the classroom and yelling at his students, “Sit down and shut the fuck up!”—but also as racist and homophobic, even though he’s a closeted gay man.
By season 6, things had changed dramatically. Mr. Garrison had come to terms with his sexuality and had a leather-clad boyfriend named Mr. Slave.
(Mr. Garrison had, in fact, turned out to be unlike any gay teacher I’ve ever heard of—or any gay man, for that matter—because he was performing sexually explicit acts in front of his students, including stuffing a gerbil up Mr. Slave’s rectum.)
An even bigger change erupted in season 9 when Mr. Garrison announced that he’d always felt like a woman trapped inside a man’s body. And so, he had a “vaginaplasty” and became a woman—now calling himself Mrs. Garrison. She had female breasts but continued to have the male-pattern baldness she’d had when she was a man.
Season 11 saw yet another twist in the character’s gender evolution when she suddenly realized she was a lesbian.
No, I’m not making this stuff up. Maybe such multi-stage plot lines are inevitable when a show survives for so many seasons—South Park is now in its 15th. Think of all the love affairs and marriages and divorces and abortions that play out on long-running soap operas. (If All My Children had lasted another season, I’m thinking Susan Lucci would have become a man.)
By season 12, Mrs. Garrison decided having the sex-change operation was a mistake. So she underwent surgery a second time, becoming Mr. Garrison again.
You definitely deserve a gold star for sticking with me as I’ve piloted you through the various stages in Mr. Garrison’s gender history—indeed; it’s almost as complex as Newt Gingrich’s marital history!
So now I want to move on to why I conclude—even though I’m a big fan of South Park—the messages vis-à-vis lesbians and transgender people fall into the negative category.
If I had to choose a single word to summarize my thinking, it would be . . . stereotypes.
For example, the episode titled “D-Yikes!” is about Mrs. Garrison realizing she’s a lesbian, and it’s filled with stereotypes. Gay women are portrayed as angry (a whole lot of screaming and scowling), as man-hating (Mrs. Garrison says, “I just hate men” and kicks a guy in the testicles), and as promiscuous (most every woman at a lesbian bar has slept with most every other woman).
I’m generally not opposed to the satirical program’s love affair with exaggerated stereotypes, as it’s one of the show’s signature traits. Unlike with the “Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride” episode that I highlighted when crowning the program “pro-gay” in my last article, though, “D-Yikes!” doesn’t have any positive message to balance out the avalanche of stereotypes.
That is, there’s no statement like the ones at the end of “Big Gay Al” when Stan tells everyone in town, “It’s OK to be gay” and “Being gay is just part of nature and a beautiful thing.”
If I could choose a second word to characterize how the program sends negative messages, I’d go with . . . absurd.
One episode that supports this point is “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina.” This is the segment when the teacher announces he feels like a woman and then has a sex change.
That’s all well and good, except that the segment also has the doctor performing a “negroplasty” on one of the program’s central characters, 8-year-old Kyle. That procedure includes the boy having Mr. Garrison’s detached testicles becoming his knees so he can become African American and tall, thereby succeeding—after having failed because he’s white and short—in his tryout for the all-state basketball team.
(I told you the operative word is “absurd,” so was I right or what? And there’s more to come!)
When Kyle’s father goes to complain to the plastic surgeon about what the guy’s done to his son, the doctor notices the dolphin on the dad’s T-shirt and, in short order, performs an operation called a “dolphinoplasty” that makes the dad look like a dolphin, using Mr. Garrison’s former scrotum to fashion the dorsal fin.
South Park fans are accustomed to such absurdities, such as the episode in which the five stars of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy are transformed into Crab People. But for a critic (that would be me) trying to assess how the series treats transgender people, it’s pretty clear that the message is: gender reassignment surgery is the height of silliness.
So how could any self-respecting member of the LGBT community (again, that would be me) continue to watch such a series?
My single word of choice this time is . . . humor.
On the topic at hand, I’ll give just two examples. The first one comes in the “D-Yikes!” episode when Mrs. Garrison realizes she’s a lesbian. She’s working out at Curves when a woman named Allison suggests they spend the night together. The newbie is open to the idea, but she doesn’t understand how lesbians have sex unless, she muses, maybe it involves “scissoring.”
The next image on the screen is of her—still with her male-patterned baldness—and Allison, stripped down to their underwear and going at it on the floor. Describing their positions is beyond my writing abilities, but try to imagine two women positioned so they’re rubbing their crotches together while each woman’s legs are intertwined with the other’s while those same legs are sort of flailing upward like the handles and blades of a pair of scissors.
Mrs. Garrison clearly likes what’s happening, as she squeals, “Oh, yeah, scissor! Scissor me, Allison!” A couple seconds later when the song “Come to My Window” is playing in the background and Mrs. Garrison screams in ecstasy, “Scissor my timbers!” . . . I’m giggling like Anderson Cooper.
My other example of a woo-who moment is in an episode, titled “Tom’s Rhinoplasty,” that includes a plotline revolving around the four boys who star in the program being smitten by their beautiful substitute teacher. As soon as they see her, wide smiles spread across their faces and whimsical little hearts float around their heads.
The boys aren’t the least bit daunted when they learn that Ms. Ellen is a lesbian and that “she only likes other lesbians.” Indeed, the boys immediately decide to become lesbians, too, so Ms. Ellen will like them. When one of the lads, Cartman, asks his mother what he’ll have to do to become a lesbian, she tells him he’ll have to learn “to lick carpet.”
When the next scene shows the four 8-year-old boys dutifully kneeling on their hands and knees . . . with their tongues extended out of their mouths and . . . literally licking the carpet in Cartman’s living room . . . it’s another laugh-out-loud moment.
Whether or not getting some laughs from such humor is worth putting up with the negative messages about the L and the T from LGBT is a decision each person has to make for himself or herself. And so I’m only speaking for myself when I say that, in my opinion, South Park is one of the most entertaining shows on TV today.
By Rodger Streitmatter
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