South Park’s Ironic Whiteness

Curator's Note

As scholars like Richard Dyer and George Lipsitz have pointed out, one of the difficulties in studying "whiteness" in the U.S. and Western Europe is its presence both as a dominant and a silent (oppressive) norm. Irony, however, allows a text to rely on the process of the construction of the dominant itself and a knowledge of its insufficiency or undesirability. In this clip from South Park's first episode of their eleventh season, we see Randy Marsh (often used affectionately to point out social hypocrisy) negotiating the politics of race and political correctness. Although it could be seen as a reactionary critique of "reverse racism," the cultural references here destabilize such a viewpoint, as they allude to the construction of victimized whiteness juxtaposed with films that engage U.S. racism (e.g. A Time to Kill (1996) and Training Day (2001)) as well as recent historical examples of racial scandals (i.e. Michael Richards, Trent Lott, and Mark Fuhrman). It thus renders visible (and ironic) both the presence of whiteness and the active silencing of white privilege by dominant institutions, particularly in media and the legislature. In this way South Park deploys irony as a targeted mode of critique, disrupting traditional binaries through which race is seen and reinterrogating the very process of constructing tolerance and victimhood in a time of neoconservative/neoliberal dominance. Rather than eliminating polysemy, it relies on multiple viewpoints held at the same time, accentuating dissonance in cultural production/reception and opening lines of discourse foreclosed by both the mainstream left and the right.


Ted, thanks for a very thought-provoking clip and post. I really like your point that irony “allows a text to rely on the process of the construction of the dominant itself and a knowledge of its insufficiency or undesirability.” My question for you--and everyone reading--is what happens when we start thinking about audiences and the meaning-making process. I am not an official South Park scholar but, in my mind, the show functions as a sort of Rorschach inkblot test; viewers see what they want to see, or what affirms their own ideological position(s). After this episode aired, Karen Hunter—a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and the first African-American woman to write a news column for the Daily News—watched a clip of the episode with other commentators on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now." In the clip Randy Marsh attempts to buy aspirin at a convenience store but is told: “You aren't welcome in this store, Nigger Guy." Here’s the exchange that followed on CNN: ZAHN: Are you offended by that? HUNTER: Now I am that you guys think it's so funny. ZAHN: Well, you said it was funny. HUNTER: It was funny before you all thought it was funny. Now it's not funny. Hunter’s point is similar to the one Bambi Haggins makes in her book Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America: “In the end I don’t know what you’re laughing at--and that’s what worries me” (236). I just did a quick search on the episode. Posters on, the fourth Google result (a wikipedia entry was third), praise it for being “brilliant,” “hilarious,” and “fucking hysterical.” As one writes, “The latest episode of South Park was brilliant. You can say ‘nigger’ as long as there are at least seven words before you say ‘guy.’” Another poster responds, “Cartman was brilliant as well with his midget hate and cries for a race war.” Context can be devastating. South Park is one of the most interesting programs on television and I think that so much more research is needed. Even if the intended moral/message of the episode is as simple as what Stan states in its conclusion (“I'll never really get how it feels for a black person to have somebody use the n-word”) it seems that message—and perhaps much of what Ted seems to be commending-– is lost on (or ignored by?) many audience members.

I tend to agree with Viveca that South Park's irony can (and likely is) read in a number of different ways. What comes to mind for me is Linda Hutcheon's concept of discursive communities. She argues that irony is dependent on the pre-existence of shared understandings and cultural cues - that one must already be a member of the particular discursive community in play to appreciate (or correctly read) its irony. In the case of South park, however, the irony often appears deliberately ambiguous, likely because it strives to appeal to a wide audience (made up of multiple discursive communities). In other words, it seems like the possibility of highly diverse readings of the show's humor is built in to the program. Though I believe the writers of this particular episode intended to produce an anti-racist commentary, the style of the show is so diffusely ironic that it cannot foreclose its alternate readings.

Thanks to Ted for starting us off with this provocative clip and to Viveca and Amber for bringing up interesting and necessary questions of audience. Just to continue on with this discussion of interpretation a bit longer, it would seem important to ask which meanings from this segment – and the program more generally – are those that are most often “socially activated” (to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Gray’s ‘Watching with the Simpsons’) or even socially-sanctioned, and how this process takes place. For while the irony here may de-naturalize the dominant by highlighting its construction, and may reverberate with ambiguity, it is nonetheless subject to framing processes (e.g. advertising, program placement, mainstream accounts) that push reception in particular directions. This is not to undermine the polysemy of the text or the possibility of multiple interpretive positions, but just to come back to questions of context (discursive, commercial, social, political). But Viveca said it quite succinctly: context can be devastating.

Thanks to you all for such great comments. I'd agree that context is in fact devastating...but so is decontextualization, as Catherine pointed out. Is it more important that enjoyed the use of the "n-word" without acknowledging the use of incredulous, angry, and offended viewers within the show itself, or more important to listen to the founders of "Abolish The N-Word" when they praised it for heightening racial consciousness? Or neither, or both? Is it perhaps the function of irony to highlight the very instability of discourse, and thus to point out the areas of social instability that have some kind of socio-political poignancy, and maybe even the hypocrisy or blindness of those that claim a progressive (or reactionary) agenda? Within the frame of a parodic, satiric, and aggressively oppositional television production, how does such an episode function? Is it dependent on its audiences, or are its audiences dependent on the manner in which the discourse is more broadly constructed? It seems that these are the issues that need to be dealt with in regard to irony and politics...ambiguity is, as Viveca hints at above, almost impossible with such a charged issue. So how do we resolve it?

Context can damn any well-meaning show, though, ironic or not. I can imagine skinheads watching Schindler's List, for instance, and cheering on Ralph Fiennes' character. That said, ironic/parodic/satiric shows seem to occupy particularly volatile space, where they're criticized for not being more explicit, yet to do so would involve a seriously unfunny and preachy level of didacticism. In some senses then, I think ironic communication draws our attention to a basic rule of much communication -- that for the audience member to truly feel involved in the production of meaning, there will always need to be the opportunity for them to reject what's there, and to create their own meaning(s). Thus, for instance, while a Saved by the Bell serious version of Stan's "you know I learnt something today" would no doubt leave less untidy semiotic strings than does something like this clip, I find it hard to imagine Zac or Slater's momentary political consciousness sinking in with audiences and being something as portable, use-able, and semiotically rich as something like this. To draw an analogy, I often tell my students that the A papers took a risk that the B+ ones were scared to take since they didn't want to be C+ papers; to me (and I realize this is all quite personal, not universal), South Park at its best can hit A's (though also some C+'s) while Saved by the Bell is playing for B+ at best.

What I was taking issue with was the idea that this episode’s cultural references are sufficient to “destabilize” other readings of the show, including a reading that sees it as a “reactionary critique of reverse racism.” Ted and I have argued it elsewhere: are some ironic texts are less stable (ideologically) than others? I think they are and that South Park is among the least stable programs on the air. As I've only spoken to viewers very informally though I don’t know if audiences even think it's ambiguous though: maybe they see it as highly didactic (albeit in different ways). Is didactic inversely correlated with funny? Isn’t Jon Stewart both? Might we consider South Park somewhat didactic if we read it the way Ted is, or does its irreverent tone protect it from such charges? And, perhaps most pressingly, does it really "[open] lines of discourse foreclosed by both the mainstream left and the right"? We're having a fairly serious discussion here about language, representation and meaning but not really about the word the episode hinges on or about race. Mea culpa.

Very good point about some texts being more or less stable, and SP clearly is one -- after all, it's been claimed as a conservative show, which to me seems odd, but shows how open it is to such a claim. As for didacticism, when I use that word I tend to think of a certain inflexibility. Jon Stewart hams it up, and though I'm convinced he cares deeply about what he says, and he effectively communicates this, comic rejoinders or not, but he opens the door for you to laugh it off. I think pure didacticism makes no such gesture, too besotted with its own feelings of self-righteousness. As for your latter questions, Viveca, I think it does open up *some* such lines in as much as it's allowed to use such a strategy of ifs, buts, and "instability," where mainstream left and right (if by this we mean the parties themselves, and the news?) only ever speak as though the earth is wholly solid underneath them. And I think that connects to the word itself and to being about race (or, at least, we can make it do so), since it signals the degree to which as race has been colonized by the field of politics, it's become quite rare to see less "stable" public discussions of it. And of the word itself, as evident in much mainstream punditocracy discussion in the wake of the Don Imus firing. Irony perhaps opens up some doors for a more contingent, less sure of itself discussion -- though I realize I'm speaking in ideals and best case scenarios here :-)

[...] some intellectual (seriously, though, no joke at all!) commentary on this episode, check out this neat little site. I completely agree that context makes all the difference in the world. The intent of the author [...]

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