I was 15 when 9/11 happened — still going through my teenage angst years, and still fond of pissing people off for my immediate amusement. I’d name my character “Osama” in video games, and try to fly vehicles into other players. I’d joke with my friends about making paper airplanes, sprinkling them with sugar, and well… you get the picture. The latter never materialized. Even with balls of steel and a chip on my shoulder, I knew that wouldn’t go over well. And I got banned from that video game. There were very real limits to what one could say about that event, and there still are, but the climate has shifted considerably. I can think of no better indicator of that shift than the latest episode of South Park.
Context: yesterday my students couldn’t stop talking about the latest episode of south park. We had analyzed the show earlier in the semester, and they were trying to convince me we should watch this new one. I wrote it off at first, aware that they probably just wanted to watch t.v. in class. Now I wish I had given them the benefit of the doubt. The episode is a brilliant lampoon of MTV’s Jersey Shore, a series that has already been in the public spotlight due to its use of the racial epithet “guido” in promotions. Cast members of Jersey shore are predominately Italian-American, and unfortunately, their trashy appearance and behavior couldn’t fit the stereotype better. They even refer to themselves as “guidos,” and the women refer to themselves as “guidettes.” South Park exaggerates the stereotype in typical fashion, but it’s effectually a caricature of a c(h)aracture, if you get my drift.
In the episode, the country is being taken over by “new jersyians” and the citizens of South Park are forced to barricade their borders and fend off the invaders. One could interpret this as a reified nationalist trope, casting the “guidos” as foreign devils invading the country, but that would be an oversimplification. To my mind, it’s more a critique levied at the degeneration of American pop culture. The “guido” stereotype may have once been used to negatively differentiate and American “us” from a foreign “them,” but Jersey Shore inverts that function. The stereotype is being used as a positive affirmation of “us,” and South Park is basically saying “if shit like this is popular, soon we’ll all be ‘guido’ trash.” Certainly, the term doesn’t apply to Italian Americans specifically in this context.
Okay, so here’s where it gets good. In a last ditch effort to fend off the “new jersyians,” South Park enlists the help of Osama bin Laden. Watch and be amazed:
What follows is nothing short of spectacular. A fleet of 737s destroy the invaders from New Jersey kamikaze style. Randy (one of the protagonists in the episode) adorns Bin Laden in ceremonial fashion and kisses both his cheeks. And then…
One has to wonder if this was necessary in order for South Park to get away with making Osama the hero/savior, but the fact that they did indeed get away with it is telling. It means 9/11 isn’t really off limits anymore, and that’s at least a step in the right direction. And by casting Osama as the savior, Parker and Stone (the writers of South Park) managed to send a fairly powerful message. They don’t like the debauchery of the American mainstream any better than radical Islam, and extremists presumably conflate base representations like Jersey Shore for U.S. culture itself. In short, they’re saying “if I thought America was this bullshit, I’d hate it too.” And if they hadn’t killed off Osama, they’d be saying “the terrorists were right.” For my money, it’s a little bit of both.
Praise be to Allah, Guantanamo here I come!