Now Reading
Did South Park finally get it right on trans issues?

Did South Park finally get it right on trans issues?

South Park, now in its 18th season, has been controversial from the word go. Nothing is considered ‘too taboo’ for creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker – with topics including gay rights, abortion, AIDS and Scientology firmly in their crosshairs.

Usually, topics aren’t picked and lampooned at random. Unlike other adult-oriented cartoons like Family Guy, South Park is notable for its social commentary. For example, the first season episode ‘Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride’ discussed how being gay is OK, whereas the two-part ‘Cartoon Wars’ episodes, which referenced the Danish cartoonist controversy surrounding depictions of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, made its arguments on the importance of freedom of speech and not to give in to threats of violence.

This weeks’ episode, ‘The Cissy’, revolved around gender identity, and recent cases allowing trans children to use facilities of the gender they identify with. It begins with Eric Cartman deciding he’s now transgender, donning a bow and calling himself ‘Erica’, just so he can use the girl’s bathroom. This is immediately challenged by the girls and faculty – not because of anti-trans prejudice, but simply because it’s Cartman. 

To put this into context: Eric Cartman is one of televisions’ most bigoted characters, being frequently racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and more. He also once killed and cooked the parents of a teenager over $16.12. He will manipulate any situation to his advantage, and whilst his teachers and peers are powerless to stop him, they can see right through him. This is a distinction that is made throughout the episode.

The school’s principal tries to defend not allowing Cartman to use the girls room, saying: ‘But this isn’t a hurt and confused child we’re talking about, this is Eric Cartman!’. Wendy Testaburger also criticises Cartman, sternly telling him: ‘There are people actually struggling with their gender identity’.

Cartman is eventually given his own ‘executive bathroom’ and revels in his special treatment. In a bid to expose him, Wendy starts presenting as ‘Wendell’ and gains access to what is now referred to as the ‘transgender bathroom’ – which disgusts Cartman. He becomes further enraged when Stan, the one character who actually shows signs of questioning their gender identity, starts using the bathroom, and manages to convince some of the other students that Stan is a transphobic ‘cissy’. Throughout, it is made blatantly clear that Cartman is taking advantage of protections afforded to trans students, and is in no way a slur on trans people.

For a show which revels in being un-PC (Stone and Parker ‘really fucking hate liberals’), this sudden acceptance of trans issues shown by many of the characters was unexpected and completely refreshing. South Park hasn’t exactly had the best track record when discussing transgender people, with trans issues being the focus of ridicule in two earlier episodes.

The first, ‘Mr Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina’, focused on the fourth grade teacher undergoing gender reassignment because he wants to get pregnant and have an abortion. Throughout the episode, gender reassignment surgery is compared with other, more ludicrous procedures including being turned into a dolphin. The episode ends with the characters discussing how having surgery doesn’t change who you are. Whilst it can be argued Garrison was never trans to begin with, the dolphin comparison is similar to what one may find in the comments section of the Daily Mail.

The next trans episode, ‘Eek! A Penis!’, was released in 2008, and was a commentary on Thomas Beatie being the ‘first pregnant man’. Garrison comes to the conclusion that gender is what you have between your legs, and eventually transitions back into a man.

Now six years since the topic was last raised, South Park has matured in their discussion on trans rights. Whilst no actual trans characters appear throughout the episode, it remains fairly respectful. There are no jokes below the belt, or mocking different gender identities. Its made clear that much of the humour derives from Cartman’s plan falling apart as others take advantage of the policy he has abused.

The episode even does a good job in explaining what ‘cisgender’ means – from Mr Garrison, of all people. When school councillor Mr Mackey states that being cis is normal, Garrison retorts: ’Saying normal is extremely offensive to people who aren’t in that group.’ It’s not put across as a joke, but rather a statement.

The episodes’ B-story, which deals with Randy Marsh leading a double life as teenage singer Lorde, has some surprisingly poignant moments considering the bizarre setup. One such scene involves Randy/Lorde being in their place of work, and being called in to the manager’s office because some of the women are uncomfortable with them using the women’s bathroom – and being offered a segregated bathroom instead. Randy/Lorde leaves the room silently upon realising why they are being segregated. There is no punchline here, and nor should there be. As someone who has had to use a separate bathroom at the start of my transition whilst working for a large UK retailer (I was told it was in case my presence made any of the women uncomfortable), this really hit home to me.

This hits Randy hard, and as such he stops appearing as Lorde. This is in contrast to Cartman; Randy/Lorde just wants to be accepted whereas Cartman is explicitly looking for special treatment. Even though neither of the characters are arguably transgender, it shows an innate understanding that for many trans people, we don’t want to be treated differently, we just want to be treated as the gender we are. In a comedy show whose characters include a talking poo, that message cannot be understated.

In what can be seen as the episode’s most trans-positive moment, Randy’s wife, Sharon, appears to have clocked on to her husbands’ double-life. In an emotional speech, she says: ’Lorde represents something in all of us – a truth that wants to be heard. If I could talk to Lorde right now, you know what I’d tell her? I’d tell her not to let people change who she is. I’d tell her that if people are making fun of her, it’s probably because they’ve lost touch with being human. I’d tell her to keep on doing what she does, because when someone’s not allowed to express who they are inside, then we all lose.’

The episode ends with the school getting rid of the segregated transgender bathroom, allowing anyone to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. This is met with cheers from the children – except Cartman, who promptly removes his bow, saying: ‘I don’t wanna use the girl’s bathroom if anyone can use it, it’s gonna be all crowded!’. Furthermore, the segregated bathroom has now been reallocated for use by anyone who has a problem with trans people, with Principal Victoria saying it’s ‘designed to keep them away from the normal people who don’t care’.

It’s been hard to gauge the reaction to ‘The Cissy’ from the trans community. Looking at Tumblr would lead you to believe the community is outraged, although Tumblr users aren’t exactly known for calm, reasonable or informed opinions. Responses on Twitter haven’t been particularly positive either, although some appear to made their minds up that it was offensive before the episode even aired.

However, as a trans person, I’m impressed. For a show famed for being ‘non-PC’, I feel it managed to put across a topic as sensitive as gender identity in a respectable manner, which is rare in entertainment of any form. It could be argued that it wasn’t perfect – there were no actual transgender characters, nor was there any mention of people outside the gender binary. South Park is a comedy first and foremost, so we cannot expect perfection on such issues. But they did a damn good job.