Spoilers for South Park: Season 21, Episode 1
A few weeks ago South Park’s 21st season got off to a topical start by skewering white nationalism. And… at first it seemed kind of toothless. Taking up the traditional South Park battle cry of ‘Dey Terk Er Jerbs’, rednecks marched with tiki torches and confederate flags, this time against Siri and Alexa. This seemed kind of lacklustre because it reduced racism to purely economic motives, while economic crashes are undoubtedly one cause of rising racism, cause and motive are different things. Economic hardship no doubt created the conditions for radical white nationalism to thrive, but people who are drawn to it likely have deeper issues. It also replaces the victims of white nationalism, the very reason white nationalism should concern us, with literal objects. Another noteworthy change was that confederate flags predominated at the rally, whereas Nazi flags were entirely absent. Similarly, the outrageous real-life chant of ‘Jews will not replace us’ was sanitised to ‘You will not replace us’, because reality has now become more shocking than South Park. This toning down of Nazi rhetoric early in the episode was initially troubling.
The episode started to improve with Randy’s plotline. While the rednecks struggled to adapt to South Park’s changing economy, Randy jumped in headfirst and created a home makeover show called White People Renovating Houses. When Randy’s filming was disturbed by a white nationalist rally his primary concern was how it effects his show’s image. This was Randy’s primary motive for the rest of the episode, and it ultimately lead him to a sticking plaster solution when he renovated the house of a white nationalist. The people inside were still waving confederate flags, but it became open plan, and modern, and there were confederate flags on throw pillows. The core problem of racism was never addressed, just the problem of the racism being old fashioned. This plot-line struck me as a surprisingly considered look both at how white nationalism makes other white people feel threatened by exposing subtler forms of racism, and the ways in which white nationalists have modernised to conceal their racism. But where the episode’s commentary got really clever was with a subplot that’s been largely overlooked as just a silly return to the old South Park.
Throughout the episode Cartman’s plotline revolved around him becoming exasperated in his relationship with Heidi. This isn’t because of anything she’s done, she was actively trying to make the relationship work, Cartman was just too Cartman and could only see her in terms of nagging stereotypes. Cartman mentally contrasted Heidi with his Alexa device, which has a woman’s voice but no will of its own. As Heidi continued to try and work on their relationship, Cartman decided she was mentally abusing him, and his attempts to call her on this ended up being real emotional abuse towards her. She internalised his accusations, and blamed herself, but just as she started to give in he ended the relationship. Perhaps accidentally, this was a far better explanation of how white nationalism comes about than simply a lack of jobs.
In this plotline Heidi could be interpreted as discriminated against minorities within society, while Cartman is the response of parts of the white majority to them. Heidi brought to the table ways in which their relationship is affecting her negatively, but changing these problems would be work for Cartman. It might even require him to change himself. So, he just saw it as needless nagging. In this light mental abuse is analogous to racism, Cartman was enjoying the relationship as it was, and when asked to change for Heidi’s good he saw this as mental abuse, much as some white people see any attack on their privilege as ‘reverse racism’. Of course, what Cartman responded with was actual abuse, and this is where white nationalism enters the metaphor. Much white nationalist racism is motivated by a narrative in which they are the real victims of racism. Cartman eventually leaving Heidi could be seen as the final step towards white nationalism, openly advocating for a white nation state.
One of the interesting things about this metaphor is that it may have been entirely accidental. One of South park’s strengths is that the dialogue is often very simple and repetitive with a lot of pauses, this seems to make it very effective at suggesting a deeper meaning. And while this interpretation sprung quickly into my mind upon watching the episode, it’s only really signalled by the plotlines running parallel to it. Even if it is accidental it doesn’t take away from its effect, but I hope its intentional. Because if it is it may be a partial mea culpa. In the past few seasons South Park has massively overreacted to concepts it’s seen as PC, for example writing an entire song about their poorly understood conception of a safe space. How I wish this was a sign that they now recognise how they were overreacting.