by Alisha Ketry
What do South Park and the American dream have in common? Not much, but it seems safe to say that the American dream has veered from its previous ‘white picket fence’ route to something else. Many Americans look at South Park with disdain for being amoral, inappropriate, and just not what America stands for. However, upon deeper investigation into the encoding of the South Park’s messages, one finds the same commentary, ‘this is not what America stands for’. South Park takes what the American culture has become, a television obsessed, fame-seeking, materialistic society and emphasizes it only to show its flaws. It is a mirror to the American culture, granted, a vulgar mirror, but a mirror nonetheless. The way South Park does this is by encoding messages that challenge the American culture through the use of children, animation, and lowbrow humor.
The theory of cultural studies stems directly from who people are as a society and from who people are as individuals. When it comes to media, cultural studies is one of the most important theories to discuss because it is the basis for why, or why not, people watch certain things on television based on the meanings these shows inspire.
Culture is defined as, “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization”(“Culture”). Culture is what makes a television show. The content might be strongly agreeing with the culture or questioning it. Cultural studies theory is the analysis of this. The message a television show is trying to convey comes from the viewer’s interpretation. Consequently, the possibility of multiple meanings, polysemy, exists because various viewers incorporate their own experiences, lifestyles, values, and other cultural practices into their interpretations” (O’Donnell 150).
An argument may be made that a television show can only have one message based on the writer’s intention. However, this cannot be true for everyone for it is impossible for everyone to know what a writer’s message is without asking him or her, and people will have an initial reaction, thought, and opinion of a show’s meaning based on what they know, not what someone else knows.
A culture is littered with symbols that they recognize to mean something. The meaning of a symbol is decided upon by a culture, which is why one symbol in one country can mean something entirely different in another. For example, in America, when someone sees a cow it may represent food or small-town country life, but in India, which has a dominance of Hinduism, the cow is sacred.
A popular and influential theorist of cultural studies is Stuart Hall who is most famous for his encoding/decoding theory. These symbols lie in class, ethnicity, gender, etc. which are interpreted differently by each person, but understood by a culture. A culture might recognize a black man on the side of the street as an irritating bum, but an individual may recognize him as a man who has lost everything because of his race.
Hall’s theory of encoding/decoding is based on the power people exert when analyzing a television show. He discusses three main social positions when interpreting media: dominant, which is when a viewer decodes and accepts a television show ‘s intended meaning; oppositional, which is when a viewer opposes what he or she sees and interprets the opposite meaning; and negotiated, which is when a viewer mostly agrees, but disagrees with certain elements (O’Donnell 155).
Jeff Lewis, another theorist, agreed with Hall on this, giving people power which he defines as, “something which enables one person or group to exert their will and interest over others” (Lewis 25). People retain pleasure from this power by feeling accomplished at understanding the meaning or brave for questioning it.
Another theorist is John Fiske who is heavily influenced by the works of Hall. Fiske’s theory is based on codes which he defines as a rule-governed system of signs, whose rules and conventions are shared amongst members of a culture, and which is used to generate and circulate meanings in and for that culture (Fiske 4). Fiske breaks these codes into three levels which are; reality, representation, and ideology. Reality relates to appearance, behavior, speech, sound, and setting; Representation relates to technical codes with the camera , lighting, sound , music , and editing ; Ideological codes are when codes come together to be interpreted for a preferred meaning which supports ones ideology.
Cultural studies has been presented as a way to demystify what attitudes, beliefs, values, preferred forms of conduct, and ideologies are embedded and reinforced in images and supporting discourse (O’Donnell 161). Cultural studies is a way to understand why television is interpreted, how it is interpreted, and who is doing the interpreting.
Since culture is based on the agreed upon meaning of signs, television based on our culture will ultimately use these signs. Creators deliberately choose what is shown based on the meaning of the signs a culture agrees upon. For example, if a creator chooses to show a single rose, it is an underlying meaning of love, but if the creator shows that rose wilting, it may be to portray love lost. South Park takes the idea of cultural studies and runs with it. It uses the signs based around American beliefs and ideologies to break them down and present them in a perspective that can be decoded as challenging the very basis and validity of these beliefs.
Stuart Hall confronts a fundamental aspect of culture – which is power. Who has control determines what issues are important. Whether it is in politics, economics, or race, someone, or some group, holds the power. Between adults and children, adults are generally the ones holding the power.
South Park uses this specific power structure to challenge the American culture. It has been an underlying assumption that children have less understanding and less capability to make decisions. Children are a symbol, or a sign. They represent naiveté. South Park has reversed the roles and given the children the power role without the adults in the world of South Park ever knowing it. In fact, the adults are usually the ones to make things even worse and act childish.
The ideology that South Park encodes is that the adults are wise while the reality is that the children are. In the episode “Margaritaville” the citizens of South Park blindly follow Randy Marsh, Stan’s dad, treating him as a prophet of the almighty economy. The citizens treat the economy as a vengeful God. They stop spending money and walk the streets barefoot and dressed in togas. Rather than making a conscious effort to fix the economy, the adults believe they must treat it with respect and it will forgive them. It also makes the treasury department in Washington, D.C. three men who make decisions by cutting off the head of a chicken and letting it run around a chart with different solutions (such as bailout, telethon, or go to war) written on it until it dies. Wherever it lands is the decision the department makes no matter what the situation is. This is a childish way of thinking. The roles of adult and child are reversed when it is the children who finally convince the citizens that just sitting back and doing nothing will not make the economy better.
South Park is an animated series which allows for a lot of freedom. The creators are able to encode messages that a series using real actors and props wouldn’t be able to execute. According to Fiske, ideology encoding involves ideological codes “such as individualism, patriarchy, class, materialism, capitalism, and so on. All the codes come together to encode a preferred meaning that supports a certain ideology” (O’Donnell 158).
South Park uses animation to confront each of these ideologies and question the validity of them. The ideology of religion is often approached. South Park animates all of the popular prophets of the world, including Jesus, and gives them the role of a superhero troupe entitled “Super Best Friends”. By doing this, South Park takes a literal view of how some people view God as some sort of magical being that can solve all problems. It also does this with the villains of the world by making Satan a bumbling, whiny, brute who only wants popularity. An example of this is when Satan throws a sweet sixteen party for himself and sends Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy to pick up his cake. South Park animates the three mass murderers as if they are the three stooges.
The American culture is obsessed with celebrity life and South Park has no hesitation when confronting the ideology behind it. It often mocks this ideology by animating celebrities that depict what they represent rather than who they are. An example of this is in an episode with Paris Hilton, the heiress to the Hilton fortune. The animators draw her character in a way that makes her look incredibly thin, scantily clad, and obsessed with herself (she wears a necklace with her name on it).
By doing this, the creators mock the entitlement that celebrities seem to have. In the episode with Paris Hilton, she decides that she wants one of the children, Butters, to be her pet and his parents allow this to happen. The idea is that because Paris is a celebrity she can have whatever she wants including people. South Park also blends levels of encoding to portray a meaning.
An example of using animation to blend the levels of encoding is in an episode of South Park where a water park overflows and Cartman is stuck on an abandoned life raft with other people who were at the water park.
However, the people he is abandoned with are all of Hispanic descent which is the use of the reality code. Cartman is upset because he is surrounded by minorities, which is the ideology code of class, and then Cartman sings a woeful song about being surrounded by minorities which is the use of sound and music in the representation code. This episode is a good example of how South Park uses encoding to challenge the American culture because the reality is that Cartman is the minority, but the ideology of class is still what motivates him. Then South Park uses sound and music in an unconventional way to show the absurdity of it. “Sound and music create mood, attitude and other various emotions” (O’Donnell 157). At a moment of controversy over minorities, Cartman begins a musical paralleling the absurdity of breaking out into song with the absurdity of the ideology of class.
South Park has been known for the past 14 years for being, what some say, disgusting, offensive, and absurd, but it is the way that it has thread this lowbrow humor with the content that makes it’s encoding so important. There are people who believe that lowbrow humor does not have to be used in order to get a point across. They believe that these words and topics can be avoided and that it would even make a stronger argument without them. While I agree that using four letter words and degrading language can often discredit an otherwise solid argument, South Park uses these words with an intention to challenge them. It does this by using the ideology and reality levels of encoding.
South Park is not offensive just to be offensive. Instead, it makes certain characters offensive while others are intelligent and tolerant. The character of Cartman is the personification of close-minded ignorance. He is an intolerant, gluttonous, racist, and narcissistic sociopath. There is no admirable quality in this character and South Park makes this apparent.
The psychoanalyst, Albert Ellis, believed that the reason for depression and neuroticism in people was because of, what he called, dysfunctional beliefs. These beliefs included things such as “When people act obnoxiously or unfairly, they should be blamed for being bad, wicked, or rotten individuals” (Ellis and Lynn 130). While most people would agree with this statement, Ellis described this as irrational thinking. In South Park, the ideology encoding of justice is involved when the other characters believe that Cartman should be punished, but the reality encoding is that Cartman gets away with everything he does. This may lead people to believe South Park agrees with or condones his actions, but in actuality it is a statement on the reality of the American culture.
South Park also takes words that hold negative weight and challenges the meaning behind them. It challenges how these words become harmful. Proof of this encoding is in the episode entitled “The F Word”. The episode is about the word fag and its meaning. The boys of South Park want to refer to Harley motorcycle riders as fags which sends the mayor into an uproar. The boys defend themselves saying they aren’t referring to homosexuals and that one can be gay and not be a fag. They go as far as to change the definition of fag altogether. The mayor is upset that the rest of the country thinks the city of South Park looks like “gay bashing, red-neck, homophones,” which is where the ideology of equality and tolerance comes into play.
The reality encoding is that the word, fag, has had many different meanings over the last few centuries and that it only holds weight if one allows it to. Stan says, “All we have to do is convince the dictionary people to take out that fag means homosexual”. The boys do this and even have the homosexuals of South Park referring to Harley riders as fags. To remove the effects of a word that has brought about so much real emotional and physical harm simply by changing the definition in the dictionary proves that it is the meaning one puts behind the word rather than the word itself. It is in this way that South Park challenges the objectivity of pejorative language.
It is important to understand what a culture is, because so many decisions are made based on the beliefs of a culture. When one realizes that a culture is only made up of beliefs and attitudes that are agreed upon by a number of people, it gives some perspective. It makes one open to other cultures rather than demeaning them and claiming them to be wrong only because they are different.
When looking at the encoding of South Park, it seems that this is the message the creators are attempting to portray. It takes a look at the culture of America, and turns it into a caricature to point out that some things taken so seriously may just be because we, as a culture, decided it was serious.
“Culture.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online. 1 March 2010. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culture
Ellis, Albert, and Steven J. Lynn. Rational and Irrational Beliefs. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
Fiske, John. (1987). Television Culture. London, UK: Methuen.
Lewis, Jeff. (2002). Cultural Studies: the Basics. London, UK: Sage Publications.
O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc., 2007. Print.