As the film adaptation of the smash animated hit turns 20, we look back at the legacy of its commentaries on censorship.
Blame TV. Blame your parents. Blame movies. Blame society. Hell, blame Canada. But whatever you do, blame something, and quickly, before someone thinks of blaming you.
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut turns 20 this weekend, and for as much as the movie’s Saddam Hussein-heavy, Celine Dion-referencing take on the world is very much of its time, the film nevertheless captures the ways in which American culture would continue to take deeply entrenched, compex cultural problems, and hunt for convenient scapegoats and easy answers in the years to come. There is no issue too inflammatory, no societal malady too multifaceted, that it cannot be oversimplified and laid at the feet of a readily-available boogeyman.
Bigger, Longer, and Uncut channels that idea through a premise filled with classic South Park absurdity. After Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny sneak into Asses of Fire — a cinematic encore to their favorite flatulence-based television show Terrence & Phillip — they walk out cursing a blue streak. The combination of their foul mouths and an imitative stunt, which brings about the inevitable “Oh my God, you killed Kenny!” moment, leads to their parents (and Mrs. Brofllowksi in particular) going on a crusade against the fart-firing, curse-hurling villains who they believe have poisoned their children’s minds.
This being South Park, that spirals into a war with our Canadian neighbors, a resistance movement led by 10-year-olds to smuggle their heroes away from a public execution, and eventually the apocalypse, as Satan and his boyfriend Saddam Hussein mount an invasion from the netherworld. It’s part and parcel of South Park’s trademark comic escalation, where standard moral panics are taken to ridiculous extremes until children are implanted with V-chips and an all-out war with the devil erupts from a movie featuring some naughty language.
Still, there’s a grain of truth beneath all of the absurdity. For as exaggerated as the notion of going to war with another country over a juvenile cartoon seems in the film, and in general, the practice of blaming “bad cultural influences” from other countries for corrupting our children is all too real and dangerous.
From McCarthyism and old satanic panic, to the Parents Television Council’s frequent rebukes of South Park in the ’90s, to modern-day instances of Islamophobic fearmongering, there’s a long strain of certain factions in the United States trying to sound the alarm against supposed cultural pollution. However silly the idea of the government branding and executing a couple of sophomoric T.V. entertainers as war criminals may seem in the film, the easy impulse to blame troubling behavior in a younger generation on movies and music and video games is just as present now as it was then.
Most importantly, South Park’s first (and thus far, only) foray onto the big screen bluntly tackles the ways in which we use this approach to absolve ourselves of moral responsibility. “It’s not my kid’s fault, it’s the evil messages coming from those damn screens.” “It’s not the parents’ fault, it’s a society gone mad.” “It’s not our country’s fault, it’s those damn outsiders who are diluting our culture.” As the immortal “Blame Canada” captures in song, it’s easy to throw these sorts of recriminations at any number of external causes, because it helps keep people from thinking to throw them your way. Especially when you have them coming.
There’s a certain irony to this message, when viewed in 2019. Arguably, it wasn’t until around South Park’s 20th season that the series itself began to reckon with its influence on popular culture. While the series would typically deflect blame back onto the moral guardians who showered it with disdain and disapproval, 2016 was a watershed moment for the show in the same way it was for many Americans. In the age of trolls and “edgelords” and other internet denizens crossing lines just to provoke a reaction, even South Park had to reluctantly face some harsh truths of its own. The series had to confront the possibility that the individuals who had unreflectively followed its boundary-pushing example were a part of the problem.
For its part, Bigger, Longer, and Uncut gives away the game in its opening song. Stan’s mother describes her son as so “tender and mild” that he’s “like Jesus,” and thanks God for their life in an idyllic little town far from any big city evils. Mrs. Broflowksi describes her son and his friends as “frail and fragile boys,” lamenting the wider world as a “rotten place” that could otherwise threaten to spoil such innocence.
That notion goes against everything that South Park has stood for since the beginning. Contrary to popular belief, the animating impulse of the series is not that censorship is wrong, or that caring is lame. It’s that children are not sweet innocent angels, but rather flawed, crude, and sometimes messed-up individuals like the rest of us, and the more we try to point to outside factors to account for that, the more we deny who and what we are.
In the film’s final act, Kyle pleads with his mother, “Whenever I get in trouble, you go off and blame everybody else. But I’m the one to blame. Deal with me.” It is, perhaps, not quite as eloquent as to say, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” but the sentiment is the same. The thesis of the film, beyond South Park’s usual missives against the censors, is that when problems arrive in our backyard, Americans go hard-charging against whatever external causes, real or imagined, they can conjure up, when the real sources of our problems are usually a lot more complicated, and a lot closer to home.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone posit that such troubles are far more internal and intractable than we might like to believe. For all the curse-heavy mania of the film, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut is about angry communities, unwilling to look in the mirror, and instead looking for someone or something at which to point the finger. It’s an impulse that is, unfortunately, still with us and, if anything, more prominent and dangerous today then it was in 1999. So where’s Brian Boitano to save the day when you need him? This is really all his fault.