Media Critique: The Portrayal of Disability in South Park

Introduction

South Park has built a reputation around being a subversive, shocking, and timely adult animated series. A wide range of topics are satirized for a mature audience, primarily through the eyes of fourth graders in a fictional small town in Colorado. Well known to be crude, violent, and far from politically correct (Leonard, 2006), the series remains one of Comedy Central’s most popular show and has stayed on the air for twenty-two seasons. While it seems like an unlikely candidate for a respectful portrayal of people with disabilities, the series offers a surprisingly nuanced portrayal and complex social commentary on how people with disabilities are viewed by society and the media. While more episodes and characters have aired that can be adequately explored in a blog post, I will analyze how the two most frequently recurring characters with disabilities on South Park, Jimmy Valmer and Timmy Burch, are given the same complex characterization as their peers without disabilities. By acknowledging that the characters have disabilities without letting their disability define them, South Park provides a surprisingly accurate depiction of the lives of people with disabilities.

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is a relatively easy to diagnose movement disorder (Hallahan, Kauffman, and Pullen, 2019, p.330). While never explicitly named as “cerebral palsy” in South Park, Jimmy walks around with crutches, has a stutter, and has had his condition since birth (Parker and Stone, 2004), which accurately describes how some people experience cerebral palsy (Center for Disease Control, n.d.). Jimmy appears to have an accurate depiction of “Spastic diplegia/diparesis cerebral palsy” (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, n.d.), as he needs crutches to walk but has average intelligence and language skills, albeit with a stutter. More often than not, Jimmy is primarily defined by his aspirations to be a stand-up comedian (Parker and Stone, 2011) and journalist (Parker and Stone, 2015) than his disability.

Timmy also has a condition similar to cerebral palsy, but with neurological components. Unlike Jimmy, Timmy has below average academic performance and struggles with speech (Parker and Stone, 2000). He has a wheelchair and cannot speak beyond basic phrases and names, which is mostly consistent with cerebral palsy (Hallahan, Kauffman, and Pullen, 2019, p.330). If he had a named form of cerebral palsy, it would most likely be “Spastic quadriplegia/quadriparesis cerebral palsy”, as he cannot walk, has cognitive delays, and has difficulty both speaking and being understood (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, n.d.). Unlike real people who have cerebral palsy, Timmy primarily communicates by saying variations of his own name and the occasional simple word (Parker and Stone, 2000). Out of context, this would be a dehumanizing stereotype that resembles more of how a Pokémon talks than a person.

The Creative Purpose of Disability on South Park

However, Timmy’s seemingly stereotypical portrayal intentionally challenges the viewer’s own comfort with people with disabilities. The point of Timmy’s disability is not to make fun of Timmy or his disability, but instead to mock how uncomfortable his open existence makes adults. When another character states “you shouldn’t laugh at people with disabilities” in response to Timmy being the lead singer of a hit band, he and other adults are unable to comprehend the idea that people could genuinely enjoy the art a person with disabilities creates (Parker and Stone, 2000). The desire to hide people with disabilities from mainstream society has been the historical norm (U.S. Department of Education, 2010), and South Park argues it is still what many want to be the norm for those with mental disabilities. In this episode, one of the main characters states, “The people that are wrong are the ones that think people like Timmy should be “protected” and kept out of the public’s eye. The cool thing about Timmy being in a band was that he was in your face, and you had to deal with him, whether you laughed or cried, or felt nothing. That’s why Timmy rules!” (Parker and Stone, 2000). This quote is the primary thesis on what Parker and Stone are trying to say about how society treats those with disabilities: people with disabilities should be able to live openly in society, no matter how uncomfortable it makes those without disabilities.

South Park argues that its viewers without disabilities are hypocritical for believing that neurotypical people like Jimmy are “inspirational” while people with mental disabilities like Timmy should not be seen or heard. When Jimmy is first introduced as a budding young comedian with a disability, the adults of South Park call him “inspirational” because he is both funny and disabled (Parker and Stone, 2001). Timmy, however, is pitied when he becomes the lead singer of a band because he is not neurotypical, and the adults believe that the only reason that people could enjoy seeing him on stage is to mock him (Parker and Stone, 2000). Despite praising Jimmy as an inspiration, the entire town gawks without intervening when Jimmy and Timmy physically fight (Parker and Stone, 2001), indicating that those without disabilities often do not have the interests of those with disabilities at heart even if they pay lip service to their cause.

If Jimmy and Timmy were used strictly for providing social commentary on how people without disabilities view those with disabilities, the creators of South Park would still be letting the two characters be defined by their disabilities alone. Instead, Jimmy and Timmy are usually used in their own complex storylines that acknowledge but do not rely upon their disability. For example, in the episode “Up the Down Steroid”, Jimmy takes steroids to win the special Olympics, and Timmy tries to confront Jimmy about his addiction (Parker and Stone, 2004). Jimmy is given the same selfish character arc that would be given to any character without a disability and is given the freedom to be as politically incorrect as any of the other boys. He talks back to his parents, beats up his girlfriend, and turns away from his friends due to his addiction. The special Olympians are portrayed as just as serious of child athletes as any other children, which lets the point of the episode was primarily to make social commentary about the use of steroids and not on the Special Olympics themselves (Parker and Stone, 2004). In “Handicar”, the conflict between Uber and taxicab companies is satirized, and Timmy runs an Uber-like cellphone app (Parker and Stone, 2014). Timmy is used as a vehicle for social commentary, just as any other recurring character of South Park, but the social commentary does not revolve around his disability. In  “Sponsored Content”, Jimmy has a 3-episode story arch satirizing the place of ads in modern society, allowing his character to be defined more by his desire to be a journalist than his disability, even though both aspects of his identity are still present (Parker and Stone, 2015). By giving both Jimmy and Timmy the same variety of social commentary in their episode as other recurring characters get, they reinforce the notion that people with disabilities have as complex of personal lives as people without disabilities. This portrayal is equally important for people with and without disabilities.

Impact on Society and Conclusion

The children on South Park never bully Jimmy, Timmy, or any other character with disabilities for their disabilities. This is perhaps fantasy compared to the reality that students with disabilities often face, with students with disabilities being two to three times more likely to be bullied (National Bullying Prevention Center, n.d.), but it is importantly re-affirming to any viewers with disabilities. The students of South Park with disabilities are still “one of the boys” by getting into shenanigans, cursing, and being part of the group. This reaffirming image contrasts with the historical images of disability in the Museum of Disability History (n.d.), where people with disabilities were often segregated from society. Instead, South Park portrays a world where people with disabilities are fully integrated into society by fully integrating its characters with disabilities in the same way it integrates all of its recurring characters into the show. This affirms its viewers with disabilities and reminds its viewers without disabilities alike. School officials, parents, and others without disabilities are reminded to accept people with disabilities for who they are. People with disabilities get a reminder that their open existence is welcomed.

By refusing to shy away from social commentary involving people with disabilities and elevating its characters with disabilities to recurring status over special episode status, South Park elevates the visibility of people with disabilities in mainstream television.

 

References

Center for Disease Control. (n.d.). What is Cerebral Palsy? Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/facts.html

Hallahan, D. P., Kauffman, J. M., & Pullen, P. C. (2019). Exceptional learners: An introduction to special education (14th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Leonard, D. (2006, October 27). How Trey Parker and Matt Stone made South Park a success. Retrieved from https://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2006/10/30/8391792/index.htm

Museum of disABILITY. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://museumofdisability.org/

National Bullying Prevention Center. (n.d.). Bullying of Students with Disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.pacer.org/bullying/resources/students-with-disabilities/

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (n.d.). Cerebral Palsy: Hope Through Research. Retrieved from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Hope-Through-Research/Cerebral-Palsy-Hope-Through-Research

Parker, T. and Stone, M. (Creator) & Parker, T. (Director). (2000, April 19). Timmy 2000 [Television series episode] in Trey Park and Matt Stone (Producer), South Park. New York, New York: Comedy Central.

Parker, T. and Stone, M. (Creator) & Parker, T. (Director). (2001, June 27). Cripple Fight [Television series episode] in Trey Park and Matt Stone (Producer), South Park. New York, New York: Comedy Central.

Parker, T. and Stone, M. (Creator) & Parker, T. (Director). (2003, March 26). Krazy Kripples [Television series episode] in Trey Park and Matt Stone (Producer), South Park. New York, New York: Comedy Central.

Parker, T. and Stone, M. (Creator) & Parker, T. (Director). (2004, March 24). Up the Down Steroid [Television series episode] in Trey Park and Matt Stone (Producer), South Park. New York, New York: Comedy Central.

Parker, T. and Stone, M. (Creator) & Parker, T. (Director). (2010, April 28). Crippled Summer [Television series episode] in Trey Park and Matt Stone (Producer), South Park. New York, New York: Comedy Central.

Parker, T. and Stone, M. (Creator) & Parker, T. (Director). (2011, May 4). Funnybot [Television series episode] in Trey Park and Matt Stone (Producer), South Park. New York, New York: Comedy Central.

Parker, T. and Stone, M. (Creator) & Parker, T. (Director). (2014, October 15). Handicar [Television series episode] in Trey Park and Matt Stone (Producer), South Park. New York, New York: Comedy Central.

Parker, T. and Stone, M. (Creator) & Parker, T. (Director). (2015, November 18). Sponsored Content [Television series episode] in Trey Park and Matt Stone (Producer), South Park. New York, New York: Comedy Central.

U.S. Department of Education. (2010, November 22). Celebrating 35 years of IDEA [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUn6luZQaXE

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