Wednesday, October 25, 2006

South Park and Fighting Words (when kids watch adult cartoons)

I happened to be talking to a group of middle school kids the other day about racial slurs at school.  The students all acknowledged that slurs were used on a regular basis particularly on the bus to and from school.  The slurs themselves ran the gamut of racial, ethnic, and sexual categories and apparently were used most every day though almost always “jokingly”.  The kids themselves drew some fairly sophisticated lines.  They understood that one would never use this kind of language with a younger student, an adult, or anyone who seemed to have other problems or “issues.”  They mentioned that the “joke” line would get crossed from time to time.

Perhaps the oddest thing was that one of the more common slurs was to call other kids “Jews”.   It’s odd because in this particular school there are very few Jewish families and there is no synagogue.  When asked “Why?”, one of the kids responded that it came from South Park.  

I rather like South Park because it’s both funny and edgy.  There is a recurring motif on the show about Kyle’s family who happen to be Jewish.  The mom is a conservative  political and cultural activist and the dad dresses Hasidic style.  The show actually has done send ups of many religions including Scientology and Mormonism (South Park is probably most famous for its Jesus (a recurring character on the show) spoofs along with a Passion of the Christ parody that became Passion of the Jews where one of the characters demands his money back from Mel Gibson), but for whatever reason the “Jewish” jokes appear to have the most staying power at least in this community.

As an adult watching South Park, I’ve mostly thought of the religious humor as “funny.”  The kids see it as “funny” as well, enough so that they try to imitate it.  At the same time, they don’t necessarily have the context for the jokes that an adult might bring to them.  In addition, the show happens to be animated, so it looks like it’s for kids and doesn’t need parents to mediate the South Park experience.  One result is a place that doesn’t really have a history of anti-semitism with kids running around making “Jew” jokes without many of them knowing much of anything about the history of anti-semitism.  

When I was a kid, there were a number of cartoons that had humor that was likely aimed more at adults than children.  These included Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle , Crusader Rabbit, and George of the Jungle which were favorites of mine growing up.  In fact, the tradition of adult comics/cartoons goes back pretty far to Krazy Kat, L’il Abner (when Al Capp was bit more political), Pogo, forward to Doonsebury etc.  Even things like Mighty Mouse (an opera parody), Loony Toons, and Felix the Cat had very sophisticated elements.  Loony Toons in particular often dropped in literary allusions, used progressive music  that explored ideas that Stravinsky, Bartok, and Cage were only beginning to experiment with at the time and sometimes played with twists to conventional morality.  Often the humor was borderline subliminal as in was Bullwinkle male or female and why did George seem to have two wives, but for the most part adult humor in the earlier generation of cartoons and comics still observed certain explicit lines.  It should also be mentioned that the Flintstones were shown in primetime at least partially because even their mild-mannered jokes were really written for an adult audience.

One of the controversies of the seventies wasn’t about the dangers of adult-oriented content in Saturday Morning cartoons.  It was about the danger of cartoons like the Roadrunner which made extreme violence seem more or less normal and harmless.  In fact, some of the evidence iirc was pretty damning.  There were very young kids who couldn’t tell the difference between what a cartoon character might do and what you might try in real life.  

In that tradition, I used to try to watch the Simpsons with my daughter, but my wife objected because it had so much clearly adult content. ( I think the episode had something to do with Smithers crush on Mr. Burns)  She also pointed out that my daughter didn’t get most of the humor anyway.  South Park tends to be even edgier than the Simpsons.  

I don’t necessarily have an answer for this one.  But when your characters are all line drawings, where and how do you draw the line?


At 10/25/2006 11:00:00 PM, Blogger inkyhack said...

It's weird how cartoons have become associated with children when they started out as adult entertainment. As you correctly pointed out, the early cartoons were aimed only at adults. In fact, the original Loony Tunes and Popeye Cartoons were specifically produced to be shown just before an adult feature film in a theater. But television changed all that. Soon Bugs Bunny became a child's cartoon. As a result, some Bugs Bunny cartoons are not shown on TV today, such as the one where Porky the Pig says "Son of a Bitch."
(actually, he says this after hitting his thumb with a hammer - "Son of a b,b,b Son of a b,b,b Son of a b,b,beeswax. I bet you thought I was going to say Son of a Bitch")
There are some Warner Brothers cartoons with very racial overtones that aren't shown today either because they are too adult, which of course was the purpose of the cartoon.
There also are many Popeye cartoons that aren't shown today because, in the early Popeye cartoons, he used to swear under his breath. ("That dirty, rotten, no good bastard" was one such phrase)
Given this, I do find it humorous that so many people now get offended by cartoons like South Park or The Simpsons with the argument that the creators of those shows are warping a children's entertainment form. Quite the contrary, it's the children who warped a popular form of adult entertainment.

At 10/26/2006 02:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have tried and tried to check out South Park. But I just have a limited tolerance for nose picking jibes apparently.

At 10/26/2006 11:33:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

you obviously know more about cartoon history than I do. I think you're right though. Many cartoons are for adults and should be marketed and handled that way.
It's just dumb to think that anything animated must be for kids and to act accordingly. I'm fine with 12 year olds watching South Park, it's just that maybe they should watch it with their parents at times, because some things need to be explained at times or given background.

Mr. Pogblog,
I do understand. I love the Simpsons, but the South Park line is harder for me to cross. Sometimes I think it's just because I'm getting too old. Other times, I'm convinced that the Simpsons are just actually more clever rather than "crass".

At 10/28/2006 11:00:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every generation will have its own pop culture and language and we're just too old to understand. I agree that people assume that just because a show is animated, it's for kids. The Simpsons is still my favorite show of all time because of its intelligent humor and allusions to other cultural institutions. I also can't stomach South Park. It's too crude for my tastes but I can see how other people would like it.

At 10/28/2006 04:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't do the Simpsons because I am viscerally opposed to bug-eyed cartoon characters. As much as I'd almost support any cartoon about any cat (being kneejerkedly besotted with Felinoa sapiens), I just can't stand Garfield's pop-eyes.


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