The new season of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s long-running, take-no-prisoners animated series, began last night, and the episode lived up to the show’s reputation for astonishing timeliness. Promotional coverage of the premiere, “Stunning and Brave,” promised riffs on Caitlyn Jenner and besmirched quarterback Tom Brady—riffs that were indeed forthcoming—but the episode also had a larger target: an overzealous PC culture that think pieces now regularly warn is ruining the world, online or otherwise. And, impressively for a show that depends on transgressive humor for much of its success, South Park actually did a nuanced, precise, and above all funny job in its critique of the dreaded PC police.
At the beginning of the episode, the students of South Park Elementary School are informed that a new principal has taken over—known only as “PC Principal.” The buff, physically intense man quickly takes charge, recounting a litany of offensive events in the school’s past (including aspects of last season’s gender-neutral bathroom episode) and gleefully dispensing detentions for social justice infractions. After some initial bristling, everyone in town steps into line, mostly keeping silent for fear of saying something “problematic”—everyone except for Kyle and the always unreconstructed Cartman. While Cartman’s grappling with the sensitivity re-education provides much of the episode’s humor—an attempt at resistance involving Butters’ underwear is particularly hilarious—it’s Kyle’s storyline that offers a more incisive critique. In the eyes of PC Principal, his sin is disagreeing with the notion that Caitlyn Jenner is a “hero” and refusing to join the town mantra that she is clearly “stunning and brave.” At one point, Kyle says confidently: “I am not going to apologize for saying Caitlyn Jenner isn’t a hero. In fact, personally, I think she’s most likely not a very good person.”
This is unacceptable to PC Principal and his group of PC bros, who, once they find one another, quickly organize themselves into a frat-like organization, complete with all-night raves against marginalization and initiations that send pledges out to complete sneak attacks on privilege. While Randy Marsh, Stan’s dad, finds a home in the PC frat’s consciousness-raising and copious booze, Kyle and Cartman must decide how to strike a balance between social sensitivity and free expression.
The refreshing thing about this episode is that, to my mind at least, it picks the right elements of crazy PC culture to mock, while allowing that caring about the sensitivities of minority groups is itself a great thing. Particularly effective is the choice of portraying the PC guys as frat bros, highlighting the way that, especially online, social justice advocates can become just as cliquish and chest-thumping as a stereotype they presumably loathe. Presenting the bros as all white was even more incisive; if you work in the social justice world long enough, it’s difficult not to notice how individuals with the most privilege have a way of speaking above and for those marginalized groups they are supposedly trying to help. Whether this is an overcompensation for guilt or a weird way of finding belonging is up for debate, but regardless, the show put its finger on a real phenomenon. Unsurprisingly, the episode also rather bluntly points out that sometimes making politically incorrect jokes is the best way to highlight and challenge prejudice—something South Park knows a little about.
As for Jenner, her use as a PC test here comes at an interesting moment: As I’ve written recently, certain comments Jenner has made in the last few weeks have led many in the LGBTQ community to look askance at her politics. Indeed, as Kyle put it, it’s possible she may not be a “good person,” or at least not someone in whom the community should invest a great deal of faith. But this, of course, underlines an important fact: Being part of an oppressed minority does not automatically make one “good,” well-intentioned, or correct. And likewise, knowing the social justice script by heart does not necessarily mean you are making the world more just.