In the whole history of television, I don’t think any show has done a better job than South Park of portraying people with disabilities as complex human beings. Instead of taking the easy way out and suffocating viewers with the typical inspirational hero or the bitter and angry victim, South Park points out plainly that having a disability is merely a circumstance. They understand society’s reaction to disability is often a much bigger problem for people with disabilities than it is to actually live with one.
I wouldn’t blame you if my opinion comes as a surprise. After all, this is the same show, created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, known for the non-stop controversy it generates because of its biting satirical attacks on the political correctness that infiltrates topics like sexual orientation, religion, scientology, poverty and even domestic and international politics.
It’s easy to be offended by South Park mainly because it chooses to frame its biting social criticism under a veil of vulgar language and extremist thinking to show significant contrasts in points of view. The show uses exaggeration and shock as a way of opening the door for reflection amongst viewers. Although, it’s certainly true that not everyone is willing to set aside their closely held values in order to take the journey.
Regardless of your opinion on South Park, here are two classic examples that highlight the strange ways society treats people with disabilities from among many examples that have been on the show:
Episode 18: “Conjoined Fetus Lady,” Originally Aired June 3, 1998
This was one of the very first episodes of South Park that I ever saw and it really left a heavy impression on my mind. The show focuses on the South Park Elementary School’s public health nurse after one of the main characters gets a nosebleed playing dodge ball. Nurse Gollum is pretty much just a school nurse trying to do her job, but she also just happens to have a conjoined fetus attached to her head. True to form, this disabling condition is exaggerated for the purposes of the show but the reactions from the community of South Park to her disability are frighteningly accurate of the patronizing acts, fear mongering and self-aggrandizing behaviors that can come from some people.
The people in the town cannot let Nurse Gollum just be. In the episode, she’s a school employee who was born with her condition and is quite comfortable with discussing it openly with anyone who will listen. But, the townspeople can’t stop focusing all of their interactions with her either directly or indirectly on the fetus attached to her head. Soon, wild rumors circulate about whether her condition is contagious or whether it gives her special powers causing people to videotape her every move. The more enlightened and patronizing people try to make a hero out of her by creating a video montage about how well she handles her disability while going to great lengths to create conjoined fetus hats for a town-wide awareness week and parade, even though she’s the only person in the town with the condition.
They prove they care more about how they are perceived than they do about Nurse Gollum which leads her to finally lash out at all of the townspeople declaring that she doesn’t require their special treatment or extra attention. Ironically, even her exasperated outburst asking to be left alone gets misinterpreted by the community leaving many to wonder out loud if the challenge of her disability is causing her to be ungrateful, bitter and angry.
Episode 113: “Up The Down Steroid,” Originally Aired March 24, 2004
I love this episode because it uses the traditionally inspirational setting of the Special Olympics to show that not all people, including those with disabilities, are worthy of admiration or praise. The show focuses on three different characters. Cartman, a main character on South Park who does not have a disability yet decides that in order to win the $1000 prize and to win a medal that he will fake having a disability. Cartman soon learns he’s competing against real athletes who train and have real skill when he places last in every event he enters.
There’s also Jimmy, a physically disabled boy who walks using crutches and who also is competing in the Special Olympics. He is so set on winning that he secretly chooses to take steroids sold to him by a shady character with a disability. The steroids work well for Jimmy and he excels in the events but not before he suffers terrible “steroid rage” and beats up his able-bodied girlfriend and his own mother with his crutches.
Eventually, Jimmy is found out by his training partner Timmy. Timmy is a non-verbal person with a disability and the only athlete in the show who is not cheating in order to try and win. His challenge though is that he knows all the secrets of the athletes but can’t communicate them because nobody has enough sense around him to understand non-verbal communication.
In the end, Cartman’s deceit is unmasked, Jimmy confronts his demons and confesses his steroid abuse while Timmy’s real commitment to his ideals and morals shines through showing us all that disabled or not, we are all just human.