I’ve been a die-hard South Park fan ever since my best friend Melissa encouraged me to watch my very first episode (“Rainforest Shmainforest”, April 1999). I fell in love with the show because its hilarious, satirical, and always an equal-opportunity-offender. Thirteen years have passed since then, and I have both Melissa and South Park to thank for molding my sense of humor into what it is today. (It should also be noted that hardly anything offends me anymore, haha!) Last week’s new South Park episode, “The Hobbit”, was so amazing I just had to write/gush about it. Reprising Kanye “Gayfish” West was more than enough to earn this episode a five star review in my book, but the story and it’s message make me wish I could give it way more stars than that.
South Park has received some criticism over the years for it’s lack of female characters, and I get that. It is true the four protagonists (and majority of the peripheral characters) are male, but there are three reasons I don’t take any issue with this (aside from the “diehard fan” thing mentioned above). First of all, Trey Parker and Matt Stone deliberately created the world of South Park to reflect on their own experiences growing up in Middle America, as boys. The best writers write from experience, and I think their intention was to do just that. The second reason I don’t find the lack of female characters bothering is that when gender issues do come up, South Park always sides with feminism, while still managing to convey the depth and complexity of the subject (see: “Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset”).
And finally, the third and most important reason I couldn’t care less about the gender gap in South Park is that one character makes up for it all: Wendy Testaburger. She may be the token girl in South Park Elementary, but she’s no cookie-cutter archetype. She’s called “bossy” and a “bitch”, but she’s also Stan’s feminine love interest. She’s a “good girl” who studies hard and does the right thing, but also tough enough to beat the shit out of Cartman if need be. Wendy is just the best.
This episode took on the issue of unrealistic beauty standards put forth by the media, and the effects it has on young girls’ self esteem and body image. They looked particularly at Photoshop, the tool used by the media to craft images of unrealistic perfection. Viral videos and campaigns aimed to demonstrate the powers of photo-manipulation have been popping up everywhere these days (check out a great one here). South Park recreated one of these time-lapse Photoshop scenes in the episode to great effect.
I won’t break down the plot for you here– I highly suggest watching the whole episode— but basically Wendy, saddened to see her peers suffering with poor self-image, sets off on a crusade to expose Photoshop images as fake and take away the power it has. Her plan backfires, as her peers only seem to like Photoshop more. Wendy then gets labeled as being both “jelly” and a “hater”. (On a side note, hearing Mr. Mackey use the term “Jelly” definitely made my night).
The most striking moment of the episode to me was at the very end. There have been a handful of South Park episodes in the past which could be described as melancholy, but rarely if ever has an episode ended with such a sad scene. Wendy, having fought a futile war, gives up against Photoshop. But she also loses a battle with herself. Despite how opinionated, dedicated, and strong Wendy Testaburger was, in the end even she could not withstand the pressures coming at her from every direction. She puts her own picture in Photoshop, and after a few mouse clicks no longer recognizes herself. With tears in her eyes, she sends the photo. I won’t lie– this made me tear up. If you want to shed a tear for Wendy too click here to see a clip of the ending.
I related to Wendy in this moment. For the other girls in her class, having a highly-edited photo of themselves was a boost to their self-esteem. For Wendy, giving in and manipulating her photo was a blow to her self-esteem, and her self-respect. Wendy valued herself not by her outward appearance or how other people saw her, but on the quality of her character. I feel like I’ve been caught in this dichotomy in my own life. Many times in my life I have felt, and complied with, the pressures in society to look or act a certain way. Every time I give in, I stop myself and say “Come on, Katie, you’re too smart for this!” It’s a pattern of me criticizing my appearance, and then being harsh on myself for doing so because I “should know better”. But as Wendy learned too, society can get the better of us sometimes no matter how smart or aware of it we are. This world’s a tough place to be a little girl– hang in there, Wendy!
And on an unrelated but completely awesome note, there was also this: