I don’t know how I ended up watching the season finale of South Park, which originally aired on December 11th. Retracing my steps, it looks like I was in a gulley between American Horror Story: Coven and The Daily Show, and the cartoon seemed more appealing than a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives rerun.
This particular episode capped South Park’s 17th season as its 247th canon entry, the majority of which I’ve seen at least once (including the theatrical release in, yes, 1999. Feeling old yet?). We didn’t get Comedy Central at my house in 1999, but my best friend had expanded basic AND dial-up internet, so we ended up spending most weekends at her place. The show filled a subversive void that The Simpsons had left back in the nineties, when they transitioned from being edgy to over to just plain sad. Even in Family Guy’s gentler, earlier days, Seth MacFarlane couldn’t touch the pathos of four Colorado boys keeping the pop cultural and political chaos du jour contained in their Colorado societal incubator.
But as the years and seasons went on, the show seemed to dull from its razor edge of unapologetic satire and unpredictable mish-mashings of issues (typified in classic episodes such as “Chinpoko Mon”, filleting the Pokemon craze and consumerism’s generation gap, or the Scientology opus “Trapped in the Closet”). Instead of presenting current events, concerns, and crazes in creative fashion, the show started to lapse into the predictable territory of straight parody and low-budget laughs. The recent “Coon” reoccurring episodes skewering Christopher Nolan’s Batman series have amounted to nothing but teasing the bizarre hero and villain voices, and this season’s “A Song of Ass and Fire” obligatory Game of Thrones copycat set up a battle between XBox One and the PS4, a yawntastic juxtaposition that felt just as sloppily sketched onto a cocktail napkin as it was.
And although South Park is unlikely to take the title of most misogynistic adult cartoon on TV (congrats, Seth!), creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s scorecard in representing women is uneven at best. There have been bright, shining moments exposing patriarchal bullshit, often when the spotlight is turned on Wendy, the brightest kid in school and ambassador of feminism. She’s teased for promoting breast cancer awareness month, and her best friend Bebe is refused breast reduction surgery when the surgeon will only perform enhancements. But for every moment of ridiculing a social hypocrisy, there’s an episode on Hillary Clinton’s killer vagina.
So, when “The Hobbit” began, I was prepared for lazy Tolkien references. When the previously featured Kanye West character appeared, I rolled my eyes and braced for the inevitable “Bound 2” parody (and yes, it arrived). But what I wasn’t expecting was the Wendy-led subplot underneath the guise of cheap parody, which follows Wendy’s assertion that women her male classmates are ogling online, like Kim Kardashian, aren’t real. They’re Photoshopped fictions. To prove her point, she Photoshops a girl that the boys have universally rejected in real-life into an Instagram-ready bombshell.
To Wendy’s horror, the girl’s new image takes the school by storm, and the ugly duckling becomes the most popular and coveted girl at school. Stan, Kyle and Butters don’t even bother looking at the girl walking down the hallway–they’re transfixed on the image that appears on their phones, the only version of this person they see.
Feeling left out and ignored, the rest of the schoolgirls rush out to the “gym,” where a trainer pumps them up to buffer, smooth, and Clone Stamp the hell out of their bodies. Happy shots of young, normal girls are brushed into frightening sex-kitten glamour shots, and they walk the hallways unseen in reality, the new Stepford version of themselves the only identity that matters.
Unheard, unseen and shunned from the rest of the school, Wendy holds out as long as she can, until her boyfriend Stan finally pressures her to “post a new picture.” He wants to show her off, like all the other boys’ girlfriends–what’s the harm in touching up a picture a little?
Although Wendy initially resists, and we endure a few more needless Kimye jokes, the last moments of the episode follow a silent Wendy into the school computer lab. She pulls a normal, healthy, smiling picture of herself onto the screen, and as she clicks, she recreates herself into the image that her society demands.
She clicks Save, and Share. We see her face in the final click, tears in her eyes as she finally succumbs to the pressure of being everything that she’s not.
I have never come close to crying at a South Park episode, but as Jon Stewart greeted the crowd, I was still running through Kleenex.
The effect of the episode was profound, but subtly billed–even Jezebel failed to cover the story, running an article about how Parker and Stone went after Kanye West once again. Which is a shame, because in 17 seasons, I can’t recall an episode where a theme was handled with such emotion and nuance as “The Hobbit.” The ability to depict the battle of self-image so authentically, one most of us lose more than once in our lives, proves that the show still has the ability to surprise, even if it debuted during the Clinton administration. And maybe, just maybe, transition into possessing a stronger feminist voice in the future.
Okay, probably not. But this is still one of the best episodes in the series, and one that everyone should watch (it’s not currently available online, but will be starting January 11):