Sexuality, South Park and Self-Esteem: A Blog on Body Image

by ejkendall

This week’s episode of South Park made me weep.

So I’m into telly. Like I’m far too emotionally invested in my shows, happy to argue ’til I’m blue in the face over the validity of television as an art form, and intent on keeping up with the American TV schedules – that sort of big-time “into telly”. Usually I’m a bit sceptical about animated programs; I’m not an avid Simpsons, Family Guy or American Dad watcher, but I am a really, really big South Park fan, and the Season 17 finalé reminded me why. You can criticise the crude or cheap gags as much as you want, but there’s no denying that this show does satire in a breath-takingly, gut-wrenchingly honest way, and this episode is right up there in Season 17’s social commentary with World War Zimmerman (which starts as one thing and finishes as another in a way that actually made my jaw drop. Worth watching, no matter your views on SP.)

The Hobbit, which definitely cannot be watched in full for free on Youtube, but will be spoiled in this review, scathingly takes on the body image of teenage girls and the media’s use of photoshop – but without venturing into the altogether far murkier subject of eating disorders. Lisa Berger, who sees herself as the “fat, unconfident” cheerleader, has a crush on one of the male protagonists, Butters. Wendy Testaburger[1] suggests that she asks him out as a self-confidence boost; he turns her down, calling her “fat” and saying she’s “a nice girl but too big for me” and that he wants a woman who “takes care of herself and knows how to look good” with “perfect everything”-  like Kim Kardashian, who “is skinny and just had a baby!” Wendy shows him how Photoshop can manipulate an image by showing him how she could edit a photo of Lisa; so far, so simple, but this is where the episode stops being in any way predictable.

The sub-plot has Kanye West defending Kim Kardashian after Wendy claiming that she ‘has the body of a hobbit,’ which is quite amusing (there was that time she went on that long journey…. and she does have that wizard friend called Gandalf….) but the real strength of the episode is in Wendy’s futile battle. When Butters sees Lisa’s image, he immediately falls in love with her, forgetting that this isn’t the real her. The other cheerleaders, feeling inadequate, learn to photoshop themselves, and the images are distributed via the internet. We see the boys crowding over the images – ignoring the girls in front of them, oblivious to the fact that there’s barely any resemblance to the images, but instead becoming enthralled by the pictures, saying “Did you not see Erica Smith’s boobs, Kyle? They’re like perfect water balloons!” and “I had no idea Bebe was that hot!” Every time Wendy tries to point out the obvious – that these girls have flaws and it’s nothing to be ashamed of – she’s labelled as “jealous” and a “hater.” Recognising that maybe one of the girls has pimples and another has a flat bum makes her a malicious, bullying woman hater. Eventually she succumbs the the pressure, and we’re given this heart-wrenching closing sequence:

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End of series.

And this is why I love South Park, and why it does things that a lot of other satires just don’t. There’s no restoring-the-world-to-rights sequence; none of the loose threads are tied up; Wendy doesn’t get her victory. Even in this fictional universe, the problem isn’t resolved, but the emotional tenderness with which this devastating sequence is treated means that it doesn’t negate Wendy’s character or her feminism but simply invites the viewer to take part in her emotional wearing-down  and to really feel her despair. It’s such a bold move to end the series of what is essentially a comedy show and I think that’s why it hit me so hard. It’s so bleak, and so realistic, and props to Parker and Stone for not invalidating the feminist experience of pressure, and using their status and fame to address such a delicate topic not in a way that suggests it’s fixable, or something merely to be laughed at, but in a way that’s going to make the wide spread that is their target audience really think about what they’ve been laughing at.

A few top moments. “There’s a very fine line between being a feminist and being a hater, and you’re going to have to find that line, because nobody likes a girl who’s jelly,” says the frustratingly useless school counsellor. Some of these comments are so apt and perfectly loaded with satire that I find them almost impossible to pass a critical lens over; Wendy’s response of exasperation pretty much summarises anything I’d have to say. No matter what Wendy does, she just gets branded a hater – and again, I don’t think this invalidates or mocks her character, I think it puts the audience even more firmly on her side as we feel her frustration. It’s quite annoying just HOW well Parker and Stone are able to satirise and cover the complex topic of body image in just 21 minutes of animation, but they use very effectively the technique of you being the lone “voice of reason” and identifying with just one character whilst everything else turns to chaos. An example to compare it to would be the “HumancentiPad” episode where Kyle is the only one (alongside us) who doesn’t read the Apple Terms and Conditions in a world where everyone else does. However, the crucial difference between this and “The Hobbit” is that “HumancentiPad” is set in an inverse world, whereas in “The Hobbit,” we – alongside Wendy – are the minority in a cartoon world which seems ridiculous but exactly mirrors our own. Read the school counsellor’s remarks again, and imagine a real-world Wendy being called a “jealous woman-hater” or an “ugly feminist” on Twitter. Suddenly the jokes and jibes become 300% more chilling; this is satire at its best.

The satire of Britney’s “Work Bitch” video is also feckin’ perfect. It’s another example of satire being amazing satire because it’s terrifyingly close to real life. Lisa sings “You want nice things? You want boys to buy you nice things? You better work out, slut” as girls Photoshop their own images in a boot-camp style regime. Sounds horrific, right? But is it any less disturbing than Britney singing to teenage girls that they’ve gotta “work bitch” to “look hot in a bikini” whilst putting skinny, perfect female models into submissive positions by whipping and gagging them? The answer is no; it’s exactly the same. It might well even be worse. It’s so easy for people to underestimate the power that the media has over the body image of anyone, but teenage girls especially. You just can’t deny the influence. “I feel guilty listening to this and not breaking a sweat!” writes one commenter on Work Bitch. You can tell me ’til the cows come home that everyone knows Victoria’s Secret models are an unattainable level of perfection but that doesn’t stop hundreds and hundreds of girls tweeting after the VS fashion show that they’re “never going to eat again” and ready to “kms” over the images of these women.

Britney, cracking a whip in your BDSM-style lounge full of women doesn’t make you empowered. I’m pretty much as liberal as you get when it comes to what you and I all get up to consensually behind our respective closed doors, but, ugh, I’m not ready to accept this false, narrow-minded, misogynistic view of what empowerment is. You know what empowerment is? Empowerment is Beyoncé singing about how she wakes up flawless in a song which samples Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s amazing talk “We Should All Be Feminists.” But she doesn’t make us feel like she’s flawless and we’re not; Beyoncé makes girls feel like they’re as awesome as she is. She doesn’t throw other women under the bus with her power and sexuality; it’s always very clear in her videos that none of this is being done for a man. This is being done as a celebration of her talent, power and sensuality and she’s inviting every girl to be a part of it. She celebrates women – “how we’re smart enough to make these millions / strong enough to bear children / then get back to business.” She tells us not to settle for anything less than what we’re worth. She sings in a celebratory way about receiving oral sex, breaking this strange taboo where a woman receiving oral sex apparently pushes a film rating to an R and must be cut when blowjob gags and scenes are shown right down to chick flicks I watched in formative teenage years. That is unarguably the censoring of a woman’s sexuality in a way that is disturbingly endemic of a societal view of sex increasingly shaped by porn. Tomorrow I begin reading “Pornland: How Porn Hijacked Our Sexuality” and I’m looking forward to writing a review of that. I am slightly nervous that it is going to ruin all porn for me  it’s going to question my liberal live-and-let-live values in a way I’m not entirely sure I’m ready for, but I’m looking forward to learning a bit more about an industry that is, in so many ways, an unfathomably grey area.

Anyway, I’d like to make an attempt at tying all of these jumbly thoughts together with the big neat bow of Sexuality. I mean this with the definition of “capacity for sexual feelings or activity” rather than sexual orientation. One of the most hard-hitting moments of South Park was the boys analysing the Photoshopped pictures of the girls with a critical, objectifying and sexualised eye. These fourth-graders, drawn out of basic shapes and without any real figure, are suddenly given real-world tits and arse and you just want to protect them from this and stop them from growing up before their time. Because as well as all of the messages on body image comes the message that your appearance is an open invitation. That if your aesthetics are a certain way that is pleasing to men, that makes it their right to view your body in a detached, sexual way. And then, as if that weren’t bad enough, as soon as you think that maybe you should conform to these standards because you’ve been told that’s how you’re supposed to look, your idol calls you a bitch and a slut.

You can’t win.

One of the many complicated, interwoven reasons that I struggled with anorexia over the last four years was an unwillingness to grow up; subconsciously, I wanted to slip under the radar of groping and cat-calling by keeping a child’s body. If you’re flat-chested with no arse to speak of, you can go running in shorts and a sports bra without attracting any attention whatsoever. Nobody’s calling out their dirty fantasies if you’re walking home at night in shorts because it’s summer. You don’t have to deal with these things like Periods or Thighs or a Sex Drive which you’ve only ever been shown as in a gross, derogatory and shaming way. It’s horrible that girls grow up in a world where becoming a Sick Childish Fragile Thing can occur to someone – subconsciously or otherwise- as the Cure for Having To Become A Woman. It’s so easy to be thrown askew when you’re shamed for the things you’re not and then shamed if you try to become them. And, as cheesy and shallow as it may sound, Beyoncé has actually helped me to overcome some of these beliefs. It’s not a miracle – I can’t pretend that therapy, pills, care and love didn’t play their fair share – but my new-found love for her has been the nail in the coffin for any traces of the thoughts that may have remained. I remind myself that she refused to let H&M use Photoshopped images of herself and that she refuses to shrink herself for standard beauty ideals, and rather than dieting she sings about being “Bootylicious” and how having a big bum can be, you know, a good thing, but not just for boys, for you. I like thinking about how she puts her alter ego and her show gear on and she owns the stage with her female dancers and female band. I feel very lucky to have grown up under the reign of Queen Bey.

[1] One of the BEST CHARACTERS EVER; student council president, campaigner, feminist, critic and General Fully-Rounded Female Character.Now thinking about teenage girls throughout cartoons; Tina and Louise Belcher, Lisa Simpson… Why are cartoons doing female characters better than ‘real’ shows?