Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
<www.dsq-sds.org>
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Deconstructing Disability: Three Episodes of South Park

John Reid-Hresko, B. A.
Ph.D. student
Department of Sociology
University of Colorado, Boulder
Ketchum Hall 219, UCB 327
Boulder, CO 80309
Email: john.reid-hresko@colorado.edu

D. Kim Reid, Ph.D.
Professor, Dept. of Curriculum & Teaching
Teachers College
Columbia University
Box 31, 525 W. 120th St.
NY, NY 10027
Email: dkr10@columbia.edu

Abstract

Through close textual analysis, we examine three South Park episodes to elucidate how they problematize stigmatizing representations and disabling attitudes toward people with physical and cognitive impairments. Using outrageous humor and apparently harmless animation that centers children, the creators expose inconsistencies and injustices typical of the public's responses to disability by contrasting the humanity of disabled persons with cultural assumptions and constructions about them. South Park highlights the pity, charity, and symbolic trope discourses that prevail in mainstream U. S. culture. If the show's general audience can overcome the initial shock value of the language used and positions taken, South Park challenges taken-for-granted and often destructive ways we relate to our environment and our neighbors. In an atmosphere of political correctness that buries representations of difference, South Park stands out as an original, critical voice prompting its audience to question and rethink how our society constructs the social identities of disabled people.

Introduction

Television is our culture's principle mode of knowing about itself. Therefore--and this is the critical point--how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged" (Postman, 1998, p. 92).

With almost 99 percent of American households having at least one television set and families on average watching more than 50 hours weekly, television has supplanted the print media and radio as the preeminent vehicle for national communication and indoctrination. Media texts, however, do not reflect reality; they construct it (Underwood, 2003). Because "culture [through television] saturates the body with meanings that far outstrip their biological bases and...those meanings generate social and political consequences" (Garland Thomson, 2000, p. 21), television shows construct and hegemonize cultural identities. Furthermore, cultural "narratives also shape the material world, inform human relations, and mold our sense of who we are" (Garland Thomson, p. 21): television teaches each person, group, and social class how to attribute meaning to the lives, practices, and values of unknown "Others." Consequently, the examination of the socially constructed representation of individuals with disabilities on television is essential for those interested in identifying these limiting stereotypes and addressing their ramifications. The close examination of both the content of television programs and the methods are the first step to doing so.

Beginning in 1998 with an electronic Christmas card in which Santa Claus and Jesus Kung-fu fight to the death, Matt Stone and Trey Parker–creators of the animated television comedy, South Park, aired on Comedy Central--have shocked adult audiences into exploring and rethinking cultural idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies, including disability. Eschewing political correctness, these writers unabashedly criticize and satirize every conceivable aspect of popular culture. Their commercial spots present a montage of marginalized peoples, with the slogan, "No one left out." A child's message to women is, "get your bitch ass back in the kitchen and make me some pie." Gay people are described as "evil right down to their cold black hearts." A schoolteacher refers to Jews as "pagans." An African American school-lunch chef calls White children "crackers." The only African American student's name is Token. People with disabilities are called "freaks" and "monsters." Parker (1999) explains that there "is a lot to joke about because there is a lot to talk about and to think about and joking...is part of it." South Park's direct assault on American sensibilities, however, is less to offend than to prod a normally squeamish viewing public to confront its own taboos and preconceptions.

In the South Park episodes we analyze, Stone and Parker irreverently deconstruct representations of disability in three different ways. In "Conjoined Fetus Lady," they contrast the public's uncomfortable reactions to disability and their consequent distancing from and objectification of disabled people with the naturalness and ease disabled persons express about their bodies. In "Timmy 2000," they address the shortcomings of medicalization and issues of inclusion and exploitation. Lastly, in "Thanksgiving Special," they redefine the externally determined role of disabled persons through an inversion of social hierarchies and subvert modern constructions of disability in the media.

Why the Show Works

Exposing sensitive issues in an in-your-face fashion, South Park's creators escape castigation by invoking laughter, mostly through farce and irony (Shibles, 2000). When a cartoon involves scathing social critique, "it is a backlash against the medium's stereotype, a violation of some unwritten rule, and thus, fits into a comedic mold" (Landsberger-Attardo, 1999).They also avoid rebuke for several other, interconnected reasons: the show's complete irreverence, the use of children as the vehicle for social criticism, and animation as the visual medium.

Because South Park couches social scrutiny in a veil of vulgar language and pushes issues to illogical extremes, it fosters reflection--if the audience can overcome the superficial shock value that charges the show. While its irreverent and potentially inflammatory remarks can be taken at face value as reinforcing negative stereotypes, the show's disruptive intention becomes clear through close textual analysis. Although such semiological analyses are not intended to be objective (Anderson & Merrell, 2001), they help us tease out how signifying practices (i.e., representations) can inform our perceptions (Hall, 2001).

South Park focuses on the lives of four fourth graders–Kyle, Stan, Kenny, and Eric. It is primarily through their perspectives that contradictions and injustices in American life are exposed. Because most Americans consider children harmless, curious, pure, and inoffensive, using children as a medium for social analysis allows the audience to distance themselves and react with laughter rather than negative emotion to the scornful appraisals (Corker, 1999; Douglas, 1968).

Equally important is the use of animation: producers and directors depend largely on the creative use of production techniques to get their point across (Barker, 1994). Cartoons are considered innocuous entertainment for children and animation "makes the characters seem distant and inhuman, their poor taste and indecent behavior is forgivable and even funny, whereas in a sitcom situation, we would likely be appalled" (Chanda, 2001). In addition, because the low-tech characters are made as crudely as possible: "We cannot take them seriously because they look so silly" (Chanda, 2001).

South Park uses its intentionally low-budget appearance as a vehicle for, arguably, the most scathing social criticism and commentary found on mainstream television today. While the animated cartoon format could allow the viewer to take South Park less seriously, its content provokes reflection on societal attitudes and interactions that may otherwise be taken for granted. Because the development of each episode is central to understanding the techniques South Park uses to expose unwarranted and unjust attitudes related to disability and to allow readers to judge the validity of our interpretations for themselves, we recount each episode in some detail. Of course, humor is always ambiguous--dependent on intention, context, and interpretation (Kuipers, 2005; Robillard, 1999). The three episodes we have chosen to discuss, then, probably will, but may not always, contribute positively to the important mission of disability awareness.

Episode 205: "Conjoined Fetus Lady," Originally Aired June 3, 1998

In this episode, Stone and Parker parody the public's discomfort with the physical variations they consider impairments and show how, through oppression, our society turns those impairments into disabilities. Nurse Gollum--her name is an allusion to the non-human creature, Gollum, from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy--has Conjoined Twin Myslexia, or Siamese Twins syndrome. The absurdity is that her twin is a dead fetus attached to the left side of her head.

Before the episode begins, Parker tells the audience that, despite its title, the show is actually, "about the kids' dodge ball trip to China...and also has that old woman-that-has-a-twin-that-died-during-childbirth-attached-to-her-head joke in it" (Parker & Stone, 1998). Do the writers wonder if the audience would stay tuned to a program about disability? Parker's rare aside, however, foregrounds the plot of Nurse Gollum rather than dismisses it.

The episode opens with the fourth-grade children playing dodge ball in Physical Education class. The ball hits Kyle in the face and bloodies his nose. Accompanied by cinematic-villain music, the teacher drags the kicking and screaming child to the nurse. The remaining children share rumors about the "hideously deformed" nurse, who "has tentacles and eats children for lunch" (Parker & Stone, 1998). Within 90 seconds, this episode demonstrates how societal notions of disability are traditionally linked to concepts of vileness and monstrosity largely based on "rumor," what in the academy we would refer to as circulating tropes (Garland Thomson,1997; Mitchell & Snyder, 2000) or discourses (Hall, 2002; Reid & Valle, 2004). Although labeled a "monster," a "freak," an "outcast," and a "poor woman" 14 times in just over 22 minutes, Nurse Gollum is the most compassionate and "together" adult in the episode.

As the bleeding Kyle waits in her office, the shadow of Nurse Gollum, horror-movie style, enters the room. Kyle, eyes tightly closed, trembles in fear as suspenseful music plays. The kindly nurse reassures Kyle that she will not hurt him and asks him to open his eyes. With Kyle, the audience sees the unencumbered side of her head, the music ends, and Kyle and the Nurse begin to interact comfortably. However, when the Nurse turns and the fetus is revealed, the boy screams uncontrollably. The Nurse calmly and without shame or discomfort explains, "Oh, I see you've noticed my disorder. I have a still-born fetus growth attached to my head" (Parker & Stone, 1998).

In the remainder of the episode, Stone and Parker highlight the "charity discourse" (Longmore, 2003; Longmore & Umansky, 2001) in which, as a route to self-affirmation, nondisabled individuals champion causes of disabled people, usually at the disabled people's expense. To "make the public aware of...[Nurse Gollum's] disease...so that it can be understood rather than made fun of....It is up to us to make her feel comfortable and welcome in our town" (Parker & Stone, 1998), one of the children's mothers, Sheila, gives a dinner party at her home. What begins as a misdirected, albeit well-intentioned, "movement" quickly spirals down to the depersonalization and objectification of Nurse Gollum.

At the party, everyone, except the Nurse, appears patently uncomfortable. True-to-life (see Siebers, 2001), the Nurse is not even consulted about the party given for her. Furthermore, of the five adults in attendance, one guest's Freudian slips reveal his tension, "Could you pass me the dead fetus? I mean gravy!" while another pretends not to notice her: "Could I get some more pork?" (Parker & Stone, 1998). Sheila and another woman address Nurse Gollum's "deformity" head on: "I have felt so bad ever since I heard the boys making fun of you" (Parker & Stone, 1998). They ask if the Nurse has considered having the dead fetus removed, but when the nurse replies that it would mean her death, they offer to get her a collection of hats. To them, the ideal solution is to hide the disability. Obviously, these are not atypical real-life reactions (e.g., Shapiro, 1993). Creating a character who, in contemporary American culture, would be labeled disabled despite the fact that her "disability" does not affect either her physical or mental abilities strongly underscores the inappropriateness of such responses.

Nurse Gollum remains calm and composed, comfortable with her body as it is. She explains the children's making fun of her: "They're just young boys. Joking is a way for them to come to terms with what they don't understand," and she tells the women, after the multiple hats suggestion, that, "I really appreciate what you are trying to do here, but it's not necessary. I'm a pretty happy person" (Parker & Stone, 1998). Also consistent with real-life disability experience is the able-bodied characters' inability to accept the nurse's physical appearance or her assertion that she leads a happy life (Linton, 1998). Despite Nurse Gollum's protests, the do-gooders organize a Conjoined Twin Myslexia Awareness Week.

In the inaugural parade, Nurse Gollum, the only person parading, becomes a public spectacle. At an honorary dinner, they show "Pictures of Courage," a montage of her engagement in ordinary activities--shopping at the grocery, painting her house, and going to the Post Office. With each successive frame, the Nurse's expression becomes more disgruntled. The final shot is of her sitting on the toilet with a look of utter disbelief trying to block the camera with her hand. Cliché inspirational music backgrounds a voiceover: "You've got the strength, you've got the courage, even with a dead fetus on your head. Carry on! You fight for tomorrow! Dead fetus, or no, you never let go. You're my conjoined-twin-dead-thing-hanging-off-your-head-woman" (Parker & Stone, 1998). People cry in the background while one character comments, "[T]hat was so touching." The scene is intended to lampoon both the contrived social discourse of pity (Shapiro, 1993) and the way it serves the needs of the able-bodied. Finally, the Nurse receives a Lifetime Conjoined Twin Achievement Award presented with the same suspense as an Oscar, despite the fact that Nurse Gollum is the only person eligible.

The ultimate irony occurs when Nurse Gollum makes her closing remarks. As she takes the stage, there is a shot of the now informed and sympathetic town's people standing in the audience wearing conjoined twin hats, looking ridiculous. She begins: "I, ah, well, don't really know what to say. This has been quite a week." The camera shows Sheila, handkerchief in hand and a tear in her eye, remarking how touched she perceives the nurse to be. Nurse Gollum continues:

...this may sound odd coming from a woman with a fetus sticking out of her head, but you're all a bunch of freaks. Don't you realize that the last thing I ever wanted was to be singled out? I just wanted to do my job, and live my life like any normal [sic] person, but instead you've made everybody focus on my handicap all week long. Look, I don't want to be treated different. I don't want to be treated special or treated gingerly. I just want to be ridiculed, shouted at, and made fun of like all the rest of you do to each other. And take those stupid things off your heads! (Parker & Stone, 1998).

The response is, "[W]hat an ungrateful bitch....yeah, the nerve of some people," as the public remains so engrossed in their own realities that they cannot possibly understand hers. Throughout the episode, Nurse Gollum's is the only voice of tolerance and sanity.

In sum, Stone and Parker use comedic satire to turn an "offensive" portrayal of a woman with a disability into a reflective commentary about the way society teaches us to interact with people, "whose looks...don't fit the norm," and who are "very scary, repulsive even" (Waterman, 2000). They adeptly demonstrate how "disability becomes a social relationship in which oppressive attitudes and unaccommodating environments create a situation that puts people with certain kinds of bodies at a disadvantage" (Garland Thomson, 2000, p. 21). Nurse Gollum's disability is constructed by the public's "inclusionary" efforts; in sharp contrast, her desire is just not to be singled out. The disparity is made all the more palpable because her "physical disability" is not disabling. Blaine Waterman (2000), a disabled critic, comments:

I loved the painfully accurate look at how trying to 'do something' for The Disabled (or anyone, really) is often a tangled mess of mixed motivations and dubious methods. By parading Nurse Gollum around town and giving her a Life Achievement Award, the good burghers of South Park aren't really doing anything for her or about her.

Episode 404: "Timmy 2000," Originally Aired April 19, 2000

Here Stone and Parker address the shortcomings of a strictly medical model of disability and explore the public's restricted views of social inclusion. Both subplots center Timmy, a mentally retarded [sic], wheelchair user with a four-word vocabulary.

The program opens with the teacher questioning the fourth graders about their homework. Since Timmy answers only with his name, the teacher sends him to the principal's office where, after a few minutes discussion, the counselor has an epiphany: that Timmy is "suffering from" Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Next, at the South Park Medical Clinic, a doctor performs "the" diagnostic test: over the course of seven hours, he reads The Great Gatsby to Timmy and then asks him what kind of car Gatsby drove in Chapter 7. When Timmy predictably responds with his name, the doctor cries, "Well, that settles it! This young man definitely has Attention Deficit Disorder!" (Parker & Stone, 2000a). He prescribes Ritalin and excuses Timmy from all questions and homework, which all too realistically angers both his teacher and the other students. Subsequently, the other children, failing to answer a similar question about A Farewell to Arms, are all diagnosed as ADD and also begin taking Ritalin. Soon the children, their parents, and the fourth-grade teacher are all taking the children's Ritalin and all become complacent, monotone zombies.

The school-lunch chef, Chef, incredulous that the children are looking forward to a Phil Collins concert, becomes infuriated with the over-prescription of Ritalin. "That does it! The Ritalin has affected your little cracker brains too deeply!...You don't need drugs to make you pay attention in school. In my day, if we didn't pay attention, we got a belt to the bottom!...Those damn psychologists prescribe all kinds of medicine to you children without even caring about the side effects" (Parker & Stone, 2000a).

Unsuccessful in engaging the complacent parents, Chef (accurately) confronts the representatives of the medical model, the doctor and pharmacist, who are discussing their profits from increased Ritalin sales: "All around the country, you bastard doctors are giving children Ritalin, and for every one child that actually needs it, you give it to 50,000 that don't" (Parker & Stone, 2000a). Finally, Chef's sharing that the children want to go to a Phil Collins concert forces the doctor and pharmacist to realize the situation they have largely created and they prescribe an antidote to Ritalin: Rital-Out.

The sub-plot reveals how blindly people rely for remedies on a medical perspective and on medical professionals, who, historically, have been the authorities who define knowledge of disability. By organizing such knowledge according to medical needs and principles, they have encouraged all of us to think of disability as a personal, rather than social problem (Linton, 1998). The parents accept the validity of the obviously ludicrous ADD tests because they are preformed by a doctor. Only Chef remains a voice of reason amidst the Ritalin haze. Although he advocates "smacking" misbehaving children and telling them to do their homework, the community places their faith in the power of drugs.

The second subplot features Timmy as lead singer in a teen-age rock-and-roll band, The Lords of the Underworld. When they take the stage at the Battle of the Bands, the crowd initially appears shocked to see a wheelchair user taking center stage, but once the music starts, many enjoy themselves, dancing and cheering. One crowd member yells, "Dude, that handicapped kid rocks!" (Parker & Stone, 2000a).

Nonetheless, one woman scolds, "You guys are terrible!...They're ridiculing that singer!" (Parker & Stone, 2000a). When his fellow fourth-graders praise Timmy as "awesome" and he "rules," another woman admonishes: "Boys, you shouldn't laugh at him! He's handicapped" (Parker & Stone, 2000a). Phil Collins, for whom Timmy's band is scheduled to open for after winning the Battle of the Bands, also protests: "I think it's a horrible tragedy. Isn't it? I mean, people aren't going to see Timmy for his musical skills. They're laughing at him and I think you should not laugh at people with disabilities.... Society has to learn to be more compassionate" (Parker & Stone, 2000a). Finally, one of the nondisabled fourth-graders acquiesces tongue-in-cheek, "Phil Collins was right....Timmy should be at home where he is protected from laughter" (Parker & Stone, 2000a). However, once the people of South Park unknowingly drink the Rital-Out, they come to their senses and boo Phil Collins off the stage and chant for Timmy and the Lords of the Underworld. Stan expresses Stone and Parker's view:

[W]e learned something today. Yeah, sure, we laughed at Timmy, but what's wrong with laughter? Just because we laugh at something doesn't mean we don't care about it. Timmy made us smile,and playing made Timmy smile! So where is the harm in that?! The people that are wrong are the ones that think people like Timmy should be protected and kept out of the public's eye! The cool thing about Timmy being in a band was that he was in your face, and you had to deal with him whether you laughed or cried or felt nothing! That's why Timmy rules!" (Parker & Stone, 2000a).

Exploitation emerges nowhere in the episode. Timmy genuinely enjoys singing with the band and they enjoy their new-found success. Because Stone and Parker imbue the opposition to Timmy's inclusion with a farcical quality, it becomes clear that, although the nay-sayers behave as Stone and Parker believe the public would in such a situation–feeling discomfort in allowing a disabled person to be the star--their responses are gratuitous (See also Goode, 1989; Rosenbaum, 2003).

Episode 414: "Thanksgiving Special," Originally Aired November 11, 2000

For the school's Thanksgiving extravaganza, the fourth graders annually enact "The Miracle Worker." The principal bemoans, "[E]very year I have to sit and watch it. Yeah, I swore that if I had to see it one more time, I'd put a bullet in my head," (Parker & Stone, 2000b). When they discover that the Kindergarteners' play has singing and dancing, the fourth graders recast the play as a musical and give Helen Keller a trick-performing, pet turkey. The lead turkey Timmy and Kyle buy to star in the play is Gobbles, a physically disabled turkey for whom Timmy develops an immediate affinity. Eric, the director, however, refuses to have Gobbles in the play. Timmy, who functions intelligently throughout the episode, is not pleased. The other children urge Eric not to upset Timmy: only the "retarded, wheelchair-bound" student is qualified to play the deaf, blind, and mute Helen Keller.

Ultimately, however, much as able-bodied people do with their disabled counterparts, the nondisabled students underestimate Gobbles and refuse to allow him in the musical, thinking his disability will detract from the play's quality. Instead, they seek out the trick-performing Alanecia, "four time winner of the National Western Stock Show, and reigning poster child for TurkeyLovers.Com" (Parker & Stone, 2000b). Desperate to have the beautiful Alanecia in the play, Eric agrees to have Gobbles "meet with an unfortunate accident" (Parker & Stone, 2000b). After Eric fails to kill Gobbles with rigged lighting equipment, Alanecia's trainer lies to Timmy: "They [the Animal Shelter] take wild pets away from people like you and hand them over for experiments... The only way for that turkey to avoid years of torture is for you to let him go back into the wild" (Parker & Stone, 2000b). As two water-effects technicians come into view, the trainer pretends they are from the shelter and urges Timmy immediately to set Gobbles free.

After tearfully releasing Gobbles into the wilds of suburban South Park, Timmy returns to the set and overhears the water technicians conversing. When he realizes the deception, he speeds away and locates Gobbles just as hunters are about to shoot him. Timmy dives protectively in front of Gobbles and is grazed on the arm by a bullet. Later, at the moment when Alanecia is to jump through a hoop of fire in the play's grand finale, the penitent hunters, at Timmy's request, shoot her. As the cast despairs that their play has been ruined, Gobbles, taught the trick by Timmy, steals the spotlight, walking through the hoop of fire to a standing ovation.

The juxtapositioning of Gobbles and Alanecia illustrates how judgments based on appearance frequently result in discriminatory practices. Gobbles is a trope used to demonstrate how disabled people exist within "social contexts, supported and denied, enabled and disabled by those around [them]" (Montgomery, 2001): Society limits the potential actions and success of those individuals perceived as "Other." Gobbles has missing and oddly colored feathers; deranged, unfocusing eyes; a drooping head; and a bizarre gobble. The beautiful Alanecia, in contrast, is drawn artistically and in fine detail: perfectly arranged feathers, well developed breast, and a regal gobble. However, Stone and Parker invert the common value hierarchy: The beautiful turkey meets with the fate intended for the disabled turkey and Gobbles saves the day by performing a complicated trick, exceeding everyone's expectations--except Timmy's. Both Timmy and Gobbles' roles in the play are predetermined by what the able-bodied students perceive as the extent of their capabilities, but the tables are turned when those typically marginalized characters become powerful in defining the circumstances and success of the play (Stronach & Allen, 1999).

Equally illustrative are the lyrics Eric pens for the musical numbers. Although the original "The Miracle Worker" is, also unfortunately, the story of Helen Keller's "overcoming" her disabilities, Eric's songs highlight those disabilities. The opening number, modeled on a Broadway production complete with neon signs and acrobats, begins, "Helen Keller! Helen Keller! Blind as a bat! She can't hear or speak, what's up with that?" (Parker & Stone, 2000b). In another scene, seeking inspiration, the frustrated lyricist talks to Helen's picture, "Speak to me, Helen. Let me be your voice!...[after a slight pause]...Come on, you blind bitch! Channel your spirit through me!" (Parker & Stone, 2000b). The original drama is thus transformed into a reification of a different, but still destructive stereotype.

Humor has so much cultural power because of its elastic polarity: it both a) reinforces pejorative images and facilitates their erasure and b) acts as a both divisive and coalescing agent (Boskin, 1997). In typical South Park fashion, the final outcome in each of these episodes undermines the cultural assumptions of those characters representing society-at-large and draws attention to uncalled-for injustices.

Conclusions

In all three episodes, and in numerous others, Stone and Parker challenge prevailing cultural assumptions and stigmatizing attitudes that constrain how we relate to and interact with disabled persons. By using an animated format that centers children and presenting each disabled character as just one more citizen of South Park (Haller & Ralph, 2003), they are able to slip sensitive issues into mainstream culture palatably and persuasively (Haller, 2003). In all three episodes, they make apparent the inconsistencies and injustices typical of the public's responses to disability by contrasting the humanity of disabled persons with cultural assumptions about them. In "Conjoined Fetus Lady," the citizens of South Park are unable to allow Nurse Gollum to pursue her life as she sees fit, and in an attempt to make themselves feel more comfortable, further alienate her through their ridiculous Conjoined Fetus Awareness Week. In "Timmy 2000," they are forced to confront their own underestimations and their reluctance to allowing disabled people a place in the limelight. Although every indication suggests that being part of the Lords of the Underworld was entirely positive for Timmy and his peers, there is outspoken resistance to enjoying Timmy for the music he is creating. Instead, people who appreciate his performance are upbraided for ridiculing the boy. Lastly, in "Thanksgiving Special," Timmy and Kyle choose a physically challenged turkey to improve their play, but the other children reject Gobbles because of his appearance. How could a disabled turkey be expected to perform tricks as well as a beautiful, athletic turkey? However, in the end, the hierarchical notions that surround conceptions of disability are inverted as Gobbles saves the day.

Of course, South Park is only one part of the answer to problematizing television viewer's attitudes toward disability, if indeed, viewers do not just "laugh it off." Also, it may not offer so powerful a challenge to people's thinking as disabled people's autobiographical theater troupes (e.g., Fox & Lipkin, 2002; Strickling, 2002), memoirs (e.g., Berube, 1998; Finger, 1990, Linton, forthcoming; Mairs, 1984,1996), stand up [sic] comedy (Stoughton, Reid, & Smith, under review) and perhaps other live, liberatory arts and entertainment that enable the audience to see and hear about the disability experience first-hand. Nevertheless, in a society where television is a ubiquitous and determinant element in people's relationship to and construction of their realities, it is essential that viewers experience multiple versions of this meta-reality to inform and challenge the taken-for-granted and often destructive ways we relate to our environment and our neighbors. In an atmosphere of political correctness that buries representations of difference, South Park stands out as an original, critical voice prompting its audience to question and rethink how our society constructs the social identities of disabled people. Televised representations of disability, then, affect us all (Berube, 1997).

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Dermot Foley for helping us locate the South Park episodes.

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Endnotes

1 South Park is not alone in its use of an animated cartoon format for social critique: The Simpsons, Family Guy, and King of the Hill also critically deconstruct American society, and all have dealt with issues of disability.

2 A web-based video game named Timmy, a DVD compilation, and a complete line of Timmy plush dolls attest to Timmy's being one of the most popular characters on television. There is also an unofficial Timmy website that received more than 410,000 hits in 1999, the home page of which is dedicated to the "most hilarious cartoon boy that ever lived" (Cablam, 1999).






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