Sunday, November 29, 2009

Kick A Writer Day

I read the recent story about "Kick A Jew Day" with outrage, but as came to the part of the news story that suggested the creators of "South Park" might somehow be responsible, I took pause. In "South Park", according to the story, the behavior of the Naples kids was somehow influenced by other kids who have engaged in something called "Kick A Ginger Day", a Ginger being someone with red hair.

The school official in the news story below is correct when he states that perhaps blaming "South Park" lets the students off the hook for the responsibility of choosing an inappropriate behavior, but as a writer and teacher, I have no problem calling out Stone and Parker, "South Park"'s creators.

To be honest, I stopped watching "South Park" some time ago. I felt the show had become mean-spirited and that it at times took on racist and sexist overtones. I came to the opinion that Stone and Parker expressed a bigotry, unconsciously or otherwise and excused it by saying: "It's satire, we're expressing racism to show how absurd racism is."

Unfortunately, that doesn't always work out that way. I remember sitting with my students and discussing their perceptions of Jews as well as their perceptions of Jews on "Family Guy" and "South Park". Some got it. Many didn't. They allowed the lampooning of bigotry to reinforce their prejudice. I wanted to write a letter to Seth McFarlane, "Family Guy"'s creator, and ask him where he stands in this discussion. Perhaps I still will. Or perhaps he answered it when it was revealed that Lois Griffin, the main character's wife, was in fact Jewish and that her mother hid her background due to Lois' father's bigotry.

"I put the work out there," an artist might exclaim. "I'm not responsible for how it's interpreted or who watches it. Parents should exert some influence." This falls in line with "South Park"'s creators' previously expressed libertarian philosophy.

The controversy of artist responsibility isn't new. One can look back at "Birth of Nation", a blot on the history of the film industry and see the role of the artist in influencing social perceptions. In literature, one can look back further, although literature before the turn of the last century wasn't on the coffee tables and in the living rooms of the working class as well as the elite. One wonders what Hitler would have been able to do had he had access to the medium of television or the internet.

Where do we draw the line though? In the seventies was Alice Cooper responsible if teens imitated his stage show and as a result accidentally hanged themselves? Is Ozzy Osborne responsible for other teens from that same era taking his song "Suicide Solution" to heart? What about the responsibility of rapper, former drug dealer, 50 cent? Would we say that his work is responsible? Is his song "Gun Runner", the story of a gun deal gone wrong, told from the evil and successful gun dealer's perspective, social commentary which criticizes violence? Or does it glorify it?

This is a complicated issue. As writers, I think at some point, we all have to ask where responsibility falls. Stone and Parker jumped the shark some time ago and took credibility with them. Their show is merely self-indulged hate mongering masquerading as social commentary these days. "Family Guy"? It gets close, sometimes flirting dangerously close to the flame.

Or maybe it depends on what side of the fence you're on.


Jon said...

So how would you feel about, "Kick Sara Pallin Day" on South Park, et al? "Kick Glenn Beck Day?" "Mock Fundamentalist Christian/Muslim Day?" South Park works because it doesn't care whose ox gets gored. Pallin or the Pope or the Scientologists or the Baptists or the Jews. Cross the line? There is no line.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I remember when South Park attacked Mel Gibson, a person I have no fondness for, I felt uncomfortable over their attack on him as a person. When the show veers toward racism or personal attack it is troublesome. However I never advocated their censorship, I merely placed blame where it belonged and proceeded to stop watching them. A show stops being "all mavericky" at some point and Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker probably need to leave it behind and turn attention elsewhere. Look at Al Capp and "Lil Abner", the strip eventually became tired. The same can be said for "Pogo". People change, maybe become bitter --Stone and Parker -- and maybe lose touch with what they first wanted to achieve. Maybe they've changed with success. Or maybe success has peeled away a layer of responsibility and has shown us the true ugliness behind the artist.

There is a line. Each reader and each writer must define it for ourselves. If you are comfortable with "South Park", by all means have a good time with it. Me? I think the I saw the Emperors nakedness some time ago.

SQT said...

I'm pretty anti-censorship simply because what's considered what's appropriate depends on who's drawing the line. That said, the line has sure moved. There was a bit of controversy over a recent awards show because a singer performed a racy bit that simulated a gay sex act. That is a bit much. I didn't watch the show, and mostly I'm not interested in them. But I knew better than to have it on for my kids to watch because there's a better-than-average chance the content is going to be inappropriate. That's sad.

The South Park thing is pretty disturbing. I've never watched the show but I know a lot of people who are fans, so I'd be interested to hear what they think about it. But I'm more bothered by the fact that people, even kids, will knowing hurt others and think that pointing to a tv show can in some way excuse the behavior. What the heck happened to common sense and morality?

Steve Buchheit said...

There's a difference between "free speech" and "incitement to riot" or "encouraging criminal acts." Where the line is drawn, and for what purposes, is what's difficult.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I am no fan of censorship. However as Steve adroitly points out, there is no absolute freedom of speech in this country, but rather, according to Supreme Court rulings conditions that must be met. Indeed, inciting to riot or murder is not guaranteed by the constitution. However, attempts to draw the line are always treacherous. I suppose the best thing we can do is to follow our own moral compass and when we are offended, we stop reading or watching. Or when the content is so inflammatory as to be perceived as dangerous, perhaps we take more aggressive action such as boycotting a network (as in the recent Glenn Beck case) or engaging in letter writing and telephone campaigns.

Joe Ponepinto said...

The racism, sexism, whatever-ism of South Park and similar programs is supposed to be okay because it is "fair comment" or equal opportunity satire or some other nonsense. But when the road to success in the mass market is to out-shock or out-gross the competition, the content of such shows (or movies or books) is reduced to cheap one-up-manship (or down-manship if you prefer).

Is this Jew bashing what the South Park boys really want to say? Or is it just a tired, vulgar attempt to maintain their aura as "rebels?" I've noticed that those who make a living by being iconoclasts eventually run out of legitimate targets and begin to resort to taking on stereotypes.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Joe, I recently watched "Robot Chicken" and found the same annoying, fratboy elements although not the same negative and hateful perspectives. Still,the shock and gross effect works only when there is a true purpose to it and substance to back it up, not when its the result of a passive aggressive creative force jumping up and down yelling: "Me!!! Look!!!!"

SQT said...

Stu, I think in generally we pretty much boycott what we don't like by not watching -- though it certainly doesn't make the headlines. In today's culture a network is just as likely to gain viewers from a public outcry. *Sigh*