Communication Currents

What a Cartoon Can Teach Us About Race

February 1, 2013
Critical and Cultural Studies

Modern American culture is something of a paradox. While we make ever greater efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity, many of us seem reluctant to give up our old, tired stereotypes. What forces in today’s world might encourage us to hang onto these disturbing ideas? Scholars in communication and other fields place much of the blame on media messages and the way they represent difference to audience members. According to some researchers, many of these messages “re-center” a white identity. In other words, media programs teach viewers that being white is the ideal, and that having any other kind of racial identity makes a person less valuable or important to society. These lessons are taught through the process of “othering.” People of different racial backgrounds are presented in media messages as being “other” than white; certain characteristics and behaviors are emphasized to demonstrate just how “unwhite” they are. In the process, the value of whiteness is reaffirmed. White audience members are encouraged to feel better about their own racial identity, while at the same time be grateful they are not “the other.”  

Many research articles have shown how very negative and stereotypical media depictions of people of color contribute to this process of“othering." But what about all the media messages out there that feature only white characters? Do these programs work to re-center whiteness as well? American television today is still very racially segregated. There are a handful of programs with largely African American or Latino casts, for example, but the majority of shows still present a sea of white faces. So what happens when white viewers watch programs with characters who look and act pretty much the same way they do? You might think that this racial segregation on TV would help white viewers to feel even better about themselves and their “privileged” racial identity. But research in psychology suggests that the self always needs an “other” to compare itself against. Without this different “other” as a touchstone, we have trouble understanding ourselves and how we fit into the larger group.  

In my study of Comedy Central’s popular TV cartoon series South Park, I find that even in a program with an entirely white cast of regular characters, there is still a good deal of “othering” that occurs. Whiteness is definitely not a monolithic racial identity. In other words, even among white Americans today, there is a sense that some people are “whiter” than others. Some fit comfortably at the very center of the racial group, while others operate on the fringes; at times they are recognized by everyone as being part of the racial identity, and at other times they are excluded for being “not quite white.” These fringe or liminal characters serve an important function, because they teach us which attitudes and behaviors we should adopt in order to fully belong to the group, and which we should definitely avoid. 

The world of South Park is an excellent example of this “othering” or fragmentation of whiteness into a number of central and fringe subject positions. The cartoon recounts the adventures of four elementary school friends who live in the mythical town of South Park, Colorado. Although all four boys are white, the way they dress, speak and act suggests that each experiences being white in a very different way. 

Of the four friends, Stan Marsh clearly represents the ideal white identity. While the other friends are often ridiculed for their lifestyles, dress and speech, Stan seems immune to this kind of criticism. In one episode, a teenage rival wants to bully Stan into a ski race – and the best slam he can come up with is calling him “Stan Darsh.” South Park’s central character is never questioned or punished for “otherizing” the residents of his small town. Instead, his judgments against people of different races, ethnicities and sexualities seem tame compared to the ones his friends generate. Ultimately, Stan’s role in the program is to simply be. He remains largely distant from and unaffected by the challenges and disappointments his friends experience, and he is frustrated whenever he needs to step in and clean up their messes.  

Kyle Broflovski is Stan’s best friend, but he experiences his own whiteness in a very different way. While Kyle doesn’t display any of the crude stereotypical behaviors popularly associated with Jewish individuals for generations, he is constantly reminded of his “not quite white” status as a Jew by the other boys, particularly Eric Cartman. Because of this mistreatment, Kyle is forever rejecting his ethnic/religious background. In one episode, fed up with his father’s penny-pinching ways, he exclaims, “Don’t be such a Jew!” Kyle’s efforts to rid himself of his background add vitality to Stan’s position at the center of white identity.  

Eric Cartman’s role on South Park is to give voice to whiteness’ rejection of “the other.” Outspoken in his hatred, Cartman turns his withering judgment against everyone who is different in any way, from redheads to homosexuals to little people. But his most vitriolic scorn is reserved for Kyle. Cartman’s diatribes fill two important functions. They remind the show’s “not quite white” characters of their positions on the borders of whiteness, and they also help Stan to distance himself from such open judgments of “the other.”  

Finally, Kenny McCormick is a clear example of the “poor white trash” on the fringes of whiteness. Kenny’s laziness and hyper-sexuality are both qualities that have long been associated with the poor in the U.S. The boy wears an orange hoodie pulled tightly around his face; only his friends seem to be able to tell what he is saying. Like America’s poor today, Kenny is effectively silenced. Interestingly, Kenny is also killed in each of the show’s early-season episodes. Stan is outraged when this happens – not because he has lost a friend, but because such a thing is allowed to happen in his comfortable suburban world.  

South Park’s fragmentation of whiteness into a series of central and fringe positions invites viewers to consider their own relationships to the white identity. Recognizing this will help us to understand how all kinds of media messages reinforce whiteness’ centrality in our American culture, even in the absence of “the other.”

About the author (s)

Phil Chidester

Illinois State University

Assistant Professor