Episode 712: South Park , Ridicule, and the Cultural Construction of Religious Rivalry

Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Episode 712: South Park , Ridicule, and the Cultural Construction of Religious Rivalry


Douglas E. Cowan

Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Sociology

University of Missouri-Kansas City

Abstract

Using a recent episode of the adult cartoon South Park, this essay explores the function of ridicule in the cultural construction of religious rivalry. Principally, this essay argues that ridicule is not a product of derision, but of the social relationships that make derision meaningful. Functionally, ridicule serves two purposes: (1) stabilization, that is, it preempts or reduces deviance within both the aggressor group and the aggressor audience; and (2) hierarchization, that is, it reflects and reinforces a dynamic of status ascription within a given domain of social interaction.

Introduction

[1] From the plays of Aeschylus to the pamphleteering of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, from the satirical stories and essays of Mark Twain to the unrestrained sarcasm of Hunter S. Thompson, and from the antipathetic propaganda of war-time posters and advertisements to the often stinging insight of editorial cartoons such as G.B. Trudeau's venerable Doonesbury, ridicule has served as a trenchant form of social commentary. An often powerful means by which deviance is established in an effort to exert social control over particular groups or individuals, the ability to portray one's opponents as ridiculous, pathetic, ignorant, or absurd has long been part of the arsenal brought to the arena of social conflict. While there is some scholarly literature on the process and function of ridicule (see, for example, Caranfa 1981; Getz 2002; Janes and Olson 2000; Kemeny 2003; Klapp 1949; Klein-Zolty 1994; Raphael and Herberich-Marx 1994; Schwartz 2001), it is such a prevalent commentarial form that we often miss its significance as a mechanism of labeling, deviance, and the reinforcement of cultural hierarchies. Specifically, making particular groups or individuals appear ridiculous serves two mutually reinforcing purposes: (1) it marginalizes the target group and reduces its status both in the eyes of those doing the ridiculing and (presumably) their intended audience, and (2) it amplifies the place of the group or individual doing the ridiculing and increases its status. That is, ridicule renders the target inferior, while simultaneously invoking the superiority of the one doing the ridiculing.

[2] Originating in the Latin rideo ("to laugh"), ridicule is not a point in conceptual or performative space, but rather a range of behaviours designed to highlight or caricature specific aspects of the target and to elicit particular responses in the audience. While ridicule can be as simple and crude as pointing out what one regards as the deficiencies in another's physical appearance and laughing at them, more sophisticated forms are predicated on the shifting nuances of language, the inversion of accepted categories of cultural interpretation, and an ethical imperative that seeks to demonstrate the way in which targeted social phenomena, groups, or individuals ought to be regarded.

[3] In this essay, I will use one particular example of cultural satire-Episode 712 of the adult television cartoon, South Park (Parker and Stone 2003)-to explore (1) the concept of "the ridiculous" as a species of cultural deviance, and (2) "ridiculousness" as a tactic in the prosecution of religious rivalry, an instantiation of the reflexive relationship of inferiority and superiority in which both the ridiculed and the ridiculer inevitably stand. It is important to note at this point that, although I will offer a fairly detailed precis of the episode, South Park is not the principal focus of the paper. Rather, it provides the platform from which to discuss larger issues of religious rivalry and cultural contest-specifically when these occur as aspects of evangelical Christianity.

[4] Entitled "All about the Mormons?", Episode 712 came to my attention in a couple of ways. …

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