The Humorous Reproduction of Religious Prejudice: "Cults" and Religious Humour in the Simpsons, South Park, and King of the Hill

By Feltmate, David | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The Humorous Reproduction of Religious Prejudice: "Cults" and Religious Humour in the Simpsons, South Park, and King of the Hill


Feltmate, David, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


New religious movements (NRMs) (often pejoratively labelled "cults") have long been feared and persecuted before becoming part of America's accepted religions--if they ever find such tolerance. Indeed, "cults" have been understood as dangerous, deceptive, depraved, and droll. Yes, humour is one way that people come to terms with the significance of "cults'" and this begs the question, if cults are supposedly so horrendous, why can we see them as humorous? Cowan demonstrates that pejorative humour in South Park resonates with anti-Mormon evangelicals, allowing them to claim the program as a co-conspirator in their prejudice (Cowan 2005). Similarly, Lowney and Best (1996) found that jokes circulating after the Branch Davidians' confrontation with the BATF and FBI from February 28 to April 19, 1993, in Waco, Texas, demonstrated a moral authority whereby those who laughed at the Branch Davidians' demise were seen as good and those who died in the conflagration were treated as deviant. Today, jokes about cults can be found online, in newspapers, and on television. This article analyzes three animated sitcom episodes, one each from The Simpsons ("The Joy of Sect" [S. Moore 1998]), South Park ("Super Best Friends" [Parker 2001]), and King of the Hill ("Fun with Jane and Jane" [Kuhlman 2002]) because they demonstrate how American concerns about cults, their dangers, and public morality are humorously conveyed and reinforced. These programs are important not only for their longevity (508 The Simpsons episodes over 23 seasons, 259 King of the Hill episodes spanning 13 seasons, and 230 South Park episodes in 16 seasons), but also because they have found their way into academic discourse about humour's and television's social importance. (2) This satire's cultural significance is illustrated by outlining a specific cult stereotype's history in American mass media since the 1970s, explaining how these three episodes replicate it, and analyzing the significance of the stereotype's reproduction through humour.

The Cult Stereotype

Springfield has been overrun by a strange and almost certainly evil sect calling themselves the Movementarians. In exchange for your home and all your money, the leader of this way out and wrong religion claims he'll take believers away on his spaceship to the planet Blisstonia. Excuse my editorial laugh: Ha, ha, ha.

--Kent Brockman, news anchor in "The Joy of Sect" (S. Moore 1998)

This editorial interpretation of the Movementarians--the NRM that arrives in the Simpsons' hometown of Springfield in "The Joy of Sect"--echoes any number of television news broadcasts negatively portraying NRMs, reflecting deeply rooted prejudices against new religious movements in the United States. In a special issue of Review of Religious Research dedicated to mass media and unconventional religion, Wright writes, "It would seem that, in most cases, the only story sufficiently 'newsworthy' about these religious groups must involve some diabolical plot to subvert the innocent, engineered of course by a crazed maniacal 'cult' leader who secretly schemes to amass limitless power" (1997, 110-1). Nine years earlier, van Driel and Richardson were able to identify the most common negative motifs used in cult reporting between 1972 and 1984: confining members or depriving them of personal freedoms; charismatic leadership; extreme authoritarianism and discipline; behavioural control using psychological manipulation or brainwashing; a preoccupation with the leaders' wealth and luxury; the group's portrayal of the outside world as evil and something to be feared; and apocalyptic beliefs (1988). This list contains the essential elements of a stereotype that is used as what Berger and Luckmann call "recipe knowledge" ("knowledge limited to pragmatic competence in routine performances" [1966, 42]) for explaining NRMs to media consumers who have little, if any, contact with these religious groups (see also Beckford 1994; Bromley 1994; Cowan and Hadden 2004; McCloud 2004; Neal 2011; Robbins and Anthony 1994). …

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