South Park controversies

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South Park is an American animated sitcom created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Its frequent depiction of taboo subject matter, unusual (especially Sophomoric) humor and portrayal of religion for comic effect has generated controversy and debate throughout the world over the course of its 22 seasons. Stone and Parker, who write the show, use the show frequently to lampoon a wide range of topics and both sides of contentious issues.

Parker and Stone usually reply to such controversies by regarding themselves as "equal opportunity offenders".[1] They reject the notion of political correctness, and state that no particular topic or group of people will be exempt from mockery and satire, out of fairness to any person or group of people who have been ridiculed before.[2][3][4][5][6][7]


United States[edit]

In the United States, South Park is mainly rated TV-MA: This program is specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17 and may contain one or more of the following: crude indecent language (L), strong sexual content (S), or graphic violence (V). To note, some episodes on syndication have been reclassified TV-14. However, starting in 2017, uncut airings of South Park on Comedy Central have been receiving a TV-14-DLSV rating, mainly from the first twenty seasons. Seasons 21-22, as well as particularly offensive episodes (i.e, Bloody Mary, Trapped in the Closet) still carry a TV-MA rating.


In Australia, the first three seasons and some episodes in season 4, were rated M: Recommended for mature audiences 15 years and over. The M rating is unrestricted and moderate in impact, and it is equivalent to America's TV-14 rating. The latter seasons are rated MA15+, which is a rating restricted for people over 15 years, and is strong in impact. Despite being rated M on television, the season 3 DVD set was the first season to receive an MA15+ rating. The consumer advice usually goes as follows; Adult themes (A), coarse language (L), sexual references (S) and/or animated violence (V). Depending on the rating, the terms "moderate" and "strong" precede these descriptions.

United Kingdom[edit]

In the United Kingdom, the show is generally rated 15, until season 7 when it gets an 18 rating due to the audio commentaries (the episodes are only rated 15). However, some episodes, such as those in the first four seasons do have a 12 rating (Cartman Gets an Anal Probe). Furthermore, the season 3 DVD set was originally rated 18 in the UK, Canada and Ireland, due to the content of the final episode, World Wide Recorder Concert (which contains references to child molestation). It was re-rated 15 in the UK upon its re-release in 2008, although in Ireland it is still rated 18, as a number of episodes in the latter seasons.

Other countries[edit]

In Canada, the VHS/DVD sets were originally rated 18A, but later re-rated to a 14A rating. Season 4 is the only season rated R13 in New Zealand and the first season is rated M, akin to Australia's rating. The rest of the seasons have a R16 rating. The television rating of the show in New Zealand is AO (adults only). In Spain, the show is rated 18 (years and above).

South Park was banned in India. According to VH1 India's channel head Ferzad Palia, after being reviewed by the Indian Ministry of Broadcasting, the show was banned for its vulgarity.[8]

Criticism and protests[edit]

As the series first became popular in the United States, several schools punished students for wearing South Park-related T-shirts, while a group of school principals in New Jersey mounted a small campaign to notify parents of the show's content. Hickory Flat Elementary School in Cherokee County, Georgia issued a ban on wearing any South Park clothing.[4][9][10] In a 1999 poll conducted by NatWest Bank, eight- and nine-year-old children in the United Kingdom voted South Park's character Eric Cartman their favorite personality. This drew the concern of several parent councils, who were expecting that a children's television show character would top the list, and the headmaster of a Cambridgeshire public school urged parents to prevent their children from watching the show.[11] Parker and Stone, who are not opposed to allowing kids to watch the show, assert however that the show is not meant to be viewed by kids, and the show is almost always rated TV-MA,[10][12] while being accompanied by the following warning: "All characters and events in this show—even those based on real people—are entirely fictional. All celebrity voices are impersonated... poorly. The following program contains coarse language and due to its content it should not be viewed by anyone."

The conservative advocacy group Parents Television Council has frequently criticized South Park for "over-the-top vulgar content" and "tastelessness," condemning the show as a "curdled, malodorous black hole of Comedy Central vomit" that "shouldn't have been made."[13] [13][14] Among the episodes that the PTC has criticized include, according to columns by its advisor and former president L. Brent Bozell III:

Action for Children's Television founder Peggy Charren claimed that the show's use of language and racial slurs represents the depravity of Western civilization, and that it is "dangerous to the democracy."[9][17]

Several other Christian activist groups have protested the show's parodies of Christianity-related matter and portrayal of Jesus Christ—whom South Park has depicted blasphemy, shooting and stabbing other characters, and as unable to perform actual miracles.[2] The Christian Family Network prepared an educational guide on how to "protect our youth from vile trash like South Park," and claims that their efforts to "restore morality, and protect life for the individual, family, and community" would be impeded if children watched the series.[9]

Matt Stone insists that "[kids] don't have any kind of social tact or etiquette", and claims that parents who disapprove of South Park for its portrayal of how kids behave are upset because they "have an idyllic vision of what kids are like."[4][11]

Several groups have called for a boycott of the show, its sponsors, and the networks that air it. For example, in late 2008, on behalf of Muslim activists and members of the Russian Pentecostalist Church, a group of prosecutors in Moscow sought to have the Russian channel 2×2 closed in an attempt to prevent them from broadcasting the series, which they claimed promoted "hatred between religions." Their appeal was rejected by Russian media officials, and the channel's broadcasting license was extended until 2013.[18][19] Aside from the efforts in Russia, no group or individual in a country where the show is aired has mounted a significant campaign to ban the series and its availability on home media entirely.[4][12][20][21]

A Canadian judge in the Calgary Judicial District has described South Park as a "vulgar, socially irreverent program that contributes nothing to society." [22]

Vulgarity and depiction of racism[edit]

The show further lampooned the controversy surrounding its use of profanity, as well as the media attention surrounding the network show Chicago Hope's single use of the word "shit," with the season five premiere "It Hits the Fan".[23] [24] A counter superimposed on the bottom left corner of the screen tracked each of the episode's utterances of the word "shit," which was said 162 times without being bleeped, while also appearing uncensored in written form 32 times, totaling 194 times used.[24][25][26] The backlash to the episode was mostly limited to 5,000 disapproving e-mails sent to Comedy Central.[27]

The PTC also criticized the show for its excessive use of the racial epithet "nigger" in the season 11 (2007) premiere "With Apologies to Jesse Jackson."[28] Despite its 43 uncensored uses of the word, the episode generated relatively little other controversy, as most in the black community and the NAACP praised the episode for its context and its comedic way of conveying other races' perceptions of how black people feel when hearing the word.[29][30] While some in the Jewish community have praised the show's depiction of the character Eric Cartman holding an anti-Semitic attitude towards fellow student Kyle Broflovski as a means of accurately portraying what it is like for a young Jew to have to endure bigotry as an ethnic minority,[31] other Jews have blamed South Park and Cartman for having found themselves surrounded by "acceptable racism."[32]

Parody of Scientology[edit]

South Park parodied Scientology in a short that aired as part of the 2000 MTV Movie Awards. The short was entitled "The Gauntlet" and also poked fun at John Travolta, a Scientologist.[33][34] The season five (2001) episode "Super Best Friends" features illusionist David Blaine forming his own cult, called "Blaintology."[35] Parker and Stone have acknowledged that this is meant to be a reference to Scientology.[36]

In the season nine (2005) episode "Trapped in the Closet", Stan Marsh is recognized as the reincarnation of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard before denouncing the church as nothing more than "a big fat global scam."[2] Tom Cruise, also a Scientologist, is seen in the episode locking himself in Stan's closet and refusing to come out, as other characters ambiguously plead for him to "come out of the closet" in a parody of rumors involving Cruise's sexuality.[37] One scene retold the story of Xenu, a story Scientology normally attempts to keep confidential and only reveals to members once they make significant monetary contributions to the church.[38] The show's closing credits billed every member of the episode's cast and crew as "John Smith" and "Jane Smith" in a parody of both Cruise and the church's reputations for litigiousness.[37][39][40]

Departure of Isaac Hayes[edit]

On March 13, 2006, nearly two months after suffering a stroke,[41] Isaac Hayes, the voice of the character Chef, quit South Park. A press release cited his objections to the show's attitudes toward and depiction of various religions. While the press release did not specifically mention "Trapped in the Closet," Parker and Stone assert that he quit because of the episode and its treatment of Scientology, as Hayes was a member. Stone commented that Hayes practiced a double standard regarding the treatment of religion on South Park: "[We] never heard a peep out of Isaac in any way until we [lampooned] Scientology. He wants a different standard for religions other than his own, and to me, that is where intolerance and bigotry begin".[42] Fox News suggested that, because he was still suffering from the effects of his stroke, Hayes was hospitalized and not in a position to make a rational decision to leave the show.[43] Fox also reported that Hayes left the show because of pressure from fellow Scientologists and that the decision was not voluntary, noting that Hayes had previously defended the episode after an amicable discussion with Parker and Stone about its content. Fox claimed moreover, that the original press release announcing his departure was put out by someone not authorized to represent him.[43] In a 2016 oral history of South Park in The Hollywood Reporter, Hayes's son, Isaac Hayes III, confirmed that the decision to leave the show was made by Hayes' entourage while Hayes was unable to make such decisions on his own.[44]


"Trapped in the Closet" was scheduled to rebroadcast on March 15, 2006 on Comedy Central, but the broadcast was canceled without prior notice, and was replaced with a repeat of the season two (1998) episode "Chef's Chocolate Salty Balls". The controversy that soon followed was dubbed "Closetgate" by the Los Angeles Times.[45] Representatives of Comedy Central insist that the episode was changed as a tribute to Hayes following his departure.[46][47] Comedy Central's parent company, Viacom, also owns Paramount Pictures, which was set to distribute the then-upcoming film Mission: Impossible III, which stars Cruise. Several media outlets alleged that Cruise threatened to boycott the publicity tour for the film unless Viacom cancelled the episode's rebroadcast.[48][49][50][51][52][53] Comedy Central, as well as Cruise's representative and publicist, immediately denied the allegations.[21][54][55] Cruise himself later said that he would not "dignify" the rumors by personally addressing whether or not they were true.[56]

In response to the episode being pulled, Parker and Stone issued the following statement, with several mocking references to Scientology:

So, Scientology, you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for Earth has just begun! Temporarily anozinizing our episode will NOT stop us from keeping Thetans forever trapped in your pitiful man-bodies. Curses and drat! You have obstructed us for now, but your feeble bid to save humanity will fail! Hail Xenu!!![57]

Mission: Impossible III was released on May 5, 2006, while "Trapped in the Closet" was rebroadcast without controversy on July 19, 2006. Stone stated that he and Parker would have threatened to end their relationship with Comedy Central had the network finally refused to rebroadcast the episode.[58][59] The episode was nominated for an Emmy,[60][61] and is included on South Park's 10th Anniversary DVD, called "South Park – The Hits, Volume 1" and is one of the show's female voice actresses, April Stewart's favorite episode.


Cameron Adams of the Herald Sun highlighted the episode "All About Mormons" among "Top Choice" picks in television.[62] Chris Quinn of the San Antonio Express-News placed the episode at number 7 on his list of: "Top 10 Most Offensive South Park Episodes and Therefore, Maybe The Best, List".[63] The episode was used as an exhibit in discussing Mormonism in popular culture, by Utah Valley State College religious studies professor Dennis Potter, in a presentation titled: "The Americanization of Mormonism Reflected in Pop Culture".[64] The LDS Church called the episode a gross portrayal of Church history, but contended that "it inflicted no perceptible or lasting damage to [the] church," and that such portrayals are distractions.[65]

Depiction of the Virgin Mary[edit]

Several Roman Catholics took offense at the season nine (2005) finale "Bloody Mary."[66] In the episode, a statue of the Virgin Mary is portrayed as releasing copious amounts of actual blood while undergoing overt menstruation; characters had declared the phenomenon a miracle when they initially thought the blood was flowing from her rectum. Another scene features Pope Benedict XVI closely inspecting the anal and vaginal regions of the statue and being sprayed with blood. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights demanded an apology from Comedy Central and unsuccessfully campaigned to have the episode both removed permanently from the network's rotation and never be made available on DVD.[48][66][67] Viacom board member Joseph A. Califano, Jr. and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued formal complaints with then-Viacom CEO Tom Freston.[2][21][68]

In February 2006, leaders from the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference, the Council of Christians and Muslims, and other religious groups together lobbied media conglomerate CanWest to stop the episode's debut airing and potential rebroadcasts in New Zealand on the music channel C4, while protesters condemned the lobby for attempting to take advantage of the New Zealand people's lack of a guaranteed right to the freedom of speech. The network rejected the plea, and was allowed to air the episode, doing so ahead of schedule to take advantage of the media attention surrounding the campaign.[69][70][71]

Censorship of the depiction of Muhammad[edit]

We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.

Zachary Adam Chesser[72]

The season 10 episodes "Cartoon Wars Part I" and "Cartoon Wars Part II" feature a plot in which the Fox network plans to air an episode of the animated show Family Guy that contains an uncensored cartoon depiction of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. Residents of South Park panic, fearing a terrorist response and a repeat of the real-life violent protests and riots that occurred worldwide after some Muslims regarded Muhammad's cartoon depiction in a Danish newspaper as insulting and blasphemous. The first episode had a cliffhanger ending instructing viewers to watch part two to find out whether the image of Muhammad would be shown uncensored. In the second episode, Kyle persuades a Fox executive to air the Family Guy with the image uncensored, while echoing Parker and Stone's sentiments regarding what should or should not be censored of "[either] it's got to all be OK or none of it is".[2] Within the universe of the episode, the Family Guy episode is aired uncensored, despite a retaliation threat from Al-Qaeda. However, the actual South Park broadcast itself ran a black screen that read "Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network" instead of the scene containing Muhammad's depiction, which Parker and Stone say was neutral and not intended to insult Muslims.[2][23]

Parker and Stone note the contradiction in being allowed to feature a profane depiction of Jesus, while being forbidden to feature a purely benign depiction of Muhammad, but claim they harbor no hard feelings toward Comedy Central for censoring the scene, since the network confessed to being "afraid of getting blown up" rather than claim 'religious tolerance' like other networks.[2][48] Parker and Stone claim the only regrets they have over the incident was that their mocking of the show Family Guy in the episode generated more attention than its commentary on the ethics of censorship.[73] Previously, Muhammad was depicted uncensored and portrayed in a heroic light in the season five (2001) episode "Super Best Friends", which resulted in virtually no controversy.[2] Muhammad also appears among the large crowd of characters gathered behind the main characters and "South Park" sign in some of the show's previous opening sequences.[74]

Parker and Stone repeated this plot for the 200th episode "200". Again, the depiction was censored throughout the episode. After the episode aired, a leader of Revolution Muslim, an obscure New York-based radical Muslim organization, targeted South Park's creators for satirizing issues surrounding the depiction of Muhammad. The author of the post, who goes by the username Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, wrote on Twitter that he prayed for Allah to kill the show’s creators and “burn them in Hell for all eternity.”[75] He also posted a similar entry on his blog and on the Revolution Muslim website. The post included a picture of the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim extremist in 2004 with the caption: "Theo Van Gogh – Have Matt Stone And Trey Parker Forgotten This?" He also noted: "We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh if they do air this show."[72]

Following the airing of this episode, Malaysia's conservative Islamic PAS party demanded that the makers of the satirical cartoon sitcom South Park apologize to Muslims around the world for its portrayal of Muhammad dressed as a bear, though it was later shown that it was actually Santa inside the suit. "Even though they have added the audio bleeps, South Park's producer and broadcaster should apologize to the Muslims, as this is a sensitive issue," said PAS vice-president Mahfuz Omar. "The show itself spells of bad intention, and the depiction of the Prophet is provocative. It creates religious tension."[76]

The following episode "201" censored the word "Muhammad" throughout the episode, as well as several lines from the "Super Best Friends" during the final act. According to the South Park Studios webpage, episode "201" was censored by Comedy Central after the studio delivered the episode, but before it was aired. The studio advises that the episode is not available online because they do not have network clearance to air the uncensored episode. A user on the imageboard website 4chan later discovered a partially uncensored version of the episode "201" on the official website's RTMP web server, and it has since been distributed across the internet.[77]

Due to the controversies, the episode "201" was removed from the British Comedy Central TV schedule, and replaced with a repeat of "The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs," and the repeat of "200" was replaced with a repeat of "Sexual Healing". The episode "Super Best Friends", previously available via the South Park Studios website has been made unavailable. Additionally, the Netflix streaming version of the episode, also previously available, has been changed to "Disc Only".[78] "Super Best Friends" was also removed from the iTunes Store as well as the Xbox Live Video Marketplace.

Despite the controversies, "200" and "201" are available on the Region 1 release of "South Park – The Complete Fourteenth Season" disc. The episodes were censored and so were the commentaries regarding the episodes. The Region 2 and 4 releases of "South Park – The Complete Fourteenth Season" had both "200" and "201" removed for undisclosed reasons, despite the packaging claiming that all fourteen episodes are included in the set. In the chalkboard gag of The Simpsons episode, "The Squirt and the Whale", Bart pokes fun at the death threats Parker and Stone received by writing "South Park, We'd Stand Beside You If We Weren't So Scared."

Depiction of Steve Irwin[edit]

Several viewers criticized the season 10 (2006) episode "Hell on Earth 2006" for its depiction of Steve Irwin with a stingray stuck in his chest.[48] The episode originally aired seven weeks after Irwin, an internationally popular Australian TV personality and wildlife expert, died when his heart was pierced by a stingray barb. Several groups and even devout fans of the show derided the scene and its timing as "grossly insensitive" and "classless", while Irwin's widow Terri Irwin expressed concern that her children could one day see the episode.[79][80][81][82]

Mexican flag[edit]

In the 2009 episode "Pinewood Derby" several world leaders were depicted, including Mexican President Felipe Calderón, failing to successfully deal with an international crisis. MTV withdrew the episode in Mexico, causing controversy amongst Mexico's South Park fans, who felt it was censorship; MTV denied this, claiming they had just failed to get permission in time to show the Mexican flag on TV.[83]

Post Paris attacks[edit]

Comedy Central (Netherlands) chose temporarily not to broadcast some scenes from several shows following the November 2015 Paris attacks. While no specifics were given, it included a scene in the 2015 episode "Sponsored Content" where presidential candidate Mr. Garrison states that he knows there is only one way how to deal with Syrian refugees, and the crowd shouts "fuck them all to death".[84][85][86]

Controversies unrelated to the show's content[edit]

April Fools' Day prank[edit]

One of Parker and Stone's earliest responses to the show being condemned as "nothing but bad animation and fart jokes" was creating a show-within-the-show about two even-more-crudely-drawn characters named Terrance and Phillip who do little else but pass gas around each other.[87] The child characters on the show find Terrance and Phillip, who debuted in the season one (1997) episode "Death", to be hysterical, while their parents find them to be horribly offensive.[88] An entire episode featuring the duo aired on April 1, 1998 in lieu of an episode that was supposed to continue from the show's previous episode from four weeks earlier, which ended with a cliffhanger promising to reveal the identity of Cartman's father in the show's next airing. Several fans were angered by the April Fools' Day prank, to which Comedy Central received 2,000 email complaints. Following this, Comedy Central moved the planned air date of the next show up a month so that fans could sooner watch the actual show they originally expected to see.[89]

Michael Moore[edit]

Michael Moore interviewed Matt Stone for his 2002 film Bowling for Columbine. Stone discussed his experiences growing up in the Littleton area and the social alienation that might have contributed to the Columbine High School massacre. Stone, who is a gun-owner himself, said that Moore's presentation of their interview was fair, but he criticized the director for a short animated segment that followed the interview. The cartoon, which is about the history of guns in the United States, implies that there is a connection between the Ku Klux Klan and the establishment of the National Rifle Association. Matt Stone, who did not have anything to do with that short cartoon, criticized Moore for making the cartoon "very South Park-esque" and argued that Moore deliberately sought to give viewers the incorrect impression that he and Trey Parker had produced the animation, by playing these two completely separate segments consecutively. "We have a very specific beef with Michael Moore. I did an interview, and he didn't mischaracterize me or anything I said in the movie. But what he did do was put this cartoon right after me that made it look like we did that cartoon."[90] Stone called it "a good reference to what Michael Moore does in films [...] he creates meaning where there is none by cutting things together."[91] The pair responded by depicting Moore in an unflattering light before having his character blow himself up in their 2004 film Team America: World Police.[90]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Simpson, Brandon (2013). The Libertarian Lessons of South Park: An Analysis of Libertarianism in South Park, How Ron Paul, Gary Johnson & South Park Created a New Generation of Libertarians & South Park Conservatives. Dry Ridge, KY: Small Town Press. ISBN 978-0981646664. OCLC 844727134.
  • Arp, Robert; Decker, Kevin S.; Irwin, William (2013). The Ultimate South Park and Philosophy: Respect My Philosophah!. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1118386569. OCLC 940807046.