“Now Cissy that Walk” – How South Park’s Portrayal of the Trans Community Has Evolved in the Last Decade
One group of people that rarely get any face time in modern media is the transgendered community. While this is slowly starting to change, there is still the ever present concern about how those individuals will be portrayed, depending on the nature of the show, as people are liable to enforce stereotypes, make them the punch line of the joke, or both. Orange is the New Black is considered to be one of the biggest successes in their portrayal of a transgendered woman, as Sophia Burset, played by Laverne Cox, is both well love and respectfully portrayed.
When South Park announced it’s newest episode “The Cissy,” there was a growing concern among the online community due to the show’s past portrayal of transgendered individuals. On March 9, 2005, the show aired an episode entitled “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina,” which is described by badtransjokes.tumblr.com as “one of the grossest moments in comedy for a transgendered woman,” In this episode, Mr. Garrison, third grade teacher who, up until that point, was a gay male, decides to undergo a sex reassignment surgery, becoming a woman. After his sex reassignment surgery, he begins to live his life as a woman. Many other things happen over the course of this episode, but it ultimately ends with Mr. Garrison mistakenly thinking that he’s pregnant and going to an abortion clinic, only to find that he cannot get pregnant. He then states, “But I paid $5000 to become a woman! This would mean that I’m not really a woman. I’m just a guy with a mutilated penis!” Mr. Garrison lives his life as a woman for three more seasons, until 2008, in the episode “Eek! A Penis!” where he seeks to reverse his SRS with a new experimental procedure that grows human body parts on lab rats. By the end of the episode, he is a male again, now (falsely) claiming that the true definition of gender lies in a person’s ability to get pregnant.
Given the show’s problematic past with the transgendered community, talk of this episode brought up a lot of preemptive concern, people coming to the conclusion that this episode, too, would be as transphobic as they thought the episodes involving Mr. Garrison were. However, once the episode premiered, it was evident that not only have Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the show’s creators and writers, evolved in their views of trans people, but have become equally as perceptive to the modern workings of the trans community.
This episode, entitled “The Cissy,” starts with the show’s antagonist, Eric Cartman, and his growing frustration with the boys bathroom at his school always being crowded. Yelling out, “YOU’VE PUSHED ME TO THIS!” he pulls a bow out of his pocket and puts it on his head, walking into the girl’s bathroom. When confronted about this, he says, “I’m not comfortable with the sex I was assigned at birth so I’m exercising my right to identify with the gender of my choice. Now get out of my way, I have to take a shit.” While Eric is often portrayed as the antagonist, and what he does is wrong by default, this brief exchange gives some light into how being transgendered actually does work. In fact, Eric often gives definitions to terms that almost never get talked about in the mainstream. Although he frequently uses the wrong terms, like “transginger and cisginger,” it is showing that off the bat that Cartman is not actually trans, but rather saying so for the wrong reasons. This is shown throughout the episode where he falsely accuses other people having gender identity issues as being “cisgendered,” getting most of the school to side with him, as he is vocal about his wrong understanding of how being transgendered works.
In an exchange about whether or not to let “Erica” use the girl’s bathroom, the term “cisgendered” is defined by Mr. Garrison, and for the first time on major national television. They even pay homage to their past with this topic, having Mr. Garrison say, “Trust me, you don’t want this hot potato. Just let him use the girl’s room.” After the other girls in the school express concern over Cartman using the girl’s room, the school opts to give him a “personal private bathroom.” Through the course of this episode, Cartman continually brings attention to the fact that he’s “transginger,” making it clear throughout the episode that he is calling himself this for the wrong reasons by counter acting it with other proverbial “transgendered people.”
One of the other kids who explores their gender identity is Wendy Testaburger, or “Wendell,” in response to “Erica’s” recent coming out. However, “Wendell’s” story isn’t’ explored very much in this episode. There was even concern over why Wendell was not the main protagonist of this story instead of the character who was, but in all honesty, this plot and its message would have been wasted on Wendy. Wendy is not a well-liked character, and for this point to be driven home, it had to be from the perspective of a character that the audience loves. In this case, Randy Marsh.
In the episode that aired before this, “Gluten Free Ebola,” Randy Marsh plays Lorde at a diabetes benefit for Scott Malkinson. At first, this seems like another gag or quick and funny joke, but the continuity carries over to the next episode, where the audience learns that he has been living a double life as the popular pop singer. Randy’s story is the one followed throughout this episode, giving the impression that in addition to being a famous pop star, that he is exploring his gender identity to an extent. At one point in the episode, a reporter for Spin Magazine suspects Randy, threatening to out him as a 45 year old geologist. At the same time, Randy’s co-workers, knowing that “Lorde” is working with them, express concern over sharing bathroom space with her. However, towards the end, Randy’s wife Sharon delivers this wonderful speech driving home one of the main points of the episode, “I’d tell her not to let people change who she is. I’d tell her that if people are making fun of her, it’s probably because they’ve lost touch with being human. I’d tell her to keep on doing what she does, because when someone’s not allowed to express who they are inside, then we all lose. If I could talk to Lorde, that’s what I’d tell her.” Then, Lorde proceeds to write and produce a hit song that acts a double entendre about using the bathroom and being yourself, everyone accepts her, and the magazine reporter cancels the story outing her.
However, I think one of the biggest and most powerful stories carried throughout this episode is that of Stan Marsh. At one point in the episode, he says, “Two people close to me are having gender identity issues and I’m just confused.” His story, while not the focal point, is one of the most moving, as he spends a good chunk of the episode considering the complexity of his gender identity. In one of the most eye-opening moments in television history, Stan is standing outside of the restrooms, labeled “Women, “Men,” and “Other.” Here is this young boy who has only been presented with two gender options in his entire life, never knowing that there was any other option. One of the realest components of Stan’s story is that he is continually treated horribly by those around him, even though his gender identity concerns are completely valid.
Now, with the stories of Wendell and Stan having their potential to be powerful, there was a concern over the fact that the main story line arguably did not follow that of any actual transgendered people. Why follow Randy, who, although arguably is gender fluid, is not outright transgendered? The answer is simple. South Park is a juvenalian satire, and therefore, by nature, will take large issues and put them at a relatable level for their general audience who may not understand the message if too many technical terms were thrown in their face with no reliability for twenty-three minutes. Take a look at the first episode of this season, “Go Fund Yourself,” which dealt with the patent of the Washington Redskins trademark being pulled on the grounds of it being racist. There was not one Native person in this episode, but the point was still clear. However, the point wasn’t necessarily to send a particular message, but rather, to get a dialogue going about the issue. They’ve done this in the past; making comparisons with heavy issues that were never talked about, now giving a light and a dialogue to something that didn’t exist before. Using allegory in a brilliant way, the show puts the idea of being yourself to that of the violation of privacy of celebrities, coupled with the constant exploration of gender identity throughout the show helps drive home the episode’s meaning without being too over bearing.
I love South Park. I think that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are brilliant men, and that their satire is the finest example of it on modern television. I also realize that not everyone agrees with that, and that a lot of people still found “The Cissy” to be problematic, some even still believing so not having seen the episode. However, I think that people need to realize that what works about South Park is that they indiscriminately make fun of all groups, as no one is above criticism. And while they have a few instances of crossing the line of good taste in the past, it isn’t like other shows that try to pass off as “satire,” that go for the easiest joke, even at the expense of tact. They play their cards carefully, calling out the faults that exist within a community while highlighting the good that it does. “The Cissy” is one of the most brilliant examples in the show’s history, in my opinion. We have someone who identifies as trans for the wrong reason, and there is no debate in this, while bringing validity to those who actually are exploring their gender identity, even going as far as to explicitly state the point, that it’s okay to be yourself and that anyone who is concerned over it is the one who isn’t normal.
I understand the lingering concern, as it’s hard to look the other way when it’s your group specifically that is subject to this, and it was easier to look the other way before when the jokes didn’t apply to you. However, no one is above criticism, and no one is without fault. And if you can’t laugh at yourself, how in the hell are you going to laugh at somebody else?