South Park, The F-Word, and The N-Word

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FAIR WARNING: I use the words in their unabbreviated versions in this post.

South Park Gays Against FagsThis week’s South Park episode took another stab at the interesting way language is used in American society. The boys spend the episode convincing everybody that “faggot” and “fag” should refer to annoying Harley riders, going so far as to try to change the printed dictionary definition. Even the gays rally against the fags. By my count, permutations of the word appeared 86 times in the episode.

GLAAD says they got the joke, but it wasn’t funny:

This is a slur whose meaning remains rooted in homophobia. And while many South Park viewers will understand the sophisticated satire and critique in last night’s episode, others won’t – and if even a small number of those take from this a message that using the “F-word” is OK, it worsens the hostile climate that many in our community continue to face.

Joe over at Joe.My.God noticed an excellent comment on the NYT piece that I’d like to expand upon: “If they had used the “n” word instead of the “f” word, what would the response have been?”

Let’s get real for a second. Words are combinations of sounds created by different contact points in our mouth. They don’t have any higher power other than what humanity has determined they should have. Humans have been naming things since we could. Naming is so important that when someone wrote a book about the supposed “first” humans, they were given names and given the responsibility to name just about everything else. We needs words to describe things, and unfortunately, when people are looking to describe things negatively, there are words for that too.

There are a lot of words that society considers “profane” (reminding us of the religious privilege to set standards in society by what pleases and displeases God). There are the words that refer to things we find to be gross (fuck, shit, douche, asshole, piss, cunt, etc.) and the expressions that directly disrespect God (“Go to hell,” Goddammit,” etc.). The gross words earned their disgust because of their literal definitions and the sensitivity of believers helped the direct profanity of God develop its literary power. But then there is a whole different category of words designed to specifically target people because of who they are. These are words that have no other possible meaning and that can never be reappropriated.

The existence of these words is a permanent stain on humanity. The fact that there was a time that people thought these words needed to exist or thought there was reason to use them is an ugliness we can never undo. We can’t forget them, we can’t hide them, we can only do our best to not say them. Their etymologies are irrelevant because in modern American English they can only mean one thing.

“Nigger” only means one thing. I cringed typing it, and you probably cringed reading it. It’s there. It’s never going away. We have to recognize that we cannot escape the hate behind it. Members of the black community might find strength in attempting to “reclaim” it, but I see nothing to reclaim. It only means one thing. There are members of our species who did (and still do) think that one race of people was intellectually and morally inferior to another by their very existence, and this was a word to convey their hatred and disgust for those people. It can mean nothing else and there is no way to use it that would not imply the deepest offense and hatred to an entire segment of our population. Some might be unforgiving in my choice to type it out in this post, but I hope you come to see that is the very point I wish to convey about it. (Go back and read my first paragraph—were you as upset by my three uses of the f-word?)

I typed the n-word out once, and the paragraphs of disclaimer for why I did so are probably not enough to appease those who are infuriated by its existence. We are all right to be furious that we cannot escape the past and to be unforgiving to those who might try to ignore that past for their own devices.

This is what South Park demonstrated this week in the most hypocritical way, though I expect Trey Parker and Matt Stone would admit as much. They fell on this one to make their point. GLAAD is exactly right: the f-word causes immense pain and anguish for our community. Regardless of its intricate etymology (which the South Park episode actually details accurately), the f-word only means one thing in modern American English. Unlike the way I wrote this post, South Park used an offensive word often and unapologetically, and it is easy to see how the satire might be lost on viewers.

As a member of the gay community, I openly despise the f-word to the same extent I despise the n-word. I have been called it enough times to know the pure spite behind it. I don’t use it, and I refuse to humor other gay men who might choose to openly identify by it. When I hear someone say, “Omigod, I KNOW! I’m like a total fag!” I hear an invitation for abuse. I see a disrespect for those who have been so hurt by the word. Some have committed suicide for such taunts. For some it’s the last word they hear as they are beaten to death. There is nothing gained by trying to embrace it.

South Park is amazing art. Its goal is to make us think and engage in dialogue and to that end it continues to be very successful. But think about if you had casually heard the word “nigger” about once every 15 seconds for an entire episode of television. Would it take the existence of an organization like GLAAD to be the sole voice defending the defamed group? I doubt it. We would all condemn it (as I still expect many will condemn me for using it in this post, a condemnation I would welcome because it proves my point).

We got a harsh reminder this past week from Maine that we are a long way from queer equality. People can unflinchingly vote away marriage equality. People are susceptible to myths and lies that portray the gay community in a negative and hurtful light. While some like to think everything is peachy keen when it comes to LGBT issues, we have a long way to go in changing not just the laws, but the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens.

Watching this South Park episode can be extremely painful, but in a week full of pain, it should serve as an extra reminder of how far behind we are. The point of the episode isn’t just that you can’t change the definition of an offensive word. The mere fact that South Park could get away with this episode should be a wake-up call to how insensitive the public is to the continued plight of the gay community.

You can watch the full episode here.

South Park Fag Flags

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There are 7 Comments to "South Park, The F-Word, and The N-Word"

  • J.Morris says:

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/With_Apologies_to_Jesse_Jackson
    See Also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lenny_Bruce

    Are there any niggers here tonight? Could you turn on the house lights, please, and could the waiters and waitresses just stop serving, just for a second? And turn off this spot. Now what did he say? “Are there any niggers here tonight?” I know there’s one nigger, because I see him back there working. Let’s see, there’s two niggers. And between those two niggers sits a kike. And there’s another kike— that’s two kikes and three niggers. And there’s a spic. Right? Hmm? There’s another spic. Ooh, there’s a wop; there’s a polack; and, oh, a couple of greaseballs. And there’s three lace-curtain Irish micks. And there’s one, hip, thick, hunky, funky, boogie. Boogie boogie. Mm-hmm. I got three kikes here, do I hear five kikes? I got five kikes, do I hear six spics, I got six spics, do I hear seven niggers? I got seven niggers. Sold American. I pass with seven niggers, six spics, five micks, four kikes, three guineas, and one wop. Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig: if President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, “I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet,” and if he’d just say “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger” to every nigger he saw, “boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie,” “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger” ’til nigger didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.

    – From Julian Barry’s screenplay for “Lenny”can be seen/heard in Lenny Bruce: Swear to tell the truth

  • ZackFord says:

    As you might expect from my post, I disagree with the point being made in that excerpt, but in the interest of critical dialogue, I do see the value of allowing that to be posted.

  • CZD says:

    I want to know where GLAAD was when South Park mocked trans people. And as a transgender individual, I would just like to know where was GLAAD when Mr. Garrison had his sex-change operation, mocking a very long transition process by having an outpatient vaginoplasty.  If GLAAD is going to be policing the airwaves to “protect GLBT people” then they damn well better remember the T.  I’m sick of being left out. Incidentally South Park called out such orgs with the F word episode when they showed a gay rights group being rather, um, hypocritical. Personally, I found both episodes hilarious. South Park is satire, in much the same way as the Onion; GLAAD didn’t seem to mind the Onion proclaiming that people who smoke are gay or that effeminate boys need to be dressed in very masculine halloween costumes. You can’t pick and choose with satire.

  • ZackFord says:

    Very fair points, my friend!

  • […]   I actually enjoyed the episode. And I feel sort of bad now. As one blogger put it: “Unlike the way I wrote this post, South Park used an offensive word often and unapologetically, and …“   I know he has a point. I know it should never be funny to call someone a fag. […]

  • Mike says:

    I enjoyed reading this blog post very much, but, to me, it seemed to demonstrate a sort of generation gap. This seemed strange to me, as I am only 19 and did not expect my worldview or upbringing to differ greatly from anyone just a  decade or two my elder, but it appeared nonetheless.
    I’m referring to the stigma you associate with the word “nigger,” which does not exist for me and my peers.
    I live in San Diego and a majority of my friends are Filipino, Mexican or Korean (white folks are a minority here). My best friend is black. Even so, we grew up in Southern California years and years after the victories of the civil rights movement, which were ancient history to us when we learned about them in grade school. I learned the word nigger not after it was used by someone in anger, but from listening to Hip-Hop and rap music (to people who don’t realize, yes, there is a difference). As such, we do not share the same memories and associations that other generations have with the term; with the struggle for equality during the Civil Rights movement and the hateful actions of bigots and supremacists. To us, it was just a taboo word that was used in the uncensored versions of music by 50 Cent and Eminem. To us, its meaning is relegated to the meaning defined in entry number four in the Urban Dictionary:
    Nigger
    nigga, niggah etc. al.(noun)1.describes an ignorant, uneducated, foolish individual regardless of race, color, religion, sexual orientation, etc. 
    2. endearing term between two or more individual to describe a friendship or bond.
    <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=nigger>
    It is my sincere hope that within another generation or two, it will no longer carry the massively negative connotation it has in the past, and instead that the above definition be accepted as the norm. I hope, further, that the same will be accomplished with words like “gay” or “faggot.”
     
    Words truly only carry the power that human beings assign to them, and I have complete confidence that the actions of people like Messrs Parker and Stone will be able to reclaim and redefine words that were once considered taboo.

  • Lan23q says:

    I think your missing the point, being straight i can’t begin to understand the emotional baggage the word fag must carry for a homosexual, however I do think that your over analyzing. Despite the fact that homosexuality is far more widely than it was 10 years ago and in 10 years gay marriage and equal rights are not only a possibility but a probability in most westernized countries.

    This episode was 100% entirely focused on paying out bikeys…the use of the word fag in the episode was used to demonstrate that fag IS a cruel thing to say. By depicting bikey’s in such an ignorant, annoying perspective…then proposing the dictionary meaning of the word fag be changed to a motorcyclist rather than a homosexual, doesn’t that imply that the word fag is a word with negative connotations? doesn’t that suggest the word fag is a cruel, or at least insulting thing to call someone?

    I don’t see how the SP writers are encouraging or supporting the use of the word fag. I merely see them poking fun at the bikey’s and using the word fag to do it because the word already has negative implications and Trey Parker and Matt Stone are implying that being a bikey is a negative thing.

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