In an episode that didn’t feature a nonwhite character save for a black child named “Token,” “South Park” attempted to tackle the emboldened white nationalist movement in America.
Ahead of the show’s Wednesday season premiere, its trailer earned much attention — good and bad. While many publications expressed excitement creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker would address white nationalism on the popular show, others doubted the cartoon comedy would handle it well. The trailer from earlier in the week featured white nationalists waving a Confederate flag and holding tiki torches like those seen carried by white supremacists during the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.
“South Park” avoided any violence, instead presenting a clumsy allegory to admonish white individuals who stand on the sidelines on racial issues — at least until it starts hurting their “brand.”
In the episode, the white nationalists in town initially become angry because automation has taken their jobs (pronounced “jorbs,” of course). Amazon’s home task-helper Alexa even shows up to represent the issue. Others in the town don’t seem to have a problem with the coming automation, so it’s hinted that there’s something else underlying this white nationalist anger in the town.
At first, it seemed like the show was skirting the white nationalists’ reason for protesting ― in real life, white nationalists in Charlottesville were blaming “Jews” and other minorities for their problems, while in South Park, the blame was focused toward these major corporations.
The white nationalists take to the streets with tiki torches to protest massive technology companies making their work obsolete ― although it’s unclear what these white nationalists did for work before.
The protests go largely ignored, with the exception of husband-and-wife duo Randy and Sharon Marsh, who host an HGTV-inspired TV show called “White People Renovating Houses.”
The duo has selfish motivations to intervene. Instead of calling out the white nationalists for their views, Randy and Sharon only care that their shoots keep getting interrupted by the protests outside their window. Plus, they worry that the protest is making “white people” seem dumb.
Randy eventually proposes that everyone get rid of their Alexas and hire the white nationalists to do the same jobs the electronic task-helper would. Most of the white nationalists agree and become underpaid workers.
The white nationalist leader ends up not doing his assigned tasks, though, as he feels he is better than the job. “I ain’t doing it,” he tells Randy. “This job is degrading and menial.” He eventually pivots to calling out minorities for his lack of job prospects rather than the corporations, saying they all should die. There’s barely a response to this statement.
At this point, “South Park” seems to be asking viewers to have pity on the white nationalists who lost jobs from automation while also calling them out for their ill-founded racism. By showing the realities of a bleak, gig-based future, where low-paid jobs without health insurance make up more and more of the economy, the show attempts to indicate that the blame should be placed on corporations instead of broad swaths of people. But tacking it on to this allegory about race makes for a murky message.
Although the message isn’t quite clear, “South Park” certainly seems to be calling out the white people who are enabling white nationalists in this era.
The episode ends with Randy encouraging the white supremacist leader to tear down his walls in a clunky metaphor, which results in an “open-plan” makeover in his house. This doesn’t quite lead to the white nationalist giving up his old hatred. He just gets more stylized confederate merchandise and his wide-open living space gives him more room to hang out with his white nationalists.
As is typical with the show, the attempt at social commentary isn’t very nuanced and is ultimately confusing.
Perhaps this is most clear with a running joke through the episode with white nationalists waving their confederate flag for other purposes than pride ― such as to swat away a bee or cool down food. It’s funny, but isn’t worth parsing what that means in relation to the show trying to make a larger point about white nationalists.
“South Park” will always value funny moments over a serious message. And therefore, any stand it takes is always going to be too clunky to resonate.