To object to the animated TV series South Park because it is offensive is like complaining about a giraffe because it has a long neck. Offensive is what South Park does; offensive is what it is, and with an average television audience per episode of around 3.5 million (plus uncountable numbers who access it on-line), South Park cannot be dismissed as harmless, fringe entertainment. South Park has reach and influence: the average age of its fan-base is a callow twenty-five, and it is almost unfailingly very, very clever and undeniably funny. One minute, you’re guffawing at the shallowness of wearing a wristband as a badge of political sympathy (“There are green Scauses for recycling, blue Scauses for kitties/ And pink Scauses that focus on nothing but titties!”); the next, you’re grinning superciliously at anyone gullible enough to subscribe to the tenets of Scientology or Mormonism (“Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb!”). In South Park’s irreverent universe, everyone and everything is considered fair game – from the smug, self-absorption of media hipsters (“Been around god’s country, and there’s one thing I know/ There’s no better place for jackin’ it than San Diego!”), to the fashion for unkempt pubic topiary in the 1970s (“Bigger than Earth and denser than gold/ Truly a magical bush to behold!”). As long as you’re not the one being mocked, South Park is hilarious. It can take a thick skin, therefore, to enjoy the show when a thing you care about becomes one of its targets, and, occasionally, South Park puts transgender issues in its crosshairs. When it does so, it is easy to feel outraged, but this, I think, underestimates the sophistication of the programme’s satire. The 2014 episode, ‘The Cissy’, for example, has much more to say about the politics of transgender than it does about transsexuals themselves. In particular, ‘The Cissy’ takes some well-aimed potshots at the ill-informed, unwarranted and (frankly) laughable interference of US politicians in where transgender people should be allowed go to the bathroom…
There are few characters in popular culture as grotesque as Eric Cartman. He is selfish, foul-mouthed, manipulative, dishonest, venal, materialistic, egotistical, homophobic and anti-Semitic; his is utterly unconcerned about his own morbid obesity, and is, in all probability, guilty of premeditated patricide. At the same time, however, he is impressively self-aware, and, for a nine-year old, remarkably worldly, knowing and cynical, with a grounding in Keynesian economics, Machiavellian politics and Nietzschean philosophy that is far beyond his years. His ability to hold court over his classmates borders on the Falstaffian, and he possesses a Svengali-like gift for persuasion that once saw him enlist the help of Barack Obama to deny Disney the rights to the Star Wars franchise. He is an inspired comic creation; a compelling caricature who is funny not despite his faults, but because of them.
In ‘The Cissy’ (series 18, episode 3), Cartman announces that he is ‘transginger’, and, from now on, would like everyone to call him Erica. In a deadpan monotone – as if he is reciting words he has learned from a YouTube tutorial – Cartman says, “I’m not comfortable with the sex I was assigned at birth, so I’m exercising my right to identify with the ginger of my choice,” before adding, “now get out of my way, I need to take a shit.” Cartman is summoned to the principal’s office, where, with the same rapid-fire, offhand dismissiveness, he repeats, parrot-fashion, words that he knows will ensure the grudging protection of his teachers and a muddled measure of legal immunity:
“It means I live a life of torture and confusion because society sees me as a boy but I’m really a girl… I can be transginger without it having anything to do with the ginger I’m attracted to. Check the state bylaws.”
A staff meeting is held to discuss Cartman’s case, during which, the principal, with searing insight into Cartman’s character and motives, argues, “But this isn’t a hurting, confused child we’re talking about: this is Eric Cartman!” Cartman has already accused her of behaving with the innate prejudice of the cisgendered, a term that Principal Victoria requires her colleagues to explain. Cartman’s teacher, Mr Garrison (more of him later), explains that cisgender is “the politically correct name for people who aren’t transgender. If you identify with the sex you were born with, then you’re cis.” Mr Mackey, the school counsellor (“m’kay”), is puzzled. “But then cisgender is just – normal?” he asks, and he has a point. Cisgender is a moniker that only really makes sense when used sociologically: it isn’t a descriptor; it’s a convenient way to distinguish transgender people from people who aren’t, so that articles like this one can bypass clunky terminology like ‘non-transgender’.
Principal Victoria is right about Cartman’s motives for identifying as ‘transginger’, however. He isn’t a vulnerable and lonely youngster struggling to come to terms with his gender identity. He simply wants to enjoy a break-time bowel movement in the most luxurious bathroom facilities the school can afford, and he has not been ignorant of the hopeless knots many US states were tying themselves in when the episode was aired over the toilet privileges of their transgender citizens.
In the next century, human beings will look back on America’s baffling preoccupation with the toilet habits of transgender people with a mixture of shame and embarrassment. That it was thought necessary to spend time and money on legislation to prohibit 1.4 million Americans from using appropriate public conveniences will seem prissy and ridiculous with the benefit of hindsight. In the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, however, the strange and alarming influence of the religious right over US politics means that it is considered important to dictate whether transgender people have to stand up or sit down to pee. Most famously, of course, was the 2016 South Dakota Bathroom Bill (or HB1008, to give it its catchier title), which, in tortuous prose, insisted that:
“Every restroom, locker room, and shower room located in a public elementary or secondary school that is designated for student use and is accessible by multiple students at the same time shall be designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex. In addition, any public school student participating in a school sponsored activity off school premises which includes being in a state of undress in the presence of other students shall use those rooms designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex.”
Under the terms of the bill, schools were required to make “reasonable accommodation” of toilet and changing facilities for transgender students, which “may include a single-occupancy restroom, a unisex restroom, or the controlled use of a restroom, locker room, or shower room that is designated for use by faculty”. Step forward Eric (sorry, Erica) Cartman, who has spotted a legal loophole that he believes will entitle him to his own “special executive bathroom” on school premises: a private, luxury convenience, complete with fairy-lights, a water feature, and soothing muzak to encourage even the most stubborn of stools.
The knack to avoid being offended by South Park is to ask, “What, exactly, is being ridiculed here?” Is Eric Cartman’s behaviour designed to mock transgender people, or is the intended target something a little more subtle? As Cartman’s transition is motivated solely by a desire to enjoy the extravagance of his own, personal school toilet, it would certainly seem that ‘The Cissy’ suggests that gender nonconformists are driven merely by the puerile desire to visit a room that would otherwise be off-limits. Cartman’s transition, accordingly, is fittingly superficial: his only concession to his new gender role is a small pink bow that he pins to his hat, and, by choosing the word ‘transginger’ throughout the episode, he remains stubbornly incapable of using accepted terminology about himself.
An equally legitimate interpretation of ‘The Cissy’ is that Cartman is a cipher through which South Park’s writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, seek to demean the efforts of male-to-female transsexuals to emulate the appearance and behaviour of women. From this perspective, Cartman’s little pink bow and his inaccurate lexicon serve to highlight how unlike women Parker and Stone think male-to-female transsexuals really are; transsexuals’ efforts to transform can only ever be skin deep, the message seems to be, and they fall a million miles short of capturing the grace, complexity, dignity and sophistication of womanhood.
On the other hand, the message of ‘The Cissy’ could equally be that it is petty and selfish to want to change your bathroom to match your gender. A subplot involving Randy Marsh appears to support such a reading of the episode. Randy is the father of Stan – one of Cartman’s school friends – and he has been living a double life as the New Zealand popstar, Lorde. When a colleague complains about Randy/Lorde using the women’s bathroom at work, Randy responds as follows:
“It started off so simple. There’s a guy at work. Hanson. He would use the bathroom and just blow the thing up, you know? Not only that, but he was in there all the time! I finally got fed up and pretended to be a woman. I called myself Lorde. Have you ever been in a woman’s bathroom, Stan? It’s all clean, and there’s enough stalls for everyone. It was so freeing. I started singing while I was in there, and then I started writing things down.”
If ‘The Cissy’ is an elaborate argument against the claims of transgender women to use the female bathrooms, I would like to mount a small-scale defence of my own. I use the women’s toilet – and it has nothing to do with its relative cleanliness when compared to the men’s room – because it is more discreet. When I’m wearing a dress, I draw far less attention to myself in the ladies’ than I do in the gents’, and it is the attention I do (or do not) attract that determines the ease and comfort of the lavatorial experience for all concerned. If both conveniences were empty, I wouldn’t care which I used. In my days as a nascent transvestite, I caused far more embarrassment for my fellow defecators by visiting the gents’ than I ever have as a patron of the ladies’. As well as triggering innumerable double-checks by people who followed me inside, the most touching incident was when a woman sprinted the length of a cinema foyer in Leicester Square to warn me that the toilet I was about to enter was the men’s. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to the ladies’, and, so far, no-one has batted so much as an eyelid. People don’t pay much attention to the folk around them in public toilets, I’ve found. If a cursory glance at what other people are wearing satisfies them that everyone is in the right place, then, to coin a phrase, nobody gives a shit where you shit.
Hopefully, the satire of this episode of South Park is directed not at transgender people, but at those who get their knickers in a twist over where we do our business. ‘The Cissy’ may predate South Dakota’s bizarre and draconian ‘Bathroom Bill’, but it anticipates it beautifully. The controversy caused by Cartman’s feculence could have been avoided completely if the law wasn’t so determined to turn the insignificant into an issue, and if state legislators weren’t so obsessed with dressing up bigotry as an effort to protect women from non-existent transvestite rapists; and, for that matter, if all public toilets were unisex.
For some light bedtime reading, feel free to savour the South Dakota ‘Bathroom Bill’ (2016) here… https://legiscan.com/SD/text/HB1008/id/1340969/South_Dakota-2016-HB1008-Enrolled.pdf