In the world of South Park, nothing is sacred; no subject – no matter how sensitive – is taboo. In that fictional little corner of Colorado, there appear to be no topics immune from satire – including (but by no means limited to): the desperation of disempowerment and abject poverty in developing countries (“We’ll kick your ass and rape your lass: Somalian pirates we!”); working-class jobs being lost to time-travelling immigrants prepared to work for much less (“They took our jobs! They terk er jerbs! Durka durr!”); and the link between pop-culture sentimentalism and the moral inertia of American politics (“’Member Bionic Man? ’Member the Millennium Falcon? ’Member Chewbacca again? ’Member when there weren’t so many Mexicans? ’Member when marriage was just between a man and a woman? ’Member feeling safe? ’Member no ISIS? ’Member Reagan?”). However: when a television programme shows no fear of ‘going there’, regardless of the topic, the viewer is always in danger of discovering that something they care about (or a topic that is dear to them, or a group to which they belong) is just as vulnerable to attack as any other value, preference, prejudice, belief, identity or principal. When you are the person being laughed it, it can sting, and it may require a very thick skin to continue to see the joke.
When the fourth-grade teacher at South Park Elementary School goes under the surgeon’s knife to realise his dream of becoming a woman in the 2005 episode, ‘Mr Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina’ (series 9, episode 1), transgender viewers could be forgiven for taking a sharp intake of breath. “Oh, god,” it is tempting to think, “what are they going to say about me now?” Such a reaction, however, would be to underestimate the sophistication of South Park’s satire. Transgender people are undoubtedly subject to occasional mockery by the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but South Park wouldn’t be half as clever as it is if the satire stopped there – gender nonconforming people per se are too easy a foil for South Park. The programme takes a broader perspective on the issue than mere sartorial finger-pointing, and is more interested in examining society’s inability to form and articulate appropriate responses to people who do not conform to gender norms, than it is in laughing behind trannies’ backs. It is, therefore, lazy to accuse South Park of being transphobic. ‘Mr Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina’ needs to be considered as a critique of the place of transgender people in social and political life, not as an instrument of oppression and prejudice. If you can force yourself to watch it, South Park’s examination of gender identity can be a means of encouraging members of the transgender community to confront how they feel about their place in society, and to reflect on their portrayal in popular culture.
(That is not to say that South Park isn’t guilty of the occasional misfire. When Caitlyn Jenner appears on the show, for example – as a broad-shouldered, malformed, lisping, torpid background omnipresence – it really isn’t funny: not because there isn’t plenty to mock Jenner for – she did kill someone with her car in February 2015, after all – but because the way she looks is too banal a target. Getting a cheap laugh out of someone’s appearance is beneath South Park. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, something Family Guy would do.)
As Mr Garrison is being prepped for anaesthesia preparatory to receiving his ‘Fancy New Vagina’, he looks tearfully at his surgeon, Dr Biber, and says, “My whole life I’ve been a woman trapped in a man’s body. A sex-change operation is my last chance at happiness.” But Mrs Garrison is destined for disappointment. As the episode unfolds, it becomes evident that Garrison will never be satisfied with the mere appearance of womanhood: what he wants to experience is all the gory biology of being female. She is heartbroken to discover that the reason she has missed her period isn’t that she’s pregnant, but that she can’t have periods. Garrison is similarly crestfallen when she is told that she is physically unable to have an abortion:
“Mrs Garrison: You mean, I’ll never know what it feels like to have a baby growing inside me, and then scramble its brains and vacuum it out?
Doctor: That’s right.
Mrs Garrison: But I paid five thousand dollars to be a woman. This would mean I – I’m not really a woman. I – I’m just a – I’m just a guy with a mutilated penis!”
For the depth of his transsexual ambition, I think, Garrison deserves a great deal of credit. His/her version of femininity isn’t posing inanely on the front cover of a magazine, or of parading vacantly down a red carpet at some fatuous awards dinner; his motives are not psycho-sexual in the way trans-exclusionary radical feminists would describe them. Garrison seeks the lived experience of a real woman, not the mere cosmetic approximation of looking like one, and he is distraught and outraged to learn that surgery cannot grant him what he wants.
To ensure the point is fully and comprehensively made that sex-swap surgery is not a passport to true womanhood, Garrison’s doctor provides a graphic commentary of the procedure as he performs it. “I think,” he says with deadpan irony, “if more people could just see a sex-change operation, they would know how perfectly natural it is.” In a scene intercut with footage of an actual vagino-plasty, Dr Biber grunts with effort as he performs the operation. He pauses breathlessly from time-to-time to describe his actions: “Now, I’ll just… turn your… penis inside out. …All we need to do now is… stuff the… unskinned penis inside your… pelvis… And now I’ll use the skin from your penis to make vaginal lips.” When the surgery is over, Garrison gazes hopefully at the doctor. “Do I look like a woman?” she asks, nervously. Dr Biber pauses. He wears an uncertain frown, but manages to force a smile as he raises an encouraging thumb at his patient. “Pretty much,” he says.
In South Park’s 2006 series, Mrs Garrison begins a torrid and unlikely affair with the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins (series 10, episode 12), and this is when curious viewers get to see Garrison’s post-operative body in all its naked, full-frontal glory. It is a mangled horror-show of scarred, asymmetrical breasts, shapeless hips, and the unaltered bald-head of Mrs Garrison’s former male identity. When Dawkins learns of Garrison’s gender history, he is appalled, and cannot flee from Garrison quickly enough. By this stage, another statement of how grotesque and ridiculous South Park’s creators think sex-change surgery is seems somewhat redundant, but here it is, anyway: the real-life Richard Dawkins has built an academic career on arguing the case for natural selection. His horror at Garrison’s revelation demonstrates just how unnatural he considers transsexuality to be. The message seems clear that, if you aren’t born a particular way, then you can’t ever be that particular way. It may be seem cruel, South Park maintains, but that’s the way it is. Wanting to be a woman when you were born a man is as hopeless and unfulfillable a pipedream as wanting to be a black, six-foot-five basketball player when you were born a five-foot-nine Caucasian, or of wanting to live as a dolphin when you are clearly homo sapiens.
…Which is a coincidence, as that is exactly what nine-year old Kyle Broflovski and his father, Gerald, seek to do in the ‘Mr Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina’ episode. Whilst Garrison strives for acceptance by the sorority of his female peers (“Wow, just look at all these tampons! Regular, heavy flow… Oh, boy, I can’t wait till I get my first period!”), Kyle and his father have transformational ambitions of their own.
Disappointed by being denied entry to the state basketball team by a visiting talent-scout, Kyle is forced to confront the harsh reality that “you’re just not physically built for the game… Jews can’t play basketball.” Kyle refuses to be brushed-off so easily, however, and pays a visit to the same surgeon who performed Mrs Garrison’s sex-change, where he is told that, to “feel like a tall black man” (and therefore, in Kyle’s mind, to earn him a place on the team), what he requires is negro-plasty:
“It’s a fairly common procedure, really; just the reverse of a caucasio-plasty, just like Michael Jackson had. Let’s take a look here. What we do is slice your face and peel it back so we can insert now pigment producing cells inside. We break the arm-bones in several places and put braces to make them longer. Now, the knees we need to snap off and fill with small round objects that can cause better movement, and we finish it off with a nice peni-plasty to enhance the genitalia. Negro-plasty takes about seven hours, and costs roughly three thousand dollars.”
Kyle’s father, Gerald, is outraged when he discovers what Dr Biber has done to his son. Furiously, he drives to Dr Biber’s clinic to challenge him (“What kind of nut-job would agree to surgically alter my son into a tall African-American?”), but, during the course of their conversation, Dr Biber discovers Gerald’s affection for dolphins…
“Dr Biber: Ah, you like dolphins, hm?
Gerald: Ah, bu… I love dolphins. Ever since I was a child, I dreamt of… Huh, b – b – But that has hardly any bearing on what I’m here to –
Dr Biber: I can make you one.
Dr Biber: Invert the back; move the oesophagus to the top of the head. Yes, a full dolphin-plasty could be achieved relatively simply.
Gerald: Make me a… dolphin? …No. No, no; it’s crazy.
Dr Biber: There’s nothing crazy about a person wanting to look on the outside the way they feel on the inside.”
Using a sub-plot to underscore the main action of a drama is an ancient theatrical trick, of course – think of the Earl of Gloucester’s troubled relationship with his sons in King Lear, or of Levin’s underwhelming marriage to Kitty in Anna Karenina – but in ‘Mr Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina’, the stories of Kyle and his father serve to further emphasise the absurdity of physical transformation at the hands of a surgeon. You can approximate the object of your desire through nips and tucks and hormones and implants, but you can never truly become that thing. Kyle’s new legs shatter at exactly the moment he is about to score the winning shot (“I only made him look like he could play basketball. If he actually does it, the testicles in his knees will explode!” Dr Biber wails), whilst Gerald realises very quickly that being transspecies is not all it’s cracked up to be: his dolphinism can never be more than skin deep, and he will never be able to frolic gracefully in the ocean with real dolphins (the basketball stadium he visits doesn’t even provide “special seating for dolphins”; nor is there “a large tank with salt water” that Gerald can use to go to the bathroom).
If you’ve never seen South Park, then it pains me to have to be the one to reveal that Mr Garrison ultimately elects to reverse his sex-change. With the unforgettable cry of, “My penis is on the loose!”, in a 2008 instalment of the show, Garrison chases desperately after a laboratory rat that has had a male member genetically engineered on its back for the purposes of restoring the teacher’s manhood. It is difficult to imagine a more definitive statement of the programme’s view of the folly and futility of sex-swap surgery. “You did this to yourself,” Garrison moans, “get your hopes up with a stupid genetic experiment, and now all your money’s gone – along with your penis.” And to his baffled students, he reflects, “I’ve learned that I’ve really been a dude all along, because the key difference between men and women is that women can have babies. If you can’t have babies, then you’re a man.”
(But ‘Eek, a Penis!’ – series 12, episode 5 – isn’t quite finished there. “Hang on a second,” one of Garrison’s colleagues says. “My wife had ovarian cancer, so she can’t have babies.” “Then get an AIDS test,” Garrison tells him, “’cause your wife’s a dude”.)
Ultimately, to appear on South Park is a form of validation. When a group is chosen for ridicule on the show, it means that that group has achieved significance; to be deemed worthy of satire is an indication that a social group has reached a level of exposure and influence sufficient to make it a notable cultural and political force. Transgender people should not bemoan or begrudge their presence on South Park: rather, they should celebrate the fact that they are deemed worthy of the airtime. Mr Garrison’s journey into womanhood – and back again – may constitute damning criticism of the essential dissatisfaction experienced by transsexuals; the unsettling depictions of the grisly minutiae of sex-change operations may be intended to shock and appall viewers into regarding such procedures as aberrant horror-shows; Kyle Broflovski’s negro-plasty – and his father’s dolphino-plasty – may be an unequivocal indictment of the absurdity and narcissism of sex-swap surgery (and of the grasping unscrupulousness of doctors who manipulate patients into forking out small fortunes for procedures they neither need nor truly want)… but transgender people who feel they should be offended by their portrayal in South Park ought to remember Oscar Wilde’s maxim that there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about at all.