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No One Should Get Death Threats for Saying South Park Is Bad. It Is!

(Comedy Central)

Last week, writer Dana Schwartz did something very dangerous for a Woman on the Internet: She had an opinion. Schwartz knew the risks; she’d been targeted by trolls before for such crimes as being critical of Bernie Sanders supporters, but what she did last week was even more unthinkable: She said that South Park … was bad.

Schwartz stated—correctly—that South Park and its brand of crass, irreverent humor that looks down on sincerity and unironic feeling had done serious damage to how people, especially younger males, look at and deal with the world.

This opinion made people very—and I mean very—mad. Some offered kind of logical arguments, claiming it was foolish to blame a TV show for the current mess of the world—which Schwartz wasn’t doing. She was simply stating that South Park‘s mockery of and derision for everything engendered a cynical, dead-end worldview.

But other responses to Schwartz’s opinion were the exact kind of hatefulness and mockery we could expect from, well, diehard South Park fans—and I don’t mean fans that like the show and think it’s funny. (It is funny sometimes!) I mean those that have adopted South Park as foundational to their worldview and thus part of their identity. Like any fan that’s too deep in their relationship to media, they get very angry when that relationship or the media is questioned. Add in a hefty dose of toxic masculinity and insecurity, and you get responses like these:

The narrative, of course, became that Schwartz was lobbying for the show to be canceled, which wasn’t true. Even so, Schwartz faced a barrage of harassment, insults, slurs, death and rape threats, and all the usual deplorable vitriol of angry men on the internet. And that only served to prove her point.

South Park bros grew up with a show that taught them that kindness and compassion were silly and uncool—that the only way to look at the world was to mock it, all of it, and that respect and reverence for anything were stupid.

Now, I’m not saying this is the entire content of South Park, or even that the worldview of its creators matches that ethos. These are the guys that gave us The Book of Mormon, which has an ultimately sweet and hopeful message at the end. I’m saying that this cynism and aggressive mockery of everything is what they have taken from South Park, and that’s bad.

No one should get death or rape threats over a TV show. No one should fear for their safety because they have an opinion online … and yet, it happens all the time. In the toxic, radicalized environment of social media, where “fans” of a thing feel empowered to attack and insult anyone that dares criticize their favorite cartoon, speaking up about how that entire ecosystem is bad—from the show to the fans—is a dangerous proposition. I’ll confess, I’m a bit scared even writing this, knowing the kind of hate I—and every writer on this site—often get when we dare insult one of the fanboys’ sacred cows.

But this is something we have to say. This behavior is not okay. We are all free to like and watch whatever, and it is the job of writers and critics to point out the flaws and impact of media, and we should be able to do both without anyone threatening our safety, resorting to hate speech, or just being jerks about it.

There is a difference between discourse and harassment, but the line is increasingly blurred in this day and age. Those of us who do this for a living have to be constantly on the lookout for trolls and threats, and it’s exhausting. We do this because it’s important to be critical and thoughtful about media and the people that make it, but the statement of those opinions will never justify the hate we often get for them.

I don’t like South Park. I think it’s mean-spirited, and its brand of humor stopped being novel or interesting a decade ago. I should be able to say that without fear, but … I’m not. And that’s exactly why the culture that South Park has been part of creating needs to be critiqued, and why we have a duty to continue to do so.

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.